IDEA FIRE COMPANY INTERVIEW
Originally published in Fördämning #2, June 2013
Let's begin with the roots of Idea Fire Company. How did you get involved with music and what shaped IFCO in the early stage? You've been in XX Committee prior to IFCO (interested readers should check out the XX Commitee piece in As Loud As Possible #1) but what can you share about your involvement in acts like Y Front and Anschluss?
I was never much interested in music until I was 14 in 1971 and heard a Jimi Hendrix song (Redhouse) coming out of my younger brother's room. It was on a cheap compilation of 'hits' that proliferated in those days. I was fascinated by the guitar sound and soon started buying Hendrix records and I bought a stereo. It took a few years of buying other rock records and being disappointed in the guitar playing before I happened across more progressive music like King Crimson, Velvet Underground, Hawkwind, Roxy Music, Van Der Graaf Generator, etc, which I was quite fond of. Then the Punk/ New Wave thing happened and I was on board that ship right away and knew I wanted to do music. Y Front was my first band, with Chris Scarpino, Mike Popovich, and Rich Labrie. Y Front formed in 1979 and was together about a year. I have a few good recordings of the band, all made with a stereo cassette machine. The sound was like a primitive mix of PIL, Dome, and Pere Ubu. Our last session was released on Frans de Waard's MOLL label as tour merchandise for the 2012 Tobacconists tour, which Mike was a part of. Y Front split into two groups, The XX Committee (Chris and me) and Story Of Failure (originally Mike, Rich, and me). The XX Committee was the experimental group and Story Of Failure was the song based group. The XX Committee history has been covered elsewhere, so I won't go into that. Rich Labrie moved to Washington DC (and played with ½ Japanese for a while) and SOF went through a number of drummers before we found John Crookston and released Negative Fulfillment On The '83 Spitting Circuit, a 7" EP and the first release on Swill Radio, in 1983. We recorded the single at a local studio that usually did radio jingles and that is where I met Rick Vrable, who was the owner, engineer, and sole employee. (The unreleased SOF LP, A Stink Possibility was the last thing ever recorded at Rick's Audion Studio.) Rick and I got along quite well and soon he was playing me odd tape collages he had done and we decided to form Anschluss. I would go to Rick's studio, later his home studio and record for a few hours every week on my day off. We recorded loads of stuff, a lot of which was crap, but I put together two cassette releases (Five Parts Of O and Flame Du Tort) and one LP (The Mobile Plumb Bob) all released on Swill Radio. I would not say Anschluss was the best music I ever made, but it holds up fairly well. If we had been 15 years later, we would have taken 'New Weird America' by storm.
Taking a look at the IFCO discography, there seems to be a gap of some 5-6 years between your first album Explosion In A Shingle Factory (1991) and The Fourth Dimension Is Money (1997), and also between the Anti-Natural LP (1999) and the Stranded LP (2005). After that there has been a lot more activity, what were you up to during those "inbetween" years and what caused IFCO to become more prolific?
Well, Discogs has the release date wrong for Fourth Dimension, which was released in 1995. Part of the reason for this gap was money, which has always been a problem, but we also started to work with Mike Popovich as The Pickle Factory. Our Pledge was released in 1993 and despite the fact that it is a superb LP, was one of the worst selling records in Swill Radio history, and that is saying something. Anti-Natural was completed in 1996 and was supposed to be released on Zabriskie Point, but we finally got tired of waiting and released it on Swill Radio in 1998. Karla and I worked on a follow up and while I thought the material was strong, it seemed like we were making the same record again and I do not like that idea. The big gap was between Anti-Natural and Stranded (2004). During that time Karla and I were concentrating on Tart, which we formed with Graham Lambkin in 1999. Graham would come to stay here in Amherst for a week or ten days and we would do some recording and usually a live show or two. Tart released two fine LPs, Radio Orange and Bring In The Admiral, and was a great live band, but Graham's obligations as a father put an end to our ability to operate in this fashion. The Tart boat may return to the water someday. IFCO still played the occasional live show during that time. For years IFCO usually had a 'third man' as I found that people talked less if there were three people onstage instead of two for some reason. Jessi Swenson and Meara O'Reilly filled that role at one show and I liked that version of the band so much, that we did a number of shows together and recorded the Stranded LP.
Many IFCO releases have come with not only a detailed list of participants and instrumentation on each individual track, but also shorter manifesto-like texts. Starting with the Explosion In A Shingle Factory 2xLP, how do you look back on the included Nikolai Kulbin essay now after more than 20 years?
In the past, I drew so much inspiration and found so many threads of information that led to important discoveries for me, from information on sleeves or interviews with musicians regarding other interesting art, films, and literature. I lived in a very backwards former steel town until I was 30 and in the pre-internet days, geography was important if you were interested in anything other than popular culture. It took time and energy to find art and ideas of value. Chris Sienko (As Loud As Possible) told me he thought that isolation made you concentrate harder on the nuggets of information you could get a hold of. I think he is right in a lot of ways. Everything from last minute's new Coke ad, to the most obscure writings and music are easily available these days. While I think easily available information is a good thing, it tends to make everything seem at the same level of banal superficiality. This is sad. Anyway, that is why there are often texts with the records. They can certainly be ignored, but I like the record as a package that can include more than music. I think the cover is important as well. It is all part of an atmosphere. As for Nikolai Kulbin, I still find that essay quite fascinating. It is a great musical historical document and anticipates many, much later, Modernist strategies. Even in the internet days, there is not a lot of information available in English about him. He seems like he was quite a character.
The closing "Why vinyl?" piece is very interesting as a time document, now when there's been some kind of vinyl revival where even the major labels has been producing LPs recently. Browsing the IFCO discography again, you've only been doing one CD (The Vital Live In Europe disc). Taking the fidelity aspect in consideration, have you ever been investigating digital options like FLAC for your output? What's your stance on the physical format in the digital era we live in today?
Well, I love records. Swill Radio stuck with vinyl during its darkest decade from 1995-2004. I love the physicality of records. I love the covers. I find vinyl and turntables to be such an aesthetically appealing way to listen to music. We may investigate FLAC and other digital options someday. These days it seems that as soon as a record is released, it can be downloaded for free, which does not make me feel like a lot of people would pay for it, but perhaps that is not the case.
The Fourth Dimension Is Money is loosely based on Guy Debords Society Of The Spectacle, can you elaborate further on the concept on this release and how it holds up in 2013?
The writings of Guy Debord are a big influence on both my life and the way I understand The World. The Fourth Dimension Is Money, which I actually first suggested as the title of a second XX Committee LP, is loosely based on Debord's ideas. All IFCO releases attempt to tell a story, sometime more and sometimes less apparent. This is one separation point between IFCO and the other work Karla and myself are involved in. (Apart from FOUST!.) I have always used almost a storyboard, like a film, to organize the music. Sometimes I make the story more explicit in the notes that accompany the records, but at other times I rely on the close listener to figure it out.
In 1997, the Anti-Naturals group was founded. I assume some of the basics are summed up very well in the manifesto of the anti-naturals included with the Anti-Natural LP, but what were the ideas and motivations behind this and can you explain the activities of the group further?
I met Dr. Timothy Shortell via Karla in 1993. Tim started working at Smith College (where Karla works) and Karla mentioned to him that I was interested in Theory. Tim, at the time, was very interested in Post-Modernism. I had been for a while, but had started to see Post-Modernism as the absolute capitulation to Capital. Tim and I had many lively debates and in the end I more or less won him over to a more Hyper-Modernist viewpoint. There is nothing like discussion to both help you learn and help you to better understand your own position. In 1996, I suggested forming our own Hyper-Modernist avant garde Art and Theory group modeled on The Surrealists or The Situationists. Tim, Karla, and I worked a long time on The Manifesto Of The Anti-Naturals and I think our work has paid off as the manifesto is as true today as when it was written 17 years ago. It didn't quite work out as we planned. The Anti-Naturals never garnered much attention. I found out that a lot of artists were suspicious of Theory either because of naiveté or because of Mystical beliefs. Of course, the naiveté is ridiculous as no one can get out of bed in the morning without some sort of idea about how the world works. If you do not consciously try to understand the operations of The System Of Commodities, then you are being ruled by the same. Mysticism cannot be fought as anyone who believes in a fairy world, is, in my view, clinically insane. The Anti-Naturals still have a few dedicated members and a number of excellent artist supporters. I have been thinking lately of restarting our magazine - perhaps as a print magazine this time. Time Will Tell. I still consider all of my work to be under The Anti-Naturals banner.
My introduction to IFCO was the beautiful The Island Of Taste LP (2008). It's one of those records I really can't understand how I could live without now. To me, it's pretty much a perfect record in every sense. I found the included essay not only to be very inspiring on a personal basis, but also very important overall. Having the text in mind, how do you look back on the IFCO body of work today? I’m not quite sure how you rate your own work, but did it ever occur to you with The Island Of Taste that well, this might be it? The album. Also interesting, was the The Island Of Taste concept developed prior to the recordings, or something that evolved with the actual music as a backbone?
Thank you so much for the compliment. That is the reason I keep working. The Island Of Taste LP was a bit different from all of our other records from Anti-Natural all the way through to our next new LP, Lost At Sea. First of all, I had the concept and the titles and the order all worked out before any of the music was put together. (Some of the music had already been recorded, but not specifically for this release.) Usually I work out the titles and concept with at least some of the music in mind, but this time I started working on the essay and the titles before working on the music. Secondly, Island is much more of a studio record than anything since Fourth Dimension and up to the present. It may seem odd, but a lot of IFCO music is recorded live. Anti-Natural had a few tapes and other things added, ¾ of Stranded was recorded live and Beauty School, Music From The Impossible Salon, Postcards, and Lost At Sea are all pretty much live recordings. Starting with Beauty School, I have been very interested in stereo mic room recordings. Even when I use tapes, I figure out where to place them and then mix them in and out as needed. My radio playing is all live as well. I usually never do any fancy editing. Anyway, with Island, I used tapes and my good old four track cassette machine on all of the pieces. I did a lot of work with tape speed on Island as well. Karla and I have an idea for an upcoming LP called 'Treasure Map' which will be more of a studio affair. No matter how a release was recorded, most of the time I spend working on a record is listening to the material over and over again, first to sort it out and then to make sure I like it. If I can listen to a finished production once a night, three or four nights a week, for three or four months and still be excited by it, then I know I am happy with the result. I think if more people spent more time listening to their own releases before they came out, their music would be much better. I am so happy you found the essay inspiring as well. I could turn the whole concept into an excellent class for college students called, 'How To Turn Your Life Into An Art Object', but I would want to be paid to do it, and the odds are not very good as I do not have the artistic stature required to get anyone to listen to me.
When discussing and reading about IFCO, something that seems to come up is that it's usually easy to hear that it's IFCO while at the same time two records can sound very different. Sometimes like two different bands almost. There is that "something" in the music, you really can't describe what it is but it's something peculiar and yet familiar which connects all the recordings. How would you describe the musical progression of the duo? It seems like on the last couple of releases the piano has almost replaced the synths, what would be the next logical step?
I take that as another great compliment as I try to change the instrumentation, approach, and line up both to present new challenges and to avoid making the same record over and over again. At the same time, I want the music to sound like IFCO. I think the main reason we are able to do this and retain our identity is that Karla and I have been playing together for so long, both with IFCO and other projects. The kind of musical interaction we have is something that takes time to develop and I think we have become quite good at it. Karla has a great sense of melody and rhythm and she is not afraid to play something simple and repetitive if the situation calls for it. That is a rare quality for someone who can play as well as she can. We bought a piano in 2006, so of course we started to use it. I am very happy with the new, somewhat more acoustic, nature of the band, although we will always use electronics as well.
What do you think of performing live? Has IFCO been touring a lot?
I absolutely love performing live. I think the opportunity to test yourself and your ideas in front of an audience is a very important aesthetic learning experience. I have learned so much with my various performances, especially my solo performance The Four Accomplishments. IFCO played a fair amount of shows, ten or so a year, from 1995 on, most of them locally. Tart also played a fair number of shows, and IFCO did a short Euro tour with Frans de Waard on board in 2005. And Frans and I have done two tours of Tobacconists shows, one a music tour, the other a live presentation of our radiophonic opera, Smoking Is Green. IFCO has not played much lately as around 2007, I decided I wanted to be paid for playing. (The shows that IFCO has played where we got paid more than $50 are few and far between, except in Europe.) This has almost completely dried up our ability to play live, but I feel our performances are worth something. IFCO still does the occasional live shows, usually as a favour. I am hoping we can do one more Euro tour before I am too old. With a number of releases upcoming this year, perhaps IFCO's juice will bloom and we will get invited to play a festival in Europe, which makes doing a short tour financially possible. The older I get, the harder travel becomes, but I love interacting with the audience and talking to people after the shows. I have always believed that discussing your work and ideas with people is the best way to make your work and ideas better.
Let's talk about your other projects. There's The Tobacconists and The Pickle Factory for an example, do you see them as vehicles for ideas not quite suitable for IFCO, or are they more like extensions from IFCO for you?
I think of the other projects I work on as very separate from IFCO. The Pickle Factory is much more song based, even though there are no lyrics. Tart started out as Graham playing with IFCO for an IFCO LP, but very soon seemed to be something different from IFCO. The Tobacconists were originally formed to do shows on my film tour in 2009. I enjoy working with Frans as his recording and editing methods are completely different from my own, so I have learned a lot. I have also done songs with lyrics with The Braces (with Chris Corsano) and Dead Girl's Party (with Matt Krefting). The Braces were a very aggressive guitar and drum duo with me doing most of the singing. There is a video on YouTube of our best show, which was also one of my favorite shows I ever played. Dead Girl's Party recorded a great LP, The Things I've Lost, which was released by Entr'acte on cassette. Matt and I are both very proud of this recording and I am still looking for an adventurous label to release it on LP. I still enjoy working with song form, but it is not part of IFCO.
With a few exceptions, most of the IFCO releases have been put out on your own imprint Swill Radio. Has it been important to do it all by yourself?
I enjoy doing it ourselves because the cover design, the pressing and the overall quality are under our control. Still, at this point in my life, I really do not need to be doing all of the work the label and distribution involved as it is very time consuming and does not make any money. I just finished my taxes for last year and made $3000. I will lose money this year since we released a record, unless the publicity makers decide to make IFCO a known quality. Every time a new record comes out, I always think of 'The Curse Of Harry Partch'. Sometime in the early 80s, I saw a fascinating documentary about Harry Partch on public television. One of the scenes I remember most was Harry Partch boxing up records he had pressed of his own music and sending them to distributors. I thought this was the fucking coolest thing I had ever seen and I thought, 'I want to be just like that when I get old'. Well, here I am, an old man boxing up his own records and it is not all that great. I would much rather have a label release one or two IFCO LPs a year and send me 50 copies and a check. But I do not believe IFCO records or anything else I might be involved in will ever sell well enough to support that scenario. Colleges are much more conservative now than they were in the 60s, so I do not believe I will get a teaching job like Partch did, although I would be an excellent teacher. I would much rather spend time doing art or teaching it than selling it or writing record reviews.
Any plans on reissuing hard-to find releases like the Crusaders LP and The Fourth Dimension Is Money 2xLP? The latter also suffers a bit from a bad pressing and would for sure be a much welcomed repress!
Sad to say, IFCO records do not sell enough for me to put any money into reissues. I was inspecting the garage the other day and I still have over 100 copies of Stranded (2004) left and over 160 copies of The Island Of Taste (2007). I did 500 copies of each and money has to come in more quickly to enable Swill Radio to release records on a more regular basis. Karla and I are in enough debt from Swill Radio as it is. If any label is interested in reissuing any IFCO release, I am all ears.
Here's To Love! is a film you published in 2009, a mellow journey with a slow pace set to the tones of well-chosen cuts from the Foust-related discography. Any anecdotes from the filming you'd like to share? Can we expect more films in the future from you?
I'm glad you enjoyed Here's To Love!. I worked so very hard on the editing, two years of probably 40 hour weeks, almost a year off because it was making me crazy and another 8 months to finally finish it off. I worked with the speed of every edit in the film to make the action on the screen match a music element at some point which is why it took me so long. I learned so much about Art doing this film, that any time was well spent. I have a couple of 'funny' stories about the shooting, but they are somewhat involved, so I will save them for now. I do have another good idea for a film, a documentary, but it would cost around $5000 to make along with boatloads of logistical work. Time Will Tell.
Finally, what are you currently up to, both with IFCO and other related projects?
IFCO have a number of releases scheduled for this year. We just released Postcards on Swill Radio. Soon an edited version of the Rags To Riches tape will appear as an LP on Recital. There will also be a live IFCO archival release on Kye. IFCO also has a new LP, Lost At Sea, pretty much finished. In my dream world, 'Postcards' would sell enough to finance Lost At Sea, but I do not believe this will happen. IFCO will be recording another LP with Matt Krefting, of pieces we have been performing live, sometime over the summer. And 'Treasure Map', which we have not started on yet, but we have some ideas. IFCO will keep busy. There are also two separate Tobacconists LPs that Frans and I recorded with Mike Popovich in Frans' studio during breaks from the 'Smoking Is Green' tour. I do not know what will become of them, like Dead Girl's Party. I see so many labels that manage to sell 500 copies of something in a week, usually music that is far inferior to IFCO, so perhaps one day, I will figure out how this is done.