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interview conducted by: Rick Taylor of We Fought The Big One

Cale knows I have a particular affinity for contrarian pop and the “weird” side of independent music. And as one of the two djs behind “We Fought the Big One,” he also knows I am no stranger to promoting events around town that underscore this predilection. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when I got an e-mail from him about doing an interview with Marc Masters, who has written a wonderful new book documenting No Wave.

What’s No Wave you ask? Well, according to Wikipedia, No Wave was “a short-lived but influential art music and art scene that thrived briefly in New York City during the late 1970s and early 1980s alongside the punk subculture.” The term No Wave of course, is a cheeky middle-finger rejection of New Wave, as well as a statement of intent: No to commerciality, no to convention, no to pandering and no to pre-conceived notions.

If the name Marc Masters sounds familiar, that’s because the man is one of the D.C. area’s most notable music writers. Not only is he a regular contributor to Pitchforkmedia and my favorite U.K. music rag, The Wire, but he’s also written for the Baltimore City Paper as well as Paper Thin Walls and Signal to Noise.

This Friday, Marc will be doing a lecture/book reading on No Wave at 7pm over at the Crooked Beat record shop (2318 18th St. NW), followed by a guest dj spot from 10pm – 3am at the Marx Café (3203 Mt. Pleasant St. NW) for “We Fought the Big One.”

I e-mailed a few questions to him and he was kind enough to offer some thoughtful responses…

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I would think by this point you’ve gotten pretty well versed with explaining to people what no wave sounds like. With such a lack of uniformity among the bands, do you sort of emphasize the conceptual angle––that the idea of tearing down rock’s conventions was more important to no wave than making music that sounded a certain way?
Definitely. I think that’s why No Wave is still talked about so much. It’s one of the few genres truly based on attitudes rather than particular sounds. It didn’t have that dogmatic side that most genres do, where if you don’t have a specific beat or guitar sound or whatever, then you aren’t allowed in. I think that’s why a lot of people have heard of No Wave but aren’t sure what it is. It’s just not easy to summarize in terms of what the bands sounded like.
I think that’s also what has made No New York so legendary. The four bands on that record – Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the Contortions – don’t sound like each other in any describable way. But you can still hear a spirit tying them together. They are all pushing hard at musical conventions, with lots of attitude and energy. That’s the interesting irony of No Wave – the artists said no to pretty much everything, but they did it in a very impassioned, almost positive way.

lydiahd.jpg I was curious about how you were introduced to No Wave, what attracted you to it and eventually led to your decision to write the book. It was obviously a tremendous undertaking.
It started when I first got into Lydia Lunch in the late 1980’s, and then went back into her early stuff with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. That led me to No New York and eventually all the bands from that period. I’d always wanted to delve further and get a handle on exactly what No Wave was, since there have been lots of theories about exactly when it happened, which bands were part of it, and so on. So when Black Dog approached me about writing the book, I was really excited to get that chance. I was intimated too, so I contacted my friend Weasel Walter for advice. He’s a No Wave expert and has been researching and collecting this stuff forever. When he agreed to help with material and proofreading (and eventually write the foreword), I felt a lot less daunted.

In reading your book, I was struck by the fact that no wave encompassed more than just diy musicians who felt punk and new wave were too conservative. It was also performance artists, graphic designers, poets, filmmakers such as John Lurie and Jim Jarmusch. It seems like a movement that should warrant as much attention from post-modern art circles as it does from contrarian music lovers. Any idea how the post-modern art cognoscenti regard no wave these days?
I really don’t know. My guess is that, at least, anyone involved in post-modern filmmaking would find No Wave cinema worth following and adding to. In that sense, I’m surprised that there haven’t been more movements like No Wave in the way that it encompassed so many artistic mediums, and in the way the mediums overlapped – musicians were actors in films, directors played in bands, etc. That seems like something any post-modern art circle would embrace and emulate. Of course, with No Wave, so depended upon New York at the time – how cheap it was to live there and how tight the social circles were. They could play music and make films without worrying about paying the rent or being in with the right people.

One of the things that most fascinated me about your book was learning more about Brian Eno’s famed “No New York” compilation. I was aware that the comp was considered by many to be the sort of foundation of the movement, but I had no idea that there were so many people in the no wave community, including the bands, that were unhappy with Eno’s production on the comp. Can you talk a little about that and also how the no wave community view Brian Eno?
I think that most of the musicians involved have a love/hate relationship with Eno and No New York. I’m sure they’re all happy that it’s helped keep the legacy of the times going. But there’s some resentment that the record has come to define the entire genre, when there was a lot more going on than just those four bands and sixteen songs. Of course, a lot of the negative stuff the musicians say is just in keeping with the contrarianism of No Wave. But I don’t think anyone thought it was a bad record. They are just baffled that one record has such a huge reputation – to most of them, it was just an afternoon spent in the studio, like all the other records they made.
I do think they have a point about Eno’s production. It’s pretty muddy, and kind of confines the bands into a narrow sonic envelope. The music is uniformly great, though, so I think quibbles about the production aren’t that big a deal in the long run. I think a lot of them liked Eno too – Mars certainly did. They may be happy that Eno is one of the names most prominently associated with No Wave, since he never actually made any of the music. But without him, No New York wouldn’t exist, and No Wave wouldn’t be as well-known as it is.

In conducting your research for the book, what would you say surprised you the most?
I think my biggest surprise was finding out how integral and vibrant the No Wave cinema scene was. Through my own ignorance (and the fact that the films are pretty hard to come by), I had previously assumed that No Wave cinema got the name just because it was around at the same time as the music. But the way it tied into the music scene – using musicians as actors, screening films in clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City – was really important to No Wave. And the films are really rich and varied. You’ve got James Nares and Eric Mitchell making deadpan, post-Warhol movies, then you have Vivienne Dick’s proto-feminist films, and then you have Scott and Beth B.’s film noir bastardizations that combine parody and performance art. It’s really a sadly overlooked part of American cinema that I hope gets more exposure someday.

mars.jpg It’s kind of an obvious question, but I can’t resist: In your view, which no wave band was the most intriguing?
Well, this might sound overly diplomatic, but at various times while writing this book, each of the prominent bands has been my favorite. I was especially surprised how much I ended up loving the Contortions, who I had previously thought of as the weak link, since their music was the most conventional. But they were able to subvert convention through conventional songwriting, which is pretty amazing.
Ultimately, my favorite No Wave band going into this, Mars, is still my favorite coming back out. Part of it is that their stuff was the noisiest, and that’s what I gravitate to. But also, they managed to encapsulate all the integral stuff about No Wave, going from primitive versions of Velvet Underground riffs all the way to making abstract noise, in the span of just two years and only 11 recorded songs! They really prove a basic idea behind No Wave – that rock can be broken down and reconstructed in no time. Lydia Lunch said that the concept behind Teenage Jesus and the Jerks was to “make the point so quickly that it obliterates itself instantly.” Mars did that best, and you can actually hear it happening from second to second in their music.

What do you see as the movement’s lasting impact on the current music scene? Is it conceivable we could see a full-scale no wave revival at some point?
Well, people have been quick to slap the No Wave tag recently on bands that have a dance-punk sound, which takes less from No Wave bands than from those that came immediately afterward, like Bush Tetras and ESG. I think the bigger legacy of No Wave is in dissonant guitar bands like Sonic Youth (who were practically No Wave early on), and anyone who tries to fuse noise and rock the way Mars and DNA did (current bands that come to mind would include Sightings and Mouthus). Also, post-rock bands and anyone else using multiple guitars playing minimal chords over rock beats owes something to Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, whose early pieces were a vital part of No Wave. Branca has had a big influence on modern classical, so I think you could argue that what he did in No Wave has had the most lasting impact across all music.
I don’t think No Wave will ever happen again, just because it was so much a product of time and place. You just can’t remove the art from the environment. New York City in the late 1970’s, being both abandoned and unbelievably cheap, offered both emptiness and possibility, and No Wave directly reflects that. Maybe if New York gets empty and cheap again! I’ll definitely be the first one to move there if that happens.

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Thanks for the interview! Very much looking forward to your lecture and djing on Friday.

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