Down Is Up discusses music that falls slightly under the radar of our usual coverage: demos, self-releases, and output from small or overlooked communities. Today, Jenn Pelly speaks with noise artist Michael Berdan about recent projects, Uniform and York Factory Complaint.
Uniform photo by Nikki Sneakers
Around 11 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Michael Berdan was eating his mic, chord wrapped around his throat, T-shirt ripped to shreds. Bloodied and frantic, he circled the crowd at the Brooklyn bar St. Vitus like a tornado collecting speed. Berdan fronts the New York two-piece Uniform—a collaboration with guitarist Ben Greenberg, formerly of the Men, and a drum machine—like a hardcore band, not the kind of knob-twiddling set-up that noise and power electronics can attract. Earlier this summer, my first attempt at seeing Uniform was cut to a mere five minutes—opening for White Lung at Vitus, their wall of amps had blown the venue's sound for the first time.
Berdan and Greenberg's collective musical pedigree ranges wide, and in the past few years it's included the raw electronic body music of Berdan's project Believer/Law, as well as Greenberg's frenetic solo guitar psychedelia as Hubble. Greenberg was also a member of the sax-led avant-rock collective Zs for six years. But it was always the pair's caustic, degenerate, scrape-yr-skull-on-the-sidewalk noise-punk that appealed to me most. Berdan quit his old band, Drunkdriver, practically on the eve of what was meant to be their suffocatingly harsh 2010 Load Records debut; Greenberg was the guitarist and vocalist for post-hardcore brats Pygmy Shrews, a band whose final record in 2011 was delightfully titled You People Can All Go Straight to Hell. The Shrews' records and Big Time cassette were my favorites, disciples of the AmRep noise-rock sound whose caterwauling but well-crafted sludge also has the same fuck-it-all appeal of, say, early Sonic Youth or Flipper.
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I was thus intrigued to hear about the formation of Uniform, in which Berdan and Greenberg return to their extreme, deranged noise-rock roots in a new way, incorporating the faintest sketches of melodic propulsion deep below the bedrock of distortion. The project has released its debut 12", "Our Blood" b/w "Our Sound Mind and Body", this month through the label Beggar's Tomb. Hear both sides below.
Even so, "Our Blood" isn't the most realized record Berdan has left his mark on in 2014. He's also released a searing, terrifying, at times oppressively grating industrial LP with York Factory Complaint, a masterfully-executed collaboration in power electronics with Dais Records head Ryan Martin. The album, titled Lost in the Spectacle, is directly influenced by Guy Debord's 1967 Marxist text The Society of the Spectacle, offering a conceptual nod to the disposable nature of consumer culture. (And it's tracklist offers a frightening dose of reality with that: "Conceived", "Produced", "Loved", "Commodified", "Bought", and "Forgotten".) It sounds like the sky opening up to a menacing sight—perhaps a storm of hailstones pummeling down, mixed with metallic beads—or, variously, an actual hell. A new video for the Spectacle track "Forgotten", created by Suzy Poling, can be viewed at the bottom of this post. I spoke with Berdan about both projects.
Pitchfork: What are the most significant similarities between Pygmy Shrews, Drunkdriver, and Uniform?
Michael Berdan: The landscape of punk was somewhat different when we started those older bands. Drunkdriver was intended to be a sensory barrage. Everything we did was over the top: the records were made to be completely blown out, the live shows were excessively violent, and the delivery was borderline histrionic. We were trying to take the whole No Trend and AmRep worship thing that Clockcleaner and Pissed Jeans were doing and incorporate similar sonic elements and themes to those of power electronics and black metal. Pygmy Shrews were a bit more refined than that, but not by much. They wrote catchy hook after catchy hook and could play the fuck out of their instruments, all the while retaining this raw, ugly feel.
Uniform utilizes some of the qualities from both of these bands sonically, as we never really wanted to stop playing harsh, excessive music. We tune way the fuck down, the recordings are heavily in the red and the delivery is often as unrelenting as we can make it. That's where the similarities end, though. Where Drunkdriver and Pygmy Shrews were often thematically nihilistic and hopeless, Uniform is about trying to understand our individual places in the world and how we all affect one another. The subject matter of these songs is still often on the darkest side of the spectrum, but it's more about trying to understand our demons and learn from them than an outright celebration of our ugliest qualities. There is a fine line between nihilism and empathy.
Pitchfork: Uniform started as a dream Ben had; can you elaborate?
MB: [laughs] Ben had this dream that he and I were playing a show together. According to him there were these loud, oppressive rhythms coming from out of nowhere as he was playing his fucking heart out, while I was on the cusp of a crowd, playing as hard as I ever had. I had been wanting to start a project that was just guitar, drum machine, and vocals for a while, but I had kind of filed that idea away because it didn't feel like something I could pull off alone. We ran into each other when the Men played the opening reception of the Rough Trade NYC store and his dream came up in conversation. I laughed and told him about my thoughts on doing something similar to that. We both just kinda stared at each other for a couple of seconds and knew that we had started a band. Practice started three days later.
Uniform at St. Vitus. Photo by Kelsey Henderson
Pitchfork: What is the name Uniform meant to evoke?
MB: The name Uniform comes from being fed up with the useless exercise of naming a band. If I ever get to hell, I'm convinced there will be a circle where groups of frustrated musicians are shooting possible band names back and forth in the hopes of coming up with something clever for their new projects for all of eternity. The word uniform seemed like an acknowledgement of the banality of the whole process. We could have just as easily called ourselves "Whatever" or "Band" and had the same effect.
Pitchfork: Why did you decide to use a drum machine?
MB: Outside of trying to retain some of the more synthetic elements of projects that Ben and I had been working on, we figured that by using a drum machine we could keep the band as simple as possible. Using a drum machine and a bass synth means we can have a heavy low end without having to take on additional members. At first, keeping the band between the two of us seemed very important. It's not so much anymore, though. Joshua Zucker-Pluda from Raspberry Bulbs sat in with us on bass for a minute. It sounded like the sky had opened up and was raining bowling balls on us. It was great! Unfortunately that partnership was short lived because Joshua had to move to L.A. for grad school, but the experience opened a door to the possibility of working with other people for sure.
Pitchfork: Are "Our Blood" and "Of Sound Mind and Body" tied together thematically in any way?
MB: There is a bit of a common theme between the songs. "Our Blood" is about shared trauma and healing through dialogue. When something awful happens, it's easy for me to fall into a well of self pity and just isolate, give up. It's through conversations with people who have gone through similar shit that I actually start to get better. "Our Blood" is about wanting to identify with other people and grow. "Of Sound Mind and Body" is nearly the opposite of that. It's about deciding to commit suicide when you are at a good point in your life because of the underlying fear that things will get bad again. Clinical depression and anxiety are lifelong struggles of mine. Sometimes I don't know how to deal with just feeling good in the moment. That good feeling becomes unrelenting terror at the thought of losing it. "Of Sound Mind and Body" is about wanting to preserve a moment by giving up.
Pitchfork: You've been a screamer for many years now. How has your relationship to the act of screaming evolved since you started playing in bands?
MB: At first it was all I could do. I couldn't really "sing" for shit and I couldn't play an instrument well. For years, I felt that all I was equipped to do was tear my throat up while I jumped around and hit myself like an asshole. I always aimed to borrow my scream from black metal and industrial traditions, but the more I think about it the more I feel that my delivery was based on a lack of confidence in my own voice. I always ask for my voice to be buried in the mix on records. Thing is, it's often so shrill that it cuts through regardless of how I try to have it obscured.
Over the past couple of years I've become more comfortable and confident when it comes to my voice. Some people hate it, but others seem to really like it. My opinion on how I sound changes day-to-day. Lately, I've tried to become more adventurous with how I use my voice. I still scream, but I'm consciously trying to sing, yell, and speak more in songs. I have a weird thing going, so I might as well live it up and take a risk every now and again.
Pitchfork: Your other project, York Factory Complaint, collaborated with Genesis P-Orridge in 2009. Can you tell me about that?
MB: In the fall of 2009, our friend Mike Yaniro (of Twin Stumps, later York Factory Complaint for a couple of years) fell victim to a vicious assault in his neighborhood late one night. His medical bills were astronomical, so a bunch of us put a benefit show together for him at Death By Audio. If I remember correctly, Sightings, White Suns, and Pink Reason also played. Anyway, Ryan has been Genesis' manager of a number of years. The two of them had passively talked about doing something together in the past, so we figured that we'd ask if s/he wanted to do a live collaboration for the benefit. S/he agreed, and that was that.
We never rehearsed even once. Gen played violin, Ryan played guitar, and I played bass and sang. My bass went out a couple of minutes into the set and I was so fucked up that I couldn't figure out how to plug it back in, so I just slurred into the microphone while Ryan and Genesis jammed. A bunch of money was raised that night, so it was a success in that regard. I've heard recordings of our set and I think they sound great, all things considered. Gen jokes around about the three of us giving it another go. I don't drink or do drugs anymore, so at least I know I have the capability to plug my fucking instrument back in if it was to come unplugged again next time. Eh, who knows?
Pitchfork: You released an album this year with York Factory Complaint, a collaboration with Ryan Martin of Dais. That project is very idea-driven and works within a specific framework, commenting on disposable consumer culture and the fabrication of taste. Is the aesthetic extremity of Lost in the Spectacle meant to offer social critique, then?
MB: Lost in the Spectacle is not so much a critique as an acknowledgement. We are all influenced by our surroundings, and when that surrounding is the never-ending, tidal flow of facts, gossip, positive and negative dialogue, viral videos, viral songs, viral actions and viral opinions that is the internet, it's damn near impossible for our tastes not to be informed by our computers. I am no exception to this, as I find that I fall in line with the popular opinion of my peer group more often than not. The important thing for me to do is to ask myself why. Why do I like a piece of art? Why do I enjoy a song? Are my politics my own, or are they simply a reflection of the values of those who I want to like me? Do I enjoy or abhor something because I legitimately enjoy or abhor it, or am I just afraid of being alone?
I don't think that reacting to and identifying with the people around you is new in any way. Fuck, that's how communities are made after all. I just feel that it all happens at such a breakneck pace now that sometimes we don't get to develop a relationship with the things that move us. The competitive nature of humanity demands that many of us have an intellectual or ethical upper-hand over our neighbor. With that, we manufacture characters out of the things we read. We become the most punk, the most metal, the most avant-garde, the best-read and the most morally superior characters that we can come up with, based on some nonsense idea that we compulsively Google. Again, I am not above this behavior.
York Factory Complaint photo by Jane Chardiet
Pitchfork: Given that you are so entrenched in the worlds of noise music and punk, how would you describe your relationship to normal mainstream society?
MB: I almost completely relate to basic mainstream culture, and it scares me. I'd love to tell you that I've been squatting for the past 20 years, grow and harvest my own food, and generate the electricity to keep the lights on with some contraption I rigged together using a bike and the power of love. That would be a lie, though. Fact is, I work 45 hours a week and earn a decent wage. I pay taxes. I pay bills. I watch network television. I read Stephen King. I live in a nice apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with my fiancee and a really cool dog. Fuck it, I'm happy.
Pitchfork: What do you do with your time when you're not making music/performing music/tying mic chords around your neck?
MB: I watch A LOT of horror movies and read a lot of books on horror movies and horror culture. Horror culture is far more important to me than music has ever been, and I spend the majority of time watching and reading reprehensible garbage in a state of complete bliss.
For a living, I sell tattoo supplies at a store on Canal Street. I've been working there for 10 years, and they are good to me. I have met some of the craziest people and had some of my wildest experiences just from going to work. It's not nearly as rugged as it used to be, though. Like most of New York, Canal Street has become thoroughly sanitized. You used to be able to buy anything on the street from a DVD to a Fendi bag to drugs to probably biological weapons, provided you knew the right person to ask. It's not a bad thing that things have changed down there, just an inevitable fact of life that makes me sad sometimes. Other than that, I do a good deal of hot yoga. I had some emotional problems that spiked shortly before Uniform became a band. A friend of mine mentioned that he did hot yoga to help with his anxiety, so I gave it a shot and it's worked nothing short of wonders.
Pitchfork: Do you feel optimistic or cynical about modern music culture?
MB: I can take or leave modern music culture, but I feel that right now is a fucking high point for quality music in general. There are so many wonderful, challenging, thoughtful and emotionally provocative things coming out at such a fast pace that it's hard to keep up. All I know is that a world where Drew McDowall is playing regularly, Brighter Death Now is touring, and Sleaford Mods are a legitimate cultural force is a world that I'm happy to live and work in.