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Building a Better Machine: An Interview with Chthonic Streams’ Derek Rush


An Interview with Derek Rush

by Kate MacDonald

Chthonic Streams is hardly new to the world, but recently, the label and Derek Rush, the man behind it, have undergone a period of growth and development that has seen them embrace artists in myriad genres and put a greater emphasis on social, cultural and political messaging. From his own work as the shadowy Worker behind Compactor, to assembling an army of artists in support of the #NoDAPL protests to the release of a weighty and reflective compilation on the meaning and experience of the North American work day, Rush has established himself as a cornerstone of the industrial scene’s newest incarnation.

HH: Give us a brief introduction to Chthonic Streams; how did it start? How has its ‘mission’ or focus developed over time?

DR: Chthonic Streams was started as a label and mailorder to release my work when other labels are too busy, and to distribute releases on other labels that I appear on. It’s also for when I want to release something in a manner I would never ask of others, for example, special handmade packaging. The ‘mission’ recently expanded to include things that I’m less involved in musically, such as the Hoor-Paar-Kraat limited artist edition, which I mastered, designed, and assembled, but did not play on. I’ve also started curating shows in NYC under the name, with artists who I feel fit with what I do.

HH: You released a massive compilation last year in support of the #NoDAPL protests. What was it that motivated you about that specific cause?

DR: At the time, it seemed the situation wasn’t really getting much media attention. In fact, other than very left-leaning “watchdog”-type websites, it’s only gotten very selective mainstream coverage that appears to be designed to create a certain narrative. It’s the same old image of hippie protestors trespassing and getting in the way of alleged “progress”. There were definitely some of those, but that doesn’t erase the very real threat the Dakota Access Pipeline presents to the tribes who live near there, or the dangerous precedent it sets in terms of honoring treaties or prioritizing corporate money over something as basic as safe drinking water. Not to mention the unnecessary violence against the people who stood in the way. The Water Protectors and legitimate allies needed supplies to help continue their stand, so a benefit seemed in order.

HH: How did you get so many artists involved?

DR: I had a few in mind right off, but I wanted to make it a wider concern than just musician friends of mine, so I put out a more general call in the extended network of noise-related artists. I’m glad I did, because I’ve been introduced to a lot of people and their projects. It was also important to try to get other noise artists with native blood on there, as the cause was a catalyst for all the Nations to unite at Standing Rock and stand against the pipeline. So many wanted to be on it, some had to be turned away. it was very heartening coming from a scene that’s most often associated with senselessly violent imagery and/or right-wing ideology. For me it helps to dispel those impressions somewhat.

HH: What are your feelings concerning the forced dispersion of the protestors and the decision by the new administration to proceed with the pipeline? What do you think people can do to continue their opposition? Do you have any plans to be (more) involved in the cause itself?

DR: Most of us on the compilation maintained a message thread about the situation for months. To be honest, our reactions at this point are largely anger and a sense of futility. I’m not sure what the opposition should be to this specific issue by now, as the camps were forcibly cleared in February. The compilation remains online and any money made from it from now on will be donated to whatever native benefit funds seem most relevant at the time, because sadly these kinds of clashes are all too common. Some of the Native artists on the compilation have kept me up to date on things happening there and advised the best places to send the money to.

HH: Do you believe that the shift towards conservatism and populism in the United States and Europe is going to spur artists within this genre (or these genres) to become more political?

DR: It’s too early to tell yet, other than direct-reaction benefits like this. There are absolutely noise artists operating whose political views are very prominent in their work. Straight Panic comes immediately to mind, as his music is called Radical Queer Power Electronics and all the content is very blunt, but very well done.

HH: Do you see yourself continuing to join in political protests in the near future? Are there any issues (aside from the ones that you’ve already been involved with) that particularly concern you?

DR: I’ve been somewhat involved in the past, marching against the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, trying to build awareness and fight a gross misuse of Eminent Domain near where I used to live in Brooklyn, signing petitions and telling people about the racist origins and draconian nature of NYC Cabaret Laws. It’s definitely helpful, but there need to be people working in multiple areas to affect change. One of those is the role of the artist to say something in a manner that touches people and helps them to reflect on aspects of the issues that they feel compelled to address. I know that it’s both important and not that important. It can also get tiring. There are artists with a good message who I think make boring art.

HH: Next release is the No Workers’ Paradise compilation. What was the genesis for that idea?

DR: The project has been in the works since early 2014, so I’ve actually forgotten what made me put all the pieces together. 8 hours of industrial/noise music being a metaphor for the standard American work day just makes perfect sense to me. I think it was originally just going to be one artist per side, on two or four tapes. But I like to hammer a point home and connect the dots when dealing with music that can be very abstract.

HH: You’ve worked with the theme of labour before, with Compactor releases. What is it about that theme that appeals to you? What is it about the idea of labour, mechanization and the modern workplace that you want listeners to think about? Is this a theme that you see yourself developing further in the future?

DR: Work is essentially how most of us live. I think a lot of us who may not be at a job they enjoy like to pretend it’s just a small portion of their lives, it’s just how they earn a living. But it’s about half our waking life, in some cases more. It affects how we spend the rest of our day, where we live, our daily travels, even to some extent our personal relationships — socializing with coworkers after hours, entering into or avoiding romantic entanglements. More aspects may be addressed in future Compactor releases.

HH: How did you choose / approach the artists to be involved? Do you find that any of the pieces differ significantly when it comes to the interpretation of the theme?

DR: I tend to curate anything I do shooting for overall cohesiveness, but within that, attempt to showcase some diversity within the theme. I based my invitations on the artists’ general sound, and in some cases what I know about their own jobs. Compactor represents the dehumanized worker that essentially becomes the machine. The Vomit Arsonist’s death industrial often expresses the kind of depressive futility that’s easy to reach in a factory. Gnawed’s rage-filled power electronics are informed somewhat by literally working with metal. Blsphm fuses harsh noise and black metal with the kind of relentless single-mindedness that one sometimes needs to adopt in order to get through the day. Work/Death brings a reflective vibe with varied elements from musique concrète to melodic fragments. Existence In Decline’s extreme cut-up noise ties into an obsessive and impressive attention to detail. Filth’s down-and-dirty, jerry-rigged home audio devices showcase the independent worker spirit. Redrot’s jarring, dissonant, mechanized beats reflect the devastating effects of automation. These are just my own reflections on their sounds, they may interpret them differently.

HH: The packaging of the compilation is quite striking. How did you come up with it? Was it difficult to find all the components? You’ve created a number of special/ collectible packages for your releases before. What do you think the importance of having this sort of visual element is in music releases? Do you favour ‘hard copies’ or do you usually buy digital releases when it comes to your own purchases?

DR: I think the packaging of a release is part of the concept. At this point, there’s almost no reason to put out a simple CD in a jewel case. The NWP package is a perfect example of necessity being the mother of invention. It was originally planned to be in a black plastic 8-cassette case, but all sources for such things evaporated overnight. A toolbox made even more sense, as though the contents are something you need at work. There’s even space inside for a small portable cassette player. The booklet was already planned, as a way to let each artist stretch out a bit and add an individual image to sum up their contribution. I think this is absolutely important in music, especially for industrial/noise which is often instrumental or has indecipherable vocals. Titles, imagery, and packaging are not just afterthoughts to me.

Personally, I think digital downloads are a great option, but I tend to treat them as backups or when there’s no physical available, or if the physical version makes no sense to me, like a lot of techno i buy.

HH: What’s the history of the Compactor project? When did it start and what spurred you to undertake it?

DR: In late 2011, I was taking too long finishing the last CD by my band Dream Into Dust and needed a more immediate outlet for my frustration.

HH: There’s clearly a larger ‘story’ to Compactor than just the sounds you hear. Has that always been part of the project, or is it something that developed out of the music you were making?

DR: The initial idea was just to do industrial/noise and use only what was available in the moment. That included recycling and repurposing sounds, which became a recurring theme, especially for remixes, which are only made with edited/effected pieces of the original track. As more tracks were recorded, the titles and imagery based on the music kept suggesting overall themes of work, dehumanization, waste, technology, obsolescence. It became clear that Compactor was not a person, it was literally the machine, the person just runs the machine. The Worker’s first appearance was at a show in September 2012. The character does not speak, and represents a kind of proletarian Everyman, simultaneously exhausted but nevertheless continuing. The gear used is mostly old, as it’s common practice at a lot of companies not to upgrade equipment until absolutely necessary. The company in this case is called Waste MGT. I’m trying to get more information out about the backstory and concepts. The idea from now on is to proceed as realistically as possible, with everything laid out in pieces of the overall work, which comprises recorded music, printed materials, live and streaming performances, downloadable digital files, official social media posts, and more installations (such as Fields Of Waste, 2013 and Components, 2014).

HH:  You’ve been on the road a lot in the last year, more regularly than in the past. Was that a matter of choice, or just that you had increased opportunities? Did playing different shows, with different artists on the bill shape your own sound or your ideas about what you want to do?

DR: It was both a choice and increased opportunities, they kind of go hand in hand. I made a conscious effort to put Compactor in different areas that the sound intersects with. noise/power electronics, industrial/EBM, breakcore, hard techno, or drone shows can all be adapted to. It’s all variations of the same types of sounds. I’m sure different groups of people who have been to a show or picked up a release have an idea of what they think Compactor is, but they’re only seeing one facet.

HH: Do you plan to keep up the hectic live schedule through 2017? Any artists with whom you’d especially like to play?

DR: I definitely want to book as many Compactor shows as possible, with even more of an emphasis on traveling to new cities. There’s a plan to play the Pacific Northwest with longtime friend Jason Walton (Agalloch, Snares Of Sixes). Artists in that area I’d love to have on the same bills off the top of my head: Xiphoid Dementia, Masturbatory Dysfunction, Blsphm (all of whom I know personally) and if possible, Control. I’m also planning another Canadian mini-tour and it would be great to be on a bill with Orphx. But I’m most excited about sharing bills with good artists I don’t know of yet.

I’m already looking forward to two festivals later in the year being presented by Annihilvs Power Electronix that I can’t give details about yet. And we recently had the release show for No Workers Paradise with The Vomit Arsonist, Gnawed, Existence In Decline, and Work/Death,  in a former factory called Knockdown Center that has a very raw appearance but great sound systems.

HH: Finally, the inevitable question about the future: What are your plans beyond NWP? Will you be focusing principally on Chthonic Streams or on Compactor in the coming months? Do you have any specific goals you want to reach for 2017?

DR: My goal is more of everything. There’s already a Compactor release planned on Canadian label Low Noise Productions that focuses on rhythmic noise/techno/industrial called MultiCore. Following that, a full-length CD veering in a power electronics direction should be coming out on Oppressive Resistance Recordings. There are half a dozen other smaller releases in various stages of planning that will depend on the machinations of Waste MGT, and if other companies are interested in licensing them. Outside of Compactor, I’ve sometimes been a live addition to Theologian recently, which I’m hoping to turn into a release on Chthonic Streams. There will also be an official release of a dark ambient/death industrial collaboration called Mortuary Womb that was with John Binder of Arkanau and Exhuma before he left this earth in early 2016. I’ve also gently approached a few other talented friends about releases. I also DJ a decent variety of music, and I’m working on warping some obscure dark techno records with an industrial edge for future sets, so it’s more than “What song did you just play?” And the answer is, I don’t know, and if I did, the original doesn’t sound like what you just heard. These days anyone can get whatever they want at the click of a button. I want to do things you can’t get so easily.