The Birth of NOizeFest, New Orleans's Freakiest, Smallest Festival
Apr 23 2013
The Way at NOizeFest 2012.
This May 5—the last day of the upcoming New Orleans Jazz Fest—marks the eighth time NOizeFest will be hosted in my Bywater backyard. This celebration of noise music and other nontraditional genres was started a decade ago by Keith “Deacon Johnson” Moore. Shortly after Katrina, Keith was shot in the chest and killed while buying drugs, and we’ve continued holding his festival in his honor ever since.
Many of my New Orleans friends are insane, yet so unique and enriching. It’s worth it to suffer for their friendship. I first met Keith at musician Ray Bong’s birthday party in 2004. Without knowing the guest of honor, Keith set up a T-shirt booth, blew an airhorn over our band’s music, and commandeered my microphone several times to announce his upcoming project: “Ambient Wars part two! A sonic catfight between DJ Beatgrrl and DJ Miss Mass Destruction!” After the show, Keith assigned me to write about his upcoming 20-act NOizeFest, then proceeded to call me every single day afterward to confirm his interview date and discuss his ever-evolving plans. A little intense. But I appreciated Keith’s weird drive. So out on my porch one night, I let him fill an entire 60-minute tape with his monotone “noise manifesto” and his musings on ambient techno versus “Jazz Fest’s blues whores and crappy jam bands.”
His NOizeFest was a Jazz Fest protest, of sorts. He told me the fascinating story of growing up in New Orleans as the son of famous jump blues guitarist Deacon John, who played on a vast number of famous American R&B recordings—hence Keith’s stage name “Deacon Johnson.” Keith discussed at great length his plans for his company, Deathouse Industrial Enterprises (DIE), and his list of scheduled NOizeFest performers: Rob Cambre (New Orleans’s noise-guitar hero), Manchild (techno rock), Ray Bong (toy instruments and nitrous oxide), Denise Bonis (a singer and violinist), PotPie (sine-wave studies), Siamese Cocks (more sine-wave studies), Mikronaut (dub-reggae and Robitussin-influenced four-track manipulations), Kid Calculator (laptop collages), One-Man-Machine (deconstructed spirituals and Sun Ra covers), Sickniks (guitar and digital noise), Chuck Reily (a singer and computer artist), DMC Shellshock (a female MC who uses real-time-laptop-vocal trickery), one-man-bands King Louie and Ratty Scurvics, and DJ sets from Proppa Bear, the Hussy, Brice Nice, and Quintron. Keith’s imagined $10 cover charge would benefit Charity Hospital, an institution that had recently saved him from simultaneous cases of pneumonia and meningitis, brought on by his HIV infection. This town and its many musicians seriously needed Charity.
But not until Keith had fed me all this information at least twice more did I realize that NOizeFest itself, which still hadn’t confirmed a venue, wasn’t for two more months—and he called me every single day to talk about it.
In the meantime, I (maybe foolishly) took a job painting apartments for Keith’s Deathouse Industrial Enterprises. Instead of whistling while we worked, we listened to evil techno music featuring Keith’s echo-drenched voice booming “I WILL GIVE YOU AIDS!” from a trashed and graffiti-sprayed Jambox in the corner. Beside it lay a short-wave radio emitting static and a wave machine that whispered a surprisingly loud "wshhhhhhhhhhh." Keith told me, over and over, that I needed to come to see one of his shows.
At his next club appearance, at the Dragon's Den in Marigny, Jamboxes blared static all the way up the steps of the venue's rickety stairway. Every corner of the Den’s dark main stage was crammed with broken electronics, pill bottles, black lights, candles, 9/11 photos, and anticorporate and antihumanity slogans. Keith had taped sheets of foil and giant photos across the floor, and dusted it all with shards from broken mirrors. The 40 or so humans in attendance walked around crunching glass while Keith bellowed into the microphone. “People want to know where Deathhouse is… It’s at each and every one of your addresses! Because you are all going to die!” As Keith continued dragging more and more junk up into the Den, it became clear that he was intensely committed to the grand New Orleans tradition of working way too hard toward high-production values for art that’d be seen only briefly by a small audience.
“I showed up around noon that day to help Keith load in,” eternally mellow Dragon’s Den booking agent Tark Putman told me one balmy night. We were out on the Den’s iron balcony, a year before the flood, reminiscing. Tark pointed to the sidewalk below. “First, down there, Keith unloaded all these computer monitors and stuff from his van onto the sidewalk outside the club. By the time the show started at 10:30, we were still helping him bring stuff up into the Den, and I had forgot about the junk out on the sidewalk. Then halfway through the night, one of the chefs comes up screaming at me in Thai because downstairs these two big jock meatheads were outside with fucking sledgehammers, just golfing computer parts at his car. Somehow, unloading Keith’s car, I hadn’t seen his sledgehammers…” Tark recalled yelling at Keith. “‘I hate getting uptight about anything. I definitely appreciate what Keith is doing, and if it was my joint, we’d light off dynamite inside, whatever. But I took all the junk from out front, scooped up all the glass, threw it all in a garbage can, and told Keith, ‘This is garbage! Leave it here!’ And the next thing I know, the pile has been moved upstairs onto the Den’s stage. With the sledgehammers.”
Helen Gillet and Mark Southerland at NOizeFest 2010.
For the two months between my initial interview with Keith and NOizeFest itself, Keith was always angry. He barked the word “NOizeFest” hundreds of times a day as we painted apartments by the levee on St. Charles. Upon picking me up at 6:30 AM, Keith would announce NOizeFest’s latest impediment, then he’d seethe about how everybody was letting him down, and how he was a day late getting us paid for painting, and how the screen-printer had “fucking lied!” about NOizeFest T-shirts, and how the white rapper from Bywayer who’d promised Keith use of a Desire Street venue had left for a European tour, making reaching him nearly impossible. Each morning on our way to work, Keith’s anger swelled until, creeping down Royal, he would scream and slam his cell phone against his van’s dashboard, smashing it into dead techno junk that would later be worn around his neck.
Though he could be unpleasant, Keith had gotten Quintron to agree to play (Q told me that Keith called him absolutely every single day, too). And New Orleans’s local press had picked up the story of the famous New Orleans guitarist’s son who was obsessed with noise. Success was assured—until the white Bywater rapper finally returned from Europe, cancelled Keith’s event all together, then used the name “NOizeFest” to promote his own concert at the same venue on the same night.
Keith had few people to turn to. When he confided in me that he planned to cancel NOizeFest, I shouted, “No! No way! I already wrote the damn article! So did Gambit and the Picayune! There are so many other venues in this city, so many other places. Jesus, I would let you have it in our backyard before I’d let you cancel.”
“I can have it in your backyard?”
“Well, I was being hypuhhh… I’d have to ask my uhhh…”
“Don’t jerk me around here. Can or can’t I? I need your word.”
“Mizzy’s parents are coming to town that weekend and…”
“I need your fucking word!”
I’d already made the mistake. And thus, NOizeFest’s long painful birth would culminate out back by the pen we’d built for our pet goat, Chauncey.
The Ray Bong Stage at NOizeFest 2010.
Keith smashed yet another cell phone when I told him he’d need to rent a Porta Potty for the fest. The night before the show, we had Chauncey stay with neighbors so the freaks wouldn’t feed him LSD, and boarded up our house as if preparing for a zombie attack. Early the next morning, Keith hauled over several humongous sheets of mirror, which for obvious reasons, I demanded he immediately remove from our patio. Keith grumbled in argument.
“It’s my house. Do it,” I said, stomping away. I returned to find all the DJ equipment on my patio sitting atop the mirror, which had cracked already into many tectonic pieces. “I do not want Chauncey walking around in bits of broken mirror for the rest of his fucking life Keith!” I slammed a trash can down in front of him. “Don’t make me regret letting you do this! Clean the fucking glass up! Now!”
The whole day I took no responsibility for anything else that went on at NOizeFest. Despite my deep-rooted instinct to be friendly, I responded to requests for me to help carry equipment with polite refusals. The only exception was when Quintron, who said he’d only be DJing, arrived with his Drum Buddy, Ernie K-Doe organ, and Leslie speakers ready do a full-on noise show—any bohemian in town would have hosted this mess if they’d known Quintron would play on their porch.
Otherwise, I didn’t even see it as my job to deter piano-rock legend Ratty Scurvics—who’d shown up black-out drunk at 11 AM—from trying to make out with Mizzy’s visiting mother (luckily, she managed on her own to avoid that fate). Both of Mizzy’s parents dealt gracefully with NOizeFest, as well as with her daughter’s boyfriend, who had donated his home and life to such a cause. The parents had left to go sip wine one street over at Bacchanal jazz bar by the time Ray Bong spun off on his bad acid trip.
For a “psychedelic guru,” Ray, then 51 years old, really cannot handle LSD. Acid overtakes him; it disintegrates his already frail connection to reason so that he ends up treating his friends like shit. This does not at all deter him from dropping. After dosing at NOizeFest, Ray jammed with (or rather over) every single artist, with or without their permission. I had already lovingly warned all the acts, “If you play in my yard, you are required to let Ray Bong jam along, ha ha.” But at one point, as Ray was bouncing on the balls of his feet, eyes closed, strangling truly ugly sounds from his Coron, just grooving over King Louie, Louie ordered via microphone, “Hey dude. Please stop.”
Ray stood stunned for some moments, then scrambled over to me and, quietly at first, began losing his shit. “Fuck that motherfucker!” he whispered loud enough to be heard over King Louie’s own ugly music. Ray slapped his thighs, furious. “He’s not even making noise! He’s playing fucking songs! He’s going against the whole fucking tenets of NOizeFest, man!”
Though the day’s “music” had been consistently rich and interesting and fun, by the ninth hour I was sick of the whole freaky thing, and slipped upstairs to my bedroom. I lay listening through the house’s bargeboard to a nicely muted, subdued, surprisingly relaxing version of NOizeFest—until Ray called me on his cell from the backyard. “Everyone’s out to get Ray Bong, man!” he claimed. Over King Louie’s final song, I heard Ray’s teeth grinding. “They’re trying to hold Ray Bong down!” When I explained to him that several musicians simply had compositions they’d planned to play alone, he erupted, “You’re against me, too! Everything we’ve been through together man and… Fuck you, man! You think you’re gonna be so famous! Well fuck you!”
Around 10:30, the 14-year-old rapper MC Lil Gregory Esq. accidentally tripped over the main power supply and officially ended the day. Our last-minute venue debacle had limited attendance to about 20 attendees and 40 performers. And because the festival ended up being free to the public, no one benefited financially, not me or Keith or even Charity Hospital—it has remained free ever since.
NOizeFest continues as protest of New Orleans’s corporate Jazz Fest (which has foregone jazz almost entirely now in favor of Dave Matthews and Widespread Panic). Its most important service to New Orleans is as a summit where dozens of original artist/weirdos, most of whom hadn’t known of each other, get to meet and plot and play and collaborate. And as long as it continues in my yard, NOizeFest for me is also like a private audition: I get a year’s worth of scene research, dumped squealing, squawking, and clanking, right on my back porch—where I still, to this day, find small pieces of Keith’s broken mirror.
Keith "Decon Johnson" Moore.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
Previously: New Orleans’s War On Music
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