Sunday, April 19, 2015

Interview with Alexandra Pharmakidis of Power Monster

Dissonance is a human concept, though largely an elusive one. The same notes that might sound out of place on a European piano piece might be perfectly tailored to a Japanese folk song on the shamisen. "Noise" as we think of it today has always existed, though it has not always been recorded. I briefly likened the sound of power electronics and noise to the great and terrible forces of nature in my interview with Jim Haras of Deterge and it's true - a good noise show transfers sublimity onto the listener like the sound of a dozen redwoods falling in unity. In Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke talks about beauty as something that fits nicely into a form, like the gentle neck of a swan or the notes and harmonies of Handel's "Messiah." The sublime is something formless and unknowable. As far as sublimity in recorded music goes, I'd argue that while classical, baroque, and jazz can be sublime in grandiosity, the form in which the substance fits still languish in the Romantic idea of beauty. I think of the scores behind Fritz Lang's films as being both sublime and beautiful - obviously the visuals have something to do with the music being sublime, but it's not experimental or unexpected and at the bottom of everything, it's still nice.

When people like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen began putting their mark on instrumental music, things began to get sublime as fuck and F-A-S-T. This trajectory of music as an unwelcome, nebulous, possibly destructive and monstrous force has continued to evolve through the 80s and 90s when artists like Incapacitants, Hijokaidan, Whitehouse, Merzbow, Atrax Morgue, Genocide Organ, MSBR, and Maurizio Bianchi did their best to keep the train moving-right-along.  All aboard the abstruse caboose.

Except now there are people who listen to noise. People are no longer shocked by noise. And sometimes noise fits nicely into a "noise form." So does that make it beautiful? Does that cheapen its effect? Does noise become both priest and heretic to its message?

Doesn't matter, but it's a cool thought exercise. If you listen to noise or are new to its call, Alexandra Pharmakidis' solo project Power Monster can be both sublime and beautiful. To the untrained listener, it can seem overwhelming, but it's also the sound of transcendence. Occasionally, Ali's vocals break through the static. The listener leans in to hear what secrets emerge from the small hole in the wall only to find the opening to have changed positions. It's a give and take interaction. The listener puts in what he or she will take out. I find that I enjoy reading while listening - for me, Ali's music has crossed the threshold of harsh into calming, meditative. The world takes all kinds.

Give her new tape on PopNihil a listen and a pick up on their bandcamp page

Jordan Reyes: The PopNihil cassette is actually the first Power Monster release that I own but I’ve heard your stuff online before. I was looking at the track listing and a lot of the songs seem very existential, conscious-based. Do you think about that a lot?

Alexandra Pharmakidis: Oh yeah. Constantly. It’s hard for me to stop, which can be exhausting. Working on noise gives the thoughts directions so they’re not just stewing in my brain.

Photo by Gyna Bootleg
JR: I couldn’t really make out the vocals on your tape What do you talk about?

AP: That’s a conscious thing. I like the vocals to be buried, chopped up, and as difficult as the rest of the music is. I feel like some of my lyrics are so goofy or personal. I’m pretty shy so it is hard for me to let them out and be heard for what they are.

JR: Why would you choose to put in lyrics if it’s so uncomfortable?

AP: I just feel driven to get those thoughts and emotions out: to release that tension and anxiety rather than holding it in all the time. That’s not really healthy.

JR: Is that why you sought out and decided to do noise?

AP: Well, I’ve been drawn to noise and experimental music for a really long time. I find creating it compelling. There’s no boundaries with noise: you can make it with anything - any kind of gear or trash and endlessly manipulate it digitally. That’s very meditative for me. I can do it for hours and hours and hours. I can read music and plunk out a tune on the keyboard. My piano teacher when I was eight actually told my mother to give up on me.

JR: Oh my gosh!

AP: Apparently the talent just wasn’t there.

JR: Wow, that’s like super cruel!

AP: Yeah. (laughs). And I have some minor nerve damage that affects my right hand so I can’t play traditional instruments as much as I might like to.

JR: Do you mind me asking what happened?

AP: No, that’s no problem. About two years ago I woke up and my right hand was numb. I thought it was Carpal-Tunnel at first, but I realized that the numbness was spreading up my arm and going down my body. It got to the point where I couldn’t make a fist. It turned out to be an inflammation of nerves in my spine that was affecting my hands. It’s much better now, but they still don’t know what caused it.

JR: Did you have to get surgery?

AP: They gave me steroids to bring down the inflammation, I got acupuncture, and then there was physical and occupational therapy to rebuild the muscles in my hands. The sensation in my hand is about 75% of what it was. That’s what it will probably stay at.

JR: Wow, that’s terrifying. I’ve never had anything like that happen. I’ve had a lot of injuries, but they’ve all been from doing stupid things. The idea of not having control over something that’s so physically affecting has got to be unsettling.

AP: It was and is. It was a rough few months right before I moved from Austin, TX.

JR: I didn’t know you were from Austin.

AP: I grew up in Providence, but I lived in Austin for about eleven years.

JR: Why the move?

Photo by Gyna Bootleg
AP: Oh no. It was because I had 50K in medical debt (laughs). I couldn’t use my hand so I lost my job. I got really depressed. My boyfriend broke up with me.

JR: That’s super rough.

AP: I was originally intending on moving back to Austin, but it’s gotten so expensive there and gentrified. It’s a completely different beast than the city I moved to. I decided to stay in Providence and put down roots, which I think was a good decision.

JR: I’ve never been to Texas or Providence. I’ve been to a lot of places around the country because I drive a lot. That’s meditative for me. One day. Does noise give you a sense of control when you play or make music?

AP: When I’m working on tracks and recording absolutely. When I’m playing live, it’s almost completely the opposite. I know I have a good set if I sort of black out. I go to another place, really. I’ll have to watch the video later to see what it sounded like and what actually happened.

JR: Do you get that sensation frequently?

AP: Pretty much every time I play unless it’s a really bad set when I’m tense, nervous and concentrating on everything too much. That’s usually when things go wrong and I remember every excruciating detail.

JR: Is there a ritual to gear your mind into that place?

AP: Not really. I try to have a couple beers before I play. Any more and I’ll be sloppy. Any less and I’ll be too tense. Then just making sure I can set up as early as possible so I know everything works and I know where my levels are. I hate having to set up right before I play and getting to check. I don’t like having people waiting around while I’m plugging in cables.

JR: I hear you. I do sort of a dark folk thing and I just have my acoustic guitar, a pick up, a couple pedals, an amp and I don’t have to check anything. When I’ve seen people prepare for noise it’s very, very intensive. It can take as long as the set.

AP: Yeah, yeah, it definitely can. And gear malfunctions are par for the course. I recently played at AS220 here in Providence. I don’t know how much you know about gear in noise, but I had a DOD Buzzbox, which is a highly coveted pedal by some noise artists because they don’t make them anymore. It’s gone through so much abuse that the shell has actually crumbled. I was testing it out, turning it off and on, and it literally fell to bits on the table. I had a little bit of a meltdown (laughs). I was checking Ebay and one in mint condition goes for about $300, which is not quite in my budget right now.

JR: That’s a ton of money. So, to answer your question - I don’t know that much about noise equipment - I know how things work in terms of circuitry but I don’t have any sort of mental catalogue of pedals. I would just know what makes what sound it would make if you told me what it was and how everything works together. When you do noise, you do have to know all these pedals though, right?

Photo by Gyna Bootleg
AP: Pretty much. I’ve spent many, many nights on wikipedia and pedal forum k-holes reading up on stuff because I’m always looking to change my set up a little bit. What tweaks can I do to make the sound more full? I read about pedals and gear a lot. By comparison, I’m not even a gear nerd (laughs).

JR: Do you think people are generally collaborative and willing to help when you have questions?

AP: Oh yeah. The noise community is an open, friendly place. A lot of the imagery is foreboding - lots of sex and violence, but most of the people involved are the nicest people that you could get to meet. There are lots of people who will answer any questions you might have about gear, or tell you where to go to get gear repaired or get new gear. There’s also noise forums for that. In comparison to some people, I’m not a big gear nerd. I don’t even have that big of a set up.

JR: What does “not that big of a set up” mean?

AP: (Laughs) It means my live set up is two pedal chains and a contact mic. I don’t have multiple synths or chains of twenty pedals or anything like that.

JR: The only noise I’ve really made is with people manipulating my guitar sound or using my electric guitar as a more percussive instrument.

AP: That’s actually something I used to do in a project I was in called Sex Bruises. It was kind of guitar rape (laughs).

JR: That’s really vivid (laughs). I think using things atypically is always interesting. So what was your first noise project?

AP: I had been messing around with noise without calling it a “project” for a long time. In my storage space in Austin, I have tapes going back to the early 2000s but I didn’t really have like a “project.” I was too shy to even name it! So Power Monster is my first solo project and then in Texas I was in a number of different projects. Sex Bruises was a duo project I was in with  Matt LaComette. I was also in Mucophagia, which is a really dorky name (laughs).

JR: I have no idea what that means.

AP: It’s the medical term for the compulsion to eat your own snot (laughs). That was me, Matt LaComette, and Johnny Cash. There were a few others. When I moved to Providence, I didn’t really know anyone when I first got here because I hadn’t lived here in years. I really went for putting out as much Power Monster material as possible. It was really the first chance I had had in a while to concentrate just on that.

JR: What ideas do you try to get across in Power Monster as opposed to in a group?

Photo by Gyna Bootleg
AP: That’s a hard one because it’s so abstract. It varies from release to release. I did a release last winter on Altar of Waste, which is a CD-R label out of Minneapolis called Love is a Lie and that was obviously an angry post-break-up thing because I had that to get out (laughs). I did another on the same label called Leviticus, which was me reflecting on religion and how women are just held down globally by it and have been for centuries. I have addressed the issue of being a female in noise because that is kind of an anomaly. It’s easy, I think, to go on a feminist diatribe about how it’s not fair that there aren’t enough women in music, et cetera, et cetera. It’s really easy to do something like that. It’s much harder and cathartic to put yourself out there and start making things and releasing things. People will pay attention.

JR: Absolutely. I was talking to my friend Lauren [Bach] in Chicago. I just moved to Miami and honestly just got an apartment last week (laughs) so it’s been very recent. She was a bit taken aback by the pressure for women power electronics artists to become this overly-sexualized woman. Both of us didn’t think that a woman should have to play into this trope and be objectified or let yourself be objectified to have success in noise. I think everyone should be able to do what they want, but it does make me feel a bit disheartened to see that as being the reason behind female noise musicians' success - being exactly what every noise nerd wants to see.

AP: Oh yeah. I’ve definitely used images of my own body on my tapes and releases. I have no shame about it. I used to get really annoyed about noise releases that had porn on them. You see that a lot, especially on 90s Japanoise tapes. It's just been done so much. It really bugs me. Someone asked me “What’s the difference? You’re putting your body out on display.” But it’s me. It’s not just some girl cut up from a magazine who has no idea it’s happening. I can express myself however I damn well please.

JR: There’s a difference between affirmation and exploitation too.

AP: For sure. And I don’t feel like I’m exploiting myself by doing that.

JR: I couldn’t help but read on your Facebook page that some shop refused to print some of the J-cards for the PopNihil release.

AP: Yeah! They printed part of it, but then they stopped! That was highly amusing. It wasn’t that big of a deal. Matthew Moyer, who runs PopNihil and is the nicest guy, just asked around “Where do the punks in town get their fliers printed? Okay, I’ll go there.” and he just went there and they printed them without even batting an eye.

JR: Yeah. He’s a total sweetheart. I met him one of the first weekends I moved down here at the International Noise Conference and we were kindred spirits almost immediately. But yeah, that was a bit funny to hear. Do you have any other Power Monster releases or shows coming up?

AP: Yeah! I’m going to be doing a release for Signora Ward Records - they’re a tape label in Italy. Omar from Rectal Hygienics asked me to do something for Depravity Label. Matthew Moyer is interested in doing a tape for a project I’m in called Mercy Gait, which is me and my friend Steph who used to be in Tinsel Teeth. That’s sort of a bondage noise project. We build contact mics into bondage gear. We have a few shows coming up on May 5th and June 1st. And then there’s a Power Monster show at the end of the month here in Providence.


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