“On the Trail of the Lonesome Snock”: Byron Coley investigates Michael Hurley (Arthur No. 35, 2013)

hurleyparty

photo: Liz Devine

On the Trail of the Lonesome Snock

Wily folkplayer MICHAEL HURLEY (aka Elwood Snock) has charmed hip audiences for over fifty years now with his timeless surrealist tunes and sweetly weird comics, all the while maintaining a certain ornery,  outsider mystique. Longtime Snockhead BYRON COLEY investigates this Wild American treasure.

Originally published in print in Arthur No. 35 (2013)

The best American musical inventors (Harry Partch, John Coltrane, John Fahey, Albert Ayler, et al.) have consistently possessed an odd blend of traditional and avant garde elements inside their work. I would suggest that Michael Hurley deserves a place among this pantheon; although, since his primary avant garde technique is surrealist lyric-writing, the radicalism of his work can be easy to overlook. Championed by outsiders, loners, stoners, eggheads, and marginal-culture nuts of all stripes, Hurley still seems to imagine himself as working inside the general blues/folk continuum, but that’s mainly because he’s so deep into his own weirdly personal universe he can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve been listening to the guy closely now for better than 40 years, and it is clear that a deep connection to avant garde themology (whether intentional or subliminal) suffuses his work to such a degree that it begins to explain why his songs—so simple on their surface—have long drawn their most devoted fans from people who eschew “standard” folk traditions.

The first time I ever heard about Michael Hurley I was sitting in my mother’s 1968 Chrysler 300 in the Fall of 1971. She and my sister were playing a round of miniature golf in Parsipanny, NJ, but I had opted to stay in the car to read the new issue of Rolling Stone. In it was a review of an album called Armchair Boogie by Michael Hurley and His Pals that sounded intriguing as hell. I made my way out to the Sam Goody’s store in Paramus (the very shop where Glenn Jones bought his first Fahey LP) and found a copy. The cover was a brightly colored cartoon of a wolf snoozing in an armchair. I was not a folk fan at all, but the thing looked so great I bought it, took it home and slapped it on the box. There was a black & white comic book insert as well—Boone and Jocko in the Barren, Choking Land—and I looked through it as the album began to play. The opening track was ‘The Werewolf’ and it just nailed me. Acoustic guitar, violin and a tired sounding voice that flew into falsetto without notice, telling a tale about the travails of being a misunderstood monster. The comic book was weird and funny as shit in a non sequitur kind of way. And by the time Hurley started singing the song ‘English Nobleman’ in a truly rotten British accent, I was utterly won over. But this story ain’t about me. It’s about Michael Hurley, aka Elwood Snock, one of the purest fonts of true American beauty and orneriness to have yet graced our planet. And man, he pretty much defines what it means to be a “lifer.” He’s a guy who has lived by his own rules for a long time, in a universe where most people are willing to bend themselves into pretzels just to get by. It’s an inspirational tale. Hope you can dig it.

Michael Hurley was born a rounder. He entered the planet in 1941, via Northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His dad was a producer of musicals and, while the area around New Hope remained the family’s base, they also spent time in Florida and California, before returning to Bucks County to stay in the middle ’50s. This travel touched young Michael profoundly. For the last half-century it has been anyone’s guess where the hell he’ll pop up next. His first extended solo trip was in the Summer between 9th and 10th grades. Having secured a letter from his father, assuring any authorities that he was not a runaway, Michael took off, hitchhiking to New Orleans, then on to Mexico. He spent some time in Matamoros, and a night in the jail in New Iberia, LA (“They decided to lock me up to give me a place to stay,” he says. “Just for safe keeping.”), but made it back in time to start school. After another year or two, he dropped out of high school and turned his focus towards the lights of Manhattan beckoning in the night sky just over the hills from New Hope.

Greenwich Village had the happening folk scene at the time. Hurley had been playing and writing songs since he was 13, and so had his pals Steve Weber (founder of the Holy Modal Rounders) and Robin “Rube” Remaily (who was in a later version of that band). They put together a combo called The Three Blues Doctors as much for their own entertainment as anything else. Playing a mix of originals and covers, The Doctors did some recordings on reel-to-reel tapes, but Hurley is cagey about what these might contain. The band played one gig—as a quartet, with pal Wayne McGuinness—at the Blind Lemon in the Village. It was a pass-the-hat gig, and The Three Blues Doctors’ performance approach—with everyone playing a different song simultaneously—proved to be more than the patrons could easily handle. The Blind Lemon gig may have represented the end of the The Three Blues Doctors, but it was Hurley’s first time on a real stage, and he liked it. Michael and “Rube” headed down to New Orleans to test their luck.

“We used to play together more coherently as a duo in New Orleans, playing in bars,” he says. “We’d go into bars and start playing, ‘cause they wouldn’t throw us out. It would kind of connect things for us, to be there just playing music. We didn’t get much free beer, but we’d meet people. They’d invite us to their houses and give us things to do—party jobs.”

Eventually the pair drifted back to Bucks County, and it was around this time that Michael acquired his sobriquet—Snock, or sometimes Elwood Snock or Doc Snock. His memory of the epiphany that led to this is clear, although as is often the case in Hurley’s tales, the dates are both specific and transitory.

“It was March 16, 1961,” he says. “I heard this music, and it was very snocky. It was like what you would hear when you hit hardwood sticks together. I heard a whole symphony like that. I thought it must be me, having my vision. I’d always read about the Indians who go out and fast until they get a vision and take a new name. They go out in the hills somewhere and starve themselves until they get a vision. Might be a bear or something. I was kinda following that idea. I heard this music and I kinda saw it too, over an ocean wave, like the surf was coming in. The surf was coming in just like this snocky classical music. That was it.”

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TONGUE TOP TEN by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore

Mum_Halo

1. Whatever generation it is now of the St. Marks Poetry Project New York School is beyond us, we stopped counting as soon as we saw Anselm Berrigan running the joint, remembering him as a kid banging around the folding chairs at the Project really not that long ago. Time flies in real time and in poet time and the last decade of young poets around that scene has been consistently engaging, though maybe exuding a transitional character that left us waiting for some kind of sick throw down. A recent publication that kind of comes very close to this is Mum Halo by New York City poet John Coletti, published by Rust Buckle Books. Coletti’s a pal of the true hearts writing, ruminating and starving around the historical churchyard on 2nd Ave and 9th street but keeps a slow and low profile. So when Anselm handed us this book we were curious, and when ripping through its pages we were left both stoned-brained and speed-slapped. Here is writing that takes the economy of word-mythos line play and evokes it with charm, humor and street sophistication. Check this out:

Opens Slowly

Because you’re patient
helping world being
less injured in it
pull up skirt hard inside
simple folding
burnt my finger
putting you out

Killer, here’s another:

Truce

Like to complicate my life no I don’t
sleep all day full pail &
feather your hair grinding sea
for Texas decades, sure
I might be a fuck-up
awesome fuck-up

2. The recent Jack Rose release party in Philly felt pretty cathartic for a bunch of the people who attended and it also kinda highlighted the wide breadth of style-glumph that is currently heralded as volk.

There is, of course, Jack’s own new album, Luck in the Valley (Thrill Jockey), which is a magnificent precis of his career, ranging from long raga fantasias to clackety neo-rags and stomps with Harmonica Dan, D. Charles Speer and other fellow travelers. The beauty and ease of his playing is something we will hold as a treasured memory as long as we live.

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Jack’s long-time riding partner Glenn Jones also has a brilliant new album called Barbecue Bob in Fishtown (Strange Attractors Audio House), which is his best blast yet. Soloing on both guitar and banjo, Glenn’s playing has a precision and formal mastery that is jaw-dropping and so wide-ranging it’s incredible. And it’s definitely worth getting the LP version, since there’s a visual tribute contained to Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud album that is sure to crack up any knowledgeable collectors out there. I just hope he gets around to recording the Stockhausen music box pieces he’s been ruminating on for last decade or two. That would be a total gas.

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One of the obsessive fanboy strands we’ve shared with Glenn over the years is the immortal Michael Hurley, and he has a smoking new LP as well. Ida Con Snock (Gnomonsong) was recorded over the course of a few years and features a mic of new & old material (as has been Hurley’s wont for a good long while.) What’s different and extremely special here is that he’s backed by the young Brooklyn folk-rock band, Ida, and also the great Tara Jane O’Neil. The gang really provides Hurley with the best backing band he’s had since Have Moicy! They usually hang back, only moving forward when it’s really appropriate, and the results are solid and as satisfying as a spliff, a jug and a warm fireplace. Hurley has the capacity to sound timeless, and he’s in rare form here, doing songs as transcendent as “Wildegeeses” and as boy howdy as “Ragg Mopp.” A massive favorite for all seasons.

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Which reminds me of a show we put on in 2002 or so, where Hurley was backed on some numbers by the Philly band, Espers. That was a corker, as is Espers’ new LP, III (Drag City). Someone from the band told me they felt like this album was a holding-pattern in comparison to earlier work, but we sure don’t hear it. The CD has been stuck in the car stereo a lot lately, and the blend of Anglo-style female vocals (this time more like Celia Humpries—from the Trees—and Sandy Denny) and the male ones (which remind us of nothing so much the actually great—we swear—soft-rock of Mark-Almond and Sweet Thursday) is so fine. And the whole thing is laced with shots of guitar so goddamn psych you’ll swear they’re Japanese. But they aren’t. They’re just great.

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Lastly in this category (for now) comes Peter Stampfel‘s long-overdue Dook of the Beatniks (Pietystreet Files and Archaic Media). Stampfel, of course, as half of the original Holy Modal Rounders has a pretty legitimate claim to being the founding father of the whole psych-volk shebang, so what does he do? Why he perversely records a rock & roll album with Mark Bingham producing. And it’s great, naturally—c’mon, nobody sings a song quite as crazily as Stampfel does—and contains everything from covers of obscure Johnny Cash b-sides to Sam Shepard’s “Take a Message to Omie” (Shepard was in the Rounders for a while too) and various other great damn tunes. It’s really nice that Stampfel allowed himself to take the lead on all the vocals here (something he never did in the Bottlecaps or the Rounders) and the results are extremely uplifting. You have to go online to read the fucking liner notes (similar to one of those Adelphi Rounders albums where you had to write the label to get ’em), but they’re typically fine and worth the effort. This still ain’t the exact Stampfel album we’re waiting for—back in the ’80s Ira Kaplan tried to strong-arm Peter into doing a solo LP with just voice and fiddle, and that’s the one we’re still holding our breath about. But this one’s a riot. And the cover pic of young beat Pete is wild. But hey—what happened to that album where he was gonna record a song from each year of the 20th Century? That’s due, too. Shake a leg, mofo.

3. Some superior communal and loose-tongue drone by Your Drugs My Money, a collective of peeps from all over the usa and one copenhagenite. They wrapped their heads together a couple years back in Portland and ran tape and it is deep wind-charmed fluidity, both sweet and raw. The session exists on a split tape released by oms/b tapes with Les Aus, two freaks from Barcelona who’ve been making records etc. for a while. Death trip momma Lydia Lunch shows up to intone on a track and the earth cracks open and cream gushes.

4. As it so often does, the Christmas season brought an avalanche of books about the Velvet Underground. Well, maybe not an avalanche, but THREE. And that seems like a lot for band that lost its leader (Lou Reed) 40 years ago, But we don’t wanna complain. ‘Cause the best thing is that whenever a buncha new books come out, it means there’ll be some pics we’ve never seen before. And it’s hard to think of a band that looked as consistently cool as the Velvets. The three are all by scribes we know, and each has a take somewhat reflective of author’s personality.


A Walk on the Wild Side author Jim DeRogatis


The first and most general one is A Walk on the Wild Side by Jim DeRogatis (Voyageur Press). Jim’s best known for daily newspaper work and his serviceable bio of Lester Bangs. His chief function as a rock scribe seems to be restating consensual realities, and so it is here. I mean, the book’s text is a solid introduction, but this is an intro that’s been made many times before. The volume’s raison d’etre, one assumes, is the new visuals. And it’s true—the pics look great (even though the most surprising ones now show up elsewhere as well), but the text is somewhat bland and the stuff about later solo work doesn’t carry the same charge. Still, a worthwhile filer. The Velvet Underground: New York Art by Johan Kugelberg (Rizzoli) is an outgrowth of the art catalog he did that we wrote about a couple of years ago. New York Art is a gorgeously printed, obsessive’s guide to the explosive confluence of Warhol’s scene and the Velvets. If you want a coffee-table Velvets book, this is the one to own. The text pieces are solid (an interview with both Lou and Maureen; random pieces by Bangs and Meltzer; memoirs from Rob Norris, Sterling and others) and the illustrations are pretty mind-bending. Very over-the-top, but wildly cool. White Light/White Heat (Jaw Bone Press) by Richie Unterberger: this one goes beyond obsession. It’s a day-by-day tracking of everything known about the band and their fellow travelers. And it is exhaustive. Richie has even dug up some images that eluded DeRogo and Johan, but the meat of this book is information overload. It’s the kind of book that can keep your ass glued to the toilet for days at a time. So don’t keep your copy in the bathroom. Might be hazardous to your very own ass health! Amazing work.

5. Caldera Lakes is Eva Aguila and Brittany Gould, two Los Angeles women who are displacing the Ladies of The Canyon mantle of Joni Mitchell by taking that songbird’s searching heart and massaging it against an amplified key grinder. And it is seriously killer. With a clutch of releases on Blackest Rainbow, Deathbomb Arc and 905they have proven to be one of the most arresting and savage femme noise units creepy-crawling the planet. Their latest self-titled tape on Accidie is as great as anything they’ve done, if not the greatest. Essential mayhem.

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6. There are pretty many great jazz reissues and retrievals every year. People stumble over some crazy ass shit and we are goddamn happy when they deign to bring it to our attention. But it’s also fun to revisit old friends who’ve lingered in the shadows of our record collections for too long. So it was a sweet feeling to get a grey-area reissue of The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing, an LP that originally appeared on John Fahey’s Takoma label in 1967. Asked about it, Fahey would only say, “That was ED Denson’s idea!” But Nothing at this time was a Berkeley fixture and was known for wild alto sax improvisations as well as the huge book of writing and art he was always working on. Well, Charlie passed away a couple of years ago, and he recorded a bunch of interesting stuff that will hopefully see wide distribution one of these days, but this album is his first and it is a masterpiece of free improv—sax and percussion, unbridled from formal constrictions, allowed to weasel around like electrified rats. People have occasionally decried this LP in the same terms they use for Beefheart’s soprano playing (“that’s not playing—that’s just breathing!”), but we say “Fuck You,” to those who would quibble over such outmoded concepts. As Duke Ellington so famously said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” You are so right, Duke. And this Charlie Nothing album sounds GREAT.

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7. Kryssi Battalene is a New Haven experimental angel who channels the sound of cosmic snowbirds through the physical friction of ferrous oxide tape against smoldering tapeheads. She also plays an astoundingly wicked guitar both traditionally and out of this world. We first saw her perform as a duo with Danny Moore in the amazing Heaven People, since disbanded, and she has been currently soloing every once in a while under the name Colorguard. She’s recorded a few weird cassettes handed off at gigs but thank the long red hair mystic Heath Moerland of Fag Tapes for releasing Shared Planet, a fine premier for this most awesome of wild improv enchantress.

8. Excellent to be able to screen Shout Factory‘s new, super clean DVD of the great American International teenage rock & roll spectacular, The T.A.M.I. Show. The older of us actually saw this screamfest at a movie theater when it came out in ’64, and it was amazing. The weirdest part of it may be the soundtrack, which has a persistent teen-scream huzz which (from the look of the crowd) is something that was tacked on to provide extra energy or somesuch. But the film doesn’t need it. Between the gyrations of the go-go girls (including Teri Garr and Tosi Basil back when they were part of Wallace Berman’s circle), the wild performances of the musicians (James Brown, the Stones, the Barbarians, Chuck Berry, etc.) and goofy MCing by the superb surf duo, Jan & Dean (the first group whose records I collected seriously). It is an insane blend and a testament to the heterogeneity of the early ’60s R&R experience, when the underground and commercial scenes were virtually interchangeable (apart from the creepy singers pushed by publishers and producers). This was shot at the Santa Monica Civic, and the tickets were given away free to local high schools. What a bonus fucking day that must’ve been.

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9. One of the great small press poetry publishers, O Books, out of Oakland CA, issued in 1989 the first English translation of It Then, a book of poems by the late French poet Danielle Collobert. Collobert is little known outside the rabid circle of enthusiasts for her minimalist, self erasing style, but she has an intriguing history. Born in 1940, she published her first book of poems, Chant de Guerres (Song of Wars), in 1960, then hunted down every extant copy and destroyed them.

revafricaine revafricaineoui revafricaineoran

She became a political activist involved with publishing the Revolution Africaine newsletter. She published the Raymond Queneau-championed book Muerte (Murder) in 1964, traveled extensively, wrote and performed radio plays, published Il Donc (It Then) in 1976, and committed suicide in her hotel room in Paris the night before her birthday July 24, 1978. Collobert possessed a dark and romantic visage, especially evident when one notices her jacket photo with its downward gaze and the sensual sadness of her beauty. Her work astounds, moving across the page with a sonance both velvet and machine-gun like. The translation allows us to access her meaning, but the poetry here is compromised by not hearing the sound of the writer’s language. Even so, the thought process, the artistry of the trajectory, comes clear—and it is not always pretty. In fact it can be pretty frightening, detailing emotional negotiations with the poison of inhumanity as well as the living psychology of being female, indeed being REAL.

An excerpt:

I

It – flows – it bangs itself – slammed into walls – it picks itself up – stamps feet – it doesn’t go far – four steps to the left – new wall – it extends its arms – leans – leans hard – rubs its head – again – harder – forehead – there – the forehead – hurts – rubs harder – becomes inflamed – not the forehead – from within – cries

good start for the pain – head between arms – forehead against wall – and rubbing – skin breaks open a little – not enough – ooh the pain – there it is – feet kicking the wall down low – go on – with the toes – striking hard – thrashing – nothing to be done – doesn’t subside – never will subside – the rage – the pain – cries – hits with flat hands – dull noise – a cry – here a cry – no gasp – a little above a gasp – in shrillness – here it comes – collects at the back of the throat – what’s going to come out – still below the pain – not enough

sobs shaken – saliva at lips’ edge – bitter taste – slides a little towards the corner – nose smashing – lips – the lips twisted sideways – pulled back to the gums – moistening the wall – eyes closed – stomach and chest flattened – unsticks – comes back harder – sharp impact of shoulders – unsticks – comes back again with elbows with knees – bangs fists – fists’ backs – to the bone – starts over – skin reddens – rips at last – it falls – doubled up – dragging arms stretched along the wall – kept vertical by ends of fingernails – it collapses – impact of back – head rings on wooden floor – it pushes up onto its elbow – drags along the wall – reaches hung-up coat – hangs onto – hoists itself – buries its head in the wool – grabs the arms – holds the end of the sleeves tight – overlaps them around neck – expecting softness – but no – squeezes hard – chokes – coughs into tears – chokes – lets go – hangs onto cloth – pulls hard to rip – rips with all its strength – tears pieces with its teeth – spits – chokes – arms fall back down – sinks down – slips onto the ground

a body there – practicing pain – as if it hadn’t had enough of this suffering – at each moment – in floods – in vast wave – trying pathetically to practice it

body striking – disfiguring its limbs with the too full pain – which body sudden empty – which violence against – about empty – pain congealed at last – wanting to reach it to set it once and for all – to keep it there motionless – or set it down in front of it – itself – to make it really visible – in its infinitely numerous images – unceasingly

a body there – no – that body there – the one banging its face against the wall – maybe – no

walls fictive also – unnecessary walls – no – only to see from the place of the present invisible – here – facing the stripped body – arms motionless yet sweeping around in space without meeting anything to lean on – temporary connection – just for an instant – to slow the breathing down – slow down the beating – to quiet down – this body seeking the place – the hollow in which to melt back down again – heat ruptured – and cold of the world around – its place or position unsure to inscribe against the lack – the shocks of the day

(copyright © 2002 O Books)

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It Then is available again through Small Press Distribution, a fantastic source for small press lit.

10. So many boss records floating through here, really have to just randomize & roll. Talk Normal‘s debut full-length, Sugarland (Rare Book Room) is a blazing extension of their earlier EPs. Their basic heft (UK ’78 DIY/No Wave squall) remains in places, but it is swamped by a new, venomous psychedelic thrust mixed with a post-scum instrumental chiming that is ridiculously effective. And their Roxy Music cover is as perfectly imagined as anything you’ve ever heard.

Then there’s the new album by Pete Nolan’s main non-Magik Markers project, Spectre Folk. Their second LP is called Compass, Blanket, Lantern, Mojo (Arbitrary Signs), which I suppose are the four main points on Pete’s aesthetic compass. Less massed and grueling than the Markers, this band’s sound is far more ramblesome and loosely psychedelic. Largely instrumental and as low-key as it is wasted, the LP wiggles beautifully from the instant it hits yr veins.

Slicks

One of last year’s most profoundly underrated LPs was definitely Bats in the Dead Trees Parts I-IV (Lost Treasure of the Underworld) by Columbus, Ohio’s Cheater Slicks. This superb band—once based in Boston—has been churning brilliantly for a couple of decades now, and has created some of the world’s most tasty garage raunch in the process. Here they take the challenge and drop structure for an album’s worth of howling free-rock improv, and it sounds so fucking perfect, I just hope a whole lot of garage dudes/dudettes decide now’s the time to put up their own dukes and just LET ONE FLY. Would make for a lotta totally ginchy listening! Thank you, Cheater Slicks.

One band that was born in the land that form forgot was Detroit’s Destroy All Monsters. And luckily for us, Cary Loren has whipped out some expanded jams first presented in edited form in the 1974-1976 3CD box, and smeared them across a glorious slab of vinyl called Double Sextet (The End Is Here/Compound Annex). Yow. Only 500 pressed of this 33-minute chunk of free-form savagery, recorded in 1975, and it’s an instant classic.

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Also instantaneous is the garage-vom-darkness of the long-lost LP by Michael & the Mumbles (De Stijl), a ’66 midwest session led by the teenaged Michael Yonkers. The band’s sound contains elements of frat-romp, folk-rock and pure-garage-fuzz, but the blend is definitely tentative and the sound quality is on a par with Justice albums of the era. Very cool, but only essential if you’re already a head. Which we are. But was this actually released at the time? We’d never even heard rumors of its existence. What the fuh?

Last brain-fugger this time out will have to be Major StarsReturn to Form (Drag City). We think it’s their second for the label, but our Drag City service is too spotty to be certain (hint hint). Regardless, we have loved this band’s core (Wayne, Kate and Tom) through decades and every combo mutation they’ve fronted. The Major Stars express more explosive improv gush here than they’ve done on some other LPs (they sometimes feel more like a live band than a studio one, which’s the opposite of some of their precursors), but the balance—as always—in the Major Stars rests on the balance of the instrumental frontline’s grotesque sonic overload and the massed rock-drive of the other players & singers. Sounds fucking incredible this time out (yin/yang energy up the ass), and the cover art by Bill Nace is as beautiful as a foot.

Alright. Gotta get this posted.

If you want some aktion, please send two (2) identical copies of yr object (archaic formats always appreciated) to:

Bull Tongue
PO Box 627
Northampton MA
01061
USA

C & D interview Jimmy Joe Roche and Dan Deacon, review AC/DC, more [Arthur No. 27/Dec 2007]

C & D
Two guys who will remain pseudonymous reason together about new music “product”

Originally published in Arthur No. 27 (Dec 2007)

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DAN DEACON & JIMMY JOE ROCHE
Ultimate Reality dvd
(Carpark)
C: State-of-the-art psychedelic film with music composed by electro-dance party joker Dan Deacon and visuals by Jimmy Joe Roche, two guys from Baltimore’s Wham City operation. It’s constructed from clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career—Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Predator, Junior—collaged and layered and doubled together into something altogether overwhelming at 35 minutes in length.
D: This is Arnold’s mind on drugs. Arnoldelic, baby!
C: Absolutely gorgeous, seriously funny, weirdly poignant and possibly seizure-inducing. This is a landmark work. It’s the first time someone has taken the stuff those Fort Thunder and PaperRad dudes were (or are) doing—bright color-saturated, warped psychedelia incorporating pop iconography—and thrust it forward into a new realm of…of…beauty, really. Watching this right now is for me like seeing “Wonder Showzen” for the first time, or Chris Morris’s “Blue Jam”: a breakthrough on many levels, by somebody pretty much out of nowhere.
D: [reading from Arthur Magazine office rolodex] Or Baltimore…
C: [mischievously] Hand me that. Let’s make a phone call. [Dials on red phone…] Hello? [In Howard Cosell voice] Yes, this is Arthur magazine. We are seated here drinking kratom-powered smoothies having just watched “Ultimate Reality,” and we had a few questions for the filmmakers. [turns speaker phone on] So, Jimmy, what exactly is Wham City and you guys must know the Fort Thunder guys, right?
JIMMY JOE ROCHE: Wham City—the space—was a dingy, insane warehouse, then another one. Me and Dan and Dina and Adam and some other kids lived together at SUNY Purchase, all graduated in 2004, and we had this sort of unfigured-out energy. We knew we wanted something, we had a vision undulating out of control, and those guys wanted to move to Baltimore, because it’s cheap as hell. It seemed like it was a potential void where someone could come in and do art, totally fresh.

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LAist's February, 2008 interview with Arthur editor Jay Babcock

From LAist.com:

LAist Interview: Jay Babcock from Arthur Magazine
by Nikki Bazar

Whether it’s free bands by the river, obscure films at the Silent Movie Theatre or music festivals featuring great non-mainstream bands, Arthur magazine has improved L.A.’s sullied corporate reputation by organizing eclectic, margin-friendly events that embody the magazine’s mission to represent “transgenerational counterculture.” Case in point: Arthur’s Sunday Evenings series at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, which continues this weekend with eccentric songwriter Michael Hurley and next Sunday evening with psych-rock band Wooden Shjips. On Feb. 13, the magazine also presents a launch of Abby Banks’ new book Punk House at Family on Fairfax. The book features photos of punk houses from across the country ⎯ a few of which are reprinted in this month’s issue of Arthur. We asked Jay Babcock, guru of Arthur magazine, a few questions about the upcoming shows. Continue on to read more about the dire state of L.A.’s all-ages scene, the mysterious absence of our rock ‘n’ roll elders, and the fall and rise of Arthur magazine.

Q: Tell me about the bands you’ve chosen for this series.

Michael Hurley is a legendary folk nomad, one of America’s great weird individuals, who’s been around the block many times. His newest record is on Devendra Banhart’s record label. Alela Diane is another one of these amazing musicians coming out of Nevada City. The Rough Trade record shop in Europe said her album was the best of the year, and they had a point. Matteah Baim put out a really good record last year, a dark folk sound, ice-ghost sort of thing, headed toward Nico’s stuff. On the 17th is Wooden Shjips, a psychedelic raga band from San Francisco; Mariee Sioux from Nevada City; and Headdress ⎯ also wandering nomads who sound like an even darker, slightly more country Brightblack Morning Light. But with several of these artists, I’ve never seen ’em, so there’s a bit of mystery there for me just as there probably will be for most of the audience. Which is part of the fun.

Q: It’s good to see some decent bands on the Westside. How did you land on McCabe’s as the venue?

Jared Flamm at Everloving encouraged me to get in touch with Lincoln Myerson at McCabe’s, who’d told me a while back that McCabe’s and Arthur might be a good match. McCabe’s have been around for 50 years and haven’t used an outside booker/curator since the early mid-‘90s. Lincoln let us book whoever we wanted to do whatever they wanted musically ⎯ within reason, of course. So, the size of the venue dictates a lot of things, like how much money you can offer your talent, and we had to think about who we could afford to put in there and keep the door price low, and also who was available. Given those parameters, the goal was to put individual line-ups together who would form an interesting evening and also attract a mixed-generation audience. I really wanted to work with McCabe’s because it’s very simple ⎯ it’s about music, it’s not about alcohol sales. Also, it’s an all-ages venue. Ever since we did Arthur Ball at the Echoplex, which was 18 and over, I’ve been insistent that we only do all-ages shows, because I don’t think anyone should be excluded from good music. Also, I wanted a transgenerational group of artists. We call Arthur a “transgenerational counterculture magazine,” and we mean it. There is a coherent counterculture that runs from the beats to the hippies to the punks, forward. They have more in common with each other than they do with the mainstream culture. In any of our festivals we do, we try to include older artists as well as younger ones. It’s truly “all ages” onstage, and we’d like to see that more in the audience. There’s so many great artists that live here in Los Angeles ⎯ Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, John Fogerty, Ray Manzarek, Dylan lives here sometimes ⎯ and you never, ever see them at shows. I assume they don’t participate in the local culture because they got burned one too many times with overhyped crap, or it’s just too much of a hassle to be out in public. Or maybe they just don’t have any interest and they’d rather roll one more at home and listen to Jim Ladd rhapsodize about the past rather than get out there and do something. But they should. ‘Think cosmically, act locally’ is a great credo, you know? You live here? Then BE here. A lot of cool stuff becomes possible when you mix the energy of the youth and the wisdom of the older folks: think of Allen Ginsberg’s continuing, lifelong interest in the best young artists ⎯ his advocacy for them ⎯ whether it was the blues guys or jazz players or the hippies or the punks, it was all the same to him. McCabe’s has such a great history, and is a venue a lot of those people have played at, and it’s so pure in its only interest being music (as opposed to alcohol sales) that I’m hoping some people older than 50 see what’s going on, something that may have more of a spiritual, political or aesthetic resonance with them than they may at first think.

Q: Arthur shut down for a spell in early 2007, then resurfaced with a redesign. Do you care to talk about what happened?

My partner for many years was looking to not be the publisher anymore and eventually, he didn’t want to own it either, so he wanted me to buy him out which I couldn’t afford to do. That’s when the magazine died. Then we made an arrangement that allowed me to gain 100 percent of the magazine. We’d already planned the transition to Mark Frohman and Molly Frances as the new art directors before the whole thing went down, so that’s just a coincidence. After I got full control of the magazine, we decided to go all color and go for it. We’re just continuing to do what we’ve been doing for five years. And there’s always new blood coming in. Next issue, [author] Erik Davis is going to start doing a column for us and there will be a lot of other surprises. So basically, I just took on more credit card debt and a lot of people loaned me money and we were able to go forward.

Q: What sort of things do you hope to do with the magazine that you just aren’t able to right now?

Well, it’d be nice for everyone to get paid what they deserve. We work from our homes in Atwater, we have tea at India Sweets & Spices or lunch at Tacos Villa Corona or Viet’s new noodle place, we sit by the river for inspiration and excitement … It’s not the toughest life. But as a business? We’re making a go of it, but we do want to be monthly and we want to have more pages. There’s so much good stuff to cover. The rest of the media is collapsing and there’s a lot of really good writers, photographers and cartoonists who deserve a wider audience and no one’s giving it to them for some reason. So the main pressure on us is to jam as much stuff into the magazine as possible without making it an aesthetic mess. If we had more pages, it could breathe a little bit more and we could cover a lot more of the good stuff that’s going on.

Q: And you obviously have a love for print.

The free magazine model is a really solid one, and it’s working, and it’s gonna work better in 2008 for us. Print is near-perfect. It’s portable, it doesn’t require batteries, you don’t have to squint, it’s a bigger window, you can do more design things than you can on a computer screen and it gets out there in front of people who aren’t looking for it necessarily. With the web, mostly what you get are people who are already looking for you. And of course, you can read a magazine by the river. Try looking at a website there.

Q: Is it your mission to book a lot of smaller acts that you don’t see as much in some of the bigger 21-and-over venues?

For a city this big, it’s absurd there aren’t more places where people of all ages can get together and hear something other than mainstream arena pop and rock with good quality sound in a comfortable setting. The only real venue in this city where people of all ages can gather together to hear music at a low price with good sound in a comfortable setting at a reasonable hour is Amoeba. You’re in a bad situation as a culture when you’re dependent on a store ⎯ a place of commerce ⎯ for the presentation of music to the public. We’ve written about this in Arthur in our all-ages series. You know, if you’re into music, bars are not the ideal venues. You don’t want to hear other people talking or the cash register ringing or bottles being dropped in a garbage pail. You don’t want to be hanging out with a bunch of amateur drunks. That has a place, but not all music is right for that. There just should be a greater range of venues. It’s also bad for the bands. You can’t build a career by getting one chance to intrigue the hipsters. And if we can help raise the profile of some of these artists by putting our brand name on it, then good. It’s very hard for artists to break in because everything is so calcified on radio and in venues.

Q: Arthur is developing a real presence in the L.A. music scene.

We’re working with people at a very local level who are in it for the right reasons ⎯ the folks at Family and at McCabe’s and The Cinefamily, it’s all labor of love stuff. We like labor of lovers, basically. Doesn’t really matter what it is they love. It’s the loving that is important. Those are our people, those are the people we want to hang out with in such grim times. We’re just trying to use whatever profile or heft we may have to hopefully help other people do what they love too.