.:.COMEDY AND ALCHEMY.:.
An Interview with Arvo Zylo
Arvo Zylo is a Chicago artist who you’ve likely never heard of until now, but he’s the poster-boy for the noise aesthetic and ethic, if such things even exist. His fascination lies in the mistakes within music, in the malfunctions of instruments, and in confrontation. He works tirelessly in his urban home, constantly creating new works either in collaborations or under three monikers, be it his own name, Mister Fvckhead, or Blood Rhythms. The means to which he meets his artistic ends don’t just stop with aural art, however. He is a visual artist and a journalist too; his unique style of collage work can be seen within many of his own releases, and his voice is recognizable in the Chicago area for his work on WLUW with his own spot, “The Delirious Insomniac Freeform Radio Show”, where attention has most recently been focused on him for his interview with Boyd Rice. He is simply one of the hardest working and most interesting people currently enveloped in the abyss that is the American noise underground today, and we had the pleasure of putting together an interview with him that is over a year in the making below.
Heathen Harvest: Hello Arvo, and thank you for accepting this interview. So let’s start out with a general introduction. What led you into your infatuation with this side of aural (and, earlier in your life, visual) art? Why choose this form of chaotic electronic sound?
Arvo Zylo: Thanks very much for the offer! I’m fond of your publication. If I recall correctly, it was a matter of a few months where I went from wanting to be a drummer in an industrial band and a visual artist. I’d been drawing since I could hold a pencil, but I’d never learned to play drums. I just knew that I loved music, and if I did music, it would have to be drums because the idea of learning scales bored me. I had a very good friend, Nikola Vasilic, whose band I was supposed to be in, only we never did get a practice space, so he wanted to teach me to use his drum machines and synths because we could do that at a reasonable volume. He lived in a basement bathroom that was converted into a small, cramped, Satanic and psychedelic bedroom. My first time with these instruments was when I was on acid, and the result was beyond anything I had ever heard of. If I recall correctly, within a matter of three months or so, I’d gone from trying to be a visual artist to dropping out of art school, going to the hospital, and doing this experimental music, which I thought — at the time — was going to be the next goth/industrial hit.
I had no idea that anyone else was doing anything like it. In the next couple of years, this friend and another friend — who came to be known as Infectious Rex — had taught me how to use their gear. As their work became more musical, my work became more visceral and chaotic, and instead of learning from my mistakes, I learned to expand on my mistakes. That was much more interesting to me. I ended up buying one of the same sequencers that my friend had, and it’s been a primary source of inspiration since then, which has been some thirteen years now. I still get a kick out of making it malfunction, and destroying presets especially.
HH: It’s interesting that you mention thinking that you were going to have a goth / industrial hit, as I’ve never really seen your music as coming from that circle, but you’ve obviously moved on to a new territory now. Who were you listening to in those days?
AZ: I was asked in an interview while I was on tour if I prefer to be referred to as “sound art”, a “noise artist”, an “experimental composer”, or a “musician”, etc., and I kind of drew a blank. I’m not against music, but very little of it interests me. I’m more interested in sound, and I enjoy the sound of older music, especially from the 30s to the 60s and the world music of that time. The actual notes have very little to do with what I like, but I don’t care for the noise-versus-music argument beyond that I’m interested in why other people listen to noise. I don’t listen to noise for musical elements or “riffs” or what have you, but maybe my tastes veer towards loops and repetition or “machine sounds” more so than skronk jazz, sparseness, or dissonance, but that’s not a rule, it’s just a tendency. I like all kinds of combinations of sounds.
I don’t like to be pigeonholed, but to be referred to as someone who contributes to the industrial oeuvre rings as a compliment to me, and when people speak of industrial in the context where I know they are not talking about dance music, my ears perk up. People have said that I’m influenced by industrial a number of times. I can’t deny it, but a number of people have also been disappointed that it wasn’t industrial enough for them, or it didn’t meet their expectations. I don’t measure it like that, but industrial is definitely in there.
Around when I was 19 or 20, my older friends were turning me onto Coil and Foetus, etc., but at the time, I was dating a woman who had a friend that was giving away his whole collection of industrial tapes. I think there were about 500 tapes, many of them dubbed from LPs. As a result, I was able to hear The Residents, Controlled Bleeding‘s Body Samples, Dry Lungs, Vhutemas Archetypi (one of my favorite compilations), SPK, Clock DVA, Severed Heads, The Industrial Records Story, Zoviet France, and so forth, way before anyone else in my circle or probably way before anyone within a 2 mile radius (largely pre-internet). If it weren’t for that, I’d probably have been wavering around the Wax Trax! catalog for way too long before I found what I was looking for.
Whether anyone hears it or not, if it weren’t for Coil and Foetus, I would not have continued on this path. Those two entities gave me the feeling that I wasn’t alone and that I can find an outlet even though no one at all in my immediate surroundings could bear to listen to what I was doing. It took those people for me to acknowledge that it is not a joke. To some extent, KMFDM, Einsturzende Neubauten, Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor were also influences, even though they were more musical. I’m still inspired from that territory; I picked up on Boyd Rice and Genesis P-Orridge‘s more occult side considerably late in the game, maybe 6-7 years ago, and they’ve made a strong impact on me if that’s not evident, not to mention all of the other more obscure industrial artists I’ve discovered thanks to the internet, and my musical radar in general is probably fifteen times what it was five years ago. I’m just a filter. I’m not inspired by academic artists or synth weirdos nearly as much as industrial nihilism and a reasonable amount of occult-infused horror, for instance, but they’re in there too, along with Joe Meek, Fats Waller, T. Rex, etc. It’s just that I don’t think in terms of “a whole is equal to the sum of its parts”.
I didn’t sit down and try to copy Foetus, but I found solace in that I was trying to compose something as profound and organic as he did, without knowing music such as he did.
HH: You mention that you like what you do because of who you are — not the other way around , which may or may not be the norm. This obviously makes asking about musical influences a bit redundant. How, though, has living in a place like Chicago influenced you both as a musician and as a person?
AZ: I don’t operate from a point of view that would have me using musical influences, because I fail at music, and it’s always different — the way I fail. Growing up mostly in Chicago, that has influenced me. I did spend half of my time in junior high and high school in the suburbs due to split custody, so I would come home from school either on the south side of Chicago, where it was racially diverse and considerably dangerous, or to Berwyn or Cicero, where it was not racially diverse, nor was it terribly dangerous, except that I got into more trouble with racist people in the white neighborhoods (not to mention police). I think that — as well as having lived in twenty-five different places in my life, having had fifty jobs in my life, and having had a whole lot of people in my life that died while I was growing up, either by uncharacteristic disease or violence — has influenced me in that I have a sense of urgency and a compulsion to make every release my final statement on that approach. I think that is why I have the desire to make something refined, yet at the same time, purely fatalistic. I work for a long time, but I move on quickly, and as a result I will never meet anyone’s expectations, even my own. I have learned to have most of my releases be representational of a theme/period, and not have too many times where those specific overarching themes come back in other releases. I could have a Muslimgauze-sized discography with all of the unreleased material I have, but most of it won’t see the light of day. I do like to use recurring samples in different contexts.
Other than that, Chicago gives me the liberty to stay at home. There’s great stuff happening every night, so I can be content to stay home. If I lived on top of a mountain, I would always want to go out. I get more done here, but it’s not as demanding as New York seems to be, even though I absolutely love the energy of New York. I have the same opinion of New Orleans. Most other cities I’ve been to only seem like suburbs to me. In Chicago, though, I have options, and I have the lake. To me, it’s a perfect balance. The audiences for experimental work seem to leave much to be desired, more so as time goes by, but I’m still involved in it, and it keeps me on my toes.
HH: Without getting into too much detail, how much have psychedelics influenced your creations over the years?
AZ: I’ve done it less than ten times, and that includes the times where it didn’t work. The times where it did work, however, had a profound impact on me. I’ve seen through walls, I’ve written on notebook paper in pitch black darkness and was somehow able to see, and I’ve just had profound revelations on the stuff that lasted long after it wore off. 90% of it happened over a decade ago.
I think that, with proper guidance, psychedelics can be very beneficial. Otherwise, the tendency for people seems to either create a void that needs to be filled where there previously was none, to muddy the waters of their soul, so to speak, or to just paint oneself into a corner in general.
I will say that the combination of sleep deprivation and excessive alcohol was beneficial for me in the past. During some of my earlier performances — for the first three or four years — I would sit on stage and read a book or shave my head while the hard-fought malfunctions and programming of my sequencer played. What people didn’t know was that I’d spent anywhere from the previous 17-27 hours working on the material that was playing, and all the while, I had a row of drinks at all times: one beer, one cranberry and vodka, one cup of coffee, one bottle of water, and occasionally absinthe. I didn’t think about it at the time, but now I think there is a magical premise to it. I would not stop programming until the material felt finished, which meant it was animated and something that was organic that I had no understanding of how it happened. Sometimes the “performances” were twelve minutes, sometimes they were forty-five minutes. Usually, I have no idea where this stuff comes from, but in this case, I was directly inspired by something I read in Bizarre Magazine about how there was an art exhibition where nothing was on the walls for three days. Instead, there was an “artist” (Chris Burden) locked underneath the floorboards starving himself. I like that.
HH: You mentioned that you were on acid in your first attempt at creating music, but that you’ve only used psychedelics less than 10 times. As they’ve had a profound impact on you, have you stopped because of the risk involved, or because you don’t want your artistic output to become dependent on them?
AZ: I’ve had my fun with them. I think anything more than that would be unnecessary. I never say never, but I think anything more than that, I would be painting myself into a corner. My mind is open, and now it takes different things for me to broaden my horizons. I’ve never relied on it for artistic output, although I admit I have relied on insomnia and alcohol in the past. I can’t stand when people pepper their identity with constant drug references, as if they are cooler because they have a six-foot bong or something. I can’t stand when people base their identities off of something that I don’t give a rat’s ass about. I don’t care what you do with your orifices, your genitals, your hair, your skin, your clothes, etc. I’m not sure how or why all of this is considered a culture much less a subculture. Architecture is a reflection of a culture, for instance, not scatology. So, I wince when I have to be around too many people who are involved in “drug culture”. Not that drugs are the problem really, they’re just not much of a part of my life at this point.
I may have said this before, but the first time I made music (on acid), a friend of mine seemed to figure out how to loop the end sequence to Dr. Strangelove on repeat, so most of the night there was that song We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn with a montage of mushroom clouds. I recently watched that in a theater totally sober and it took me to such an elated place, it was inexplicable, and this is probably the height most productive period I’ve had in years. The key is to learn the joy, that’s why people do things that don’t have any intrinsic value as a tool or bartering item, but people do them anyway and they don’t call them hobbies.
HH: Is there a social commentary to your art? Is there a small or large part of what you create that stands for or against something, or is it simply art?
AZ: Tough question. I think that something exists as a commentary whether you like it or not. I operate from a more surrealistic part of the brain. I try to communicate abstract ideas; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t care about the sound quality or the sequence of various “events”. I’m not trying to tell people to have abortions with my work, or anything of the sort. I use imagery and symbols for the art to either guide the listener with a context of what they are hearing, or more often, because some stream of consciousness led me to do that. I produce things that I inevitably find meaning in, but I don’t set out to have people understand some kind of deeper meaning / message.
I feel trapped inside my body, I do not feel as if I am of this world. I feel like it’s extremely difficult to do what I’m supposed to do in this life, but I also acknowledge that it’s not supposed to be easy. My collaborators and some previous labels will tell you that I am difficult, not because of some ego thing, but because one idea leads to another, and the strain of ideas never stops, and it shouldn’t. Eventually, I come to a conclusion after chiseling away and assembling all of these ideas — and pissing off everyone involved — and for five minutes, I feel a strong sense of closure, and this is kind of akin to being able to step outside of myself for a moment. I’m pretty solipsistic with the way I approach life, so I can hang with nihilistic ideas and I can hang with “spiritual” ideas, but whatever the meaning of existence is or could be, I feel a drive and an instinctual burning to go with the flow of ideas until there is some kind of personal final reckoning. With the exception of compilations and collaborations, I haven’t released anything that I hadn’t worked on for at least 3-5 years. There are several cases where I can explain to some degree how some ideas came about, but usually, I find numerous meanings afterwards. If I set out to communicate something, the message comes out completely different than what I’d planned, or at least more multi-faceted, and it’s never really directly political.
I recently did a series of collages that were made up entirely of women’s magazines. In 2005, I did a few pieces of art for an exhibition called Frankenstein Bitches, and it was literally just collages of women, or photoshopped cosmo women. It fit their theme at the time, although I don’t remember exactly what the theme was at this moment. So, I could just say that this recent series of collages came from that, but in the last ten years, I’ve had some wild dreams that would put John Carpenter‘s The Thing to shame, and in the last year, six of my friends got cancer. On top of that, Dental Work proposed a collaboration with me, and I tried to wrap my head around the cover art for it. Additionally, I am constantly preoccupied with GMOs and the way that evolution is causing us to mutate. So, all of that is in there in this most recent series. It just so happened that I had to do cover art and my friend Karina Natis asked me to donate art for her fundraiser (these pieces are going to be exhibited on June 28th, finally), so I sat down to do one piece and instead did thirteen. I will probably do more in this format. I found all kinds of meanings in them, on top of this series of events that led to them, but I’m not trying to save the whales or anything, I’m just a filter.
HH: Tell me a bit about this alias you have, Mister Fvckhead. What led to his creation, and what purpose does it serve outside of your solo work?
AZ: I had a button on my leather when I was 18, and it said “That’s Mister Fuckhead to You!”. People started calling me Mister Fuckhead in certain circles. I started to find sort of dualistic meanings in it that I didn’t intend. At the time, I’d noticed that people would find things that I took seriously to be funny, like Mister Rogers for instance. I thought Mister Rogers was a guru, I didn’t understand him or like him per se, but I thought he had secret messages for the kids to use to better their lives. Steve Martin is another one; his first record was tragic to me. I would also laugh at certain unfortunate events, because they would seem like art in a way. Comedy can be serious art to me, especially black humor, but not necessarily people who think they’re funny. That became the premise for Mister Fvckhead, to expand on these aspects of humor and seriousness. I worked within the concept of walking the line between humor and transgressive or tasteless art. The concept of comedy being a serious art form, that could perhaps evoke strong reactions other than laughter, due to its truth.
However, I didn’t take that concept all the way like I wanted to, and I needed to expand without having a billion side projects, so I used it with a couple of Cock ESP collaborations, and I sent some stuff to a compilation curator. It might be the final Mister Fvckhead material, but I don’t think they accepted. I might use it again if that specific paradoxical humor/seriousness arises, but I can’t say for sure. All in all, I did a long series of performances, some group performances with noteworthy figures, a few CD-Rs, a few tapes, and I made some images that offended people on Myspace, but mostly I found the concept to be a burden. I’m fine with moving on.
HH: The concept of art versus music seems to have a particular hold on you. Much of what you compose, especially with the way that you describe both your music and your past, can be seen as a by-product of your need to experiment rather than a need to compose. What are your views on this?
AZ: I prefer to work with layers more than I do effects. I like the idea that if I play a polka record, it is music, but if I play fifteen polka records at the same time, but not necessarily in sync, it becomes something else in terms of what it does to the brain. I think foremost, I’m interested in the mythos of the creative spirit and the brain — I’m more interested in what a piece of art or music does to different kinds of peoples’ brains than I am interested in art or music. I’m interested in the personality and art being a reflection of that personality, even if the art is systematic. Art can be a factory type of Warhol-style work and still have signature, a personality to it, which is different from if someone else tried to do the exact same thing.
I won’t lie, I’m not terribly experimental, considering I don’t have any guitar pedals, I don’t know anything useful about frequencies/electronics, and I don’t know anything about music, really. Some say you have to know the music in order to be able to destroy it. I wish to make something that comes from me in a free-flowing way, not from a prehistoric chart of scales or some little nefarious show tune ditties for the people of our time. I’m interested in doing something that does not have an obvious temporal context beyond that of the recording devices and other obvious factors. I don’t mind if it’s music or if I am a composer, but I’m often trying to find ways to take the human element out while also doing so in a way that isn’t about showing off gear or studio tricks. Even in noise, some stylistic nuance becomes popular, and a bunch of people copy it, then maybe it becomes a sub-genre. I hate that, and I don’t know why people aspire to do that, but at the same time, people have accused me of copying other people, especially people I’m completely unaware of, as if those people invented microphones or synthesizers and there’s no such thing as a zeitgeist. What I do is sincere, and maybe sometimes it is a sincere attempt to improve on another thing, but usually only in hindsight can I make those observations, and I always make something my own by the time I’m done. It’s a fine balance, and that’s the best I can say without yanking my own chain about the hocus pocus.
HH: You’ve become involved with a local radio station in the past few years where you host a show dedicated to experimental music. What led you to pursue this, and has it had any impact on you as an artist?
AZ: I used to have a free-form live venue DJ night for a while with a friend, Dan Demchuk, and I used to do a lot of booking. I also used to sneak into another Chicago radio station, the freeform station WZRD, and play records all night after everyone left. I like the fact that I thought Atari Teenage Riot was complete noise until I did my own thing and became exposed to different styles, and I like hearing young peoples’ reactions when someone does this to them on the radio.
It must have started in 2004. In 2006 or 2007, I was going out every night, and my friend had a soul/funk radio show on WLUW at 2:00 AM. I would go up there and hang out with him after whatever I was doing had ended. Eventually, I started pulling records and bringing in stuff, and eventually he had me co-host the show. Then the DJs that went on before us gave up their show, so we played soul from midnight until 2:00 AM, and from 2:00 AM until 4:00 AM I would often do whatever I wanted if I didn’t ride home with my co-host (Eric Lab Rat). One day I saw that I had an e-mail from the manager saying yes to a proposal for a “freeform radio show”, which focused on “genre bending”.
Apparently I was drunk at a bar, and went around the corner to a late-night internet cafe, and I e-mailed that I wanted to do The Delirious Insomniac Freeform Radio Show, where I would use themes as my launch pad for what I played, and I would challenge the parameters of what music is, or something like that. This was a Jesuit university we were broadcasting out of, and they had strict rotation schedules that catered heavily to college radio top 30. To give you an idea, the manager then went on to do her own radio station, and it is extremely accessible music without exception. It’s damn near a commercial station. I think it was a very appropriate time considering that WLUW was going from being a listener-supported independent station to being taken over by Loyola, the university where it was broadcast from, so the manager maybe didn’t care much about what happened before she was replaced.
It’s had an impact on me as an artist, specifically because I get to have interviews and host guests (I ended it on May 6th). I consider what I do to be an art form, and I am generally clear about that with guests. So when I have guests, I like to see their take on radio as an art form. I like to see that I can still be surprised by what someone does even after I have been doing this for years. It’s always good to bounce ideas off of people. I refused to collaborate with people for a while, but I think that radio, then touring, really opened me up to collaboration and letting other people have a hand in my output.
HH: Tell us about this Blood Rhythms alias that you’ve been creating with. You’ve already had a couple of notable releases through the name, including a C20 on Phage Tapes and a split with T.O.M.B., who have been gaining momentum in their own right through labels like Black Plagve and Fall of Nature, among others.
AZ: The way the body works seems to be very violent to me, a very warlike process. The phrase Rhythmus im Blut has an important connotation for me (and it also happens to be the alternate title to the German version of a popular Marilyn Monroe film). The meaning of it starts with that, and also with me writing the phrase BLOOD HOBBY on my calendar often, for a time. I hate the idea of calling what I do a hobby. I hate the idea of calling myself an artist or anything like that as well. There are a lot of subjects that I think words aren’t adequate enough to describe, and Blood Rhythms is an umbrella for that.
I often ask people I admire to contribute certain sounds, and in some cases, I make a track that is part of an idea, or at least a kind of “super group” moment, because a lot of super groups leave much to be desired, and I hate that those are probably ruined by the egos involved, so I like the idea of taking away the ego in it and just working over something until I know it is finished, regardless of who is or isn’t in it. I trust myself to be a buffer for that. I surrender to the idea better without being attached to it when I am working with other people remotely or otherwise.
There is a very special track that I’ve been fleshing out since 2010 that now features Wyatt Howland, Panther Modern, and Death Factory. I’d like to see it on an LP someday. There is another record inspired by and dedicated to COIL, where the gatefold art is finished, I just need to get it mastered and to release this Assembly LP first, then start wrangling for the next one. Assembly is something I arranged from recordings of Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Corrections House), Andy Ortmann (Panicsville, Nihilist Records), Brian Klein (the Machinist, Names), Dave Purdie (Satan 2000, Silver Abuse), and myself playing brass and wind inside of what could ostensibly be called a meat locker. This LP is being co-released with RRRecords, and is in the process of being pressed now. There will be 100 “artist edition” LP jackets made by me with elaborate multi media / hardware collages and anti records, while the other 100 will have RRRecords’/Ron Lessard’s inimitable handmade jackets. There is also a project with Da5ide 0. (who has worked with Luftwaffe and Valens) and Sharlyn Evertsz (Condom Sex, ex Laundryroom Squelchers) that would definitely fit under the Blood Rhythms umbrella, but the LP would be called Phantom Apotemnophile. I’m very happy with all of this work so far, and I can’t imagine it not getting released eventually, once it’s done.
T.O.M.B. is great. One of the best things going right now. They actually asked me to do that split, and I pitched it to Land of Decay. It’s still one of my favorite releases from T.O.M.B.’s catalog, as well as my own. I tried my damnedest to get them to come to Chicago, but it didn’t work out. I like their side project Dreadlords / T.A.Z. a great deal too though — no electricity!
HH: The last release of yours that I have had the chance to write on — speaking purely chronologically here – was “333”, but you have had several high-profile splits surface since then including those with GX Jupitter-Larsen and Cock E.S.P.. How did these collaborations come about? What else do you have planned?
AZ: I’ve sent you more since then! The one with GX came about when he took part in a Blood Rhythms performance at Denver Noise Fest. In the same weekend we were both among several others for a group performance called Noise Consequences. At some point, I suggested to him that we should work off of a concept that he has termed Xylowave (I remember it meaning something like “The distance between something and nothing”), and my last name. I’d had a piece that was based off of a glitch/malfunction that I’ve always been attached to, and I pitched it to him to do the split. I had an idea to subvert common signs or symbols by simply inverting or subtracting some part of the image, and I’m really happy with how that came out. GX, of course, did the inimitable cover art. Spleencoffin did an amazing job screen printing the J-cards with silver ink over xeroxed black paper. Great label!
GX is always a great guy to talk to. I really feel a connection to him, even though I have to humble myself and say that I am not on his plane of thinking. He is something else, but he is the embodiment of what I like about noise. Being creative, even if what you are doing is about destruction. He might disagree about whether or not what he does is creative, but a cursory glance at his website, and it’s definitely not boring. He transcends the nihilism that has a connotation of blandness or sameness, and takes his genuine passion for entropy to levels that are psychologically compelling (and beneficial). He did a lecture at Columbia College and I basically took over the Q&A. I have to say, for any readers that are fans, I highly recommend his installation that he did on my radio show, it is fantastic.
With Cock ESP, Emil Hagstrom sent me a track in 2008 that I put on the 7-inch locked-groove compilation Trunculence; we exchanged a bit from there. In 2010, my first date of my first tour ever was in Minneapolis. Emil helped me with that show, and he was putting together his Historia de la Musica Cock” CD. At some point, we’d made some connection about both of us being fans of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and Historia was kind of a nod to the favorites. So I did the “music” for whatever his parody track for “Love Missile F1-11” was, and I put down a bunch of other source material for him while I was there; some of it was raw, some of it was through his effects.
We were also thrift shopping, and I found a belt sander for $3.00. I asked him if he had any sheet metal, and we recorded the belt sander to the sheet metal for almost an hour straight, if I remember correctly. I was so excited by the sound of it that I asked him if I could borrow the sheet metal for the rest of the tour, and he just said I could have it. It was lined with duct tape and had plastic tubing over the cables with a plastic encasement covering the contact mic, so it was perfect for the amount of violence that it’d go through. I sent him money via paypal when I got home. That totally changed my tour because I started to incorporate different vocals. In my spare moments I put together a Swans cover and started to build a dynamic with performance with that cinematic belt sander part, when I originally just wanted to twiddle knobs and maybe holler a bit.
Some of the source material ended up being on their split with Hostage Pageant, and we exchanged more source material later. With the collaboration tape on E.F. Tapes / Rainbow Bridge, I had this found sound of children explaining sex and how it works to each other. I threw some Edgar Allan Poe references in there, and Side A ended up being about children who read about sadomasochism and take it to the extreme with mutilation and castration, etc.. I wrote lyrics for Nicole Jean Rode, and she was fucking great. I love her screaming. She went into a studio and did them really quickly. For some reason, we were working on a deadline. The funny thing is, for Side B, I asked Emil to do porn collage and he said something like, “I don’t know, that’s awful demanding”. I still don’t know if he was being serious or sarcastic when he said that. Emil is really great at what he does, a true craftsman in terms of noise composition.
Cock ESP remind me of voodoo rituals where people sort of go nuts in a circle around a fire in order to embrace their demons instead of casting them out. I also thought a lot about Butoh when I think of them starting out, a sort of performative movement that — at least to me — is best known for people covering themselves in powder to represent the dust from nuclear bomb debris. It is a discipline which was initially meant to be blasphemous and to destroy all taboos in the East. To me, Cock ESP cover themselves in the debris that is Midwestern American idiocy, and dance around with their demons. Emil and I had discussed doing an absurdist play called COCK OPERA, and I’d sent him some stuff by Holger Hiller, Ritualistic School of Errors, Drew Ziegler, and Philip Glass/John Moran’sManson Family Opera, among other things, for inspiration. It could have been pretty cool, but maybe it would have been like Bob Dylan going electric, I don’t know.
Unfortunately, there is a member of Cock ESP that is way too much of a botched job for me to possibly have anything further to do with them, so I think my work in that realm is done.
HH: People know you for your work both as a sound artist and for your radio show locally, but I’d presume that not many people are aware of your journalistic pursuits. You’ve namely seemed to have become close with Boyd Rice in recent years considering the amount of interview work that you’ve done with him. How did this come about, and has it influenced you in any way in regards to your own art?
AZ: When I saw initial promotion for the Iconoclast documentary, I immediately wrote a letter to Boyd offering an interview, even though he’d said on his website that he wasn’t doing interviews, and he didn’t for five years, I think, at that point. I didn’t even leave a contact, I didn’t really even remember writing the letter until later. I just assumed that he’d use my return address and write back if anything, but I wasn’t holding my breath. Not long after that, a mutual friend in Chicago contacted me saying that Rice had been wanting to get in touch with me, and I called him to set it up. This won’t resonate with people who don’t know about Boyd Rice, but this was a pretty huge thing for me, and I didn’t think it would happen. I’d written him before, and he did reply with a post card once, but the idea of doing a radio interview didn’t really seem possible at that time.
When we first spoke, I said that I do want to ask him some dicey questions, and I promised not to ask him a single question that he’d been asked before, but I wanted to know if Satanism was okay to talk about and things like that. He said he doesn’t want to plan the interview ahead of time, and he was very friendly. During the interview, I said “well, I have some more questions, do you want to keep going?”, and he said “You’re in the studio, I’m on the phone”, and I kept going for two and a half hours. I had pages and pages and pages of questions, and plenty of questions that just came up. As you might know, I not only asked him about controversial stuff, but also about The Wishniks, Schizophrenia, and Hunter S. Thompson, etc..
After the radio interview, I spent several nights transcribing with a fifth of whiskey at my side, and I had it to him in less than a week. We wanted to clean up the dialogue like any copy editor would do, but we actually agreed that if it is going to get published, that we should get even more into the controversial stuff, and this meant him getting someone to help him transcribe his written responses to text, because while he does obviously use computers, he seriously hates them and doesn’t know a lot of the ins-and-outs of word software, etc..
We’ve become friends, and I’ve been able to meet with him and his now-wife Karin a few times when I was in Denver. Little Fyodor and Babushka and I have been friends since 2008, maybe earlier than that, because they come to Chicago every Christmas to visit family, so we’ve all gone out to dinner, do shows, and things like that. They’ve taken me to some of the Denver hot/hidden spots, and I loved it! I’m going to dig up the photo of Little Fyodor and I at Casa Bonita, it is great!
When I was under 25, I always thought that people stop being intrinsically impressionable, that the influences just coast from there, but Boyd Rice — and since I was late also to Genesis Breyer P. Orridge — has been an immense influence on me. I’ve had few real influences since turning 25, but those philosophical impressions from other people — and not experience — have caused me, along with the meditation, ninjitsu, and energy work which came out of that, couple with my experiences, but not necessarily directly from any of that, to be more impressionable and sensitive to sensations that I can learn and gain from. I’m not saying that I follow their philosophies, but what I took from it led me to things I wouldn’t necessarily have made it to otherwise, and it may even be things they disagree with. So, obviously, to be able to interview these people, among others, is deeply influential. To be able to connect with someone that sort of sent you in a direction that you may not have been on until much later, if at all (JG Thirlwell is another critical one that needs to be mentioned).
More directly, I have a friend that has said to me a number of times, “You should interview Paul Lemos!”, and it’s like, why don’t you interview him? I’ll get you into the studio and you can do it! I’ve had a few exchanges with Lemos, and he is on my Delirious Music for Delirious People compilation CD. I have a deep respect for his work, but I just don’t have too many questions for him that haven’t already been answered. “Why don’t you interview him? What’s stopping you?”
HH: The issue of emotion in your live performances has come up in personal conversation between us — something which you appear to have a unique take on. Can you elaborate on this?
AZ: People call them emotional. I have trouble with that because I’m not exactly up there just trying to vent, it’s not about shaking off a bad day. It’s another thing where there’s just not a better word for it. Chris Sienko was recently talking about how his favorite book store, since his youth, burned down, and upon seeing photos of the burned books on the shelves, he said it struck something primordial in him. There is a difference between being pissed off and feeling like your skin is on fire and you could punch through a wall. Dave Phillips did a performance, and according to my interview with him, he used “animal panic signals” and the amplified sounds of a fly trapped in a jar. I asked him about that because I knew there was something to it other than simply having a video of animals being bludgeoned to death, and it hit me very deeply, on a physical level. I was unaffected by the video; I was deeply affected by the sounds, it caused something instinctual to happen.
For me, my recent performances over the last four years — dealing with the restrictions of the body, the idea that you wear all of your experiences on your face, and the alchemy of grief — have directly been a way for me to tap into something deeper than emotions. I’ve read a great deal about evolution, and the instinct to kill is pretty remarkable, especially when infidelity is involved. There are just a lot of things in the world that are instinctual — like a mother lactating when hearing a baby cry — that are kind of ruined, exploited, or decontextualized, and people try to cultivate an opinion that is emotionally sound to other people rather than what is the truth. These things, to me, don’t get down to what performance and art is for, and because the balances are off, I think a lot of people are constantly stuck in the instinctive fight-or-flight mode that, when they do something to try to set the balances back, it becomes cathartic, when it’s really just what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. It’s like saying brushing your teeth is cathartic.
I think art had a very functional purpose in cave-man times, and that correlated to whatever religion, spirituality, or ceremony that applied at the time — simply wanting something to change, or wanting to honor something and then just going ahead and painting a buffalo on the wall with blood. I just think that it’s a part of the brain that is neglected, to be creative unironically and seriously, ritualistically, so that you exercise that part of the brain instead of repressing it and throwing off the balances, throwing off the whole body, and maybe eventually killing people or destroying things, or just becoming deathly ill. I think there’s an impulse that needs to be tapped into creatively, and that impulse is not simply about catharsis. I hate that. I also hate the idea of something like this being a political statement, “the personal is the political”. Sure, it may be political as much as anything is political, but it’s something different to me. It’s not the same as some vacant, sanctimonious bullshit about George Bush. If it is political, it needs to be different than what Jello Biafra does, because while I used to get into his stuff, now I only like when I don’t feel like I’m listening to some guy rant about the GOP in a rhyming fashion over riffs. On the other hand, songs like The Power of Lard or Pineapple Face or Turn Off The Respirator, those songs have several different dynamics to them, they are not overtly political songs, and it helps if they’re just making fun of everybody altogether.
I think there’s a distinction in the matter of intent. There is a metaphysical intent with what I am doing, and that plays out in ways that differ from an average power electronics set or any other equivalent, but it may not appear to be a whole lot different on the surface to some. This isn’t to say that I don’t accept humor or even irony as valid work, but I think, again, that it comes back to the brain and a certain effect that surrealism has on the brain VS the intent of the sounds and how they affect the listener’s brain/body.
I have to say that my background is in nihilism. I used to flip a coin for all of my decisions, and I don’t regret it. There is a nihilist that I interviewed named Elisha Shapiro, and he ran a “Nihilist Olympics” in 1984. One of the competitions was to do a relay race in traffic or to make a U-turn into oncoming traffic. This is a kind of trust that I think I still carry around sometimes, it’s not simply self-destructive affectations. Of course, there is a good amount of solipsism going on, but essentially, this practice does overlap with Buddhism and other practices, and I don’t particularly care what the origin of it is. I just care that if I trust myself and let go, I’m better off. Whenever I have dismissed or misinterpreted my instincts, or over-thought them, I have been punished for it, and the same goes with emotions. I go with instincts.
HH: You’ve mentioned that your own label, No Part of it, may be going offline to being a physical-only label in every sense of the word. What brought on this change, and will this new “Velcro Bismol” collaboration with Dental Work have any permanent place in the future?
AZ: Well, Dental Work will have a steady flow of copies, I’m sure. The release has been out for some time. The same can be said for Death Factory, who I released a split with. They can sell their copies however they want, but I’m not putting things up for sale on paypal as a merchant. I have a mail box:
NO PART OF IT
1002 W Montrose Ave., BOX 130
Chicago, IL 60613
I’m going to promote by way of newsletters. I’m interested in personal exchanges. People I know can trade with me, but I’m only going to accept money orders once I get some other releases wrapped up, and I’m excited as hell about them!
HH: Let’s talk about the tape “A Prayer for Powerful Hands”. On the surface, it appears to have some obvious sincere spiritual implications, but also a sense of sarcasm or criticism. Can you tell us what inspired the creation of this work?
AZ: It’s composed from 4-5 hours of source material that I worked with at my friend’s studio (NV13, Scab Labs), almost all of it is from Christian evangelist/Christian music cassettes. The recordings were done in 2008, the assembly was finalized in 2011, Zach Adams (BKPR, Verdant) mastered it, and it took me some time to get the whole concept together. I’m very fond of the saints, and also to some extent of Christian alchemy, among other things. I’m quite confident I’m going to be the only one who likes the release. On side A, there are something like fifty layers of evangelist spoken word, pitch-bent and improvised upon. Some of the evangelists were quite convincing and enthusiastic, while others were variations of mutant idiots. I dubbed each cassette in real-time, one at a time, and listened to almost all of them all the way through while I was doing cut-ups. I constantly heard words that I didn’t remember being there, and they related to me personally each time, sometimes they would correlate with the cut-ups I was doing. That is the most I’d like to elaborate on the release.
You happened to send me these questions on the same day that I interviewed J.G. Thirlwell / Foetus, and when I asked him to describe the video for his song “Here Comes the Rain”, he was hard-pressed to do so, so he only simply explained the contents of the video, and that’s best for me. He was careful because he thinks that videos impose a finite level of interpretation, and I’d rather not do that to the listener. The release comes with a four-sided full-color greeting card, which includes something from Saint Faustina, a woman who was apparently the most recent person to be ordained as a Saint. She wrote a whole book that included several hundred pages from her diary where she claimed to speak to God on a regular basis. There is also a symbol that is very relevant to me, and a St. Dymphna prayer card. I’d say The Powerful Hand is very relevant in the period of time.
HH: Likewise, what is the idea behind “Saint Street”?
AZ: I’ve always had a fascination with photographing dead birds. I have a collection of photographs of dead birds with a disposable camera. There is a house that has tons and tons of bird houses in its front yard — at least thirty. It is really magnificent. The first time I saw it, I saw a dead bird on the concrete, but I didn’t have a camera. I brought my friend Dana Day back with me, and we photographed the birdhouses. My friend Jillian Rodriguez helped me with the color levels and the collage landscape.
The release was going to be called Saint Street before that though. Some of the track titles came to me when I was done with them, and I mean really finished with them after messing around with them for a long time. Other times, I knew the track title immediately. “DPRV” is a track that I initially wanted to do as an intro to music, but I put so many effects on this sample of children playing that it was destroyed from the beginning. It was a malfunction that seemed to carry itself on its own for some time. I thought to myself that the children were deprived. Later on, I thought to myself that the children were depraved, and so on. Most of those track titles deal with imagery and multiple interpretations, but mostly personal and of no consequence; it’s not a concept album if that’s what you’re asking.
HH: Do you have a specific reason for the name of each track?
AZ: I don’t remember ever releasing an untitled track (except I am just finishing up a collaboration cassette with collage artist/guitar player Christopher Ilth, that one is “Untitled”, all of his artwork is untitled), but I’d say every title has at least some level of imagery involved as it relates to the track. For instance, I visualized some runway model boardwalk/dressing room scenario lined with warped mirrors and coke addicts, and everyone’s just snorting coke off of the warped clown mirrors, wearing terribly glamorous outfits and too much make up. It is a destroyed disco song, “screwed”, if you will (with screaming cats and dogs over the top of it), I turned it into more of a spiraling synth dirge.
I’ll eventually release something that has a track called “Falling Tower”. That should end up on Side of The Sun Recordings, after Sara Holloway is finished with the cover art. I saw what was the image of the tarot card Falling Tower when I was meditating, but I don’t know much about tarot. I was looking online for the tarot interpretation of playing cards because I keep finding playing cards on the ground. In one week I had two tarot readings that had The Tower (“explosive transformation”) in it. I found playing cards on the ground that I’d thought related to that at the time, but it’s hard to interpret major arcana in playing cards, so it seems. That same week, I saw an episode of Night Gallery that features Vincent Price. Price plays a sorcerer who, at one point, is eating dinner with a relative that turned himself into a goat. The goat’s name was “Falling Tower”. There was a lot of serendipity around this time regarding the concept, but to be honest, I don’t remember all of it. It’s right around when I did this track, and I thought it framed the audio well for several reasons, still does; more now than ever. Come to think of it, Dominick Dufner (Sigulda, Side of The Sun Recordings) happened to photograph in in front of Vincent Price’s star in St. Louis, so it makes sense that he’d be releasing this cassette, as a matter of chance. Sara Holloway pulled The Tower card not too long ago, and she is doing the art for the release.
HH: When you returned home from your short tour last year, did you have any interesting experiences along the way? I’ve read that a particular radio station in New York gave you airplay for three solid hours.
AZ: The whole thing was interesting, it was a bus tour. My bus from Pittsburgh to New York consisted of my talking for hours to my good friend Clayton on the phone, only to be interrupted with an eighty year old stroke victim talking to himself who shouldn’t have been on a bus by himself, eventually getting diarrhea all over the bathroom. Then, when everything was cleaned, I met two dommes who seemed to be on some kind of random tour fetishing people, I guess. They told me all kinds of stories. I had bought a bunch of food; hors d’oeuvres, California rolls, meat and crackers, and it was kind of a party where I was shown a bunch of risqué stuff on an iPad in between odd stories. I’m at a point where I can only listen to T. Rex when I’m on tour, so it was nice to revisit an old friend.
New York just has an amazing energy to it, I couldn’t sleep while I was there. I absolutely love the architecture and the terrain. It’s like everything is 200 years older than what I’m used to, but yet more urban and “up to date”. WFMU was incredible, and yes, right after I initially got off the bus I went straight to WKCR where I did two or three sets, and they played my recordings for the three hours I was there. The guest mic had a number on it: 333. In Cleveland, I got to reunite with Wyatt Howland (Skin Graft) and Scott Hosner, which inevitably meant getting drunk and trying to remember enough lyrics to rap along with the Wu Tang Clan in his apartment, and screaming along to the lyrics by Brainbombs (“Kill Them All“) on the juke box at Now That’s Class! (If the same female bartender that always hears me ever reads this, I’m sorry, it honestly has nothing to do with that!). I also got to spend a good amount of time with another good friend in Cleveland, and in general I like everybody in the scene there. *I was able to curate an exceptional NOISE LUNCH there in February 2014 where the theme was radios and they had my set cued to transmit through a bunch of radios (thanks again everyone, especially Sam Harmon!).
I got to not only play on one of my favorite radio shows (WFMU’s My Castle of Quiet) on one of my favorite stations, but also hang out with Wm Berger (Prison Tatt Records) for a long time. My show in New York was cancelled due to a snow storm, and so was my bus. I had to take a plane, and while I wanted to get the earliest one possible, I had a feeling not to. I ended up getting a later departure that cut it close to getting back to Pittsburgh on time for a show, but happened to be the first plane that wasn’t cancelled. It was flight number 4333, and it was supposed to leave at 3. It was delayed, and the flight attendant told me to turn off my phone at 3:33. It ended up being perfect timing for Panther Modern to pick me up from the airport and for us to get to the show in good time. Brian was cool enough to come from Baltimore to play, and he was really cool to hang out with. He was going to go to Gettysburg on the way back and try to do some field recordings of battle sites.
I spent a good amount of time with a woman I was pretty jazzed about at the time and did some collaborations with a couple of people. I got to go to some great restaurants and some kind of wild Santeria Voodoo Catholic store and buy Tiger’s teeth. Between Minneapolis and Cleveland, I stopped home. Because it was February 3rd, the anniversary of Joe Meek‘s (and Buddy Holly‘s) death (what a wild story that is!), I listened to The Blue Men. In Cleveland the following Sunday, I was sitting in a mall that was practically empty. The music on the intercom was mostly 60s music, much to my surprise. It echoed really nicely through three stories of marble and glass, and it had a haunting quality to it. It made me think of Dawn of the Dead, and it really was surreal to hear Joe Meek’s Telstar on the intercom. It’s just not something I would ever imagine happening with any retail experience I’ve ever had.
HH: Thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions, Arvo. If you feel there is anything important that was left unsaid, this last space is yours to say it.
AZ: Thanks again for having me, and for pushing through! This interview has turned out to be a strange little patchwork of several different phases of my life for the past couple of years! It’s really odd to see it that way, but rewarding that it is done! Best of luck in keeping Heathen Harvest a quality resource!