ZORA BURDEN: What music, literature or art influenced you in your formative years? Will you describe your early bands that led to the formation of the Haters, and what was your intent?
GX: In the late 1970s everyone called Punk “noise" but it never really seemed all that noisy to me. Why sing about it when you could actually go out and live it? I needed to make a clean break from Punk, and start with a blank slate. At first, in 1979, the kind of “noise” I was looking for wouldn’t be audible through the ears, but through a “social distortion.” My first performances were pretty simple small-scale single actions, but because of people’s reactions to them, over the years the performances became more and more over-the-top. By the mid-80’s, we were using agitators in the audience to lead everyone to “run ruin.” It didn’t take long before we didn’t need the agitators. By 1990, all we had to do was just show up onstage, and the audience would go nuts! These really were my celebrations of entropy. Now, I should point out here, that these big total smash-’em-up shows got boring fast. For me, personally. The other performers enjoyed them; audiences loved them; I still get asked to do them. But I just needed to keep moving forward. I’m not trying to make a “statement” with my art; I’m trying to make a journey.
ZB: After people became more familiar with your shows, how difficult was it to find venues to perform? What were some of the unusual places you’ve performed in?
GX: Oh my, yes; in the early years I’d have to leave town a number of times. By the late ’80s I had to leave Denver as I got banned from every venue and campus in Colorado. During the early ’90s, I had to leave San Francisco a few times too—actually, by the late ’90s I stopped doing the big smash-em-up shows because while I had been banned from every alternative space in town.
ZB: You had an issue with venues, and a reputation, yet you played a large number of shows in your lifetime. How were you able to perform so much?
GX: Because what I did was totally honest. I was always honest and everyone knew it. My support base, my fan base, had a much stronger influence than that of the club-owners or other such people.
ZB: Describe some of the most memorable shows you had with the Haters. How important was audience participation to your performances?
GX: At the Kennel Club we suspended an ion-gun to charge the entire audience to 5000 volts. The hundred and sixty audience members chased one another giving each other shocks. People were getting up on tables and chairs, reaching towards the high-voltage grid, hoping to get more of a charge to give even bigger shocks to their friends. This ion-gun was designed and built for The Haters by Greg Leyh, the mild-mannered champion of electric-tainment [and a longtime SRL crew member]. I opened up for Con-Dom in Bordeaux, France in ’92. During the performance, this tiny girl kept jumping up on stage and punching me as hard as she could. She kept this up for the whole performance. Luckily for me she didn’t have a lot of upper body strength. Still, by the end of it all, I was really sore.
I got used to being kicked offstage by promoters who didn’t understand what they were getting themselves into by booking me in the first place. The fastest I ever got kicked off the stage was in Boston in ’96. The club staff became so panic-stricken by my set-up that I got kicked out of the club before I even got to do a soundcheck! This, despite a long line of people outside waiting to get in.
ZB: What some of the items you’ve used in your performances? When did you start creating your own instruments and tools for shows?
GX: Nothing was ever spontaneous. Every show was the outcome of hours, if not days or weeks, of planning. It all started with rubbing amplified calculators against sandpaper. Some years later, I used amplified electric drills to turn wood into sawdust. Than, by ’91 it was the “clicki-clic”; a hand-held hole-punch mounted with a contact-mic. It made such an oddly happy noise. One of my dearest SRL colleagues, Brian Normanly, suggested using amplified power grinders to wear stuff down. He said if I was really into entropy, I should just go with the basics. Well, I couldn’t argue with logic like that!
This action would be a recurring motif for me for years. As I moved away from destroying debris en masse to specifically eroding one particular object over a span of time, I experimented with my own type of narrative arc… In a performance piece titled “Mind The Gap” I would use an amplified staple-gun to shatter a stack of LPs. A taller stack was used every time I did the piece.
Then there was “Drunk On Decay” in which a suspended, amplified funnel was allowed to drag and erode on a spinning sandpaper turntable. Every time the piece was performed, the funnel was hanging from something larger or heavier than the time before. Over time the dangling went from being mounted from a shovel to people to motorcycles. The last time my funnel collided with sandpaper, it was from under an elevated truck on top of a repair-shop hoist. I still plan to hang my funnel from under a raised house at some future point!
The most eventful phase in my use of sound in performance came when, instead of amplifying common tools, I started having my own costume devices built that were made solely for the purpose of making noise. By the late 1990’s I became obsessed with the idea of a contrast between what the sound was, and how the sound was made. Juxtaposition as narrative.
At the first annual San Francisco Bay Area Harsh Noise Festival in 2004, I had taken an old record player and replaced the cartridge and arm with an amplified toy shovel. Instead of playing records, the shovel would drag against the bare turntable. That night Emil Beaulieau named it “The Spinner Spade.” Plumes of smoke were expelled from the speakers as my Spinner Spade discharged a deafening, full-spectrum noise…
Since then I’ve made a number of different Spinner Spades in all shapes and sizes. Each Spinner was just that much noisier than the one before.
Perhaps the only project of mine that is really, entirely sound-based is a piece I first performed in 2003. I had asked myself: if sound could have a psychic weight, what would it be? I did some research, but I decided the answer probably had little to do with measurement. In this piece, entitled “Audiothecary,” amplified balance scales are used as a performance-based utility for finding the weight of sound. The scales’ beam with both of its two pans at either end are all wired to function as one large microphone. Any slight touch, even breathing on them, would produce a very substantial noise.
After 2010, I was doing a performance piece entitled “Loud Luggage / Booming Baggage.” Mainly, we operated amplified suitcases, shaking and banging them about till the luggage eventually broke.
More recently I perform with my Pump-Powered Permawave, which is a pump-activated synthesizer built to resemble a vintage suitcase. I pump away and it makes this deep low-end pulse. At this point, now in 2017, I do a piece I call the “Totimorphous Ubiety Guide” (or TUG). I built this hand-held analog device out of old camera parts. It requires two people to operate. While I handle the controls, my wife Jessica King pulls and pushes on the machine’s rigid side-spring. Each tug affects the sound produced, with the end result being a slow pulse.
ZB: What excites you most about your performances?
GX: How, after 38 years of doing this, people seem just as confused now as ever about what I’m doing. What could be more life-affirming?
ZB: Are there any tools or objects you’ve tried performing with that didn’t work out? Are there any you wish you had used or couldn’t due to safety precautions or venue stipulations?
GX: I’m still hoping to get shot out of a cannon. One of these days!
ZB: Will you talk about your work with Survival Research Laboratories and how you became involved?
GX: I interviewed Mark Pauline for a radio show I was doing at the time. This was back in 1986. We became good friends afterwards. I ended up living with Mark at the old SRL compound off San Bruno and Army for something like 10 years. He has always been very supportive of my projects. So I did the live soundtracks for 9 SRL shows, starting with the SFMOMA groundbreaking ceremony in 1992. The last SRL show I was involved with was at The Legion of Honor in 2002. Most of my soundtracks for Mark were a live mix of cartoon sound effects. Well, Mark seemed to enjoy them.
During the 90’s, most of the core members of the SRL crew were involved in The Haters one way of the other. Many of them would perform with me on stage as members of The Haters. A few of them, designed and built stuff for The Haters. Chip Flynn designed and built these large metal puppets we used a few times in performance. A lot of SRL people also helped out in my video and film projects, both behind and in front of the camera. It was an intensely creative time for us all.
ZB: Explain what is importance of entropy in your work.
GX: I embrace beauty. Entropy makes everything beautiful. Even angels have to rot in the ground before they can fly in the sky. Oh come on, how hard is that to understand? Especially if you ever saw those early Survival Research Labs robots made of repurposed dead animals.
ZB: Throughout your life, what were some of the most significant collaborations you’ve done?
GX: I’ve been collaborating with AMK the longest. We’ve been involved in each other’s projects since the very early 80’s. Starting in ’89 we tried to play gin rummy to a million. Every time we got together we would play a few hands using the normal rules and variants of the game. The idea being that after someone had reached a million points, we would stop and publish our score sheets as a big picture book.
After about ten years we had made it up to about 100,000 points each. Despite still seeing each other often as we do, we haven’t payed the game since. It was a very silly act of futility on our part. I think we just wanted to see firsthand just how hard it would be the do something that senseless.
Interesting side note: AMK is the only noise artist I know who has been sued by a major oil company. Back in 1985, AMK’s record label, Banned Productions (which was also the first American label to release Japanese noise), had appropriated the BP logo as its own. The criminals at British Petroleum actually thought the public might confuse their large scale acts of petro-terrorism with the vision and mission of a small DIY record label. The whole thing was stupid and stressful. They ended up settling out of court.
ZB: You’ve talked about discovering that certain noises were actually sound fetishes for you. What were these and how do they relate to entropy and decomposition?
GX: If you ask me which came first, my interest with entropy as a thing of beauty, or my fetish for the “sounds of things falling apart,” I’d have to say it’s much like the chicken and the egg. One didn’t come before the other; they evolved simultaneously. You don’t need to listen to anything I’ve ever recorded to hear entropy. Entropy is all around us: whenever you hear a fire engine, a car crash, an explosion, or… you are getting another opportunity to savor that sweet, sweet sound of entropy.
I destroy out of joy, not despair. I don’t destroy out of anger; I destroy out of curiosity. I tear things apart to see what makes them tick. I want to take time apart to see what makes it tick-tock. My noise acts as a kind of audio account or authentic evidence of this ceaseless, perpetual bittersweet happiness we call entropy.
ZB: Can you give some examples of the best reactions you’ve had?
GX: Ruth Norman, who you may know as Uriel of the Unarius Society, was something of a penpal of mine back in the ’80s. After I expanded my number system (the trans-expansion numeral units) to her, she started sending me copies of her books and videos which were quite numerous. I just couldn’t keep up with all of this frequent correspondence from her—she was such a sweet, dear lady.
The first time I performed in Philadelphia, fans brought their own power tools to help smash the place up—that was neat!
After a screening of a video I did on lesbian vampires, a woman came up and told me that if she had ever had any doubts about being gay before seeing this piece of mine, those doubts had now completely disappeared! But I think maybe my favorite reaction to anything I’ve done is when I designed and manufactured my own ruler. It has symbols and markers that don’t conform to any other. Elementary grade school teachers bought lots of them to share with their students: it was a way of getting the kids excited about the idea of measuring!
ZB: Why do you incorporate Mexican wrestling into your performances? Is anonymity during performances a part of your art?
GX: Just the opposite, actually. Wrestling masks don’t hide the face, they reveal the true face. Actually, the reason for using hoods and masks in performance has a pragmatic function. In my early days as a performance artist, I was always traveling alone. I’d have local performers join me when I came to a new town. To give The Haters a consistent look from place to place, I’d have everyone wear the same wrestling masks. If we didn’t have our masks on, people wouldn’t have known it was really us!
Wrestling has always been a source of inspiration for me. Wrestling is the purest form of theatre of the absurd; one of non-confrontational violence where stereotypes are exaggerated beyond all recognition.
Since its premiere in early 1999, my Untitled Title Belt has become my main sound source both on stage and in the studio. Just by looking at this belt, one wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that this implement is a combination microphone, distortion-pedal, and noise generator. It was fashioned after the traditional championship wrestling belt. Beat that, “wearables” fans.
ZB: Would you describe the destruction and chaos of The Haters shows as an audio assault that acted as a catalyst for change? Was it ever about a personal catharsis?
GX: The performances are celebrations, first and foremost. But they’re also a form of mediation for me. I guess that makes them both a catalyst for change and a personal catharsis.
ZB: Wil you talk about your books and films?
GX: Over the years I’ve written four novels. I wrote these “noise novels” by combining different writing techniques into a literary hiss, or full-spectrum text. Passages of random letters would represent nothingness, while whole sections of entirely self-invented words represented the spiritual. Regular words were reserved for the physical.
I wanted my books to have more opinions than words—so many, in fact, that the text should seem devoid of intent, while overwhelmed by impulsively heedful actions. In other words: a disposal of loosely precise jargons in a mass of meliorations predetermined by accident. Don’t underestimate the communicative potential of the soundbite. One opinion after another adds up to form an equation whose sum is zero.
A Noisy Delivery, which I completed a few years ago, was my first attempt to make a feature-length narrative. It’s about this girl who leaves her boyfriend waiting while she stops by the post office. It’s a post office where people go for philosophy instead of postage. The soundtrack is a composition of broken toy pianos and amplified erosion. As the ideas in the movie get more difficult, the soundtrack gets denser.
I’m currently in post-production with my second feature Omniwave Refresher. It’s about scientists who use public transportation. Actually, it’s going to be the same story told three different ways. As a documentary for Act 1, as a puppet show in Act 2, and as a drama for Act 3. It stars Dakota The Bearded Lady as the chief scientist.
ZB: What is your approach with your art within the context of a “gallery event” compared to “music venue”?
GX: These days, there’s no difference: whatever they need from me is what I give them! It’s always been a collaboration. The venues and I both have a better understanding of this relationship.
ZB: Did you want to say something about your units of measurement and your life philosophy behind this?
GX: The distance between ideas and those words used to express those thoughts are measured in ming waves. Standstills, momentary pauses, are measured in omniwaves. Any sudden movement is measured in permawaves. The polywave is used to measure the self-contradictory nature of moment itself. The romawave was used to measure the distance something travels before it is forgotten. And then there’s the xylowave. You use the xylowave to measure the distance between something and nothing. These are all different means of measuring different types of voids. I like voids, and their warm embrace. There’s more to nothingness than empty space!
ZB: Will you talk about your interest in fluxus art?
GX: Personally, I’m much more interested in Dada, Lettrism, and the Situationists. These were artists who weren’t afraid to be offensive or political. However, I’ve always admired the work of Allan Kaprow—in particular, his performance piece “Women licking jam off a car.” It has a kind of conceptual patina to it. It’s maybe my favorite art piece of any kind by any one.
ZB: I’d like to hear about your zines.
GX: I’ve contributed to many zines by other people over the years; especially during the 1980s. My own zines at that time were one-offs mostly about my number system. In the ’90s I published “Scraps Of Paper.” This was a noise zine, but in some ways it had more to do with poetry and philosophy. The last issue came out in 2003.
ZB: Who is someone you really admire as a sound artist?
GX: Damion Romero is, in my humble opinion, the greatest living noisician. In the ’80s his noise project was Speculum Fight. More recently he’s been collaborating with John Wiese as Waves. Damion, more than anyone else, exemplifies the idea that one listens to noise with one’s whole body, not just the ears. Damion live is a big bear hug of sound that squeezes you tight. Very tight!