There's a lot of history in Aaron Dilloway's music. It's not just that he's been at it for a while, both with Wolf Eyes—the Michigan noise outfit he played in for nearly 20 years—and through scores of solo and collaborative releases. It's also because he works on his records for a long time, so long that there are sounds on his new album, The Gag File, that have actually been around for a decade.
"I try a lot of things out," Dilloway explains over the phone from Hanson Records, the store he owns in Oberlin, Ohio. "When I get to a place I like, I'll record it, and it might be months or even years until I go back to that and work it into something. There's a track on this record, "Shot Nerves," that uses a synth thing that I made over ten years ago. I used to use it at live shows a lot, but I had never put it on an proper release."
Despite this elongated process, The Gag File doesn't sound like a relic. The pulsing, crackling sheen of Dilloway's music feels distinctly alive. But there are also ghosts rattling around inside his songs, partially because his source material includes snippets from his collection of old 8-track tapes. "[The album] is mostly either loops I made of instruments or objects I recorded, or samples of old recordings, which I probably shouldn't talk to much about," he says with a laugh. "I tried to mangle them enough that it became it's own thing."
That thing is a beguilingly weird sound-world filled with repetitive noises, lopsided rhythms, distant echoes, and eerie disembodied voices. Some tracks throb like a radiant x-ray of a heartbeat (Dilloway was particularly inspired by the drumming on Serge Gainsbourg's 1964 album Gainsbourg Percussions). Others slowly recede into the horizon, like zombies in reverse, especially during songs in which Dilloway relies heavily on field recordings.
"I really love crowd sounds—they're kind of like water," he explains. "Some of the most disorienting sounds are, like, early morning in a diner, where it's just this total noise." One track almost solely made of field recordings, "No Eye Sockets (For Otto & Sindy)", is actually kind of a cover. Its clattery montage of people talking and laughing was meant to echo the rumbling party sounds of the 1997 album Pizza A Go Go made by an obscure artist named Ottomatik.
The Gag File is also haunted by Dilloway's last official full-length release, 2012's Modern Jester. Both albums feature loop-centric songs wherein Dilloway picks a figure and runs with it, letting repetition become a hypnotic mantra. When heard side by side, The Gag File sounds more like his manic live show. That's intentional: he laid down initial tracks by recreating that set in the Michigan-based studio of his former Wolf Eyes comrade Nate Young.
But the connections between the two albums are clear, especially in the fuzzy, monotone pictures of creepy dummies that grace their covers. "I wanted [this cover art] to be somewhat of an extension of Modern Jester," Dilloway says. "I'm not sure if I'm working on a series or not, but I loved that when I blew it up it had that similar half-tone look."
When I ask Dilloway for more details about the ideas behind The Gag File, he grows reluctant. Where does the name of the album come from? He gives a two-word reply: "Phyllis Diller." (A quick Google search helps explain that seeming non-sequitur). What do specific song titles mean? "I'd rather not get too far into that," he says. "I like to leave them open to interpretation. It's private stuff."
It's understandable that Dilloway is guarded about music he puts so much work into, especially since he can be his own harshest critic. "I'm always questioning whether I used my sounds in the best way that I could," he admits. "I had a near-finished version of this record for probably two years, and I would keep listening back to it and certain things would drive me nuts. I would feel like I had to change it, but other things would get in the way and it would take time to go back to it. I finally finished the album a couple months ago on a train, when I was on tour with Genesis [Breyer P-Orridge]."
P-Orridge, the legendary musician and founding member of Throbbing Gristle, has recently become one of Dilloway's most important collaborators. "Gen's brain is always working," Dilloway says. "I think we both trust each other, and it's kind of crazy how well it has worked." When they play together, Dilloway uses tape loops, drums, and his voice (usually projected through a contact mic inside his mouth), while P-Orridge primarily improvises vocals. "Sometimes I'll be in the middle of a set, listening to some of the things Gen's saying, and I'll think, holy shit!" gushes Dilloway. "Mostly the things I've learned from Gen are personal things on how to look at things in different ways."
Dilloway hopes to record with P-Orridge soon, and already has a stockpile of sounds lined up for his next solo album. As to what themes that future record might explore, he doesn't know yet—in fact, he's not even sure he knows what his past records mean. It turns out his reluctance to explain the ideas behind his music isn't just about privacy.
"The bottom line is I really don't know what the fuck any of The Gag File is about," he admits. "I mean, it's about me, but, I don't really know why I'm drawn to certain sounds or words or images or why the things that move me do. It's all a big question mark. I'm a pretty confused and scattered guy and this is a confused and scattered record. I guess this record is about confusion. I think we are all a bit confused these days." Follow Marc Masters on Twitter.