Musician Robert Beatty discusses his visual art, collaborative with filmmaker Takeshi Murata, and projects Hair Police and Three Legged Race.
Robert Beatty might be best known as one third of the seminal noise band Hair Police, whose Mercurial Rites album from earlier this year is easily one of the best in their deep, decade-plus discography. Or he might be best known for his solo work as Three Legged Race—his Persuasive Barrier record, released on Spectrum Spools at the tail end of last year, is pure psychedelic, Radiophonic-via-Cochin Moon bliss. Or he might be best known as a prolific graphic artist, with his signature work appearing regularly on a genre-spanning swath of record covers. Or Robert Beatty might be best known for his art installations, his zonked videos, his various shadowy audio/visual sub-outlets, or his presence on the Lexington, KY weirdo scene.
I called Beatty the week before the release of his excellent new solo record, the first under his own name, Soundtracks for Takeshi Murata. Released on Jason Lescalleet’s choice Glistening Examples label, the record gathers pieces that Beatty had originally composed to accompany a range of video work by Murata, the innovative digital artist. Coincidentally, at the very moment I called, he was putting the finishing touches on sounds for Murata’s newest show, Midnight, which opened at Ratio 3 in San Francisco a few days before the record hit the streets.
Matthew Erickson So you’re making something right now for Takeshi’s new project?
Robert Beatty Yeah, I’m kind of down to the wire. He’s going out to San Francisco early next week, and we’re trying to get everything done before that. But that’s kind of how it always is. He always stays up days at a time during the week before a show, then I end up playing catch up.
ME How did you guys first meet?
RB I actually saw an interview with Takeshi on the internet years and years ago, in 2002 or 2003. I just shot him an email out of the blue.
ME Saying that you wanted to collaborate?
RB Not even. I just wanted to get a copy of his work. He was trading VHS tapes with some of his animations on them, so I sent him some Hair Police CDs and he sent me back a tape.
ME So you guys made the trade, then what?
RB We just kept in touch. Hair Police was doing a West Coast tour in 2004 and Takeshi was living in L.A. at the time. He came and saw us at The Smell and we ended up staying with him and his girlfriend.
ME All of the stuff that is on this new record is archival, right? From about 2004 up until 2007?
RB I first met Takeshi in person in 2004 and did “Cone Eater,” the oldest soundtrack on the record, that same year. This new record is from the first few years of our collaborations together.
ME Would he just make a video and you’d watch it and then make the soundtrack? Or would you guys both have a planned idea beforehand?
RB It’s usually pretty back-and-forth. He’ll send some progress of what he’s working on or a really early idea then I’ll get an idea of what I want to do with the sound and send it back to him, then he might change the video based on that. It’s a pretty organic process. The only one that was different was “Pink Dot.” That sound was made completely separate from the video and I just sent it to Takeshi on a whim, just to show it to him. I wasn’t even thinking that it would be used as a soundtrack, but he ended up wanting to use it for that video.
ME That one, out of all of the soundtracks on the album, seems the most like a traditional soundtrack. It’s a pretty minimal drone. It could almost fit into a normal narrative film.
RB Yeah it’s very minimal—kind of like a Steve Reich type of thing, I guess.
ME All of the other tracks have their own world going on and probably wouldn’t fit within a traditional movie at all, though.
RB No, not at all. That’s the thing, all of these videos are completely abstract and they are kind of about creating their own sort of world. That’s part of the reason I love working with him. I get to do the same thing with the sound.
ME With a narrative movie, the soundtrack is supposedly there to move the narrative along for an audience, while these are in galleries where people are moving through the space freely.
RB Yeah, that’s true. You never know what people are going to be seeing. People are never walking into the room at the very beginning and leaving at the end, so you do have to think about that a little. But really, everything is linked together pretty well. There are moments where the sound will elevate the video or the video will control where the sound goes. They’re both linked pretty closely for the ebb and flow of the pieces. The videos are so loose, their movement is so fluid in a weird way and you can’t ever really tell if things are going really fast or slow and syrupy.
ME With those early videos, a lot of them are manipulated and processed found footage, right?
RB Pretty much all of them on the album, except for “Cone Eater”, are made from pre-existing footage from other movies or other things. “Cone Eater” was all animation that Takeshi made himself and then processed, kind of an early version of what he used to do with the codec-breaking-down stuff on the later videos.
ME Do you think there’s any kind of parallel between the way that he works with video and the way that you work with sound?
RB Well, I’m not working with pre-existing sounds, but there’s definitely something in the way that we’re using pre-existing consumer products. He’s breaking down compressed video codecs and I’m using old weird hearing-test machines that were never meant to be used in this way. We’re both repurposing these things in a way they weren’t meant to be used; we’re both working with noise in different ways—basically taking these images and destroying them, but controlling that. When I sent him those early Hair Police records, I think he saw that connection immediately.
ME Had he heard of you guys before?
RB I’m pretty sure he had. He was familiar with Load Records because he went to RISD and he’s old friends with the Black Dice and Lightning Bolt guys. They were all there at the same time.
ME Has your collaborative process changed since those earlier days?
RB With this new video, I’m almost doing actual sound design. He’s gone in a different direction the past few years and has gotten into computer generated stuff. This video actually has the wolf that’s on the cover of the record. It’s one of the characters in his new video. It has more of a narrative, with none of the older glitch stuff. What I’m doing on this is fairly straightforward—or at least kind of straightforward—sound design.
ME Are you using different equipment?
RB I’m kind of going at this one with more of a Foley-style setup: recording sounds and processing them to give the appearance that they’re something else. When you called just now, I was recording myself stroking the tines on a comb to get little clicking sounds to make the sound of the wolf pulling a fish skeleton out of its mouth.
ME That sounds pretty fun.
RB Yeah, it’s in a very cartoon-sounding style but mixed with musique concrète techniques.
ME Pierre Schaeffer meets Bugs Bunny?
RB You know, Tod Dockstader did a couple Tom & Jerry soundtracks. A lot of the ones made in the ’60s—later than the well known ones—were directed by this guy Gene Deitch. Tod Dockstader worked in animation doing sound editing and some writing, but also did the sound effects, so there’s a lot of crazy sound stuff on those Tom & Jerry episodes. This new video is kind of playing with classic cartoon ideas, with a back and forth, antagonist and protagonist, thing.
ME Do you have any soundtrack idols, or are you looking to anyone in particular when you’re making these soundtracks for Takeshi? Are you trying to make Tod Dockstader-styled sounds?
RB It’s not something I think about really, in terms of these videos. I love soundtrack music and I listen to a lot of soundtracks, but this stuff is so far removed from anything I’d ever seen before that I kind of had to think about it in its own way. I’ve heard stuff since I’ve been working on these that remind me of them though. There’s this movie, I think it’s Hungarian, called Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare) that is completely insane and psychedelic, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s kind of like the more psychedelic sequences of The Yellow Submarine taken to the absolute extreme. It’s from 1981, so the soundtrack is really crazy electronic stuff—it’s nuts.
ME You and Takeshi have done live performances of some of these pieces too, right?
RB Sort of. He doesn’t do live video, so the live stuff would either be me just playing a set at a screening of one of his videos, completely separate with no visuals, or there would sometimes be videos that he would make specifically for me to play live to. Sometimes it would be me playing a set, then him doing a screening and then me playing along to a new video. We did that two times, once at the New Museum and once at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
ME Is that what you guys did in Beijing?
RB Takeshi was in a group show there and I played three shows. But they were all just Three Legged Race sets.
ME Is the soundtrack stuff different than Three Legged Race material, as you see it?
RB That’s part of why we decided to do this record under my own name. These soundtracks have been out there for years on the videos and they’re all credited to Robert Beatty, not Three Legged Race.
Jason Lescalleet, who runs the Glistening Examples label, asked me to specifically do a Robert Beatty record. It didn’t come to me immediately that I’d use the soundtracks. I wasn’t sure what a “Robert Beatty” record would be, but then I realized I had all this music that I really love and that most people haven’t heard it.
ME Some of the stuff on the Spectrum Spools record could definitely work as soundtracks.
RB What makes these soundtracks on the new record different is that I spent a lot of time working on them by myself and it was some of the first music that I composed on my own. At that point, it was very different from what I was doing in Hair Police.
ME Is there some overlap in the timeline between the soundtracks and your beginning to work on Persuasive Barrier?
RB The last soundtrack on there is from 2007 and I started working on Persuasive Barrier in 2008. There are definitely things that you can hear in the soundtracks that made it into the Three Legged Race records though.
ME Do you think there are any similarities between how you approach your visual work—cover art or otherwise—and how you approach working with sound?
RB A lot of what I do is make things, then edit and pare them down into something new. With most of my music, I record live takes and then go back and take things and edit them and loop them or whatever and go from there.
ME You sort of do that with the cover art, right?
RB Yeah, I view it all as kind of collage. The cover art is done entirely on the computer, but I’ll sometimes take photographs or drawings or whatever and process them in the computer. I’ll go over and over with it, take things out and kind of work with it until I feel happy with the result. With the album covers, sometimes I’ll go back to something that I made years ago and just never did anything with, so I keep a lot of stuff around that I can turn into something else.
ME How did your recent West Coast tour go?
RB It was awesome. It was nice to go play shows somewhere besides Lexington. It was me and Christopher Forgues doing his Brown Recluse Alpha project, and Pat Maher, who does Expressway Yo-Yo Dieting. It was pretty short, just 5 or 6 shows. And then I was in Portland for a while for this experimental comics festival called The Projects. There’s a new episode of Experimental Half-Hour that has a collaboration between me and Christopher that we did in Portland.
It was cool too because I was working with a new setup. I got rid of the synth in my live setup and I’ve just been using iPhone and tapes.
ME Cool. The lowest fidelity and the highest fidelity.
RB Yeah, but it all kind of blends together. I’ve always been a fan of mixed fidelity. Really clean and really terrible tape sounds—I’ve been recording a bunch of that stuff. I basically had a single set that I was playing out on the West Coast and parts of that are going to be on the next Three Legged Race record, which is going to be an EP on Underwater Peoples.
ME When’s that due out?
RB Next spring, early summer, something like that. It depends on if I finish everything else that I’m working on so I have time to work on it.
ME What else is coming up in the future?
RB I’m planning on starting a new label next year. Just tapes to start with. I’m going to do the duo that’s me and Darin Gray called Attic Talent. That’ll be early next year and hopefully we’ll do a tour at some point. Then I want to do a cassette of stuff I’ve been collaborating on with this artist Ben Durham. He does these awesome mug shot portraits. He’s from Lexington originally but lives in Richmond. We've done a few performances where he’s speaking with all of these pre-recorded tapes that go along with his portraits. I’m processing his live speech and those recordings that he’s done. It’s cool stuff and I want to get it out there to show people. I’m still deciding on a name for the label, but it’s going to be good.
Matthew Erickson currently lives in Millers Falls, Massachusetts.