Photo by Tomaž Štolfa/Flickr
Free Radicals is usually THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful. In these outer realms, sometimes things get a little strange. This is a special report.
One of the very first times I went to a noise show in St. Petersburg, Florida, a short drive away from my hometown, I saw a man unload a hardware store bucket full of change onto the audience. First slowly, then with maniacal rage, the performer known as Whitey Alabastard wildly flung pennies and screamed into the bucket, using a contact mic to collect all the sonic details the chaos was generating. A few years later, I'd see footage of Whitey using a submersible microphone to capture and mutate the sound of a plastic container full of water, nearly drowning himself over the course of his eight-minute set. That's how it goes at these sorts of shows. Things get weird.
As far as laymen coaxing atonal bleats from busted electronics go, Whitey's sets were actually relatively tame. The Japanese band Hanatarash, to borrow an example passed down only in whispered rumors, once used a machete to dismember a dead cat at a live show. At another venue, they drove a bulldozer through one of the walls. And later in their career, they required audience members to sign personal injury waivers before some of their sets.
The advent of YouTube provided a front row seat to the chaos. Footage of bleeding hardcore frontmen and sledgehammer-swinging experimentalists is so easily within reach these days that its hard to get shocked by much of anything. But I happened upon something especially eye-catching a few months ago, while digging through the VHS-quality dregs of the streaming service's noisier corners. A friend had alerted me to the existence of a new Youtube channel that had a vast trove of archival experimental sets, so I dove in dutifully. At random, I picked out a clip of the now-defunct West Coast duo Yellow Swans performing at a benefit concert in a San Francisco park in 2004.
Everything starts as you'd expect: a few jokes about George W. Bush's environmental policy, some distant electronic droning, a little piercing feedback for good measure. But things get surreal around the three-minute mark, when the video cuts to an audience member sitting on a curb intently bobbing his head to the music and aggressively brushing his teeth. Toothpaste foams at the edges of his mouth. As static swells, another audience member starts screaming: "You're going to fuck up your gums...your gums are going to recede!"
I was a bit bewildered by the clip, but I didn't think much of it until the middle of last month, when THUMP's social media editor Danika Harrod sent me a message with a link to a GIF of a show by Japanese noise legend Merzbow. Discovered by the Twitter account @Immolations, the GIF cuts from the long-haired experimental great out to the audience, where a man is bobbing up and down, bug-eyed, and again, unexplainably, brushing his teeth maniacally.
One person practicing oral hygiene at a noise show is a coincidence; two felt like a conspiracy. My mind reeled: Why would kids be carrying a toothbrush along when they went to see experimental music? What motive could there be for using it out in the open? Was this anything like those people who clip their nails on the train? Or could it be something more sinister, like some new drug-fueled craze for the local news to report on in between inspirational stories about dogs in the military? There had to be answers to at least some of these questions, so I sent a few panicked emails to friends and acquaintances a little closer to the contemporary noise scene than I am.
Doug Kaplan, a member of the Chicago band Good Willsmith and pillar of the midwest experimental scene, kindly offered to help. But upon viewing the clips, he too was baffled. "The only time I've ever brushed my teeth at a noise show is when I'm on tour," he said. "And that has only happened in the bathroom." He advised me to reach out to MP Lockwood, the musician behind the freaked electronics project Radio Shock. But that was another dead end. Lockwood simply wrote back to me saying that he has "no more info than [I] do."
Inspired to keep searching for an answer, I reached out to Jesse Vance, the former head of the St. Petersburg, Florida art space called the Venture Compound where the 2011 Whitey Alabastard show sparked my journey down this path. Surely, my "noise dad" would be able to quiet my troubled mind. "Well," he responded to my Facebook message, "the video you sent was in San Francisco, so that would be my explanation."
I nearly gave up hope here, especially after a publicist I thought might be able to help me responded my Gchat message with nary but a "hahaha." But a message finally landed in my inbox that gave me a little hope. Chicago musician Jim Magas—formerly of the noise-rock band Couch, and currently making outré electronic music under his last name—finally said exactly what I needed to hear. "Some things are better left alone," he wrote. "There are forces you may not understand. Pretend you never saw these and we never talked. I'm going to delete this thread and I'll ask that you do the same. Do not speak of it again."
I sat for a moment and rubbed my bleary eyes. But before I'd had time to let the dread of a toothbrush-centered government conspiracy set in, another couple of emails rolled in from Magas. First, there was a link to a YouTube playlist that began with a Hanatarash video. Then, a real answer: "[The toothbrush phenomenon is] a new one to me," Magas said. "But maybe it's a payback to the ears via the teeth."
At last a new lead, but I had new issues to consider. Could I reasonably justify all the time I'd spent emailing noise musicians about dentistry? Is there a even an answer that would make me satisfied? As a last resort, I reached out to someone who might know more about this whole tooth business: the NYU School of Dentistry. Within an hour, they declined to be interviewed for this piece.
I gave up for a bit. I went about my life, freed temporarily from thinking about what possessed these dudes to do such a weirdly private act in the middle of a gig. But then Pete Swanson, a former member of Yellow Swans, got back to an email I'd sent him, offering a welcome bit of context for the San Francisco show in the first video I watched. "[It was a] totally weird gig, which wasn't that unusual for us at that time," he said. "It was an afternoon show so I expect the guy brushing his teeth was just getting up!"
Swanson's practical reason made sense in this one case—but what about the Merzbow show? How could Swanson explain this happening more than once? "I don't think there's really a larger conspiracy," he continued, soberly. "It's just that noise gigs used to happen in weird spaces at weird times and people would just get weird. Shows would often happen in people's living spaces, and sometimes that would mean tooth brushing [was] happening."
According to Swanson, weird personal hygiene sometimes entered into noise scenes because of the scrappy DIY nature of the spaces where these shows took place. "There was a pretty great space in Portland that I worked with a bunch of times where the people who ran the space lived there and the bathtub/shower was in the concert space," he wrote. "It wasn't uncommon for people to bathe mid-concert. I dig the coincidence [of the toothbrush phenomenon though,] and there are definitely times when I miss the moronic chaos of those scrappy venues."
It wasn't the answer I was looking for, but it helped—especially because it was something I should have known all along. If Whitey could nearly drown himself in a garage in Florida in the name of noise, if a Japanese band could maim an animal's corpse, or ruin the structural integrity of a venue with heavy machinery, was the idea of someone brushing their teeth at a noise show really all that weird? Is brushing one's teeth not, after all, one of the most ordinary, mundane things humans do?
Ok, still pretty weird.