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Armageddon It 

Oakland noise nuts Axolotl school us in aliens, hash, and the end of the world as we know it

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
"Let me see if I understand this. According to the ancient calendar of the Mayans, some massive event, irrevocably altering humanity, is scheduled to occur on October 28, 2011."

"Yes. That's basically it."

"Well, then, what the fuck do you think is really going to happen, Karl -- global nuclear holocaust?"

"Possibly, but a hopeful thing that could happen is a total transformation in human consciousness. Then again, some say it will be permanent global blackout. There are actually infinite possibilities."

So here I am grilling -- quite relentlessly, mind you -- this experimental musician-dude named Karl Bauer about what exactly is going to occur when this date, Oct. 28, 2011, hits us all, discussion of which is all Bauer's fault. We are -- I mean, I am -- supposed to be conducting a professional journalistic interview, because Bauer, along with William Sabiston, is Axolotl (pronounced "ax-oh-lot-el"), Oakland-based creators of deeply meditative psych-noise. But we are both having a little trouble focusing on this because just minutes after Bauer entered my Ocean Beach digs for said interview two objects furtively appeared on the carpet that were not there before: a tiny but effective nugget of hash and a copy of the book The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness. I simply take all this in stride, because rapping with Bauer about such unabashedly New Age hippie-trippy subjects as violent cosmic realignment makes absolute sense considering how mind-fucking stoned and "out there" Bauer and Sabiston's music feels.

Axolotl, you see, is one of literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of super-obscure bands and collectives from all over mother Gaia. These groups have sprung forth just within the past five years, and they've spurned traditional song structures in favor of a brand-new electronic-based brand of mind-expanding tones and sounds inspired by '60s minimalism, feedback-packed experimental noise from early-'90s Japan, traditional Indian ragas, the faux world-music jams of the Sun City Girls, post-techno ambient electronics, fiery free jazz, field recordings of African and Asian tribal musicians, and ridiculously rare acid freakout psych-rock from the late '60s and early '70s that very few ears have ever heard save those belonging to fanatical record collectors.

"I feel like music has gotten real interesting since about 2001," Bauer explains just after presenting evidence for the existence of world-dominating extraterrestrials called "Archons." "Many bands these days, Axolotl included, seem to be inspired by world music -- music that is, to a large degree, spiritual music, sometimes even ritual music. It seems as though the thought of the Eastern Hemisphere is now permeating the Western Hemisphere." As you can plainly read, Bauer and I are now floating far, far above San Francisco, rapping about ultra-rare psych records, aliens, and Taoism. But for the uninitiated, here is a mental image explaining what Axolotl's droning psychedelic noise sounds like, or, more importantly, does.

First off, please relocate to the quietest place that you know of. Now listen to the beat of your heart, to the soft, persistent ring in your ears, to the hushed hum of your nervous system, to the air drifting through your nostrils, to the garbled contractions in your abdomen, to the saliva collecting in the back of your throat, and even to the silence encompassing your body. If you meditate hard enough (but not too hard), the clatter of individual metabolic processes slowly morphs into a single, organically nurtured movement of sound. This is precisely what Axolotl (and the new psychedelia) strives to create using jury-rigged electronics and just about any other object capable of producing noise. It's all about orchestrated sound flowing as a living, breathing organism.

"We want to feel the sound in our guts. We want to make huge gorgeous drones," Bauer enthusiastically says. "We do not want to hurt people, but we do want them to feel this expanse of sound. I want to create an incredible physical experience. We really like the idea of the visceral fused to really blessed-out sounds. We really like the way frequencies affect hearing, depth perception, and sense of space. We love powerful tones. We just love that feeling."

Of course, the evocation of all this patchouli-soaked yogi mysticism is not to imply that Bauer and Sabiston, while at home in their Oakland warehouse, wrap themselves up like a couple of Auntie Anne's hot pretzels and record the sound of their stomach acids dissolving pork chops and apple sauce (although someone does need to request that as an encore at the next Axolotl gig). On the contrary, the duo actually started as live-action improvisational performers when Bauer, a classically trained violinist, and Sabiston, a drummer, came together in 2002 not long after Bauer relocated to the Bay Area from New York.

"I used to take mushrooms with some of my musician friends in New York," Bauer recalls, "and we just wanted to have a bunch of shit in the room to find out what happened. We would just bang on lots of pots and pans with contact mikes. We just wanted to document weird human outbursts. That was a huge influence on all of us. Then I moved out here and I wanted to continue what I was doing back east."

Before too long, Bauer augmented his violin with an assortment of toy instruments, trumpets, and human voices and started feeding them through a complex network of pedals, wires, and blinking lights, which transformed these formerly acoustic instruments into cyclical waves of feedback and thick, undulating sheets of static and distortion. Sabiston followed suit, ditching his drum kit and acquiring a small collection of hand-held percussion elements and this large black box outfitted with all types of esoteric knobs, buttons, and levers, which generates growling low-end frequencies and cascades of crackling static.

Axolotl's preliminary results from this new fusion of the acoustic and the digital can be heard on the 2003 compilation Space Is No Place: NYC Noise From the Underground and the duo's 2004 self-titled debut, both released on the New York-based imprint Psych-o-Path Records. As I mentioned earlier, Axolotl is indeed from Oakland, but its particular style of droning psychedelic noise definitely has much in common aesthetically and spiritually with New York's current tribe of hippie-stinking noise-shamans such as Double Leopards, Black Dice, Mouthus, Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, Excepter, and the No-Neck Blues Band. These acts convey a loose collective mind-set that Bauer feels quite intimate with.

Overall, Axolotl's first full-length CD is a pretty expansive and far-out affair even though its palette of tones and frequencies is relatively narrow and the production quality just a little too uniformly digital. But the group is evolving at an accelerated clip. A mystical incandescence that Bauer and Sabiston's debut only hints at can now be thoroughly and profoundly experienced on their brand-new CD-R, Archons?/Archons!, released on the Jyrk imprint, a small but industrious underground label operated by Oakland-based noise guerrillas D Yellow Swans.

"The song titles on the new CD-R [such as 'Emme Ya,' 'Enuma Elish,' and 'Baal'] are influenced by a lot of cosmic thought and conspiracy stuff," Bauer elaborates in a choked voice as if he's preventing something from escaping his lungs.

Archons?/Archons! consists of fragments of eight separate drones recorded over the past year that Axolotl has sequenced and edited into one 48-minute master-drone. This is the group's most successfully psychedelic and trance-inducing release to date. (Time to pass that hash pipe again, Bauer.) It's meticulously constructed and spontaneously performed. It's dense but not muddy. It's propulsive but not explicitly beat-driven. And sinking deeper into its expanse of textures and patterns, we discover faint digital tones that drunkenly chirp like naughty sparrows sipping cough syrup. Clusters of effervescent static tumble from the speaker cones like steel teeth patiently chewing on a mouthful of thin copper wire. Electronic babble nervously converses with hand rattles and bells. Deep, ghostly voices moan from within the ruined temples of Atlantis only to gradually melt and re-form into the well-measured whir of Bauer's echo-stained violin. And vaporous feedback trails every sound.

At times these incredibly varied sonic textures feel like microscopic particles wandering the inner corridors of the mind heretofore locked shut, and other times they swell to monolithic proportions, dwarfing the listener and shaking the walls and furniture as if the N Judah were scuttling past your crib. But, regardless of volume and dissonance, what remains of ultimate importance is how deeply and succinctly Axolotl's collective sound lives, breathes, talks, walks, cries, crawls, flexes, sighs, and coughs.

It's that very last quality that seems particularly appropriate, because by this point our interview has devolved into violent fits of coughing and gasping amidst a thick, stagnant fog of hash exhaust, but, I must admit, the mind does feel slightly more expanded than ever before.

About The Author

Justin F. Farrar


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