There’s a famous (to me anyway) Humphrey Bogart quote about the deeply odd John Huston movie, Beat The Devil, that, due to a freewheeling incomprehensibility, was soundly rejected by audiences. Upon hearing about the film’s growing cult status, Bogart said, and it helps to picture this in his tough-guy disdain mumble, “Only phonies like it.”
With difficult art, it’s easy to slide into cynicism self-masked as “real talk.” When there’s a world of easy joy to be had, be it Star Wars or techno, why would anyone choose to subject themselves to chaos and dissonance? Are they just spiting themselves? Engaging in writ small group think? Following contrarian impulses that result in a Minor Threat-ian “change for the same”? On the other hand, who would pretend to like this shit?
Inclined to overthinking, these were all the things I was self-flagellating pondering while attending Trip Metal 3, the third year of Detroit’s premiere avant-skronk party. Trip Metal is a celebration of aural freakdom, a backyard BBQ of free jazz, and interminable noise. The music was as raucous and transcendance seeking as the attendees were friendly and down to earth. Within 15 minutes of my arrive at El Club, one of the founders apologized for making fun of VICE online and I apologized for being from VICE. I was offered a beer and ushered to sit on the newly laid down grass as the first DJs started playing the first techno of the day.
The crowd at Trip Metal 3 was diverse, if not with a capital “D” than certainly compared to a NYC noise show, and the ages spanned the entirety of the Sphinx’s riddle, babies with hair as disheveled as their grandparents and teens noticeably not being preyed on by dudes my age in band shirts older than the staff.
Relevant to the discussion at hand, regarding the pros and cons of willfully obscurity: Band Shirts sighted at Trip Metal 3, in descending order from most to least obscure: Borbetomagus, No Trend, Blazing Eye, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV (separate shirts, debatable order of obscurity), Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Jethro Tull, Lollapalooza (year undetermined), The Breeders, Pink Floyd. There were various jazz shirts and a Leftover Crack one, but one could lose a lifetime trying to place either on the scale.
Another important note on the crowd: Hardly anyone was on their phones. Hardly anyone had tattoos with color.
Trip Metal, like the Sistine Chapel, was initially made possible through a grant. In 2013/14, Nate Young of Wolf Eyes got a $10,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation to do a two day arts festival devoted to “electronic music in all its different forms: experimental, industrial, funk, punk, techno and more.” For the third year, the festival was largely funded by, Nate says, “private funding primarily from our good friends and musical collaborators Ethan and Gretchen Gonzales-Davidson” (Gretchen says, “The concept of Trip Metal is very near and dear to my heart – music for the people.”) and was scaled back to one day. It was again held at El Club, a venue that wasn’t even ready for operations when the first Trip Metal was proposed but, as club owner/organizer Graeme Flegenheimer says, “Nate brought this crazy idea to me... It was too good to pass up.” The other organizers of the festival are Gonzales - Davidson and Johnny "Inzane" Olson, best known as members of (the wildly sublime Kill Rock Stars band) Slumber Party and Wolf Eyes (and their much loved/loathed Instagram account… maybe more on that later or maybe not) respectively.
For a more detailed explanation of the early Trip Metals, including an explanation of the name that I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to get into (like so many good or terrible things in this life, it was a joke until it wasn’t), please go to our own Colin Joyce’s detailed write-up of the first year.
I had never been to Detroit before and, don’t worry, I won’t be so presumptuous, after three days, to have gotten a handle on the place. I liked it a lot: admirably flat for a man easily winded and the vegetarian shawarma from Bucharest Grill was fucking delicious. There was a couple moments, when the local TV news had an advertisement for guitar pedals and when the Hotel For Gentrifying Musicians I was put up in piped The Racetaurs into the parking lot, where I was like, “OK, Detroit, I get it. Maybe take it down a notch.” But the people were wicked nice and I totally understand why people are moving there and why locals are taking pains to maintain the city’s character. That’s all I have to say about Detroit. I was there for less than 62 hours. Also, it was hot. 84 degrees. They didn’t mention that in Out Of Sight.
Most music festivals are, truth be told, roughly a million dollars to attend and largely consist of a cavalcade of crap, perpetual middle-font journeyman bands and names designed by Spotify playlists to be instantly forgotten. Trip Metal is an outlier in that, if you love weirdo shit, the line-up borders on legendary and admission is entirely free. Well, it’s got a suggested donation but free is an option, one that can be taken without shame. Nate says, “Detroit is a very poor city, having a free experimental event is important. People in Detroit need the exposure. Honestly we need to be fertilizing the garden more often.” and Olsen adds, “A free event changes the atmosphere 10000 percent = if you have a problem with the US Senator who's attending the gig: don't tell us—holla at them in the flesh right there in between the sets. Free means EVERYONE.” Not asking for money while admitting the reality that this is made possible through other’s largesse, changes the entire dynamics of a musical experience. It works as both celebration of ART and a rejection of larger, predatory forces. Free isn’t just the economics of Trip Metal, it’s the ethos. When I ask if there’s any attempt to balance the line-up with more and less accessible music, Olsen simply says, “All radical artists, nothing accessible. Only thing that was accessible was the actual fest night itself.”
The music of this year’s fest was, in fact, pretty accessible. If you lean towards rapacious noise, inscrutable drones, and band shirts with illegible names. In what Gretchen Gonzales-Davidson alluded to as consistent with larger midwestern niceness, the openers of the festival were one of it’s largest draws, a super-group reunion of sorts by Universal Indians, a 90s experimental concern who always managed to maintain a deeply weird drugginess to their sound without being aimless. For the purposes of the performance, they were known as Universal Eyes as they had original members, Olson & Gonzales-Davidson combined with Wolf Eyes’ founder Young and original member Aaron Dilloway (who now performs solo). The performance immediately packed the spacious show space and the set was Consumer Electronics as jam band; death dub jazz ranting, where fun and anti fun collided. Gretchen wore a gas mask but only for the first few songs. Being a bit of a basic, I didn’t pretend to get it exactly but the crowd, clearly operating from both aesthetic appreciation and the euphoria of youthful sounds/vibes revisited, responded like it was Eddie and The Cruisers back from the grave.
It should be noted that Trip Metal takes place on the same weekend as the Movement Festival. By Saturday, Detroit seemed largely taken over by half-shirts and superfluous bangles. As a Music Journalist, I felt a slight responsibility to take part in the electronic dance bacchanalia, but if I decided that if I want to have crowd anxiety and feel bad about my body, I could just as easily do that in New York. The Trip Metal crowd didn’t seem to share my neurosis. I asked the Detroit weird-techno duo ADULT. about Trip Metal and they told me, “One of the many things we love of about Detroit is most musicians don't care what style or genre of music you do, they care if you do it with integrity and intent. Trip Metal embodies that spirit! Not to mention, as techno becomes more and more mainstream, it is great to have this transgressive counterpoint in our city during Memorial Day weekend when we have Movement and hundreds of other techno after parties.” Like the best scenes, there didn’t seem to be any snobbish arbitrary delineations between different musical joys. The DJs between sets played techno as it was their town’s birthright to do so, despite the all the amputations if you know what I’m saying. At the onset of the festivities, the outdoor MC said “So many legends in the house. You can pretty much point to anyone and they’re either a DJ or a friend of a DJ.” Which is pretty much what I want on my gravestone.
It’s been pointed out to me, in regards to previous festival writings that I’ve done, that long descriptions of every act’s performance is “boring” to the reader, and with time I’ve come to see the wisdom of that edict. So I will briefly give my notes on the entirety of the other acts leading up to the headliner of Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Being a person with a device, you will be able to click on the bands that you find intriguing.
Montreal’s Gashrat never stopped playing, not for banter and not for a moment. The members traded off instruments, almost every member taking a turn behind the drums, while one or two would maintain a beat or guitar scrape. Like Allen Moore’s famous Swamp Thing ghost story about a house that demanded constant loud violence to stave off its spirits. Rock and roll if Sonic Youth are your Beatles and Dead C your Stones. Less mental telepathy than mental grunts, Neanderthals throwing rocks to indicate when songs started or ended; both a higher and lower intelligence at work. Blue Cheer hair sullenly cast about. They were great!
Former member of COIL, Drew McDowall and newer but equally well regarded noise composer, Puce Mary, making their American live collaborative debut (Graeme says, “It was beautiful to have Drew McDowall perform this year. Last year, he visited the festival. Left for 12 hours to play his record release show and then flew back to Detroit because he loved Trip Metal so much.) were actual trip metal. Slow burn, telepathy (a word, that, sorry, can’t be over used when discussing this music) lazer-guided melodies into a megadeth finish. I’m friends with McDowall so Ethics In Music Journalism prohibits me from actually reviewing the performance but I’ll just say that the duo have an upcoming album and I am stoked beyond reason for it.
Guttersnipe, two lanky lighting bolts trying to out Eric Paul each other, made fevered, villainous, push-the-favored-child-down-the-well music. Pure punk skronk noise rock, with a cavernous kick drum, that rattled teeth for blocks. Like, they literally made my teeth hurt. That is never an insult. Of course they’re from Leeds.
Martin Rev, the surviving member of Suicide, the essential synth duo that invented truth and beauty and made Bruce Springsteen good, performed as half man/half sunglasses, speaking in tongues over a mutant Top Gun soundtrack. I couldn’t identify half the samples he used (pretty sure there was some “Disco Inferno” and Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun”) but I now understand why video games can and should make kids kill. The sheer manic riff-dom of it all should have descended into self parody (and maybe it did!) but the end result was transcendent, with audience members not even attempting to hide a childlike glee in the cacophony.
What is it to be a hipster? A phony? I legitimate (whatever THAT means) freak? Trying to figure these things out takes up, roughly, 90 percent of my waking life. The crowd watching the music at Trip Metal 3 was the same people having a fantabulous social get together in the backyard, eating vegan sausage, draped in their backpatch finery. It’d been so long since I’d been privy to a genuine freak scene that I fell to gawking, making perhaps unkind comparisons to the inside covers of Ween albums. I was confused by the lack of a uniform look, by the lack of, well, uniforms. A man needs some cultural signifiers to know who to talk to sometimes. Without them, knowing barely anyone, I didn’t know what to do with my hands. And, as I said, hardly anyone was looking at their phones so I couldn’t be that guy either. So I just stared, a creeper without intent, waiting for the final act to start.
Early in the evening, there was an amplified interview with two of the original members of Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell, and Don Moye. The men, surrounded by a reverent silence from the already in their cups crowd, talked about how they preferred to think of improvised music as “composition in real time” and the necessity to keep striving for the vital and new, whatever shape “new” might take. The dropped profundities that novelists spend their entire career agonizing towards, like “When you stop, you stop. But that doesn’t mean Sonny and Cher were wrong. The beat goes on.” and “If you don’t pursue your dreams, your dreams haunt you. And I don’t want to deal with that demon, the demon of lost goals.” like they were just passing the time on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago have been pushing the boundaries of jazz since the late 1960s. If your parents (or grandparents) have a single Ornette Coleman album, they have one by Art Ensemble of Chicago. Getting them to play Trip Metal (achieved because Wolf Eyes played with Anthony Braxton, who has the same agent as AEC) is a coup that even the founders seemed to be pinching themselves to believe. It’s akin to having The Stooges play your house show, but staying true to the egalitarian nature of the proceedings, it felt more like a long favoured uncle finally showing up to the family BBQ.
After midnight, after hours of day drinking that resulted in neither fights nor rampant public displays of affection, and with a crowd that only grew without seeming to have lost any of the earliest attendees, Art Ensemble of Chicago took the stage. Not to belabor the point but, again, not only were people not talking amongst themselves but the phone use was unobtrusive to the point of being almost intrusive because, clearly, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I’m at a loss to describe how AEC were for two important reasons. The first is that I know nothing about jazz, and have too much respect for the reader to fake it, and secondly, it’s difficult to convey the effect they had on the crowd. McDowall told me he had chills and I believed him and, just looking around, I knew that he was not alone. The crowd cheered wildly after every solo and that… is when I started thinking too much. Not knowing the souls of all in attendance, but having at least a rough idea how many of them would be at a jazz performance divorced from a noise show, I got that familiar cynical ache in my skull. I was trained from a young age to distrust musical ability, to bow down at the altar of willful chaos and affected naivete. Would this crowd be cheering virtuosity if it was Phish? Could they tell the difference between this and the Marsayliss? I assumed not as the noise inclined jazz neophyte generally rejects the “easy.” We all at least grew up on Naked City. I don’t know that I trust jazz fans who only dig Albert Ayler or Sun Ra. Not to diminish either but the fact remains that Einstürzende Neubauten fans often love AC/DC too or at least The Grateful Dead. What does it mean if you only love what’s prescribed as revelatory and have no time for what makes/made people dance? You can trust my opinion on avant-Metal because you can trust my opinion on pop punk. If you fuck with Green Day but not Robert Glasper, if you went from Led Zeppelin to Puce Mary, a logical journey, but look down on Dave Clark Five, skipping right to Ornette Coleman, how deep is your love of jazz? Conversely I don’t trust the Robert Crumb-ian need for “authenticity” in opposition to the avant garde. Maybe I just don’t trust anyone’s desires but my own. And them, only half.
Of course, I was being an idiot, and a presumptuous one at that. I didn’t know these people and I had no reason to doubt their sincerity outside some pretty obvious projecting. So, with a shake of my head, I pretended I was my father. Who grew up gay in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania before punk, before online, before Stonewall. Jazz was, wild as it may be, the earliest sign that he wasn’t going to fit in no matter how much he feigned an interest in sports. This was that language, even if I’ve lived too long in a hardcore tunnel to understand or even recognize the script. And there was a building happening on stage, a melodious architecture that, even if I can’t dance about it, was shiningly real. Maybe it’s art that will save you or maybe it’s something else. When I asked about the pleasures of pop versus the pleasures of “difficult” music, Nate tells me, “pop is pop, noise is every frequency in the spectrum at once, if filtered and processed it is possible to make any sound. I have always loved this fact.” and Olsen says, “Pop is currency meant to tame. Some cats do it right but nothing Pop at Trip Metal. Plenty of pop around...better to pop-off with some free individualists.”
After the performance, I approached a dude who I’d seen that afternoon working at a record store. His hair was alarmingly great and he punctuated every other word with “dig.” I asked him and his friend what they thought and they proceeded to talk at length and with knowledgeable erudition about every facet of the Ensemble performance. It was made ever more clear that, just because I wasn’t staying abreast the jazz world, these cats most assuredly were. Then a girl came up and asked if we had poppers, and I was back in my comfort zone. No one in here but us hipsters, in whatever capacity we might be getting by.
The goal of Trip Metal is to get outside, and preferably above, our heads, our hang ups, our safe and happy lives. It’s easier said than done, but maybe that’s an easy evasion in itself. Nobody, not the organizers or attendees, and certainly not the musicians, seem to see difficulty as anything other than a state to be embraced and a tool to move forward. I asked about the meme stuff, the Wolf Eyes Instagram that posts endless snark about impossibly obscure sub-culture minutia, and nobody had the slightest interest in it being included in the festival’s narrative. Whether one mode of communication can be seen as pure irony while the other is high truth is an argument you can have with Wolf Eyes next time you’re in Detroit. But a devotion to an ecstatic vision deserves to be rewarded with at least a slight return of good faith so, anyway, fuck it, everybody, get free.
Zachary Lipez is on Twitter, which is also free. Follow him.