Tovah Olson (of Dead Machines): Interview
Well, thank you, Interviewer
Tovah Olson is the uncontested queen of noise. As half of the duo Dead Machines and more recently as a solo artist, she has perfectly negotiated the tough dualities of art and music, blurring the line with each handmade release. The quality, imagination, and relative breadth of Tovah's intimidating discography continues to amaze, especially when one considers she couldn't find middle C on a piano with a map. She and I have been best buds for well over a decade. To her chagrin, I've transcribed this interview 100% verbatim with nothing censored or edited (save for the occasional banal and obscure tangent about old friends). In retrospect, we may know each other too well to successfully pull off a proper interview. You be the judge.
Hey. I'm not feeling particularly intelligent or clever right now.
Aww, you're always intelligent and clever.
It's freezing out here, it's like 14 degrees.
First off, tell me about your new label, Tovinator. Why'd it take you so long to start up a new label after Polyamory?
Oh, I see, it's gotta be negative right away! No “Oh it's great that you got your own thing going!”
I didn't really feel a need to have Tovinator going and then I started thinking that I wanted to have more control over the art and what got released, so I just sorta missed that power. It was fun helping (husband) John (Olson) out with American Tapes, but that's really his thing. What was holding me back was all the manual labor. But then John said he'd do it all for me. So I was just able to pick what was going to be on the label and then do the artwork. I don't know that there was any particular impetus but I think it's because I started playing solo shows and I wanted to have some solo releases.
And are you gonna be putting out stuff regularly, sporadically…?
Yeah I got an LP coming out pretty soon, but it's coming as a freight package today from Fed Ex because John put in an order for like a million records and they can't even deliver it! But the LP is a one sided LP of Dead Machines live in London, from the first London gig from a long time ago. And then I'm sending this thing to Tony Harrington at The Wire for his Joint Multiples project.
Yeah it's like this really limited thing, in like an edition of seven. I put a CD in there and a piece of art in each one. I keep one and he keeps one and we sell the rest.
And then I'm doing a vocal lathe for Curor Recordings. All vocal stuff. I'm actually working on that today. It's gonna be very mental health oriented.
I wanted to talk a little about the lore surrounding how you and John met.
I know what lore means. I just didn't realize there was a lore.
I just think it's a cool story. You and I had been trading with John a while and he sent me these amazing posters and flyers that I still have. Then we did the 3 way split LP with Thurston and Dr Gretchen Musical Weightlifting Program, and I met him on the first Golden Calves tour, which you rather brilliantly managed to avoid. I remember the last stop on the tour was your summer place in Oneonta.
And I told you how cool John Olson was. Then flash forward, like, six years to a Wolf Eyes gig in New York…wait, why am I telling this story?
I met John before that gig. We had a mysterious meeting where I guess I kinda blew him off. He played this show in Bushwick with Black Dice and my roommate and I went. It was right after September 11th, I think. November 2001? Anyway, I saw him and this was when John was in his really scary phase.
As opposed to now?
No, I mean he was all in camo and I think he had a Mohawk, and he just looked really frightening. I went to go talk to him and Nate, and they were both so tall, you know, they're both over six feet tall and I'm 5'2. John was being all cool, and I asked him about his pin, it was a Violent Ramp pin, and I told him we were having some people over to the apartment later, and he was like ‘yeah cool' but I didn't think he wanted to hang out so we just jetted. I guess he was kinda upset that we left, because the next time I saw him was at that Wolf Eyes gig with you, which coincidentally someone who I went on a blind date with was there, and we just ignored each other. Then when I went to go meet him after the show, I went to shake his hand and his setup cut my arm.
You don't remember that? I had a scar for like six months. It was bleeding.
And then, two days later he told me they were playing at Harvestworks, this place in Soho, and we talked.
And the rest is history.
I just wanted to explain how we had been trading with him for years, having never met him in person.
Yeah, I found an old email from him the other day, from him to us, and it was like "Oh I'm just killing a six pack! I'll be sending the masters soon.” I think that was like ‘98 or something.
He told me years later he didn't think that 3 way split LP was ever going to come out. But they were on his doorstep in like a week!
There's actually a story about that track on that LP, too, “Halloween 99,' but its kind of an ‘off the record' story.
I remember you brought back pictures from that tour, and I saw a picture of John and I thought he was really cute.
So what's your setup like these days, and how does it vary from show to show? I've seen you guys be really economical and then I've also seen huge suitcases and pedals and horns and shit.
Actually it's been a progression. At the beginning it was giant suitcases. When we went to London. We had one gig, and we had these massive, massive suitcases of super heavy equipment. And that was just a horrible nightmare, and that's what's on the LP I'm putting out, and it sounded cool but it was just totally impractical. But the more we've toured and the more John has toured with Wolf Eyes, our setup has gotten smaller and smaller and it can fit into really small suitcases. My setup's been changing almost every gig…
Yeah, I found an old email from [John] the other day, from him to us, and it was like "Oh I'm just killing a six pack! I'll be sending the masters soon.”
So it's a utilitarian thing, the setup getting smaller.
Yeah, yeah, you don't wanna lug around a huge thing. Right now it's basically just an answering machine that plays tape loops, and mixer that plays feedback, and sometimes that has some effects on it, and then sometime I'll plug in a contact mic, and put it on a tin can and that's it.
Well you do a lot with that.
(Somewhat suspiciously) Well, thank you, interviewer.
Let's discuss some of our…
You know, that's a really bad interview technique, by the way. You never say ‘let's discuss' or ‘tell me about.' Very immature.
Well I figured we'd do this kinda casual, you know, I wasn't deferring to Strunk and White or nothin.'
Well it should either be casual 100% or professional 100%.
Well, I have stuff on paper, but…I'm sorry. Anyway I wanted to talk about some of your projects over the years, some of which have never seen the light of day, for archival purposes. Let's start with Easy Songs.
Yep. I just recently heard that again.
I don't know if you remember, but the academic buildings at Purchase used to stay open all the time, all through the night and everything, and it was great place to record because there were big ceilings and the acoustics were awesome. I remember we'd sneak in and record these songs.
I didn't think we needed to even sneak in because nobody cared.
Yeah, totally. I wonder if it's still like that . We did a lot of Golden Calves stuff in there too. But you had some really nice acoustic songs we'd do.
We had that practice space too, that's where we did Cervix Charge.
Which became Platinum Scratch.
Oh yeah…we never played live though.
No, but there are some good recordings. I was trying to do a Confusion is Sex, Dead C Eusa Kills kinda thing…
And I was still into riot grrl.
Where you still into that at that point?
Yeah, you know! And like Crass's Penis Envy, anything really raw. Huggy Bear. Like, nobody can play for shit, you know. Provocative lyrics. So we were going for a similar thing but still completely different.
And then there was Dolorez. I remember that being really excellent, and we recorded an LP and I don't even remember the label that was supposed to put it out. Clint Simonson, years later, wanted to put it out on DeStijl but the master tapes were all fucked up from sitting in my closet. That was a lot of cello and wild shit. We recorded it over a weekend.
Yeah, and you bought me a didgeridoo, and I couldn't figure out how to play it, so I did it Homer Simpson style, singing into it. (Mimics Homer Simpson) “Sax-a-ma-phoooone….”
And then I tried to do a Yoko Ono thing through it because I couldn't play it.
Yeah we did a “Cambridge 1969” type thing at Tonic…
Yeah, I remember it being really embarrassing, and it was with Tower Recordings and I think Alan Licht was there.
I never played Tonic. Was it The Cooler?
We can leave this out.
Wait, no, no, no I remember it. It was at some weird performance space and it was at some big festival and like Air traffic Controllers were playing.
And you know, Russ Waterhouse actually recorded that and released it.
What? I didn't know that.
Yes! He said he really liked my vocals.
And he released it on some sort of thing, I don't know what it was, some collection of things, maybe he sampled it or something, I haven't heard it. But I remember that gig because back then, and still to an certain extent now, when I had to sing I'd get the hiccups.
Because I'd get really nervous. So it'd be hard for me to sing or scream or anything because I'd get these hiccups out of nervousness. So I remember it being really embarrassing but luckily there were three bands playing at the same time and no one saw us. Was Angelblood playing that night?
I think it might have been pre-Angelblood, but I think Flux Information Sciences was on the bill.
Speaking of Russ, have you heard Blues Control?
No, but I'm their Myspace friend. Anyway, I don't know if you remember this, but we'd just randomly play folk songs around campus. We'd do like Woodie Guthrie songs…
Oh yeah, I remember. We got way into the Anthology of American Folk Music.
Yeah, and The Carter Family. That was around the time of the tribute to Tovah concert at Exile on Main Street.
Where we both worked.
It was all really embarrassing, all part of your quest to find a female singer. Finally you found Jessica. In the meantime you had to deal with me.
You were great, though.
Let's not gloss over the Tribute to Tovah – really quickly, but we really have to put that in the interview. That's not something we can mention and not extrapolate on.
Oh God, that was embarrassing. Nick – He Who Stands Firm – I think he had a little crush on me.
It did say “He Who Stands Firm” on his driver's license. He was a heavy dude. You were up there singing “Drunkard's Special.” Matt Krefting still talks about that gig. It was historic.
Yeah, Matt Krefting and Aaron (Rosenblum) played that gig!
And Adam from the Moldy Peaches. Everyone was so tiny then.
What a weird gig.
We'd have to go into a lot of background about this and this is already getting long. If anyone wants the whole story of The Great Mount Kisco Tribute To Tovah of 1999, they can email me.
(some talk about old friends in common)
OK. Closed Down New York City Sex Shops. That's recently been unearthed for the bonus track on the upcoming Bad News Bearers reissue LP on Double Fantasy. Now that was fun. Ninety minutes of non stop improv skronk. You were playing a heavily amplified Casio and I was bowing an electric guitar, and it was all hard panned in the mix. I thought that was pretty amazing. An endurance test. One of our best. John always loved that one, right?
Yeah. I have a photo from that session…
I have the same photo! You kinda looking like Donna Dresch.
Yeah, I had the headphones on and backwards baseball cap and a camo shirt!
That's so funny you mention that picture because I wrote that down. I wrote Tovah = Donna Dresch.
The copy I have of that tape is all warped.
I don't have one at all.
You don't have one in storage?
Maybe somewhere. Lost somewhere. I guess we better talk about the aforementioned Bad News Bearers tape. That was another really good one. That was mostly you.
There was also the James Jackson Toth Plays Dead Machines CDR
Oh yeah! I forgot about that! My first remix. That was fun. And then Panda Haus, which was just pre-Golden Calves.
Yep. Staten Island, in the basement.
Yep. That set the stage. Those tapes still float around. I know people who still have them. You had some great vocals on there. I remember we were both really into Gilli Smyth from Gong…
We were really into Shadow Ring at the time too.
Well, of course, yeah. Still really into them. Jesus.
But yeah, the deadpan thing.
And it was shades of things to come with Wooden Wand in that everyone counted you as an executive member…
I played when I could. To be honest you were kind of a nightmare to be in a band with. I need a very forgiving atmosphere. You have very high demands. On one end of the spectrum, I'd be showing up doing my thing once in a while, and you'd get really frustrated, and Dave Seidel would literally fall asleep at the keyboard, because he was so dreadfully bored with the music.
Yeah! He's always been too good for us. It was quite a collection of misfits. OK, moving on, going back even further. When we met, I remember we were both into things like Jesus and Mary Chain, Afghan Whigs, stuff on Kill Rock Stars and lots of punk and hardcore. We've talked this to death, even publicly, but the first music that really opened my eyes to the weirder stuff was Siltbreeze. Was there one band or label that really clinched it for you? I know we shared a lot of music back then and kind of discovered stuff at the same time, but was there one thing that really made you go ‘wow, this is a whole new kinda thing?'
Prick Decay. And Decaer Pinga. Especially meeting those guys, and collaborating with them, and them introducing me to people like Rat Bastard
We put them up for like a week on their first US tour!
Yeah, and went on their tour with them. I remember in Philly, at the Astrocade, we got into a horrible car accident, and then still going. But seeing them play live, collaborating with them opening for Sonic Youth, just watching their process…
That's the night we met Thurston too.
Yeah. And Dylan (Nyoukis) and Lisa (Dora Doll) were just really warm people, and that opened me up to the community that we're still a part of. That same type of people.
And Muckraker was big too.
Oh, Muckraker was huge.
If only for connecting the dots. I met people through that zine that I consider some of my best friends today.
To a certain extent Bananafish too.
Well, you used to buy Bananafish and Rollerderby and stuff and leave them around my apartment, and that kinda got me into stuff like Boyd Rice and Whitehouse.
Oh, I don't wanna take any credit for that.
To be honest you were kind of a nightmare to be in a band with. I need a very forgiving atmosphere.
Well, I'm just saying, you were way ahead of your time. When we were still teenagers, you had the first Sleater-Kinney album, you were the first person I ever heard talk about Elliot Smith and Cat Power. You got me into Slint.
I had that first Cat Power 7.” What happened to that? Did you sell that?
I have no idea. It probably got sold at some point. We got really into eBay for a while. Enabling each other and so forth.
Well the thing that's cool for me now is that, as dorky as it is, because John tours so much, he meets all these bands, all these people who seem sorta mystical to a certain extent. The more you get immersed in the music business, you realize everybody's connected no matter what kind of music they're playing. Maybe not like Jay-Z, but…
Well, I don't know. I'm only one degree of separation from him. Matt Sweeney plays with Neil Diamond now.
That's very strange. Did you know that Corsano is gonna be on the next Bjork album?
Whoa. Is that official?
I met Janet Weiss last night.
She's a great drummer.
She seemed really nice. Do you think our background in the hardcore scene had a lot of influence on us? There are some stray ‘noise' people who come from that background. Mike Bernstein (Double Leopards / Religious Knives / Workbench / Heavy Tapes) came from that, some of the Vanishing Voice…do you think that aesthetic carries over?
Of course. Actually John right now is in this big hardcore phase. Old hardcore AND new hardcore. He's really into this band called Vegetative State out of Columbus who just put out a 7”. Like, he's been reading Maximum Rock and Roll religiously
Yeah! It's really weird, because I remember we used to read that, and HeartattaCk.
HeartattaCk was big, I loved HeartattaCk…
(more talk about old friends, the band Milhouse, the DIY aesthetic)
John doesn't exactly come from exactly the same background as us because he's slightly older and comes from a different part of the country, but I think his aesthetic has a lot in common with hardcore. The silk-screening, the disciplined DIY approach…
Back in the day he was trading with people, before the internet. He goes back to the days of catalogs. And his experiences were the same in different ways, like he'd travel to New York to see Unsane. You know? But he grew up in the skate punk culture.
We were more part of the Food Not Bombs crew.
Yeah, it was more of that. Back before screamo wasn't as cheesy as it is now, all the Gravity Records stuff.
That stuff holds up, I pull those records out from time to time..
Yeah, John's more into Necros, Discharge.
Chris Freeman said once that Discharge reminded him of minimalist music. He's right too. Hear Nothing…is kind of an avant garde record, in a weird way.
Do you know how many Discharge cover bands there are?
All with the same drumbeat.
OK, so Dead Machines. You and John seem to bring out the best in each other musically. Did that have to be cultivated? Because I know that as close as we were, we never worked very well together.
I think John and I hit it off from the start. We knew right away that we were gonna play music together. We've been playing music together since 2002. So it's been a while, and we get better at playing together all the time. It helps that John has a way of looking at it, like ‘play what you think sounds good, play in the moment,' and that's how it works. We're not working with strict song structures. That's what throws me off. I'm not very good at preciseness.
Precision. Yeah. And that's not really required. And the idea of collaboration, improvising. I think I'm a good collaborator.
I know John has a lot of discipline in the way he works. Is that a contagious thing or do you go at your own pace?
Well, it's like having dinner with someone every night. Like, ‘let's have a family dinner together every night and talk.' That's kinda what making music is. To John it's just a daily thing, but to me it's not as often. For him it's like breathing. You play, you record, you mix, you release and you make the cover art, and so you get caught up in the flow of it. It's second nature and not something that's a big production. We have our studio, we just converted our bedroom into the studio and moved into the old studio space because it's smaller. John calls it the Olson Quiet Jazz Club.
Is that where the podcasts come from?
Well, yeah. John is sorts like a technophobe I think, but if you give him something he'll just really go for it, so…sometimes I think I know what's best for people…I think you know what I'm talking about
So I'll tell him, you really need to get this iPod, or whatever. And I told him that he really needed to do a podcast, and of course he had no idea how to do it so I found out the most basic way to do it and just introduced it to him and we started going through his record collection, and it just became really fun to share the records. I thought about it like when we have traveling bands staying over, as you know, John will stay up till five in the morning playing them records. So it's kinda like translating that to the podcast. John is very musically curious, so it's fun to do those. I help out with the technical side of things. As far as my role, I try to read a lot about things and get to know as much about things as I can, and I pass on that knowledge with the hope that it'll inspire stuff. I think that always worked with you, and I pass off things to John and a lot of it ends up being American Tapes titles and stuff.
Snake oil? Yeah, well. The emperor has clothes, OK?
The podcasts got weird very quick. I love when you guys started messing around with your effects and stuff. Like the first podcast was pretty cool, but then the second one, you guys were all like slowing down your speaking voices and putting effects on them and shit. Went a little bonkers.
It got a little goofy. The last few have no intros whatsoever. I think the thing with Dead Machines is that we have a lot of fun. We can be a little goofy and have a little fun with it. You witnessed the only time I ever passed out at a gig…
Oh yeah. In Columbus.
Yeah, when we decided to do Dead Machines a la Violent Ramp. I was playing a bass that wasn't plugged in.
No, that gig was awesome. You were screaming in your sunglasses like a miniature Alan Vega. It was surreal.
But sometimes playing can be a spiritual experience, or almost at the level of having sex as far as intimacy goes. So it's…hold on, John's showing me his naked butt. But yeah, it's just the feeling of playing and then afterwards being like, ‘yeah, that was really a connection,' especially because we have lines into each others setup. So I'll start playing and he'll start playing and soon you can't even tell who's creating the sound.
Like the Borbetomagus thing, when they hooked the saxophone bells together. But I think you're right, when improvising works, it's like an intimate musical conversation. Is that a hippie ass thing to say?
We occasionally do things where we have almost a composition, where we do a certain thing. But if you're a real Dead Machines collector, and you follow the whole discography, you'll see that it goes through patches, like “oh here's the patch where they do a lot of organ stuff.”
Kinda like Jandek. Chunks of records that mine similar territory, then a total change.
But I like to think that ours aren't so different from each other. Like, some people only like Jandek electric, you know? I read a review recently, I was telling you this the other day, someone bought a CD I did and reviewed it alongside a one sided LP that I did, and it's basically the same material except that the LP is shorter, and the person said the LP was so much better. I mean, maybe it sounds better on wax, but when you play this type of music it's so subjective.
Right. Enter the accusations of snake oil.
Snake oil? Yeah, well. The emperor has clothes, OK?
The T&A release, which is a one sided 7” collaboration between you and Dilloway, rules mightily. How did that come about? What were the circumstances behind that?
Basically, Dead Machines was asked to play Noise Camp, which is this annual thing that happens in Detroit.
Is that Warn's thing?
Davin. And it has a lot of things, like campfire songs and fake nurses and stuff, and it's really not John's kinda thing. So I was supposed to play solo the year before and I totally chickened out, because it was raining and everything and I didn't want to get electrocuted. So I had to play this last year. I didn't want to play by myself because I don't like to play by myself, so I asked Aaron if he wanted to play, and we had never played before just the two of us. So we just sorta decided to wing it. We didn't have enough time to practice, so we just played. It ended up being a different experience than playing with John.
Well sure, by your own definition, you were having sex with Aaron.
Ha! Well we actually did a fake kiss at the end.
Cool. Keeping with tradition.
Yeah. And John was just right in front of him, checking the levels beforehand and everything, making sure I was loud enough. He was very watchful over the proceedings.
How do you balance having the responsibilities of having such a demanding straight job with being a superstar noise queen? Are your coworkers aware of what you do when you clock out for the day?
Ok, well that's a really weird way of phrasing the question, but…
You're a jerk! No wonder people are afraid to interview you.
I am a jerk! But I'm also a journalist, so this is really hard to do. People aren't afraid to interview me, people just don't ask to interview me! Anyway, at work, they make fun of me.
So they know what you do?
Oh yeah., they know, because I'm a blabbermouth and I can't keep anything to myself, and a couple of them have heard it and a couple of them have actually seen me play live. And overall they're sort of just perplexed by the whole thing, I don't think they understand it. I mean, they understand what it's about but it's really not their thing. And they don't realize the magnitude of everything that goes on around it. To them it's pretty silly. But it's a pain in the ass because I work a 12 hour day and I come home and John is all ‘let's practice' and I just wanna pass out.
On the first few WWVV tours, the question we'd get in every city was ‘where's Tovah? And I had to explain that you had a demanding job with a lot of responsibilities.
Yeah, I can't just take off whenever I feel like it. I'm the only copy editor at the paper, if I'm not there it puts a burden on everyone else. It's like that commercial, about the people who are in the Olympics who work at Home Depot, do you know those commercials?
Yeah, it's like "Home Depot proudly employs 14 Olympic champions!" (Laughs). Not that I'm an Olympic champion or anything, but I like to think of this guy who's like the curling champion or something, some random thing that no one cares about, and someone walks in and asks him where the lightbulbs are. You know, he's got the gold medal under his shirt! That's my life!
Yeah, the double life thing is hard. When I used to have to work jobs I'd just avoid talking about my personal life with coworkers at all costs. I mean, at least you work in an office, I drove trucks and shit. Inevitably, it's almost worse when they're into music, or if they're musicians themselves, because then they start trying to talk gear with you , and you gotta deal with that whole thing. I usually say I don't really listen to music.
And also for me because of the whole women in noise thing, I don't know if it's just the way they are, or because of the fact that they wanna compete with the boys, but they're gear-obsessed. I mean, most guys are gear obsessed, too, but I could give a shit. Give me something from the side of the road and I'll play it, you know? I don't care.
That kinda goes back to the Decaer Pinga thing. That sounds a lot like Dylan's aesthetic.
Yeah. Just don't ever use the garbagetronica label. It was this Village Voice thing a while ago, that Misty Martinez wrote as a joke term, but people sorta latched onto that. But I don't like shop talk, it bores me. People always wanna know about my gear and know what I'm doing, and what it comes down to is there are plenty of people out there who have pretty much the same stuff that I do. I mean, plenty of people play a Fender guitar, but are you gonna check it out, like ‘check out that Fender?' I mean, the idea of seeing these websites where people manufacture re-circuited toys and stuff for noise purposes, that makes me sick. That totally just takes all the personality out of it and it's just like a joke. You know? Like, on eBay you can buy like rewired SK-1s that make all these cool sounds. Why are you gonna do that, you know?
People just wanna be down.
There's a whole phenomenon of people in China whose whole job is to play video games, to collect points, you know? And then they sell the characters. My sister plays World of Warcraft and you really have to play it for hours and hours and hours to get anywhere on it. So if you don't have the time for it, people buy the shit,. But apparently you can always tell the people who are fakers. They all have weird names. And when a business man decides, ‘hey I wanna play level 5,' he just pays like $200 to this guy in China, and bingo, he's in the game.
But anyway, for me right now, none of my things are modified. None of them! It's really an answering machine, nothing special about it.
Do you have a favorite American Tapes release?
I know your favorite ones are the ones that I'm not on.
That's not necessarily true…
It's really hard to pick a favorite. I really like a lot of the stuff he does. I can appreciate the older stuff that are really just art objects, and I like the zine type things that he does. It's just really hard, because I don't think they're meant to be singled out. I like the Dead Machines Every Hour of Every Day CD set. It's a really good representation. And the American Tapes box, I think that's the perfect American Tapes release.
So in other words, everything but Waves.
Yeah, I don't like Waves. Waves and I don't get along!