Amplified Objects: id m theft able Interviewed by C. Spencer Yeh

The sound artist on musical prejudices, metal t-shirts, and shortwave radios.

Id M Theft Able Garso Teatras 2018

id m theft able performing at Garso Teatras Festival in Panevėžys, Lithuania, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Experimental music artist id m theft able is an enduring figure in the American weirdo noise century, specializing in a homespun voice and junk-object sound. To observe his practice as being a gummy skateboard ambling down a wild side street of glossolalia from the art-historic freeways of sound poetry and text-sound is akin to demeaning with the deeming of entertainment. I caught up with id m after another of his signature presences in trio with Charmaine Lee and Andrea Pensado for Lee’s residency concert at ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn. We’ve crossed paths over many years, and every time our interactions are as thoughtful and inquisitive as id m’s constructions. I proposed we put some of that to tape.

—C. Spencer Yeh


C. Spencer YehWhen you and I last spoke in person, we started on a thread about seeking sounds of interest, a particular timbre, ring, or cadence of objects. I thought it was great when you were playing those coffee mugs at ISSUE, knocking them together like some kind of hand percussion. As one broke, you, without a pause, reached down and replaced it with another as if it were a drumstick. On the one hand, I had never seen someone play coffee mugs like that, so there was an “absurd” element that I reacted to. On the other hand, the sound was so particular to coffee mugs, the way they are shaped and how they rub against one another. Are the two pursuits opposed? Does the performative cancel the listening? 

id m theft able I don’t think they have to be opposed, but for some listeners, as soon as you introduce any element of the absurd or, god forbid, anything that could be mistaken for humor, they are taken out of the experience and no longer able to take it seriously. I used to fear losing listeners in this way. Very early on, no matter how serious I felt I was being, people were still laughing at me. More musically austere sorts would shrink away and be dismissive. Fairly often, comments from the audience after shows focused on the fact that I’d used some object and not how I’d used that object to sculpt and complement the other sounds.

Now my attitude is different. If the only thing someone remembers is some giant guy with a weird name rubbing coffee mugs together, then great! I feel pretty lucky that anyone is paying attention at all. If someone is inclined to see something in the performance beyond or besides that, then there’s plenty more to dig into. I’ve stopped fighting my impulses in this regard. If I want to use an object in either a sonic or performative way, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, I use it.

I always wonder though: If I looked like an academic, would it seem so absurd that I was rattling the coffee mugs around? What if I were thinner? What if I were performing under my real name and not some ridiculous pseudonym? What if I’d grown up wealthy and not working class? What if I’d grown up in the city and not the country? I think there are a lot of social constructs surrounding who the performer is in regard to how these things are taken by an audience.

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Detail of id m theft able’s performance setup for Garso Teatras Festival in Panevėžys, Lithuania, 2018. Courtesy of the Garso Teatras Festival.

CSYThat visual and sonic information is there for those who look and listen for it. Plus, anyone who knows, knows how difficult it is to make amplified objects sound good and alive. I felt the same disappointment when figuring out my voice work, the inevitable theatricality of some actions I felt were necessary to get the right sounds. I wanted to force the audience to read the work in a particular way: to turn away from this slobbering face and just listen—which I realize now was just foolish.

imtaI appreciate the ears, truly! It’d be fascinating to figure out why some folks get laughed at and some folks don’t. I think some of the social factors I mentioned are at play, but there are some intangibles beyond those as well.

What impressions did people have of you that prevented them from further interfacing with your work?

CSYOof. I could go on and on about that. Model modern music minority?

imtaI’ve definitely seen “modern music minority” (not to mention female) friends of mine field stupid post-show questions that I would never get from people. Some were possibly well-intended but dunderheaded and tone-deaf; some were just attempts to exoticize or tokenize the artists and what they do. I can imagine this would get old and depressing fast.

This all makes me question my own musical and artistic prejudices, which can be fun to revel and stew in; but I find it far more satisfying to poke, prod, and challenge myself to the point where suddenly, for instance, after years of loathing his stuff, Bruce Springsteen sounds amazing to me. This is one of my favorite things about getting older, feeling these old prejudices fall.

CSYWhat Springsteen is really hitting it for you? 

imta With Springsteen it’s hilarious because the majority of it still makes me feel the way Springsteen used to make me feel, which is gross and irritated. I totally did not buy his working-man schtick. I specifically recall referring to him as “the absolute bottom of music” in my early twenties. But now maybe a third of it holds up for me; I now fully buy the schtick! Everyone would always mention Nebraska to me when I’d say I hated Springsteen. I now agree that it’s his best record, probably the only one I can listen to from beginning to end without wincing a few times. I love most of Darkness on the Edge of Town, too. Saying this still makes me feel uncomfortable. Hating his stuff was, apparently, a fundamental part of my identity at some point, and some part of me feels like a traitor.

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id m theft able performing at Garso Teatras Festival in Panevėžys, Lithuania, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

CSYTurning toward getting older, another aspect of it is circling back to stuff you were into during your younger years. You pull out these old band t-shirts you haven’t looked at for a couple of decades and start wearing them again. I believe there’s something beyond nostalgia—hopefully—that you are revisiting, however much time has changed you.

imtaRather than circling back, I feel like my sack full of musical loves just gets fatter and fatter with time. I remember since my early teens consciously thinking of my musical taste as something that had to continually and aggressively reach further and further out. At the beginning of high school I was listening enthusiastically to Electric Light Orchestra and The Doors; by the end of high school I was driving around playing particularly hissy blank tapes I’d found at the Salvation Army and trying to convince my friends it was beautiful. But I never really went through a period where I abandoned the stuff that I’d loved in the past. So while I had that hissy blank tape, I also still had ELO’s Greatest Hits in the car with me. There’s very little that I ever liked that I can’t still get into in some way.

CSYThinking about my own casual prejudices, I saw a young person wearing a Def Leppard t-shirt the other day, and part of me was like, Really? I watched that Mötley Crüe dramatization of their book The Dirt, and at the end I was left wondering, Who was this made for? Someone told me that they still have fans, who I guess are also believers in a particular brand of rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Of course, people would also look at our music and wonder who would want to listen to all that clanging and yelling. 

imtaMy big brother, whom I obviously had to emulate, was a huge metal fan in the ’80s; thus my first musical love was ’80s metal: Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe. I don’t think about any of the peripheral garbage when I listen to that stuff; it simply reminds me of being a kid in the best possible way. I still thoroughly enjoy a lot of it and never really abandoned it, even when it would have been socially helpful to do so in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Nine Inch Nails universe of junior high school. My means of “being punk” was stealing a Poison shirt from my brother’s closet and wearing it to school in 1994.

CSYI still have this Nine Inch Nails joke-bootleg shirt I made and sold to NIN newsgroup members. It’s funny about t-shirts; they’ve definitely led me down what in hindsight seemed to be pretty important paths and relationships. Do you have objects that led you to where you are?

imtaWhen I was a kid I was obsessed with shortwave radio. From about age eight to fourteen I would put my tape recorder up to my shortwave radio and make mixtapes of whatever appealed to me, and most of what appealed to me were the more mysterious things, the Morse code, the modulation, the numbers stations, anyone talking in any language other than English. I called the tapes things like “USELESS CRAP,” “THIS SUCKS (keep it),” and so on. I listened to these tapes for pleasure and didn’t think it was weird at all. Somewhere around age fourteen it occurred to me that I could make even stranger recordings if I played the tapes back at the same time as I was recording live from the radio, and I started creating these dense dins. I’d begun playing guitar around then and eventually added in feedback and whatever other mysterious sounds I could wring out of my guitar that I couldn’t yet play.

I had no idea anyone else in the world did anything like this, aside from knowing about things like “Revolution 9” and a few other noise freak-out moments on rock records I had. About a year after I’d begun layering the sounds, I took a music theory class. The teacher was doing a brief overview of twentieth-century composers when he reluctantly mentioned John Cage and told an absolutely fantastic lie about him: “… and then we have John Cage who made music exclusively with shortwave radios.” I interrupted him, deeply excited, demanding more information: “How did he do this?” The teacher plainly did not want to talk about it, simply ignored my questions, and moved on. I begged my mother to get me a John Cage CD that Christmas, and, indeed, just as she’d somehow found me a shortwave radio, she went to the local music store and had them special-order a John Cage CD. I recall listening to it that Christmas evening and being disappointed: there wasn’t a goddamn shortwave radio anywhere on that disc! But that was enough; the door was opened, and I realized other people on the planet shared my proclivities. Thus, I dedicated myself to exploring them for as long and as fully as I could. That was tenth grade.

id m theft able will be performing August 22–24 at Frantasia 2019.

C. Spencer Yeh is an interdisciplinary artist, improviser, and composer. 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 senior editor and media producer at Triple Canopy.

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