John Wiese and the new L.A. noise
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In Sunday’s Calendar, I profiled three young noise-aligned composers and songwriters in L.A., Zola Jesus, Sun Araw and Infinite Body. Each made his or her reputation playing difficult yet uncannily pretty music in off-the-grid venues, and each is shaping the scene in a meditative new direction from the more violent, guitar-oriented bands such as No Age and HEALTH that have ruled in recent years.
But for a broader perspective on avant-garde noise music in L.A., I talked with composer John Wiese, a singular voice in local composition. Across scads of formats and a plethora of labels and projects, his howling electronic works recall both mind-bending suites from Xenakis and Ligeti, and the trashy, antagonistic punk of the Smell scene. Below is our full interview, conducted by e-mail. He just wrapped up tours with Liars and No Age in Europe and played a couple L.A. dates earlier this month.
There seems to be a growing audience for explicitly ‘difficult’ music. What do think younger fans are getting from noise and avant-garde genres that might be missing in more straightforward pop or indie music?
Extremes in the spectrum exist in everything -- that’s what makes the middle the middle. I think most people venture far out at least once in a while -- life is complex and has many faces, feelings, experiences, etc.
Your music is purposefully lacking in traditional pop structures like verses, choruses, etc. What¹s your writing process like? Do you start with good sounds and work from there, or do you envision larger compositions from the start?
I think even more important (disregarding the danger of defining work in negative space) is the lack of using pop music as a standard. I tend to always work in a very concrete way, meaning I deal in actual sounds. Often, these will have a lot of trajectory of their own and define their own path.
In resisting easy structures or entry points, what kind of other music spaces are you creating? What sort of emotional possibilities does this obtuse genre open up for you? And do you feel music like this is intended more as an intellectual puzzle, a primal physical experience or something in between?
There is definitely psychology involved. I think sound works can create as much drama, challenge, discovery, emotion, storytelling, etc. as anything has the potential to. There is a tendency to want to limit what sounds can do, which I reject, of course. It can be all the things you’ve described (intellectual puzzle /a primal physical experience) or both, or neither, or worlds and possibilities yet undiscovered.
What¹s the role of technology in your music? Do you feel that things like samplers, pedals and effects are as crucial to your sound as any instrument? And in a bad economy, is there something useful about a pretty spartan live act than one person can manage easily?
I have very little equipment, and don’t try to stay on top of technology at all. I find it very distracting usually, and find that ideas tend to present themselves when that’s all you have to work with.
There¹s a considerable crossover between more classically inclined new music and noise circles today. Do you feel any kinship to those traditions as well? How do you see the principles of punk and noise interacting with the ideas of, say, Steve Reich or La Monte Young?
It’s nice when people realize that there is great work outside their social boundaries, and I can relate to personalities that search for interesting work outside their world, and from people they don’t know or understand. To me, punk only ever meant DIY, and work that comes from that place is what I’m interested in.
You¹ve been a veteran of L.A. noise circles for some time. How is Los Angeles in particular a good city for nurturing more difficult music, both as a city and within the scenes you come from?
I like a lot of things about L.A., but two things that I think are really unique are, 1: Due to the size, geography and transportation issues, L.A. tends to create very specific groups of people, that see each other at specific times in specific places. It’s pretty easy to be involved in things you like and identify with, and to avoid things and people you don’t like. As a result, it can generate some fairly esoteric ideas and results.
2: In L.A., I find that there can be very extreme dividing lines. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but with the positive result that it can strengthen. For example, in Portland, you’ll find stated vegan options at most restaurants, with very few specializing in it. It has more or less trickled down into the general culture. In Los Angeles, there are lots of specifically vegan restaurants, with most normal restaurants not catering to vegans at all. When it comes down to it, my ideology makes me appreciate the Vegan Restaurant, without compromise. It is not a matter of exclusivity in a limiting way, but what I’m trying to say is that we can create and live in the world of our choosing. This idea extends into music, art, life, etc.
-- August Brown