Noisology: A Memoir

Sonic Youth @ ATP 00

ATP 04

On Friday the 2nd of April 2004 I attended the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival in Camber Sands, England. Amidst the usual indie-rock fare such as the Shins and Modest Mouse, guest curators Sonic Youth had managed to smuggle in “noise” bands such as Wolf Eyes, Black Dice, Double Leopards and Lightning Bolt. Whilst noise music was beginning to gain traction in more mainstream independent circles (this is the year that Wolf Eyes signed to Sub Pop), many of these acts were quite confounding to much of the indie crowd in attendance.

There is a precedent for Sonic Youth causing confusion within the All Tomorrow's Parties format. When invited to play the festival in 2000, the band opted to open with a 20+ minute improvisational noise number. I vividly recall streaming a pixilated live video of the performance on the family PC as a mesmerised 16 year old. Years later I met someone who had attended said event and spoke of it in denigratory tones, as much of the mainstream music press did at the time.

The point is that, whilst Sonic Youth were trying to trojan horse some pretty radical new forms of rock music into the mainstream, there was still a fair amount of resilience and even open hostility. There were also a number of people who found this stuff pretty revelatory, such as yours truly. I still recall marching to the merch stall after Black Dice's set, determined to grab anything I could get my hands on. Wolf Eyes also made a massive impression, but initially I preferred Black Dice; Wolf Eyes were almost just too insane. It wouldn't take long, however, before my tolerance for extreme noise was fortified and I was going beyond into the realms of groups like Whitehouse, Prurient and the New Blockaders.

Giant Tank

To my encouragement, the local noise scene in Edinburgh was basking in rude health. Not only were groups like My Cat Is an Alien, Justice Yeldham and Hair Police visiting local dives, there was also a thriving community of local noise musicians organising gigs, setting up labels and releasing tapes and CDRs. I'd seen Giant Tank open for Deerfhoof and the Ex at Studio 24 the previous year and they had made quite an impression; particularly the frontman Ali Roberston with his silver trackies and liberal use of the c word. Here was noise with a DIY/punk ethos; markedly different to the more cerebral improvisational and avant-garde experimental music I'd been exposed to previously. This was fun and lively as opposed to being theoretical and stuffy.

I'd actually encountered Ali in his role as a clerk at Avalanche Records on Cockburn Street. He was wearing an un-ironed Black Flag t-shirt and expressed incredulity when I took a Derek Bailey/Thurston Moore/13 Ghosts CD up to the counter. “Is this for you? It doesn't sound like Sonic Youth” he warned me. This wasn't atypical of my encounters with record store clerks in the early 00s who often assumed I was buying stuff for an older sibling. I've always looked a few years younger than I am so when I was trying to buy Sonic Youth bootlegs or free jazz albums at the age of 17, I probably looked like a confused 14 year old that didn't know what he was getting himself in for.

In 2005 I saw a poster on Cockburn Street for a My Cat is an Alien gig hosted by Giant Tank and decided that attendance was compulsory, probably owing to the Thurston Moore blurb on the poster. Over the next few years a good friend and I religiously attended almost every gig Giant Tank put on and even played in a couple of them. My favourite local band were Muscletusk – they were the closest thing Edinburgh had to an actual rock band with noisy leanings a la Sightings, one of my favourite American noise groups. Giant Tank the band were now defunct, the organisation now existed as a label/promoter, although Ali Roberston and his bandmate Malcy Duff still operated musically as Usurper, an ultra minimal improv duo. There was also a vivacious noise community in Glasgow with ass-kicking acts such as Nacht Insekten and Kylie Minoise.


Shit got real in 2006 when Thurston Moore curated All Tomorrow's Parties Nightmare Before Christmas. Although we didn't realise it at the time, looking back it feels as if this was the beginning of the end of the wave of noise mania that had engulfed us. Double Leopards played a set standing up with guitars as opposed to kneeling over broken electronics. Their side project Religious Knives were beginning to release stuff that sounded like straight up classic rock. Noise was becoming passe. Sonic Youth had just released probably their poppiest album, in part a reaction to the ceaseless all-consuming wave of noise music swallowing everything around it. The latter played a pretty lacklustre set that year at ATP, a straight up set of songs. Wolf Eyes played one of the loudest sets I've ever heard, but it failed to make much of an impression beyond that.

Highlights of the festival included a reliably solid set of deranged rock drone by Mouthus, one of my personal favourites. The New Blockaders and the Haters came up with a set of jagged and vicious power noise which was undeniably impressive. Most revelatory for me personally was seeing the Dead C live, kiwi improv-noise-rock stalwarts active since the mid 80s.

Kill Yr Timid Notion. Subcurrent. Le Weekend

Sonic Youth are a pretty constant presence throughout the scene I'm writing of, helping to bring out of the margins and participating themselves. Mirror/Dash played Le Weekend in Stirling – a set of scorched white light acoustic feedback with Gordon's disembodied vocals hovering over the top.

Lee Ranaldo's Text of Light project came to Dundee in 2004 to play the Kill Your Timid Notion fest, improvising noise over the silent films of Stan Brakhage.

Glasgow's Subcurrent fest brought American heavyweights Wolf Eyes and Mouthus and billed them alongside avant garde giant Tony Conrad and Japanese legend Keiji Haino. There was also lots of ecstatic free jazz intermingled throughout the noise scene with the likes of Joe McPhee pairing up with frenetic drummer Chris Corsano.

Colour Out of Space 2008

Organised by Scottish noise legends Blood Stereo (Karen Constance and Dylan Nyoukis), Colour Out of Space brought outsider music from many different genres to the English city of Brighton. My noise companion and I flew down to London and then caught a bus to attend. It was a bloody fine milieu! The memorable highlight for us, and main reason for attending, was to see Corsano/Moore/Nace.

No Goddamn Fun

Over in America, a noise festival called the No Fun Fest had begun operating annually in New York City. This had started in 2003 and a live double DVD of the event had been subjected to many awed, reverential viewings. In 2009 my good friend and I had the opportunity to attend No Fun, with Sonic Youth headlining.

It was the end of noise, this was apparent. Little did we know Sonic Youth were on the cusp of divorce. But we could feel a lack of vigor and vitality, a lack of inspiration in the line-up. My good friend and I agreed that we'd arrived at the event too late – the halcyon days had passed a couple of years ago evidently.

Tusk Festival 2012

Fushitsusha were coming to the UK! We (constantly referenced noise companion and I) had already seen Keiji Haino perform live. But the prospect of seeing him with his noisy rock band sent us into veritable convulsions of anticipative noise ecstasy. The set was slightly disappointing, perhaps down to insanely high expectations. The highlight of the weekend was seeing Gate (Morley of the Dead C). He kicked out a set of drifting, droney melancholy beauty. Other memories of the weekend include a painfully loud Pain Jerk set, a Smegma set besieged by technical difficulties, playing table fusball, and the bleak Newcastle landscape in winter, made all the more potent by a pervasive hangover.

Long Live the New Flesh

Back in Edinburgh the local scene was dying off too. I went to meet Ali Robertson at his flat to buy some CDs he was selling off on behalf of a friend who was bowing out of the noise scene completely and selling his entire collection. I'm paraphrasing, but Ali rhetorically asked something like “Is anyone even interested in noise anymore?” I probably just grinned awkwardly in response.

My own noise collection remains intact, but admittedly I pretty much stopped listening to noise too. I'd moved in with my girlfriend, given up my aspirations of being a noise musician and aside from the odd late night spin of a Mouthus LP when she was in bed, I had opted out of the noise scene completely. Since then I still do buy the odd Dead C album or throw on some improvised free jazz when the mood strikes. I kept collecting Sightings albums up until they disbanded, but never really sat down and listened to them too much. Since I got out of noise music I actually found myself revisiting bands I'd largely ignored such as Pavement or the Shins. Bands I'd snubbed as a snobby 16 year old as too mainstream.

Jonathan Marks