Ron Lessard Is a Noise Music Hero
The Lowell-based experimental artist, publisher, and record store owner has given himself over to noise art for 30 years. He still can't tell you why it's so awesome.
Jeff Caplan / BLACK ANT • photographic
Ron Lessard has a unique vantage point on Lowell, Massachusetts. Behind the counter of Ron’s Radical Records, he’s only two blocks from an old textile mill that’s become a hub of recent renovation. Nearby there’s an independent theater, a serene coffee shop, and a yoga studio—the hallmarks of turning tides in any city. The store’s also less than a mile from some of the city’s more economically depressed neighborhoods, where poor people struggle just to get by. Since 1984, Lessard has sat here and watched the times change, maintaining a presence for dark and strange records amidst the city’s ebbs and flows.
Along the way, he has carved out a reputation for himself as an influential maker and publisher of noise art. Since the 80s, he’s made eardrum-rupturing recordings and given absurdist performances under the name Emil Beaulieau. He started a label the same year he started the store (the two businesses share a name) at the insistence of early Tangerine Dream member Conrad Schnitzler, who was looking for a new label home. It would eventually be an early stateside distributor for influential Japanese noise acts like Merzbow and Hanatarash, putting Lowell at the accidental epicenter of a scene of loosely connected experimentalists in the age before the internet. Since 2006, when he last played a show as Emil Beaulieau, he’s mostly focused on the store and label. So I went there to talk to him about his legacy in Lowell and in noise.
Lessard cut an unassuming figure when I met him. He was middle-aged, dressed in comfortable, simple slacks and a sweater. But his laugh announces his presence. It hints at the sort of spirit that’d inspire decades of chaotic noise. It was so immersive, I couldn’t help but join in when he let loose.
The two of us stood at his counter and talked while a quiet old man, who Lessard described a regular, sat near us in a chair, lost in thought. When I asked Lessard what he’d been up to that day, he lightheartedly responded, “I worked my record store,” like there was nowhere else for him to be.
I’m not a noise historian. I stumbled onto the art form in Lowell in my early twenties, while I was recovering from a psychotic episode. A friend brought me to 119 Gallery, a venue in town that hosted exhibitions and performances until 2015. (The organization, headed by Walter Wright and Mary Ann Kearns, remains otherwise active). When I heard the sounds, I felt stunned, perplexed, and then, ultimately, found. As far as I’m concerned, noise art is the most extreme musical confrontation of the systemic -isms and phobias which rot our society.
I wanted to understand why Ron would invest so much of himself in the art form. He’s released several American debuts of culturally impactful noise artists, makers who were crucial in forming a global sound. He’s spent decades with the art and toured internationally. He is a pillar in the proliferation of the sound. So, I asked him how he got into noise.
“I was really more into the more weird rock bands,” he told me. “I mean, back in high school, you know all the dudes were listening to Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, that was hard rock, you know, but I didn’t care about that kind of stuff. That was just way too normal for me. I was more into like Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls and the underground—the stuff that was punk rock before it was called punk rock. I was into the extreme stuff almost from the beginning… the next thing you know I’m listening to progressive rock and avant-garde classical music, like John Cage and all these really weird far out guys. It became a quest for hearing something more weird, more extreme than the previous.”
As Emil Beaulieu, Lessard’s primary instruments are all invented or modified: locked-groove records, turntables, cassette tapes, and his voice. He combines these timbres and others to create a performance that ranges from maddening to hysterical. In one performance, a chorus of harsh static, generated by a modified record player, backs Lessard. He stands in front of his audience furiously but comically wiping the surface of a record tagged “RRR.” He repeats himself, as though he is a skipping record, “Remember to always, always, use the circular motion, when cleaning, your records.”
He now tells people he’s retired from performance, but he says to me “never say never.”
His RRR store grew organically from his love for collecting. He’d already had a collection of various avant-garde releases stockpiled before he opened the store, and used that as an initial stock. Originally, he published a small-run catalog through which subscribers could order his inventory. “I still have a fairly substantial noise inventory, and I did sell a whole bunch of noise cassettes and CD’s, online, but as far as people walking inside the shop. Nobody knows about that stuff. It’s strictly online business,” he explained. Now, he sells his noise stock online, while he describes what he sells in the shop as “regular rock music.”
When asked him what he thinks constitutes noise art, with the wisdom of experience, he responded, “What the fuck do I know? How do you explain a painting by Jackson Pollock? Why is that painting by Jackson Pollock awesome?”
Ron Lessard has made great contributions to a noise movement locally and globally by creating striking, innovative art and by publishing content of the same caliber. There are now new generations of artist making noise in Lowell, Massachusetts, and throughout the world because of individuals like Ron Lessard. There are artists resisting the social constructs rotting humanity from the inside out, by taking sound art to its extremes. I get to be part of a community of people, at least in part, as outraged as I am.
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