…Never mind that I had never cooked enchinalgas in my life. Not once tried, let alone prepared, a papusa d’ miletxe. I wasn’t about to start.
This is a long story, gents, and I will spare you the details of my day-to-day routine inside that “kitchen.” The point is that this “restaurant” of which I was supposedly “manager” was little more than a stash house for the Dominicans. And when you’re making that kind of money, you have to launder it, there’s no way around it. Then you’re finished. No way out. It’s either the prison house or the grave.
They may as well have called me chef for all the cooking I did. I funneled rivers of narcodollars through the radio show, back when it was called Acapulco’s Foode and Wine Programme [sic], and through a whole line of nonexistent products that we advertised in the trades, on billboards, and even on TV. We paid more for those spots than we did for the products they advertised – I mean, Salsa Jam didn’t even exist, for chrissakes! It still doesn’t. You can’t buy it in stores, you can’t order it from the factory, because there is no factory. It was never made. There may be a prototype of the jar in some narco’s “office” but that’s about it, and you wouldn’t want to try it, it’s very old and there’s nothing inside.
Regardless, when the money came out the other end, I had enough to cover my passage to Europe, where, I thought, I might kill two birds with one stone: figure out what this fucking Billy Bao thing is all about, and hope that in the meantime the Dominicans would forget all about their shit restaurant, all about the jars, and all about me.
I was not without reservations spending a season among the Euros, but I found no comfort at home. ‘Pulquito hasn’t even learned to use the toilet and he exhibits a precocious cynicism. Still, this time he did not join in my application. I voiced my worries to Nellie who, if course, rolled her eyes and waved me away.
But much to my surprise, the Billy Bao thing turned out for the best after all. Billy himself is Nigerian, while the other principal in his band is a Basque, and as you know Basque People are not even proper Europeans. Their language is derived not from Mother Latin or from the High Anglo-Saxon tongues, but from its own obscure lingual kernel, whose origins remain a subject of intrigue amongst the (yawn) linguistics community. Their primary exports are air turbines, delicious cod, and excellent rubber tires. Oh, yes, and improvised music. We were able to communicate in a noxious patois that combined Spanglish, Deutsch, and Euzskarracs with gross American efficiency. (Speed: 100%. Accuracy: Nil).
I met Martin, who spells his name Mattin and pronounces it “mah-cheen,” at some stupid festival or another in 2005. In performance he reminded me of a young Alan Vega, or a Spanish Dave E, or a clean-cut Costes: confrontational ad absurdum, and wholly uninterested in rewarding his audience with anything like “music” or “pleasure.” Impressed with what I heard, I said, “Have you thought about recording your music?”
Evidently he had. Even then, he had issued more records than fucking Sun Ra. Last I checked, the grand total came to 183 CDs, CD-Rs, vinyls, and “Computer-Only” releases, with more to come.
Two years hence, I’ve finished mucking my way through the oeuvre and recording my impressions on the old laptopper. In its present form, the document fills my hard drive, which I would happily to send you, dear sirs, were I confident that the postal service will not suddenly go on strike, leave the week’s mail sitting in the bin until New Year’s Day, and then dump it in the ocean. Instead, I have whittled it down to pocket size, just a few recordings which I believe justly summarize or encapsulate the raison d’etre of this formidable career in noise, and interspersed some tasty morsels from my conversations with the parties responsible. I trust you will find it satisfactory and compensate one accordingly, as always.
(Lic.) Acapulco Rodriguez, A.B.D.
If there’s a common thread coursing through Mattin’s work, it’s the element of confrontation that pervades his performances, recordings, and writings. Even in his turns as a laptop improviser of the Berlin school, where restraint and impersonality are core principles, his pregnant silences often explode into excruciating feedback, or they are punctuated by moments of subversive humor, sabotage tactics, and queasy real-time commentary on the audience’s response.
In the U.S. Mattin is best known as the guitarist in Billy Bao, a punk and noise project named after its lead singer, a Nigerian exile based in the Spanish Basque Country. That group has produced a passel of pretty confusing, noisy concept-records since 2005. The first of those, Bilbo’s Incinerator, is now a minor collectable thanks to Americans’ reverence for the Word of “TJ” Lax. That unpleasant little record (only 300 pressed, foolio) whet the public’s thirst for more, ah, “Nigerian punk,” and so the floodgates were opened to a stream of defiantly ugly agit-prop anti-records on such labels as Parts Unknown and S-S. So, yeah, as far as you’re concerned, Mattin is the guitar player in Billy Bao.
In all fairness, his buddies back home in Euskadi probably remember him as a punk-rock guitarist, too, from his teenage days playing bass around the Bilbao scene. The city of Bilbao, and more broadly, the theme of Basque identity and nationalism, play a major role in Billy Bao and in Mattin’s work generally, so let’s explore that for a moment.
The Basque Country occupies a unique place within Spain’s geography, as a nation-within-a-nation, a people ethnically, linguistically, and culturally separate from those of central Spain, the historical seat of that country’s political power. As such, the land of bacalao and banks was the site of intense governmental repression and cultural resistance throughout the nationalist, ultraconservative regime of Generalísimo Franco, which ended with a whimper in 1975 when the fair-haired dictator ingested one tainted ham, delivered to his chambers by an inbred courtesan, and croaked. By the mid-eighties, Bilbao was awash in heroin and bad vibes, a perfect storm of unemployment, separatist violence and industrial decay that set the scene for the rawest and most noxious punk-rock scene in all of Spain (if you don’t believe me, check out Shit-Fi’s unbelievable Basque punk mixtape here). Amid the squalor, spaces opened up where young people were given free rein to create a culture of their own and give voice to their dissatisfaction. More often than not, that dissatisfaction was voiced in an explicitly radical political register. It was this environment that a young Billy parachuted into around 1986, fleeing sectarian violence and militarism in his native Nigeria.
BB: Punk was a grieta, a crevice where one could express oneself, tell one’s story. There was a place called the Gaztetxe de Bilbao, a social center where young people could organize and put on shows, and this is where I felt most at home. The scene in Lagos, it must be said, was absolutely brutal by comparison, a lot rawer even than Bilbao.
AR: Why did you take on the name Billy Bao? What is it about the city that strikes a chord with you? Do you feel Basque, somehow? I mean, that’s… kind of ridiculous. You don’t even speak the language.
BB: I feel Basque attitudinally. You could say that I identified with the confrontational energy of Bilbao that I’ve seen in my colleagues, that I saw in Bilbao in the 1980’s.
AR: Mattin, how did that early Bilbao punk scene inform what you would go on to do with Billy?
M: Well, radical music in the Basque country, music which discussed real social problems in a very specific way, subjects with which you identified in a very immediate way… this had a huge impact on me as a teenager. People sang about what they saw immediately in their own neighborhoods, in real life. It was as though they said, “I’m young, I’m X, I don’t amount to much. But with a guitar I can talk about what I see, as a teenager.” The gaztetxes were basically squats, and this was an example of how you could do something with the reality on the streets. You can make the streets yours, you can change the streets. That’s what always fascinated me about punk. Concrete, crude realities. On the news, et cetera, there was never that crudeness, that bluntness. This is real.
AR: Mattin, you weren’t yet working in Bilbao at the time, right?
M: I began a bit later, in the early ‘90s, when a smaller scene took root in Getxo, the suburb of Bilbao where I grew up. There was something known as the ‘Getxo sound,’ and we were at the end part of it. I was in a band with the drummer from La Grieta when I was fifteen and sixteen years old. It was a rather shitty indie-rock scene. It included us in a band called Inte Domine. I was playing bass. Now the other members have a band called Gringo. Later, in London, I started listening to Japanoise and to music like AMM. I saw Masonna and Filament, I started improvising at one of [AMM drummer] Eddie Prevost’s workshops. I started on guitar, then sampler. I played in a duo for awhile. Eddie and I later performed and recorded together as Sakada.
Mattin spent about six years in London, where he attended art school, communing with the city’s anarchist squatter community, and with its reductionist improv scene, where he practiced a sort of radical minimalism that steered clear of tonality, riffs, “self-expression,” and all that weak shit.
In 2000, he attended the International Computer Music Conference in Berlin. For anyone not already familiar with the density and rapid pace of Berlin’s music culture, that event was a revelation. There were planetarium-style performances of Xenakis and Varese during the day, multimedia minimal techno events in the clubs at night, and dozens of artists coming out and performing brief sets using little more than a mixer, a laptop, and a couple of Discmans. Merzbow played one of his very first laptop sets. In fact, everybody played a laptop that weekend.
M: I decided then and there that I must buy a laptop. But I didn’t want to sound like the Mego guys [Pita, Fennesz, et al.]. I wanted to make the laptop sound like Bruce Russell or Keiji Haino playing guitar. Or the nasty feedback of Whitehouse.
This is roughly where Mattin’s prolific recording career begins. Encouraged by his work with Prevost and other big-ballz of the London Improv scene, Mattin started playing laptop sets with everyone from Radu Malfatti to Tony Conrad, always keeping one foot in the highbrow European and Japanese improv scenes, and the other firmly inside the world of Noise. Between 1999 and 2006, he jammed with Prévost, Malfatti, Conrad, Rosy Parlane, Taku Unami, Taku Sugimoto, Dion Workman, Lucio Capece, Tim Barnes, Junko, Matthew Bower, Junko, Anthony Guerra, Lasse Marhaug, Campbell Kneale, Bruce Russell, Alan Courtis, Axel Dörner, Margarida Garcia, Philip Best, et fucking al. This kind of compulsive improvisation is part of his m.o., and it defines him as a performer.
AR: You never turn down an opportunity to collaborate, do you? If I were your thesis adviser, I would say that you do this because it opens up a dialectical space, because it’s a way of surrendering control of a situation and inviting uncertainty into the performance, inviting the creation of an event.
Just to be clear, Mattin doesn’t exactly “play music” anymore. You could call it that. You could call that fucking bicycle wheel a painting, too, but it’s not. It’s something else. Every performance is an opportunity for confrontation and dialogue, and “music” is “simply” the pretext and the medium that enables the exchange.
In some instances that exchange it takes the shape of a muted, ultra-minimal dialogue with the elder statesmen of European improv – Radu Malfatti, or Prévost – and that’s fine, if you have an ear for extreme minimalism and a lot of room in your life for silence and nothingness. But chances are if you’re coming at Mattin’s work from that angle, you will find plenty to dislike. I saw Mattin perform at Tonic on the first night of Erstquake 3, a festival curated by the reductionist-improv label Erstwhile, which specializes in barely-there music made using contact mics, “no-input” electronics, unstrummed guitars. After several hours of quasi-Buddhist performances in which musicians “played” amplified tree branches, stones, lightbulb filament, and mixing boards with nothing plugged into them (all, of course, received with respectful hushing and well-timed applause from this most rarified, sophisticated audience) Mattin closed the evening with a ridiculous twenty-minute blast of feedback, excoriating the audience for its complacency, shouting baroque insults through the mic in his laptop as he paced through the audience like William Bennett having a tantrum, and generally made everyone uncomfortable.
Listeners approaching him from the world of Noise and Power Electronics might have a higher tolerance for this kinda shit, to their own detriment. The core audience for “harsh noise” amounts to little more than a sliver of humanity, but within it you’ll find a jungle of unexamined pathology: from the pimply neophyte who blows his allowance on limited-edition, mail-order cassettes, to the closeted queer who, one suspects, hate-fucks his girl to the strains of Merzbow’s Pulse Demon; and from Lil’ Nietzsche with a bookshelf full of Parfrey, Sotos, and Goad, to the tech-nerd taking notes on Hair Police’s gear… inappropriate hairstyles abound, body-jewelry proliferates, assholes and their opinions stink the place up to high heaven.
In Great Britain, a long tradition of hooliganism sweetens this voluptuous pot. It’s been a long day at London’s No Trend 2 Festival, and the crowd’s collective g-spot is bleeding from overexertion, its third eye glazing over from too many pints of warm ale and nearly a dozen sets’ worth of “sonic dystopia” and instant subversion. The next set better start soon.
After what feels like a really long time the houselights dim, and Mattin climbs onstage wearing mirrored aviator glasses, a beat-to-shit laptop held open on his forearm. He grabs the mic and leans in, poised to sing. And then…
He just stands there, doing absolutely fucking nothing, frozen in place. The whole thing is rather pathetic and, frankly, kind of eerie, like those wretched “living statues” you see panhandling in Times Square or Las Ramblas.
For once, the artistic or metaphorical violence suggested by so many Noise artists from Throbbing Gristle to Whitehouse to Wolf Eyes, turns into actual, manifest violence. Insults issue from the audience. Gobs of spit smack Mattin in the face. A beer bottle pelts him in the temple. Mattin stands there and doesn’t flinch, doesn’t crack a smile, doesn’t move a muscle.
After ten minutes of this shit, he clicks open a sound file, and an ominous roar takes over the P.A. The sound coming over the speakers at earsplitting volume is a playback of those first ten minutes of the set. Every insult, every retarded joke, every drunken, smartass remark is amplified twentyfold and spat back at the audience with unforgiving clarity for a full ten minutes.
M: After the show I spoke to a few members of the audience and it was very uncomfortable. People were uncomfortable hearing their own voices, their own taunts and smartass remarks. One of them came up to me and said, “Thanks for making me feel like a dickhead.”
Mattin is really into this kind of broad gesture. A sizeable chunk of his repertoire consists of what you might, unkindly but accurately, describe as a bunch of stunts. Some are better than others, but the thing about a good stunt is that it involves a significant measure of risk. Sometimes, that risk means the potential for a bottle upside the head. Most of the time, the risk he runs is humiliation – dire, abject, humiliation. If you wind up at one of his performances, you have no choice but to become a participant in the stunt, whether you know it or not. If the stunt succeeds, it transforms you by forcing you to examine your relationship to the performer, to wonder who’s really on stage, why they’re there, and what you’re doing there watching and listening to him.
This dynamic powers a good deal of Mattin’s work. It’s at the heart of Deflag Haemorrhage / Haien Kontra, his collaboration with a London improviser named “ “ [sic] Tim Goldie (sic), who have a new album coming out soon which you maybe should buy. I’m looking at now. It comes in a white box with a mirror glued to the lid. Mattin claims it’s being released by Tochnit Aleph but I don’t see anything on the box to indicate that it’s being released at all. There isn’t even a CD inside.
AR: Am I supposed to listen to this? It’s just a box with a mirror on the lid.
M: Hmmm… Let me see it. Yes, well, that’s a prototype. There’s going to be a CD inside, called Humiliated.
AR: What the hell is “abject music”? Is it worse than that shit you did at the No Trend Festival?
M: Yes, I suppose so. Abject music is about running out of possibilities with your instrument. When you run out of possibilities with your instrument, it turns to pathos. The erect cock of Noise becomes a flaccid penis. If Whitehouse eventually turned into a self-parody, we’ve picked up that torch and become makers of pathetic music. Flaccid cocks don't make great macho music. The music of impotence.
AR: So what happens when you and “ “[sic] Tim Goldie perform?
M: We try to get it up, we try to get an erection, and we fail. It’s about expressing that frustration onstage. DH/HK is a Frankenstein monster that goes nowhere. “ “ [sic] Tim Goldie holds his arms out like this, like Frankenstein’s monster, and he walks around but he just bumps into the wall, going nowhere. Then he does some air quotes, you know, with his fingers, like the quotation marks in his name. And he sticks the air quotes into his mouth to induce vomiting. So he tries to vomit, but the only vomit that comes out is the frustration of the audience having an embarrassed laugh at our expense, and at their expense. Everybody is utterly embarrassed. People feel very happy to go back to normality, but something has happened, they’re no longer the same.
I’ve heard some of “ “ [sic] Tim Goldie’s work and this makes sense to me. His [work] demarks some sort of limit in Noise performance, a point at which the whole enterprise threatens to collapse upon itself and dissolve into a pile of nonsensical shit. Wasn’t that the whole point of Noise in the first place, to blow up music, to blow up social hierarchies, exposing them as a bunch of arbitrary shit? I sort of wish there were a DVD document of some of these performances, but I guess a mirrored box will have to do for now.
The other day Mattin told me an anecdote about the pioneering Japanoise band Hijokaidan, whose “singer” Junko collaborated with Mattin on a CD called Pinknoise. In 1978, British improviser Derek Bailey played a concert in Kyoto and blew them away. At that time, every critic in Japan was breathlessly talking about how brutal the Sex Pistols were, how those guys were unlike anything they had ever heard. After seeing Bailey destroy and reconstruct the practice of electric guitar improvisation, when Hijokaidan finally heard the Sex Pistols later that year they sounded like plain-vanilla rock & roll. So they started making the music that they thought the critics had been talking about, as they had imagined it. It’s nice to keep this frank in your bun as you contemplate Billy Bao’s pervy dalliance with the punk-rock thirty years later.
As much as I’ve enjoyed following the dude’s career as a fly in the Euro-improv ointment, it’s Mattin’s punk-rock moves that I find the most satisfying, partly because punk’s formal conventions are so familiar and rigid and long-overdue for a top-to-bottom deconstruction, and ‘bro is just the kind of cheeky wiseass who just might rise to the occasion. Also because punk strongly emphasizes the production of records, and I like records. And ultimately because punk-rock provides Mattin and company a commercial laboratory for all them hoity-toity, fancy-pants Wire Magazine ideas, a marketplace of credulous collectors in dire need of a critical suppository to clean out the plumbing. So, needless to say, I’m excited to find Billy Bao sharing labels with bands like Pissed Jeans and Tyvek, ‘cos it means he’s engaged with an American audience famously averse to thinking critically about itself, allergic to braiding politics into its noise.
The first Billy Bao CD release was called Rock & Roll Granulator, where the band attempted to break rock & roll down into its elementary particles through crude digital processing and experiments in stretching real-time performance to a breaking point. My favorite cut on that CD is a tune called “El grado cero del pulso,” or “The Beat at Zero-Point,” which consists of a kick-drum beat that comes in at just the wrong time, every time, over twelve loooooong minutes, each irregular “measure” filled out by an uncomfortable, pregnant silence and barely-audible shards of digital pffftshhrts. Under the right…“circumstances,” it’ll drive you out of your mind as you try and fail to catch the rhythm, to match your body’s pulse to the beat of the music. The disc was recorded with the funny Argentine Alan Courtis of the chromosomally incorrect Reynols, one of the very few authentically experimental “rock” groups of the past two decades, and funded, bizarrely, by a Basque non-profit organization called Bilbo Rock.
M: After the Gaztetxe de Bilbao shut down in the late-eighties, there was Bilbo Rock, a church building in Bilbao where this organization was founded to promote Rock music. They have a concert hall and a fund for making records.
AR: How decadent. How the fuck does Europe stay in business? You people won’t even work a forty-hour week.
M: They gave us one week and 1000 euros, so we booked the studio for a day while Alan and Pablo were passing through on tour. We had to record the album in the morning and send it to the pressing plant that night. Alan had a concert that same night, so we were hanging out at the end of the day trying to think of titles.
The first record was the single “Bilbo’s Incinerator”, which showcased the band as it exists today: [list personnel and affiliation]. With Billy’s anguished, incoherent vocals at the forefront, the band became a fleshy, grotesque, punk-rock monster with an improvised paper-mache penis that temperamentally insinuates itself into the picture, squirting pus and jizz all over the grooves (another reason why it’s important to always hold vinyl records by the edges). The recording process became a central element in Billy Bao’s sound as Mattin and Xabi’s laptops deformed the band’s real-time punk-rock jams in the digital mirror. The effect is disorienting: on one hand, you can’t help but respond to the music on a visceral level, because, frankly, it rocks. This shit is as smokingly fucked-up and rancid as Drunks with Guns, or Skrewdriver, or High Rise. But there’s always something there – a bizarre jump-cut, a wash of too-pure digital distortion – to remind you that the whole venture is artificial, that somebody on the other end is fucking with the recording and very likely fucking with you and your personal enjoyment of the music (or, mostly, non-music).
M: The records are full of deliberate digital cuts. Xabi and I are coming from laptop work, so this came naturally to us. It’s a very good way to pervert punk rock, through the lens of musique concrète. When we made “Bilbo’s Incinerator” I was playing electronic music and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to play punk at that point. Mikel Biffs was playing in the 90's in Pop Crash Colapso, a band that sounds like Tad the butcher. The dude recorded it, we put digital distortion on the guitar, and he was able to get that drum sound. Then I cut and pasted on the laptop in one night. We were going for our version of “L.A. Blues.” In fact “Bilbo's Incinerator” contains parts of “L.A. Blues”.
A good chunk of Mattin's recent "joints" involve creative reimagining of good ol' rock & roll tropes, borrowings, appropriations, repurposings, exercises in detournement in which paleo- and proto-punk collide with Mattin's fucked approach to improvisation. Take his Songbooks, for instance (there's four of them already), wherein he dons the mirrored sunglasses, shoves his hand up a moldy Lou Reed puppet, and makes ol' monkeyface bawl, caterwaul, and "sing" a river of crude indictments of (1) capitalism, (2) conventional song forms, (3) his perception of the audience's perception of his set, which is invariably, histrionically negative. How do you like them apples? No? Okay, then, how about his album-length cover of Lou's Berlin, cast as a piercing duet with trumpeter Axel Dörner?
Well, what the hell do you want, man? The White Album? All right, then, dig the forthcoming Billy Bao LP on Parts Unknown, recorded in honor of the fortieth anniversary of May '68.
AR: In the U.S., 1968 doesn't resonate in the popular imagination as it does in Europe or in Mexico, where it represents the culmination of a powerful, unified youth movement, a moment of rupture and revolutionary possibility. How was May '68 commemorated in Europe?
M: A lot of conferences and talks. There was guilt all around, to the extent that if we commemorate '68, we'll all get depressed. On the other hand, you have the food crisis, the crisis in the rest of the world.
AR: So the Billy Bao record is like a souvenir, huh? The red-on-black type on the cover was a nice touch.
M: The conceptual aspect of the record lies mainly in the accompanying text [the cover just mentioned]. Those are the lyrics of the record. It's almost a Spoken Word record. It's divided into decades – each cut is a different decade
AR: Tell me more.
M: Okay, there are five cuts, one for each decade:'68, '78, etc. On the 1968 track, we play a Luigi Nono piece over the top, which Nono recorded that year, entitled "Non Consumiano Marx" . For 1978 we took Fela Kuti's "Zombie" to mark the year. You can hear the original track playing under our tracks.
AR: What's 1988?
M: "Second Coming" by Brainbombs.
M: '98 is of course "A Cunt Like You" by Whitehouse.
BB: And 2008 is Billy Bao.
So watch out, recording artists. Mattin is open to strategically taking your stuff and putting it on his own records! Because, as everyone says, private property is theft.
BB: Intellectual property is shit.
You can take most of Mattin’s music for free at www.mattin.org. Maybe leave some too. It’s a pretty open place to visit online. But Mattin is no hippie, he says.
“Accumulation” is another instance of the band hewing to the strictures of a medium and exploiting its potential. It consists of ten one-minute tracks spread evenly across two sides of a 7”. Each of the tracks takes the previous track and layers more on top of it, until, at the very end, you have an ur-track that includes, absorbs, subsumes every track before it.
AR: As Billy Childish would say, that’s some ambition, there, Billy.
BB: Fuck you, man. Punk rock is shit.
AR: Okay, well, since you brought it up, I want you to talk specifically about how improvisation shapes the way Billy Bao sounds, because that may not be clear to listeners who know the band exclusively through the records.
M: Billy Bao doesn’t rehearse. We never play the same track twice. In that sense we’re a generative project – we’re either playing live or we’re recording. If we play one riff, what we’re doing is narrowing down the improvisation to one riff, but we’re interested in not playing the same riff “correctly,” but rather, working with this sort of micro-improvisation on the riff. We think of the records as a totality; whereas in punk rock you’re nailed down to one track. In punk rock you’re working with individual tracks, and there’s this pathetic downtime between songs. With us you get one riff, then another riff, and it turns into a different song. We play with the format, whatever the format may be, whether it’s a record or a live performance. In punk rock, a lot of people think once they’ve got the song down, they’re done. That’s wrong. That’s why improvisation is interesting – it forces you to explore the format, the performance. We’re applying some of these same principles to the medium, the record, and we do this to our relationship with the public.
The Fuck Separation 10” is a nice example. The two sides of the record are cross-faded into each other. The record has no proper beginning and end, and you can only properly experience it as a vinyl record with sides.
M: If you do something over and over again, it becomes routine, it becomes a template. The interesting thing is to see what are the limits of the template, seeing how it can be changed. That template also constructs us as subjects. When we go to a show, depending on the environment. The space where a show is held constructs you, as a performer and as a listener. The public gives you that power. It’s a brutal degree of power the public gives you. It’s about exploring that relationship of hierarchies – not in this bullshit hippie sense, but to explore hierarchies in the most brutal form possible. If I try to open up possibilities, the hierarchies won’t be broken. If you really want to break them, it requires an extreme commitment on the part of the audience, because the audience creates a group dynamic. You might dare to say something; but you don’t want to leave your role as a member of the audience, as part of a mass or a crowd.
AR: There’s an unspoken contract between the performer and the audience.
M: Yes. The public is a mass, it pays, it applauds; the performer gives the public something extraordinary, he’s the guy who gives you cultural capital, or value in exchange for your money or even simply for your presence.
Consider the role you inhabit when you attend an underground rock show – say, a DIY punk-rock show at Don Pedro’s or The Smell. In this scenario, the audience may be mere inches away from the stage. At a basement show, there may not be a stage at all. You might talk to Kevin Failure or those Eat Skull dudes before and after their sets. But as long as they’re on stage, they might as well be Sinatra or Britney Spears. We can haggle over the price, but the dynamic remains essentially the same, with the listener fixed in his role as audience member and consumer: as fan. Or as hater, which is more or less the same thing.
So what? What’s the point of “subverting” this dynamic, you say, rather than taking it for granted – which is another way of saying, in Billy’s words, “if it isn’t broke, please don’t fix it.” For an avowed anarcho-Marxist like Billy, or for Mattin, the answer is clear: because there is nothing revolutionary in a performance that reproduces the power structures of capitalism, in a show that casts the performer and his audience in the same power dynamic they would play out at a Christian rock concert or a Vice Magazine record-release party, or on MTV Total Request Live. Those are just different flavors of the same rancid cultural product [vanilla-caramel wafer, cocaine-vanilla, and vanilla anal-nut cookie, respectively -- we used served all of these at the restaurant… at first.]
In other words, the medium itself is political, it contains ideology. Mattin takes this one step further with the help of our #1 cultural-studies Commie dead Hebrew superstar, Walt Benjamin, who said in “The Artist as Producer” that art is truly radical if and only if its resistance to capitalism is manifest not only in the form and medium, but also in the means of its production and distribution.
M: This is why MySpace is problematic, and why Billy Bao will never use MySpace. It shapes the way in which one interacts with others The MySpace brand name appears before the name of the artist. And MySpace is the brand name of a corporation with a brutally conservative ideology. . It’s proprietary software and the software is very hard on older computers. MySpace reserves the right to cut you out whenever they want based on content; they don’t have to give you any explanation. Everyone knows at least one band that has been removed arbitrarily from MySpace, no?
AR: It happened to Talibam! two years ago. They were given no explanation.
M: What kind of control over the means of production is that? Look at the fucking jerkoffs in Fugazi, who say on their MySpace page, “Everyone needs an instrument.” Well, their instrument is MySpace, evidently. So much for their cheap moralizing and “business ethics.” If you really have that DIY or punk attitude, you need to be aware of the means of distribution. What fucking bothers me the most is that if you’re not on MySpace, it’s as though you don’t exist. That very same creativity that we deploy in making music, we can apply to the process of production and distribution.
AR: This would make for a an apt segue into a discussion of anti-copyright.
M: Uh-huh. The idea of authorship has developed hand in hand with capitalism. The law categorizes and places a monetary value upon creative work. Even underground musicians have internalized this logic: this is my property. Our creativity has a dollar value, and it’s divisible; it exists under the law. In improv, that logic is completely absurd. When we play our instruments, we play them against the grain, in the most perverse, unconventional way possible. It’s a moment of liberation. You might make a fool of yourself because you might be the first to do it. Why is it that we can do that with an instrument but not with what other people produce? If you put music, or records, out in the public, that public should have the absolute right to do whatever they want with them. Creativity has to be free. That very same logic of property also creates the logic of policing. You need a police or government body to enforce the copyright law, to back you up when you say to somebody, “You’re stealing my property.” But these are ideas. The only ones who care about that theft are those who are making money off it.
BB: The US’s three main export commodities are software, music, and film. How do they do it? Because the law has assigned a monetary value to those goods. Intellectual property is designed to produce scarcity out of knowledge, whereas knowledge should be ubiquitous. Ideas, stories, etc., used to all be public domain, but the law has set the parameters, its limits are clearly marked. As punk rockers, we need to go against this.
AR: We accept the dichotomy of producing and consuming, that listening is nothing more but consuming. But we make decisions when we listen to a record, about when, how, and where we listen, and how we interpret the record. These are creative decisions, decisions that have a creative value – they affect the way you hear the music.
M: Instead of copying music as “stealing”, we need to change the sign – it’s “sharing” – to change the tone. The process for doing this is necessarily… a rupture. This is unlike the creative commons, which is a form of gentrification of intellectual property. At the end of the day, it’s a fucking business. Anti-copyright aligns itself with the Situationists, Woody Guthrie, and other punks and anarchists. Use your creativity, do whatever the fuck you want. Ultimately, of course, anti-copyright is a rhetorical gesture, because everything you do is already copyrighted under the Berne convention.
Likewise, making a record – even a politically engaged hardcore record, or a crust-punk record, is stripped of its revolutionary thrust if the means of its production, and the way it’s consumed, simply mirrors the way the capitalist media produces its culture, its idols, its CD’s and badges and videos and music mags and websites and concerts, and the way mass audiences consume these things. The best your record and your whole scene can aspire is to be a parody of the industry it’s supposedly an alternative to. [sic] Just as there’s no fascist squats, there can never be a revolutionary number-one album. The fact that a “number-one” anything even exists is a sign that revolution is far away. Eat that, chump!
BB: We competed this year in the annual Bilbo Rock competition, in the “Pop-Rock” category.
AR: Did you win?
M: No, just the opposite. I burned out my amp. You remember when Jimi Hendrix burned his amp?
M: The stage is a prop and sometimes we play with it.
BB: What matters isn’t what you play, it’s the sound that comes out of the speakers.
M: What matters is burning out my amp. They made me pay them 150 euros. So I’m not sure if Billy Bao will ever play at Bilbo Rock again.
AR: Over time your music has grown more aggressively political. The 10” is explicitly anti-nationalist in both form and content, it’s about the abolition of borders and shit.
BB: Fuck separation.
M: Why fight for the construction of a nation, when you can create something even more radical? Something that doesn’t function bureaucratically? Outside of police structures, hierarchical structures, something that goes beyond the structure of the “nation,” where structures of resistance don’t mirror existing power structures. As a strategic matter, look what happens if you structure a revolutionary group hierarchically: if you capture the “head,” the whole thing falls apart. This is precisely what happens to the ETA (Basque Liberation Army). Supposedly the structure of ETA is changing now too, towards decentralization. I find it doubtful that the hierarchies will ever be eliminated, but in performance, at least we can aspire to this or at list to problematize this relationship
Oh, yes, the records. These are the Billy Bao and Mattin records that I would shove in your stocking if I knew where you lived, bad boy:
Radu Malfatti and Mattin: Going Fragile (Absurd)
A sublime reductionist improv session. Malfatti (trombone) counts among the living masters of extended technique and near-silence. Mattin (laptop) is his pupil and antagonist.
Josetxo Grieta (w.m.o/r)
An excruciating noise psychodrama for four-piece band. Josetxo Grieta consisted of Mattin’s old group La Grieta, backing the legendary Bilbao musician Josetxo Anitua who in the nineties led the pioneering indie/post-punk group Cancer Moon. Anitua committed suicide earlier this year.
Mattin: Songbook Vol. 4 (Azul Discográfica)
Disclosure: I “brokered” the transaction whereby this disc was released. All profits have disappeared and no books were kept. A cornerstone of the terriblist school of rock & roll, this final entry in the Songbook series finds Mattin “bridging” the “gap” between “improv” and “songwriting” with an all-star Japanese band. To quote a friend: beyond good and evil, but mostly evil. Not in your wildest dreams.
Mattin & Axel Dörner: Berlin
Billy Bao: Bilbo’s Incinerator (w.m.o/r)
Good luck finding it.
Billy Bao: Fuck Separation (S-S)
The band in barnburner Stooge mode, more aggressive and ultimately more satisfying that anything by Brainbombs. Yep.
Billy Bao: May ’08 (Parts Unknown)
The ultimate Billy Bao record. Out later this year. The only thing that matches this record’s level of digital mindfuckery at work here is its apocalyptic, anti-capitalist vitriol.
Now go make a fudgie.