"If I were to ‘play something,’ I don't think I'd ever feel satisfied. What I really want is to take that thing and transform it, process it into something else."
Without putting any further wear on tired, cursory, (even desultory?) artistic qualifiers like “prolific” and “hardworking,” I’ll say that, having known him for quite a while now, I’m still awed and enthused by the commitment and drive of John Wiese—the Los Angeles-based artist, composer, publisher of books and records, graphic designer, typographer, and many other things. Recently, Wiese has been in residence at the hallowed electroacoustic music center Ina/GRM in Paris, on tour with his grindcore unit Sissy Spacek, and then immediately on tour again solo. He also made a stop at New York’s Anthology Film Archives to present a program of his video works—a medium rapidly and vigorously incorporated into his practice over the last few years. Our conversation began shortly after Wiese had interviewed me for a new project of his.
C. Spencer Yeh Tell us about this film you're working on.
John Wiese It's a talking-head oral history of a noise label from Los Angeles called Troniks, which had a heyday in the mid-2000s.
CSY Because noise had its heyday in the 2000s? (laughter)
JW Well, Ron Lessard [who ran the label RRRecords in the '80s and '90s] would contend that noise has a resurgence every ten years or so, which seems rather true. That would indicate there should be a boom right about now.
CSY Yeah, I can count at least six power electronics festivals in New York alone just this past year, and a lot of it is propped up by people doing it well elsewhere, like in Dayton, Ohio—which is where you're headed soon, right?
JW Yes, I'm playing the Amplified Humans Festival. It's a pretty solid lineup and really exciting to see these Midwestern cities stepping up and producing really great events and artists.
But—getting back to the Troniks documentary—what I think is unique about that label's story is that it really, consciously or unconsciously, created a very specific but extremely inclusive community of artists that hasn't happened in quite the same way since. There was such a broad range of people, locations, and interests, all weirdly unified. Phil Blankenship had a strong hand in fostering this community. And when I say they had a heyday, I only mean that it really was the direct result of an esoteric idea about an art that can only flourish where people are talking about that particular art.
When I tour, I hear many artists that just want to play "major markets"—LA, New York, Chicago, but I don't think that those are the most interesting "markets" at all. In Los Angeles, where I live, a great show for a great artist might be attended by thirty to fifty people. It's not some blowout. Whereas you go to one of the hundred cities in Ohio and people there are not nearly so jaded. They are much more interested, enthusiastic, and supportive. They want to stimulate their city, where by default it might seem not so stimulating.
CSY For sure. There's a very legible through-line from coast to coast that crosses through all the cities in between, letting people know that they aren't crazy for being into this sort of thing. Artists in the pinky toe of the US can participate in, and hopefully shape, a larger conversation beyond their surroundings, which may not be so diverse or inclusive. You don't have to settle for any existing networks, just work at creating new ones… I'm compelled to connect this documentary to your activities as a publisher with Hesse Press—but also even before that, with Helicopter, which was your own label.
JW Helicopter has been much more of a "vanity label," since my primary interest there has been to release my own work—something I've felt strongly about, putting my money where my mouth is. But at a certain point I opened it up and published other artists. I tried to limit it to the West Coast, because I felt there were so many good artists that weren't really releasing enough, plus I wanted to travel to circulate it out a bit more. Now, I don't really see as many artists taking that aspect of the work up—that is, getting outside of their territory.
CSY So you can take the role of the artist, whatever it is you do, whatever recognition you might have, and use that as a platform for others. I'm thinking of your project Sissy Spacek, where, at its most, it's included, what, twenty people from a variety of artistic backgrounds? It goes back to this whole idea of inclusivity and making a vessel for performing this sort of music.
JW I wouldn't say that we do large ensembles solely to include people. That's just a by-product.
CSY But maybe in the same way, with your video work with Ju Suk [Reet Meate] and Rock'n'Roll Jackie, the basic mission is to document the recording sessions, but in the process, as a by-product, you create a kind of tribute, you know? A portrait. Like with Sissy Spacek, the main intention is executing your vision, the artist's vision, but the product has all these other performers who may not necessarily be in the same room otherwise.
JW There is definitely a social-community aspect to playing with people. The thing about creating art is that it always needs a community, otherwise how does it exist?
CSY Do you feel your identity as an artist is preserved when you act in a role that is serving another artist? Like when you publish or design a record cover or book?
JW I don't feel like it's necessarily my natural position to publish other people's work. I do it because I think I should. My path was that I had a design studio for a long time, and I reached a point where I felt it was a waste of my time. I was working on projects I didn't care about for people I didn't like. It wasn't the most interesting thing I could have been doing, and we all have short lives. So I decided to focus on projects I thought contributed to my life experience, and where I could utilize my skills for the purpose of fostering the community I'm a part of. I love to see the entire community doing well, and if I can contribute to that, then I'm glad. That's a good use of my time.
For example, The Haters "Live" VHS that I released on DVD. I'd first corresponded with GX Jupitter-Larsen around 1996, then finally got a chance to see them play in Oakland a bit later, and then we played this twentieth anniversary show together. Right after that, GX sent me a two-hour tape of performances, mostly from the '80s and '90s—classic Haters destruction, things you've only seen stills of and heard legends about. I watched this tape a million times, and when it came time to do a Haters thirty-fifth anniversary release, I dug this tape out of storage and showed it to GX. He was like, "I can't believe you have this. I don't even have any of this footage!" So for fifteen years I had this Holy Grail of The Haters and didn't know it. Nobody had seen it, though I always assumed that everyone had and that was, of course, the reason they liked The Haters in the first place! (laughter) Having the context of this VHS document, where you see the breadth of things that were happening with artist and audience participation, and being able to bring it back into the light—it connects you to the work.
CSY You strike me as a very focused person with a clear mission, even if that mission includes fifty million things. It doesn't feel scattered or inconsistent. To put you on the spot a little, I remember when you started seriously working with video, you were showing me a project timeline on your laptop, saying, "everything's going great, and I have all these ideas, but I literally cannot put one video clip next to another." The visual of your timeline was like swiss cheese, or bad teeth. It was as if you were one of those guys who can't have mashed potatoes touching the turkey.
JW (laughter) Well, I've sort of psychoanalyzed myself and come to certain conclusions. Before CalArts, I did a bit of community college and took a class on logic. It shaped a lot of my perceptions, with good and bad results. I can see there are some decisions I can't make. My brain won't do them because they are illogical. Bad example, but I got my first cell phone in 2010—
CSY You were one of the hold-outs!
JW I didn't have one because I didn't like the way people interacted with them. But I was eventually forced to get one, and in the store I said, "I can't choose one. You choose and just tell me where to sign." Because I didn't want it, I just couldn't do it.
CSY It's like choosing to drown or burn.
JW Exactly. So, in a much less dire way, this dilemma of putting video clips together was, at the time, just something that my brain found so illogical. You can't go from this frame directly into that frame—it can't be done. Of course it can, but according my artistic intentions, it just can't. I still use a lot blank space between things, which have a voice of their own. Silence is useful.
CSY When you have a project in mind, do you pretty much know how it's going to turn out? Is it just a matter of executing it based on a plan?
JW I spend a lot of time thinking and not that much working. It's a process that's been developed through many years of touring, where you spend four to six hours daily sitting and thinking about whatever horrible things you can't stop yourself from thinking about. Ideas generally come when you're working on something, building up in the back of your mind. During these long reflections, I find that these things get worked out. After the tour, I can just strike and execute all these things that have basically already been figured out.
CSY Some work with material and see where it goes, and others set up a situation where sounds happen within a more predetermined, contained situation. Have you ever been playing live, then all of a sudden wanted to follow an unanticipated tangent?
JW Well, earlier in my practice I was always trying to make every show totally different and play a new set every time, but eventually I changed and started trying to do the same thing over an entire tour, working with a very fixed palette. It became an opportunity to have this A-to-Z point on a tour, where I play the same thing, but, over the course of sixty shows, there is a veering path. The A and Z points end up different, even if they're not meant to.
CSY Would you say the Z point is better or just different?
JW It can be a surprise, but it's just a reflection of a certain process. Alvin Lucier's A point is him speaking "I am sitting in a room," and the Z Point is this weird dolphin language. (laughter)
CSY (laughter) Don't you bring that dolphin language into my house!
JW Maybe the A point is that you've made this thing sitting in front of you, this idea, and the Z point is that you become completely submerged in it, finding all its fine, subtle details. But some ideas are flat and simple, and you look at them closely and they're just a thing; the closer you get, the less they have to say.
CSY My worry is that constantly shaving off the edges, or essentializing, might not leave room for things to actually have life. Even in something like improvised music, there's a danger of the form becoming a series of gestures, without texture or blood, without the other shit that makes organized sound interesting. Am I just creating something that is the equivalent of the most curt wave of hello to someone?
JW I had this conversation with [Los Angeles-based composer] Casey Anderson one time, and he had this dilemma. He was telling me about these parts he couldn't get through. I said, "Well, why don't you just record them as separate parts and then assemble it later?" He said, "No, I just wouldn't feel right doing that. I need to play, perform it straight through and correctly." That made me realize how much I feel the opposite. As someone that doesn't really identify as a musician per se, if I were to "play something," I don't think I'd ever feel satisfied. What I really want is to take that thing and transform it, process it into something else. I would describe myself as a whittler, turning a log into something else.
CSY What's your earliest possible A point?
JW In terms of an active breakthrough, maybe it was an experiment I did when I was seven or eight years old. I had two boom boxes, with a Prince tape in one and a blank tape in the other. I would face them together, play the Prince, and make these pause edits on the other, then listen to the resultant jumble of sound. It was just something I was compelled to try. Maybe that's my breakthrough. Like in Kubrick's 2001, taking that bone and hitting the boom box…
CSY (laughter) Then throwing the boombox into the air and it becomes a computer!
Human Resources exhibits Wiese's "Battery Instruments" on October 29 in Los Angeles.
C. Spencer Yeh is an interdisciplinary artist, improviser, and composer. Recent recordings include Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information), Wake Up Awesome, with Okkyung Lee and Lasse Marhaug (Software Recording Company), and Long Pig by New Monuments, his trio with Ben Hall and Don Dietrich (Bocian). He has presented work at the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Kitchen, the Liverpool Biennial, the Whitney Musuem, and at D-CAF in Cairo, among many others. Yeh volunteers as a programmer and trailer editor for Spectacle Theater, a microcinema in Brooklyn NY. His video works are distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix. He is also a contributing editor for BOMB and Triple Canopy.