I think the first thing you hear on "Plexiglas Torture Chamber" is a field recording from the 2012 St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Des Moines that I made on my Sony M-529V microcassette recorder. You can hear me, my wife and son, a couple friends of ours who were visiting from Waterloo, the crowd around us, and the vehicles passing by in the parade itself. I faded this out after a couple minutes and then brought it back in later in the piece.
The foundation of these first 14 minutes or so, however, comes from a ground hum. I find that ground hum can make an interesting instrument, or at least the starting point of one. It's a bit like no-input techniques, though I stumbled onto it long before I became aware of no-input. I first experimented with this kind of use of electrical hum in the early days of one of my old bands, Passage Of Deformed Man Supermarket: I set up as if to play guitar but the end of the cable where a guitar would plug in, I instead just left the cable lying on the floor, then altered the tone of the hum with a wah pedal. I found that this made an interesting didgeridoo-like sound. Of course with more effects, especially anything that shifts pitch, the possibilities are very broad. You can also do different things to the hum by touching the end of the cable with your fingers or even sticking it in your mouth. (I am not responsible if you electrocute yourself.)
In this particular instance however, the hum came from a contact microphone stuck to one of those thin sheets of plexiglass used as the front of cheap poster frames, which is indeed where I got this one. The contact microphone was a GetLoFi one I had originally got from one of the Ring Toss Twins at a show in Decorah, Iowa. While recording the song "Missing" on my tape "Teen Lust", I had duct-taped it to a wooden chair in order to sample a wooden percusion sound into my SK-5, which can be heard in that song, but the way I had taped it, I ended up bending it and damaging the element when I tried to remove it from the chair, and it has hummed loudly and made a lot of crackly shorting-out noises ever since. I had stuck it to this plexiglass sheet with a glob of poster-sticking stuff, but then while trying to find a way to reduce the hum I found that I got some interesting results and different levels of intensity out of the hum itself by applying different combinations of effects on my Boss ME-30 to it, particularly with some delay involved. There may have been a mixer feedback loop in there too, I don't recall. So I came up with a sequence of effects changes to take it through and recorded it, timing the changes of effects by the tape counter on the 4-track.
Overdubbed onto this, I improvised more droning stuff on the Monotron Duo, just going along with the changes in mood from the different effects coming in and out, and then finally, over those I played the contact-miked plexiglass sheet itself; I found that the hum was considerably reduced if I pitch-shifted it down a certain amount, so I played it that way with some reverb and did various manipulations of the sheet, mostly shaking it around, but also rubbing the edges with my fingers and during the really intense parts sometimes whipping it with a patch cable, which after a while made large cracks in it that had interesting effect on its sounds.
The parade recording is reintroduced for the second section, along with a contact-mic recording of my washing machine. Then the humming contact mic and Monotron come back in but a bit more in the foreground, winding this piece to a more tranquil conclusion.
This album being inspired by my trip to the Minneapolis Noise Fest, for "Nearby Trains" I started with an instrumental track called "Mpls." by Ed Gray, a pretty guitar thing that appeared on this cassette compilation called "Squirrel Energy Now" that came out sometime around 1994. I took this and turned it into a long ambient drone using Kent Williams's OSX build of PaulStretch (http://music.cornwarning.com/2011/12/07/new-paulstretch-os-x-build/). Along with this I think I also played the glass door of the cabinet of my stereo with a different (not broken) contact microphone. The stereo is a late-'80s/early-'90s Sony component system that I recently bought from a guy on Craigslist, and along with it he gave me a box of cassette tapes, and as luck would have it, two of the tapes were recordings of trains that I guess were sold as some sort of tourist souvenier, and I used one of those in this track. I've always been fascinated with the sounds of trains since I was a kid, which was why I chose to call my project Distant Trains -- I thought I should name it after a sound I like -- and the venue where the Minneapolis Noise Fest took place was right next to a Metro Transit train station. I ran all this stuff together into my old Equinox ACM-1262 mixer, along with some more ME-30 effects, and cranked the low frequencies up (i have a thing for low sounds) and overdrove the channels of the 4-track way into the red, just trying to get everything to sound real distorted and crumbly, like a mellowed-out version of harsh noise or power electronics. All this I just started up together and let run, essentially playing and recording it live in my living room with no overdubbing.
I had made some microcassette recordings at the Noise Fest as well, snippets of the performances as well as of fun conversations I had with a few people and other sounds going on at the venue, including the trains coming and going at the train station. I decided to include this material mostly as the B side of the cassette version. Again, as luck would have it, I had just in the neighborhood of 45 minutes of this stuff. I bounced it, with a few edits to skip certain things, from the microcassette recorder to the master cassette via my stereo's tape deck, using the stereo's EQ to try to boost up the bass frequencies to help it sound a bit less boxy and more pleasant to listen to.
People doing cassette releases now are more likely to use unmarked tapes that you order from a supplier rather than the retail ones you'd buy at the department stores with the branding all over them, you can barely even find those now. Back in the day a lot of us didn't have any idea where to get these tapes. Plus you can get them in cool colors, and people are doing a lot more artistic things with the tape itself these days like painting them or making a really artistic label to stick on them.
The technology is a lot more available for people now to do at least part of the process digitally if you want to. Some folks are kind of purist about making a master tape from wav files or anything like that, but back in the 1990s I'd have killed to be able to mix down to or edit on something digital, if it'd meant that the end product I sent out to people would sound better than what I was able to make on my cheap bookshelf stereo. We had computers then but the hard drive capacity and processor performance weren't anything like now so the PC you had at home wasn't practical for doing any real recording on, let alone with software you could download for free. You can do stuff with home recording now that I used to dream about. A lot of times I mix down to wav files on my computer and make the master tape from those once I've picked out what songs are going to go on in what order, but other times I don't. With Minnesota Is Uncivilized, I mixed from the 4-track right to the tape I then used as the master, no computers involved.
Overall though, the tapes people are putting out these days, myself included, seem on average to be much better quality, whether it's due to any uses of digital technology or just being smarter about how they use the cassette technology, and people's tapes are visually cooler as well. Getting back into cassettes appealed to me because I noticed there was renewed interest in buying music on tape, especially experimental stuff, and I had a lot of experience doing things with cassettes so I figured I could do things at a good quality.
There's a different motivation about it now. In the old days, cassette was just the only format we had available to the home-recording hobbyist or local band, or at least was what we could afford. Now of course there's CD-Rs or you can just put stuff up for download and it even seems like it's easier, maybe cheaper, to have vinyl done if you're so inclined; there are more choices, so those doing cassette tapes are doing it by choice and simply because tapes are fun or because it just feels right. Sure, cassette is a bit impractical maybe, people have made that argument, but this is art, practical isn't the point.
And of course it's easier to get word out these days about a tape you're doing. I kind of miss the little paper ad slips that would get circulated around with tapes in the mail back in the days but there's kind of not much point to them now.
The Minneapolis Noise Fest stands out for me as a new experience, for being an all-noise lineup rather than like a noisy band stuck in the middle of an indie rock or hardcore bill, and for the predominance of really harsh-sounding and non-rhythm-driven styles. I suppose one could say that I've been recording and listening to noise and even playing noise live occasionally since my first forays into music-making, though I struggle with what to categorize as noise versus some other kind of music, as a lot of what I've done in the past kind of had one foot in noise and one somewhere else. But at the fest, for once it was the case that if I _had_ been playing a noise set at that show, I probably would have been the tamest act, rather than what I'm used to, always being the oddballs or the only noise band in town. I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa and a lot of my early history as a musician went down in the neighboring college town Cedar Falls. There was no kind of noise scene there at that time. Probably still not much of one now.
There's always been an experimental bent in my own music, though it varies between projects or even songs/pieces. I'd definitely been on more of a songwriter kick since about 2006, but started to re-connect with noisy things a year or two ago. I started finding a lot of noise musicians online that I remembered from the tape scene in the 1990s, I met Bryan Day when I went to Lincoln to play some songs, and later met Brian Noring in person. Being invited into Hal McGee's "Contact Group of Homemade Experimental Electronic Music and Noise" Facebook group has been a huge influence, I started participating in the the Exquisite Corpse project and getting into a lot of interesting conversations there and it sparked a lot of ideas. All these goings-on got me very inspired. As a result, Distant Trains sort of mutated into a reboot of my old '90s tape project Flight Attendants. I definitely recognize a lot of my creative approaches from from those days re-emerging, but I feel like now I'm pulling them off better. "Minnesota Is Uncivilized" is probably my most full-on noise release so far; I'd already had a noise album in progress called "Explortation" which I've occasionally put bits of up on Soundcloud and Tapegerm, and hope to have out soon.