Welcome to the Terror Drone
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 that was his ambient sound for the evening -- everyone shuffling and clearing throats and whispering."
Cage's famous composition, 4'33", requires neither instruments nor actual performance. j.frede can identify. "I don't play any instruments," he explains. "I play with instruments." His toy chest consists of synthesizers, a Speak & Spell game and a host of other black boxes. And Cage himself would no doubt be proud of j.frede's creativity in using a variety of sound sources to form textural, sometimes rhythmic walls -- or curtains -- of noise. His live performances have included The Acoustics of Metal, a short play period with springs, bowls, balls and sheets, and The Acoustics of Glass, which uses water, contact mikes and thick glass plates to generate contrasting tones. On other occasions, j.frede has made rapid sonic detours from material performed earlier in the same evening and from environmental recordings made in the cities that he's toured.
The success of all of these schemes is heavily affected by both sound-system quality and audience vibe. When he encountered a blown PA at a warehouse show last year, for example, j.frede set the dials to destroy and started unplugging. Instead of an avant dance set with JudeS, his partner in the group Mono, the audience received a brief, satisfying and ferocious dose of feedback.
Recent setbacks -- most notably, Chernobyl's closure -- haven't caused a slowdown of j.frede's output or of his efforts as a live performer. His seven-inch EP, Isolate, released on his Ritual Document Release label in January, exhibits two short, abstract slabs of rumbling drones and atmospheric clang. But even though the package is exquisite and the locked grooves wondrous, seven-inch vinyl is a format more suited to the pop singles for which it was invented. More promising, then, is the forthcoming Denver Atonal Festival double-CD set, a live recording of the event's highlights. For those who missed the performances under the dim red lights at Chernobyl in December, this set will present the affected sitars of Jessica Ivers-Frederick and David, the mounting samples and fractal spawn of Terrorstate, the Morse codes and low-frequency quiet noise of JudeS's S.L.I.P., and half a dozen more performances of note. Also in the works from j.frede are another seven-inch, a split twelve-inch LP with local group Annik, the Eremiophobia CD and the Plainscape Recordings CD. (Samples of j.frede's sounds can be found at www.mp3.com/jfrede and www.geocities.com/Area51/5383/chapter23/.)
And while he and colleagues search for a new space for Chernobyl, j.frede's found other performance venues, unlikely as they may be. The first in a series of quieter ambient sessions featured j.frede and Patrick Birch at the downtown Barnes & Noble bookstore in early January. An odd setting, certainly, but a successful one nonetheless. And on Friday evenings, j.frede holds forth as DJ at the Snake Pit. This month, he'll open an audio installation at GOOG, a gallery run by an architectural firm. The project, which will demonstrate j.frede's recently acquired 3-D sound system, will use samples captured in the firm's metal shop as the sole sound source.
J.frede concedes that the old Chernobyl space was more conducive to his endeavors. Because even when the technology is a go, the setting can still bring down a show. "It's not really something everyone will understand," he says of a recent performance at Seven South. "I asked for people to be respectful and be quiet at least until I got started, [but] people started heckling me, and I just don't accept that well." He exchanged a few words with a belligerent patron who he says was more accustomed to the musical paradigms offered by Whitesnake; then j.frede, not a towering figure by any means, courageously or foolishly confronted the heckler. Later, about thirty seconds into the set, j.frede overturned the tables holding all of his equipment, causing disbelief among those in the audience who could appreciate the dollar value of the electronics that crashed to the floor.
As with terrorist behavior, a certain David-versus-Goliath dynamic may have been at work that night (although some might argue it's a Napoleon complex). Whatever the case, j.frede's intensity and aesthetic should prove uncompromising rather than dysfunctional, ultimately a benefit to the avatars of underground art in Denver.
"A big part of it was that I had been used to playing Chernobyl, where people were there because they wanted to hear the music and they wanted to be part of the atmosphere. Obviously, at Seven South, they were just there to drink and whatever," j.frede continues. "I don't take well to heckling, especially when I'm trying to present myself and I'm in a vulnerable situation. I just counterattack."
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