Avant Punks on the Art of Noise

Publish date:

Video, music, drawing, graphic design, sampling–hell, even coding websites–it’s all art. That is the mantra being sung, spoken, and howled by a particular breed of avant-noise band, whose output bursts forth in giant waves of multi-format audio and images. Brian DeGraw and Lizzie Bougatsos of percussive neo-pagans Gang Gang Dance apply the same layers of goth grit and raw power to their art as they do to their trance-inducing live shows. Brian Chippendale’s fear of white space is echoed both in the chaotic drum assaults he creates for Lightning Bolt and his sugar-rush comics. Lungfish’s iconic leader Daniel Higgs is increasingly interested in the cosmic intersection between uncomfortable blues and leftfield mysticism, and explores this junction through sight and sound. Black Dice’s psychedelic thrash dub finds a counterpart in their retina-melting collages and video projections, while the skronking free-jazz surprises of Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities’ Lucas are echoed in the audio/visual jumble sale that is the band’s website. From Boredoms to COUM Transmissions, this liminal space ain’t nothing new, but it sure is exciting. Join us as we explore the creative process with a gaggle of present-day art-punk’s most exciting noisemakers.

Vivian Host

Primal Scream
Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale creates chaotic, and often comic, worlds of music and art.

Brian Chippendale bestows bursts of messy details and an often-improvised technique on everything he touches… which is a lot of things. Known for the manic drumming and processed vocals he creates as half of artcore rockers Lightning Bolt, this primal beatman also collaborates with Forcefield’s Matt Brinkman (as Mindflayer), releases solo CD-Rs as Black Pus, and even played drums on Björk’s Volta album. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a key member of the Fort Thunder collective, Chippendale’s also an accomplished visual artist, whose detailed comic books and intricate, explosive Lightning Bolt album covers explore the same textured intensity as his music.

The graphic novel Ninja (PictureBox Inc.), released last November, is a perfect representation of Chippendale’s frantic, cluttered style. Painstakingly assembled from drawings, silkscreens, and collages from the last five years, along with samples of his childhood comics, the enormous 11” x 17” hardcover follows the adventures of a black ninja as he wages battles against villainous characters and ominous social issues over chaotic, heavily doodled backdrops.

Chippendale says he cares more for the characters than the storyline. “One of the major roots of my comics is character design,” he explains. “It’s become more of a social commentary, but it’s still these silly characters walking around in a half-horrible/half-good world.”

Chippendale’s recent art projects stem from his lifelong love of comic books. In junior high, he began drawing comics with his friends before his RISD work took priority. “I quit drawing comics all through college,” he explains. “I got into crappy, [collegiate] ‘serious’ art.” But he couldn’t stay away. Now, like a true nerd, he lines up nearly every week for the comic book shipments. “I read all that crap,” he admits. “I was away for five Wednesdays on this last Lightning Bolt tour, so I’m going to go in this Wednesday and there’s going to be a crapload of X-Men.”

Aesthetically, the similarities between his work and mainstream comics are few, but his love of characters bridges the gap. “I highly doubt Marvel’s going to call me up and say, ‘We really need you on this idea,’” he says, “But if I want to draw stuff about real characters, I’ll just do it.”

In Ninja, his love of pop culture shows–the book features appearances from Lego men, Cap’n Crunch, and Spongebob Squarepants. Such references are not ironic, says Chippendale. “I’ve been collecting Spongebob stuff without ever seeing an episode of the TV show. In my room, I’ll look around and there’s just these guys looking back at me. Having a bad day? Look at this Spongebob pillow–he’s smiling! He’s not having a bad day!”

Balancing prolific careers in music and art at the same time may seem daunting, but Chippendale says it’s a necessity. “I feel like I’m losing touch with myself when I’m not drawing, like I’m drifting through life without digesting anything. It physically grounds me to play the drums each day, and it mentally grounds me to draw each day.”

With the recent re-release of his Maggots comic and work in the PictureBox art show at the Biennale in Athens, Greece–plus a new Lightning Bolt album and more CD-Rs from Black Pus in the works–this year is shaping up to be one of Chippendale’s busiest. “It sounds amazing, but it’s funny,” he confesses. “I’m actually torn, because I kind of want to sit in my room and just draw comics.”

Josiah Hughes

(page 2 of 5)

Gang Mentality
The marred mind behind Gang Gang Dance delivers a long, strange trip.

Tribalist punk envelope-pushers Gang Gang Dance make a lot more than just noise. Alpha-dancer and vibrant individualist Brian Degraw, in particular, flexes his visual muscles on their recent DVD Retina Riddim (The Social Registry), a half-film, half-remix album that finds the GGD drummer flaying eyeballs and ears. Musically, Degraw and Co. deal in a stupifying, pulsating mish-mash of style and sonics; they are collage artists gluing together the cutting-room leftovers of 70 years of recorded music. It would follow, then, that the film is a pastiche of grand proportions–visceral images, stock photos, colors, and sounds colliding in a monstrous, overwhelming blur. The title itself suggests the film’s greatest attribute: relentless repetition that, over even the quickest spell, creates a sort of visual rhythm, an auditory ouroboros of unremitting sound devouring sight. XLR8R caught up with Degraw to talk about unending creativity, human department stores, and, of course, his stunning Retina Riddim.

Robbie Mackey

XLR8R: Why branch out from music and create visual art?

Brian Degraw: I don’t really see it that way. I don’t consider Gang Gang Dance to be specifically about music. Sure, the majority of our output is musical, but we’re all very interested in all aspects of production and creativity. In 10 years’ time we may be architects or sailors, but we’ll be building and sailing as Gang Gang Dance.

So you don’t draw a distinction between any of the creative work you do?

That used be a conflict in my life–I felt as if I had to choose one or the other and it really started to do my head in. I thought that if I did both then I wouldn’t get the best possible output of either thing. But then I began to realize the idea of the “unified vision,” which, in simple terms, is really just putting trust in your heart and your mind and letting them run free to do as they please. I like the idea of “human as department store.” Offer the world what you have to show, let them experience your mind and share your product with them regardless of what form it may take, as long as it is heartfelt and honest.

What philosophies and aesthetics would you say play a role in both your visual and sonic art?

My philosophy is just to breathe deep. Take deep breaths and then allow yourself some time to let your thoughts steep a bit in your heart, mind, and body. When the “tea” is ready then get out some pens, paper, drums, fire, whatever, and just try to release it. I find that if you think too much about an aesthetic then you get a result that might not be honest. That’s why I don’t go to art galleries anymore. I found that by looking at too much art my subconscious was retaining standards and ideas that were not my own and it was really just putting poison into my thought process rather than enhancing it.

(page 3 of 5)

Crazy, Creepy, Cool
Black Dice’s Eric Copeland lists his five most compelling visual artists.

Jeff Davis
He makes drawings that make me uncomfortable because they’re dark and kind of perverted, but then they make me laugh for the same reason (and there’s always some little creature smiling off in the corner). He also pours these colorful and gory wax-monster candles, treading the same line of humor and horror as his drawings.

Danny Perez
Danny is the projectionist for Black Dice, so maybe this is a little biased, but I never get to actually see him live because my eyes are usually in the light and the screen is behind me. I caught a set he did for another band, and besides responding to his pulsing and bleeding colors, I saw how much he plays with his tools like electronic instruments. He is much more than a projectionist, and that last show proved to me how far he’s come with his craft.

Paul Laffoley
His was pretty much the only show I went to see last year, something of a retrospective of his 30 to 40 years of diagram paintings and maps of the cosmos. His bio said he had a metal chip in his head that communicated all his images in full. His newest work reminded me of shrines, though I remember it being about pretty notorious criminals–really obsessive and in a language I barely understood. Even his website amazes me.

Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds
Something about this exhibit made me feel bad, like watching beheading videos online. Maybe they could have been more respectful of the dead man’s poses? Maybe it’s still hard to see dead bodies sometimes? But then I pushed those feelings aside and I walked through the exhibition twice, really curious and amazed and laughing a little bit at the same things that seemed offensive before. I also appreciated that a lot of little kids were walking through with me, and they had funny reactions to it all.

Keith McCullough
A book of his drawings and comics just came out but his name isn’t on it anywhere. It’s pocket-sized and has a “Utility Sketchbook” cover. On the inside is a whittled-down collection of his little scenarios between personified dogs. I never had much of a comic-book phase, but I read this collection quite a bit while in bed and laughed. He’s got a pretty dry sense of humor. I don’t know how old these are–the book is new, but maybe these are old dogs?

(page 4 of 5)

A Tangled Web
The leader of Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities finds artistic fulfillment in freaked-out net programming.

Do as much as possible with as little as possible–that’s the efficient guiding principle behind Lucas (Ghostly International), the latest record from Buffalo, NY oddball Matt Mehlan and the cast of characters he’s assembled under the Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities umbrella. Initially, the album’s big-stuff-small-package compositions–mostly about a boy, his magical hair, and a mythical journey–seem too dense. To be fair, they teem with patches of auxiliary percussion, space-station electronic bloops, acrobatic Afrobeat guitars, woozy brass runs ripened by Sun Ra, and a sonic curiosity fit for a bizarro Arthur Russell. But cursory listens belie these songs’ deceptively simple spirit; here, a few choice layers of strangeness lie flat on top of one another. Much like Lucas, the website Mehlan has created for the album is an overwhelming junkyard filled with simple but interesting pieces–it’s an electronic store backlot, flickering with half-broken TV sets that hide live videos and various oddities. Here, Mehlan fills us on how getting loose with HTML is just another extension of the Skeletons aesthetic.

Robbie Mackey

XLR8R: How did you make the Skeletons.tv website?

Matt Mehlan: I’ve always liked to do stuff where you’re getting some feedback immediately. It’s kind of the same thing with music–I really like stuff that happens in real time, like improvisation. You can actually do a lot of amazing stuff with HTML and video programs, just improvising. And that’s really exciting because it’s just right in your face, not so esoteric.

You can improvise with HTML?

Yeah, once you figure out the formulas for these video-editing programs, you can just plop something in and it starts going, and you’re just kind of morphing it. With Adobe and with Photoshop, once you get into the animation stuff in there, even though it’s the most basic thing, you can sort of vibe on it and make something happen, and then from there decide where to take it next.

Would you say the website relates to the music you create?
Yeah. They’re both kind of raw in a certain way, which is I guess what I’m interested in right now. There’s some sort of “extreme basic” thing.

Amplified simplicity? I love how all the TVs make it look so simple and junky but within the junk there’s all this hidden stuff.

That was a goal, in a certain way. It’s also a goal to show that nothing that’s junky is really that junky. It all has its necessary spot in the world.

So do you draw a distinction between your visual and sonic work?

I do, in that I guess I kind of feel like a simpleton when I’m doing visual stuff. I have a much different relationship with it than I do with the music. I think, in a certain way, it feels younger to me. It feels like a new baby. It’s like the first time I heard The Beatles. I have more of that excitement now with visual art than I do with music because, I mean, I guess I’m starting to run out of things to be excited about in music.

(page 5 of 5)

Super Supernatural
Punk icon Daniel Higgs taps his mystical side with the Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot.

Daniel Arcus Incus Ululat Higgs is one of the most transcendental forces in the subterranean netherworld. He’s best known for fronting legendary hardcore acts Reptile House and Lungfish, and for being a world-renowned–but now, to the chagrin of many tat bros, retired–tattoo artist.

These days, Higgs has become the sage of punk evolution. After 11 full-lengths with Lungfish, the spiritual master has hit full-on mystic status with Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot (Thrill Jockey; hardcover, $15.99), a book of poetry, mind-splitting watercolor paintings, and a companion CD of psychedelic-raga noise that places Higgs’ roots closer to occult renaissance men like Ya Ho Wah 13 than Ian MacKaye.

Akin to his solo work with obscure experimental labels like Open Mouth, Northern Liberties, or the slightly more accessible Holy Mountain (OM, Six Organs of Admittance), Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot offers a meditative, lo-fi glimpse into the vintage roots of freeform psychedelia, while using somewhat modern techniques, such as running acoustic guitar, banjo, Jew’s harp, and field recordings through a pantheon of distortion.

The text of the book revolves around a series of circular epigrams using religious terms like “Christ,” “Eden,” “Bible,” and “Death”; it’s full of Higgs’ trippy one-word associations and their accompanying mystic squiggles and serpentine shapes. Unlike most of the new-school psych crooners currently bloating venues with their stoner rock, Higgs’ art radiates worldly experience. Underneath his disheveled grey beard lies a relentless journeyman, one whose visions are laid out in their most primal form, whether in words, images, or sound.

Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot may be the cosmos’ answer to the obliteration of a once-blossoming punk scene–or perhaps it’s just Higgs’ second wind in an already triumphant career.

Fred Miketa