International Noise Conference points to tomorrow’s avant-garde

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[This first appeared in The Pitch Weekly, June 2016]

Piper Harrow is busy enough without having to deal with this damn generator.

Outside, a dozen or so punks have arrived early at the Hidden Temple, the forlorn warehouse off Southwest Boulevard where Harrow books below-the-radar shows — including this June 22 Kansas City tour stop of the International Noise Conference. The punks kick at gravel outside and smoke cigarettes, waiting to hear noise. But the generator won’t start, so the speakers sit silent.

The International Noise Conference, a touring magnet for a city’s loudest, weirdest acts, has come to the Hidden Temple because Harrow and others heeded a call from a man named Frank Falestra. Better known as Rat Bastard, Falestra is, at 55, one of the world’s best-known purveyors of shattering, screaming noise. Every February for the past 15 years or so, he has hosted the conference a couple of miles from his Miami home, at a place called Churchill’s, a monstrous pub in Little Haiti so impossibly shabby it makes most Kansas City dives seem like your grandmother’s house. Dozens of acts spend a weekend playing cacophonous 15-minute sets; there are proper guitar-and-drums bands playing grindcore and speed metal, and there is electronic experimentation, and there is circuit bending. (Falestra himself opts for instruments — electric guitar and violin, mostly.) The medium barely matters. What matters is creating the unexpected. What matters are decibels.

Then, in the summer, Falestra takes his show on the road. Harrow is from Florida and has witnessed some wild nights at Churchill’s, so when Falestra was looking for a show in Kansas City, word got back to Harrow, whose Hidden Temple has been a sanctuary for events too late or too loud for other venues. This Wednesday night, then, represents an opportunity for the city’s blooming noise and experimental-music scene to show off its varied artists. This Is My Condition, the avant-garde hardcore project of Kansas City musician Craig Comstock, headlines the local roster, which also includes subdued ambient and drone alongside the chaotic clamor that dominates the 11-act road show.

But only if that generator starts.

It takes a gas can and some tinkering, but finally Harrow pulls the cord and the generator roars to life. Some folks standing nearby shake their fists in the air, victorious. Black smoke drifts up from the machine. The air smells acrid. “Burning a bit of that excess oil off,” Harrow says as the punks stroll past, into the warehouse.

Inside, the lights flash on and a waiting microphone hums. As a performance space, the Hidden Temple projects a grayscale-saturated charm. White paint streaks across walls of fat cinder blocks, but otherwise everything is the color of hazy smoke. The ambiance is free-range dungeon: Two thick chains dangle from the ceiling to the floors, the buzzing floor fan near a stairwell does little to abate the swelter, and pretzels and water jugs sit on a table toward the rear of the space.

A few minutes later, a shirtless guy in a ski mask maneuvers a tangle of distortion pedals and other electronic ephemera onto a table made of an instrument stand and a square of plywood. Under the mask is Benjamin Joseph, who for the past three years has performed and released music as Contraktor and who now hunches over the table of sound-shifting gizmos. Noise squeals through the speakers, threaded through hiss and a deep rumble that bends and turns and grows ever louder. It’s the soundtrack to someone’s nightmare.

After his 15-minute set, performed alongside Oklahoma-based artist Bone Magic, Joseph explains that when he records, he prefers to track a lump of material and then mix it down to consumable blocks of noise. He’s done this a lot — his Bandcamp is a dozens-deep scroll. But live, he says, it’s all improv, just him and the circuits and endless chances to craft some new sounds. “There’s a million ways to do things,” he tells me.

A few minutes later, Noelle Johnson is standing at the back of the performance space, banging away on a drum that clearly doesn’t belong to her and wasn’t part of her original plan tonight. Wyatt Turner mollywops his bass, and the combined fury crackles behind Johnson’s throat-pulverizing screams before receding into echo.

Johnson, here as TOR, usually performs in Bath Consolidated. She tells me later that, in that full-time band, her vocals are a kind of spoken-word scaffolding for music that varies from bass-heavy, guttural noise to dub beats. Even in this setting, she says, she tries to lend cohesion to the chaos of improvisation.

“Honestly, I feel like, with noise, this is the genre that actually needs structure,” she says. “As the vocalist, I sort of establish measures within the noise.”

And then the noise resumes: As Johnson and I finish talking, a band called Did Is Dead starts its set inside, making further conversation impossible. It’s a traditional punk act from Oakland, and its inclusion in what has otherwise been a musical laboratory speaks to KC’s amorphous overlapping of the punks and the noise-curious and the underground dancers and the performance-art supporters.

That’s the scene, Harrow says.

“There’s a lot of different threads,” Harrow tells me. “A lot of it is people who started making this music. Maybe now they make house music or performance art, or they just do plays or write.” Artists, music fans, weirdos — whatever you call them, they want to plug into a different creative outlet.

Harrow says the people who play the Hidden Temple have often never performed in public before. And booking those unheard voices is what’s crucial — voices of feminism, of trans and queer bodies. “People who aren’t the most keen to get up and say something often have a lot of good things to say,” Harrow says. So that’s the goal. Say something. Make some noise.

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