By Bree Davies
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By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
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By Courtney Harrell
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For a public that ordinarily associates politics in music with can't-miss issues such as world hunger and rocking the vote, j.frede's theories about cultural hegemony can be as startling as his intense brand of electronic noise. "My whole political standpoint is about the idea of terrorists being victims trying to free themselves from their oppressors," explains the Denver soundscape artist, who was born James Frederick. "The world and the media really project terrorism as the exact opposite, as [terrorists] being the attackers and the aggressors," he says. "But in actuality, they're just in a bad situation, and they're doing everything they can to get out of it. It's a means to an end. And just their loyalty and their whole outlook and belief in everything they're doing is 100 percent stronger than most Americans can feel."
Among other things, j.frede is affiliated with the self-proclaimed Guerilla Artwarfare Movement -- a culture-jamming body that adheres to the notion that artists of all mediums must adopt an almost militaristic approach in order to compete for attention with consumerism and mass living. Yet neither j.frede nor his colleagues in the noise-as-art and art-as-war underground scenes advocate violence -- or a uniform ideology -- of any kind. In fact, the radical element that drives their work is all but concealed at performances and on recordings. However, upon closer inspection of j.frede's ambient electronics, industrial noise and droning beats -- with the now-defunct Chapter23; as a soloist at the Denver Atonal Festivals, which, until recently, emanated annually from the basement of the Chernobyl Tone Gallery at 508 East Colfax Avenue; and as Chernobyl's proprietor -- j.frede exhibits a dedication to his craft that bears resemblance to a fanatic's devotion to his cause. To some extent, he must: J.frede and his fellow sonic cacophonists are confirmed outsiders, for whom the entire realm of noise is as compelling or powerful as a structured, instrument-driven piece of music, if not more so.
And though j.frede is by no means the sole force behind Denver's curious affection for minimalist electronic noise-mongering, he deserves credit for establishing the Chernobyl gallery in April 1999, as a meeting place, performance space and art gallery for aesthetic outsiders. During its brief life as an out-of-nowhere art space on a thoroughfare more known for its thrift shops, crackheads and midget prostitutes, Chernobyl's visitors could never be too precise in their expectations of performances or events. The gallery was housed in a small storefront, where images of fallout, radiation and waste were visible to passersby more accustomed to the religious paintings, broken bed frames and book stacks found in adjacent businesses. Inside, j.frede and area co-conspirators like S.L.I.P., Asphyxia and New Mexico's Terrorstate -- all of whom performed at the 1999 Denver Atonal Festival in December -- regularly wreaked artistic havoc. In addition to the beats and scrapes of local electronicists, last year's roster featured everything from the melodramatic theatrics of Hoitoitoi to Vegetarianism, an installation/event that included raw meat, entrails and a cow's head.
Yet despite the fact that noise complaints from neighbors forced the gallery into a state of homelessness, j.frede and friends weren't driven underground; they were there to begin with. The gallery currently lacks a physical structure, but the impetus behind its formation is still very much in existence. "The whole point behind Chernobyl is to give artists that are doing much more minimal stuff and obscure sound a place -- more of a real place than, say, someone's house or a random venue or a cafe in the afternoon," explains j.frede. "It's actually developing a footing in the scene in Denver so these artists can have an actual space to do sound out of and build a following. So people know what to expect from Chernobyl and show up with that understanding."
Originally from the stark landscape of southern New Mexico, j.frede began performing six years ago, and though he's lived in San Francisco and toured the U.S. and Europe in recent years, Denver is, emphatically, home. "There's nowhere else that I know of in the country that's got any kind of live ambient scene going on," he says. "So Denver's definitely the place with the biggest draw. We had between 75 and 150 people at some of the festivals and shows we've thrown. That's pretty good for this type of sound."
And Denver's scene is one that doesn't just think locally. J.frede has hosted or organized performances by Nmperign, a free improv sax/trumpet duo from Boston; the ethnic industrial beats of Macedonia's Kismet; San Francisco-based solo contrabassist Morgan Guberman; and Japanese noise fiends MSBR. For the spring and summer of 2000, j.frede confirms that Chernobyl -- wherever it may be -- will host concerts by two legendary enigmatic British groups, Zoviet France and the Hafler Trio, as well as Finland's Pan Sonic.
Though j.frede himself cites the last two as musical influences along with Experimental Audio Research, getting a handle on his pedigree is not easy. "The abrasion behind some of the sound I do could be looked at as audio terrorism," he says of his sound stylings, and it's an apt description. His recent recordings are alternately assaultive and overhwhelming, a sort of aural manifesto that variously suggests the arid, consolatory trances and drones of Robert Rich or Nurse With Wound, thunderous deconstructions à la C.W. Vrtacek or C.M. Von Hausswolf, and the unpredictable, piercing frequencies generated by Illusion of Safety, Voice Crack or Gastr del Sol. On top of it all, slowly roiling low-end beats animate certain passages of j.frede's work. His artistic range might be best explained by more important, earlier influences that encourage constant change -- artists such as John Cage, composer and pioneer of prepared-piano techniques and aleatoric music, and La Monte Young, minimalist composer and designer of theatrical environments for sound and light. "The prepared-piano stuff John Cage was doing in the '50s is just mind-blowing," j.frede says. "He would have entire concert halls full of people in tuxedos to see certain pianists, and he would have the pianists go out and just sit in silence. Everyone's ears would be piqued, waiting for him to start playing...Then he would come out and explain to everyone that thatwas his ambient sound for the evening -- everyone shuffling and clearing throats and whispering."