All That Noise

San Francisco's top-shelf noise scene serves yummy pancakes

It's Saturday morning in San Francisco. Across the city, scenesters sit bleary-eyed in diners, sucking greasy spoons and mainlining caffeine. But in an airy loft in the dirty heart of the Mission, 30 people of various ages are chatting brightly, paper plates in hands and on knees, carving into vegan gingerbread pancakes, and taking in some utterly brutal electronic live music. This is “Godwaffle Noise Pancakes,” a monthly gathering for fans of gourmet griddle fare and sonic violence.

The event is put on by an enigmatic figure who has asked to be identified here as Bonnie Banks. He is handsome and wiry, with a thick shock of graying hair and strangely tailored pants. As a “supposed” member of pioneering S.F. “industrial bluegrass” outfit Caroliner and the current leader of Rubber-O-Cement and “possibly” a contributor to Spider Compass Goodcrime Band, Banks, who has a weird thing for secrecy and obfuscation, mans the hot plate, dispensing all-you-can-eat buckwheat goodness.

“Noise Pancakes” is held at the ArtSF gallery, which this morning is showcasing the apocalyptic “12 Galaxies” signboards of local oddball icon Frank Chu (for $30 a pop). The gallery is way up on the fifth floor, and a look out the floor-to-ceiling windows reveals downtown San Francisco, gleaming innocently. Between the ominous Chu warnings and the strange racket, it feels as though a force of dark weirdness is hovering unseen, like a hole in the ozone, above the sunlit town.

And it is. San Francisco has for the last few years been home to one of America's healthiest thickets of unhealthy music. The basic element of this genre is unexpected sound, whether conjured from throats, traditional or retooled musical instruments, found objects, or tape samples. This raw material is then run through a gauntlet of electronic manipulations encompassing several generations of technology: geriatric analog equipment, every possible effects pedal, samplers, motion-triggered sound processors, and Apple G5 laptops. The result can be terrifyingly loud, sublimely silly, or delicately beautiful, sometimes all three in the course of a single set.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with experimental hot spots like Ann Arbor, Mich., Providence, R.I., and New York City, our noise scene boasts a delightful array of brainy composers, evil terrorists, costumed mutants, and sweaty retards. These men and women perform their often-astounding art for a small corps of fans, many of whom rarely buy recordings. Noise practitioners can spend hundreds of dollars on equipment, knowing full well they will never make back any money. The scene pushes several different envelopes at once, assuring that no observer will ever catch the same set twice. Even the flavor of the pancakes changes every month.

Like a bonsai tree that requires years of loving attention and still comes out looking gnarly and freakish, the noise scene in San Francisco is a product of ardent, obscure toil and inherited wisdom. While hundreds of noise projects have appeared and disappeared in the city over the years, several enduring outfits bear most of the responsibility for the shape of noise as we know it today. The local template was crafted in the early '70s by the prickly, brilliant art-rock agitators the Residents. Rejecting both commercialization and traditional song structure, the band created difficult, deconstructed rock “music,” often using samples and makeshift sound-manipulation techniques. The members embraced anonymity and performed in bizarre costumes, including the now-iconic giant-eyeball masks.

Starting in the early '80s, Negativland began calling San Francisco home. The MO of this group of pop-culture provocateurs involved picking on various boring mainstream figures like Casey Kasem and U2; they sampled the words and music of their targets, then recut or manipulated the tapes to cruel and hilarious effect.

In the mid-'80s, the band Caroliner took up the mantle of commercial unviability and willful obscurity. The group professed a devotion to the 19th century, and its prolific output sounded like a crudely electronic, abstracted Anthology of American Folk Music as painted by Hieronymus Bosch. Caroliner claimed to have unearthed the repertoire of, stay with me here, a magical singing bull from the 1800s who was eventually butchered by his starving owners, but whose hacked-up carcass continued to spew folk songs. The members of the group changed stage aliases and even their band name incessantly (1991, for example, saw recordings by both Caroliner Rainbow Scrambled Egg Taken for a Wife and Caroliner Rainbow Tongue on the Fingermill of the Paste Demon), but their enchanted-singing-bull-corpse fable remained constant. Caroliner's dedication to pageantry has carried through the scene from decade to decade and can be seen every time someone takes the stage dressed as a boil-infected giant fly or a criminally insane robot.

The spaces stomped out by these pioneering acts left plenty of room for other art-minded sound experimenters to stretch out into the far reaches of warped imagination and sonic innovation. Over the '80s and early '90s, oddballs came and went, with fringe acts like the Icky Boyfriends and the Zip Code Rapists playing to a growing audience hungry for loud, strange idiocy and experimentation.

In the '90s, Internet discussion boards Spockmorgue and brutalsfx appeared in San Francisco and became key forums here and across the country for publicizing shows and discussing the music. Today, brutalsfx has grown into an entity organized enough to host its own night at Brooklyn's upcoming No Fun Fest, and Spockmorgue has an Internet mail-order business purveying the sounds of Bay Area weirdness to the world.

Over its lifetime, experimental music has thrived mainly in fleeting spaces, like composer Richard Kelley's short-lived Club Foot or in various illegal West Oakland warehouses. But today noise transpires in a host of legit venues and galleries, such as the Edinburgh Castle, the Hemlock Tavern, and Oakland's 21 Grand and Lobot. At this point you can go see a noise artist perform somewhere every week.

“Seattle's trying to get a noise scene off the ground right now,” one fan told me. “But it's tough when you have no venues, 20 fans, and only four or five bands. This just can't happen overnight.”

“Noise Pancakes” itself is a tradition that started in the expired live-work art-space Pubis Noir, formerly located just around the block at 16th and Mission. When increasing rents drove the warehouse out of business in 2001, the noisy breakfast club, originally the creation of a man named Brutallo, found itself homeless for a time. About two years ago, Banks and ArtSF revived the event, and many of the same local artists, like Bran(…)Pos, Earwicker, and Xome, have returned.

There is a certain democracy built into the structure of noise, as “noise” is something that anyone can create without any technology or music theory know-how. Witness Moe! Staiano at “Noise Pancakes,” writhing his skinny body in a pile of detached cymbals and lengths of copper pipe. This moment was purely about sound, a chaotic and unrepeatable series of clangs, thuds, and ringing tones. It was also very funny and oddly exhilarating to watch a man taking childlike delight in the obnoxious noises he could create. Funnier and more wondrous was Moe!'s earlier use of the cymbals — he quickly set them in little clusters around the room, then placed sets of vibrating anal beads in each upturned disc. Though everyone who could visually identify a vibrating anal bead was laughing, the sound itself was magical; it hung in the air, calm, oceanic, and metallic, like sheets of rain driven across a corrugated tin roof.

Moments like this are the key to noise, when bizarre humor and absurd visuals combine with startling new sounds. It might be nice to lie on your bed and listen to the anal-beads-on-cymbals bit on the stereo, but it would not be nice to listen to the rolling-around-in-pipes bit, or the bit in which Moe! took out a microphone-connected metal spatula and ran a violin bow across it, processing the sound through effects pedals so that it became a heavy, screeching squall. And no recording could capture the distinct pleasure of seeing Moe! run circles around a bunch of observers, trailing a huge sheet of cellophane, shrink-wrapping the group together.

“Even serious noise fans don't necessarily sit at home and listen to this stuff,” says John Nero, aka SØretooth, who has collected his videos of local noise performances on a soon-to-be-released DVD, Concluding Unmusical Postscript. “You don't have to watch pop music to understand it.” This is one of the most appealing aspects of noise — it exists strictly in the moment as a visual and sonic art. It can't be commercialized because it could never possibly move units, even to people who love it. It wages a brief and fleeting war only in the hearts and minds of those who assemble to witness it.

Noise is about the transitory joy and pain that unfold at each performance, whether during the sweaty electronic terror of the national scene's current ambassadors to the mainstream, Wolf Eyes; the gore-pop of Spider Compass Goodcrime Band; or the manipulated-feedback monsoon of Bacillus, who appears on the Postscript DVD in a full biohazard get-up, the necessity of which becomes clear when he steps into the audience and releases some powdery viruses into the air.

It's also wonderful to see music made by people who couldn't give a shit about making any money. A noise artist will never get a record deal, despite the fact that he will likely invest hundreds of dollars in laptops, tape machines, sound processors, musical instruments, effects pedals, and anal beads.

At today's “Noise Pancakes,” the watchers are made up of young hipsters, scruffy old metal dudes, middle-aged art types, and a small phalanx of pretty UC Berkeley undergrads doing some sort of “research.” In a corner, a young couple placidly sits on a couch reading the newspaper while Noel Von Harmonson (from local garage-psych band Comets on Fire) unleashes a thunderous solo set not three feet away. In broad daylight, in full view of the Financial District, urbanely eating pancakes, it feels like we are winning a little war. Against what it's unclear, but the fight is delightful.

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