What? I Can't Hear You:
Notes from a No Fun Fest Girlfriend, Part II
(Part One) (Part Two)
survived No Fun Fest. In fact, I had a great time at No Fun Fest. Or, rather, I
had a lot of fun at No Fun Fest -- same thing, right? By now, I'm pretty tired
of thinking of "fun" as a loaded word.
No Fun Fest surprised me in a lot of ways. I was surprised by how big it was,
how many people came out, and how excited everyone was to be there. I was
surprised by the incredible variety of noise acts, from giddy, dorky old men
playing saxophones to serious looking guys crouched behind computers creating
shrill metallic waves of sound. And I was surprised by how much fun I had. As a
girl who doesn't really listen to much noise music dragged to a three-day noise
fest by her boyfriend, I had expected to feel bored and somewhat alienated by
the music and the atmosphere, but, for the most part, I didn't. A few weird
moments and mediocre sets notwithstanding, the weekend's music was engaging and
exciting and ultimately made me forget I was a No Fun Fest Girlfriend. The best
moments of No Fun were the ones where the music made me stop analyzing my
relationship with noise and step out of my role as a NFFGF and just listen.
And maybe rock back and forth a little bit.
The first night of No Fun, I had the good fortune to run into a couple of other
TMT writers, Matt Weir and S. Kobak, as well as my friend Steve. Over the course
of the night, all three of these guys ended up saying the same two things to me:
one, "Are you having fun?" and two, "You should check out this next band,
a female noise act."
I'll address each of these statements in turn. First, yes, I was having fun. I
was also regretting the confident declaration I made in Part I that "noise is no
fun." That simply isn't true. Noise can definitely be fun, even if it rarely
delivers the bouncy, head-bobbing brand of fun I enjoy in other music. But noise
can also be no fun, either because it's serious or because it's sort of lame
(it's boring or repetitive or too antagonistic, or it sounds like bad metal). My
idea that "noise is no fun" can probably be blamed on my focusing too much on
just Merzbow, who is sort of a serious guy, and who I am not really into.
Basically, noise music is like anything else: some of it is fun and some of it
isn't. If I'd only ever heard Elliott Smith albums, I'd probably conclude that
"indie rock is no fun," and if I'd only ever seen Match Point, you
couldn't blame me for saying "Woody Allen movies are no fun." The variety of
music at No Fun Fest made me realize that noise bands don't all sound similar.
John Weise is nothing like Can't, and Can't is nothing like Borbetomagus, and
Borbetomagus is nothing like the Skaters, and the Skaters are nothing like No
Neck Blues Band (and No Neck may not even be a noise band), and so on.
Secondly, the Friday night line-up was indeed frontloaded with female noise
acts: Zaimph, then 16 Bitch Pile-Up, then Can't. I wondered why the schedule was
set up this way, and I couldn't help but think that Carlos Giffoni (the No Fun
Fest organizer) had gotten word of my article and set out to prove that noise
music does not really alienate women.
Whether or not Carlos planned it this way, the three all-girl noise acts
succeeded in making me question my conception of noise as something created
primarily by men and for men. I especially liked Can't. She started by singing a
very pretty, simple a capella folk song, something about "cool, clear water,"
and then got down to business and began manipulating knobs that brought on
onslaughts of static and feedback that she sang against and around, her singing
mostly fighting, but sometimes harmonizing, with the noise. Her voice came out
in gasps and stabs, and she moved backwards and forwards in an elegantly gawky
dance with the synthesizer.
But even if there were women all over the stage Friday night, there were mostly
men in the audience: I saw one girl for every four guys. I was (and still am)
really curious about what those girls were thinking. I wanted to ask how they
liked No Fun, but of course I couldn't just run up to a bored-looking girl and
say, "So, your boyfriend dragged you here, huh?" Not only would that have been
awkward and rude (and sexist), but none of the girls I saw looked bored. They
all looked engaged in the music and excited to be there. Then again, even I
looked engaged in the music and excited to be there, and I had been
dragged there by my boyfriend.
No Fun Fest was undeniably a pretty engaging and exciting event. It was planned
well, with a good variety of bands organized in a sequence that didn't get
boring. It was held at a nice place, the Hook, which has a big main stage, a
great (and very loud) sound system, a second stage in an unfinished basement
with a low ceiling and a red lamp, a little courtyard area out back with a shack
full of merch tables, and a quesadilla concession.
The appeal of No Fun Fest was increased by the fact that a lot of the musicians
forged a positive and friendly rapport with the audience, an element that's been
absent at other noise shows I've been to. When 16 Bitch took the stage, one of
the women grinned and said, "Welcome to Carlos Giffoni's block party, guys!" The
next night James Twig Harper, whose house burned down while he was in New York
for No Fun, ended his performance by shouting this sweetly earnest, passionate
speech that went something like: "Don't ever give up! Don't ever give up! Keep
doing what you're doing! Don't you ever fucking give up!"
This earnestness was especially refreshing in the context of Saturday night's
line-up. If Friday was ladies' night, Saturday was more of a macho-noise
sausagefest. It wasn't the music itself that annoyed me, but the ridiculous
posturing and fist-pumping, especially when it came to Bloodyminded, Daniel
Menche, and Sutcliffe Jugend. Bloodyminded yelled a lot and rambled
introductions to each song that were longer than the songs themselves; if they
were supposed to be ironic, I didn't get the joke. Menche ran around and shook
his fist at the audience from different parts of the stage, then climbed up on a
large hanging speaker and shook his fist from up above the crowd. Sutcliffe
Jugend, two British guys who wore all white and played guitars, seemed very
serious, and yelled things like "You are Jesus God" over and over.
And then there was Macronympha. There was a lot going on during Macronympha's
set (quick summary: one of the guys slammed huge metal oil drums together, the
crowd got riled up and violent, people started throwing around a table and
eventually someone got hit in the head with the table, there were naked girls
onstage), and now there's a lot of online message board controversy over the sex
and violence in their stage show. Someone started a thread called "Death to Jock
Noise;" Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth wrote a summary of No Fun in which he
described Macronympha as having a "jutted-jaw super-inebriated date-rape vibe,"
and I think he meant it as a compliment; the scandal escalated and the arguments
ensued, and one of the guys from Macronympha ended up posting a letter defending
Personally, the violence bothered me more than the sex. I saw the poor guy who
was hit with the table holding his bloody head and struggling to get out of the
crowd, and then I saw the table hoisted right back into the air. Guys, if you're
throwing around a table, and someone gets hit in the head with it and starts
bleeding a whole lot, that is when you put down the table. You don't keep
throwing the table. That is a terrible idea. I have to admit, though, that
before I saw this guy get hurt, I was completely caught up in the excitement of
seeing a table get thrown around in the air. I wasn't thinking about it on any
serious level; I was just impressed with the spectacle: Oh, wow, they're
throwing around a table, that's crazy, yeah!
As for the naked women, I didn't actually see them. I'm 5'2", so I'm pretty much
used to not being able to see what's going on onstage at shows, and No Fun (with
an 80% male and a 95% taller-than-me audience) was no exception. So I'm not sure
how I would've reacted if I had actually seen what happened onstage, and my only
account of the events comes from my (5'10") boyfriend. According to him, Dom,
one of the guys in Macronympha, was making out with a woman with electrical tape
on her nipples while one of the other Macronympha guys sort of felt up Sarah
Cathers from 16 Bitch, who was wearing a red bra and fishnets. Maybe it's
because I didn't see it, but I'm not really shocked or surprised by this
behavior. First of all, as disappointing as it is that women tend to be seen as
muses and cheerleaders and flygirls for male artists instead of artists in their
own right, it's not like this phenomenon is new. And second, was it really clear
that Sarah and the other woman were being exploited? According to S. Kobak, the
woman with taped nipples is Dom's girlfriend, and as far as I know, she and
Sarah were acting of their own volition. If Sarah felt violated when someone
touched her breasts, I think she would've done something about it – the woman is
in a band called 16 Bitch Pile-Up; I think she can handle her shit. Look at her,
she's probably captain of her roller derby league. All I'm saying is that I'd
hesitate before assuming titties on stage equals exploitation. It isn't that
clear-cut – like the word "cunt," the event of a naked woman on stage can be
(and has been) reclaimed and used to empower instead of demean. And since I
didn't see it myself, it's hard for me to say whether naked girls were a cool or
creepy addition to Macronympha's stage show.
But regardless of whether or not the women onstage were exploited, there was
something weird about Macronympha's set: I have no recollection of what it
sounded like. I was too caught up in the spectacle – too busy watching the table
wobbling through the crowd and the oil drums slamming together and the empty
beer cans arcing towards the stage – to pay attention to the music.
And while I'll admit I found myself mesmerized by the flying table, I don't
think I could ever get as excited by violence as some of the other people in the
crowd. I had no desire to toss the table myself, or punch someone in the face,
or throw my beer can towards the stage. After the first night of No Fun, Carlos
started a thread on my favorite noisedork message board called "No Fun Fest 2006
– Who's still alive?" in which he wrote, "Make sure to say goodbye to your
family members if you are coming tonight. There is no point of return." And even
though this was obviously meant as a joke (or at least as hyperbole), I really
can't relate to this idea of violence and aggression and danger being cool, this
idea that going to No Fun Fest somehow means skirting death, and I can't relate
to the masochism of the guy who responded to Carlos's post by writing: "Barely
alive, every part of me is hurting, throat feels like a smokestack, talking is
difficult, many bruises … ears are still ringing a tad … tonight is going to be
even crazier and I can't fucking wait." I emerged from No Fun Fest relatively
unscathed, and I had a great time – so why does violence and masochism factor in
to the equation for so many people? Sure, I took out my earplugs for a bunch of
the sets (okay, most of them, after the first day), but that's because the music
sounded better without earplugs, not because I wanted to feel pain or earn my
Sunday evening's performances provided a welcome respite from such macho/
masochistic tendencies. Late Sunday night, I saw two of the least pretentious
and most exuberant acts of the entire weekend. First, Borbetomagus played
upstairs: two old, unhip men playing saxophones and another old, unhip man
playing guitar, all making the most formless, joyful explosion of sound
imaginable. It reminded me of blowing the shofar in synagogue on Rosh Hashonah.
I'm not religious (at all), so it sort of freaks me out that I can only describe
Borbetomagus by comparing them with High Holiday services and using words like
"joyful." But yeah, they were good. And then we ran downstairs to see Burning
Graveyards, who trumped Borbetomagus's "formless" with "chaotic," and their
"joyful" with "fucking manic." Once again, I was too short to see the band, but
every once in a while, the sea of shoulders would part a little bit and every
time it did, I'd catch a glimpse of a different guy crammed on the tiny basement
stage, spazzing out gloriously on whatever instrument he was holding. This music
was decidedly not "no fun" – it was psychotically ecstatic.
So I had fun at No Fun Fest, and if I ever felt alienated as a non-noise-fan
outsider, it wasn't during any of the performances, but at the merch tables. I
didn't know the bands and labels represented there, and I felt like a dork
standing next to my boyfriend while he browsed and getting in the way of guys
who had really specific questions to ask about limited edition cassette series.
But even in the merch shack, No Fun friendliness ultimately prevailed, and one
of the guys at one of the booths showed me a CD that came in a case that was
"actually a fully-functional pinball machine." It had a tiny spring to launch
the ball bearing and everything, and I really regret not buying it. Not that I
knew what it sounded like, but still. I was really amazed at the gorgeous and
innovative CD packaging, and once I got over being shy and intimidated, I
enjoyed looking through the music for sale just to look at it. If anything is
going to slow down the mp3 revolution and convince people to buy albums again,
it's not going to be the threat of the RIAA, but unique, pretty CDs that come in
hand-painted cases, felt sleeves or miniature pinball machines.
In closing, I should thank No Fun Fest (and the boyfriend who dragged me there)
for making me aware of two really nice things about noise music. First nice
thing: seeing a live noise act has the potential to be a more overwhelming and
in-the-moment experience than say, seeing a live indie rock band. At No Fun,
there was never a moment where I caught myself unconsciously comparing the song
I was hearing to the version of the song I knew from the album. Granted, this is
largely due to the fact that I haven't listened to many albums put out by the
bands who played at No Fun, but I have a feeling that the rest of the audience –
even the people who had all the albums, plus the obscure tour CD-Rs – were too
caught up in the sound to think of anything but what they were hearing. The
sheer volume of the music makes it overwhelming, and makes everything else
irrelevant: there is only this; there is no that to compare this
to. There's no chorus to anticipate and no previous verse to reflect on; there's
just the sound that you're hearing now, and, oh, now it's changing slightly.
This meditative quality is one of the things that allows noise to be so
The second nice thing about No Fun is that it made me listen to a lot of noise
music, and I've found that the more noise music I hear, the more apt I am to
notice noises in general. This has not only made my music-listening more
interesting (as I'm one of those people who tend to notice lyrics before music),
but I'd venture to say it's also made my life more interesting. It's made me pay
more attention to the calming and vaguely tidal sounds of the traffic outside my
apartment, it's made the tremendous, rumbling industrial copy machine at work a
lot more fun, and it probably played some role in my decision to set off all the
toaster oven timers and listen to the different bells during a recent visit to
the Astor Place K-Mart.
Which brings me back to No Fun Fest: sitting on the F train at 3:00 AM on the
way back from our third night at the Hook, my boyfriend and I listened to the
whoosh and screech of the subway car.
"This sounds exactly like –"
My boyfriend nodded: "John Wiese."
Photos: Bill T Miller
(Part One) (Part Two)