Jeff Surak considers music his “obsession.” Over the past 23 years, he’s run three labels, played with a handful of bands, and embarked on frequent tours of Europe. Funny, then, that music is often the last thing he wants to discuss.
“I usually try to avoid telling people about it,” the 38-year-old says, sitting in the computer room of his home in Bethesda.
Some people still manage to find out that, besides being a webmaster for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Surak is a musician. They usually ask him what instrument he plays. Great: Once he played a violin connected to a cheese grater. Another time he played a Styrofoam cup—by sticking it full of pins, tacks, and paper clips and placing it atop a spinning vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The paper clips were bent to allow them to scratch both sides of the record at once.
Surak usually doesn’t explain all this. Typically, he’ll answer that he doesn’t play a regular instrument. Then he might get confronted with “Oh, so you’re a DJ.”
At this point, he often gives up. But if pushed a little more, he’ll squirm a bit, sigh, and eventually come to this: “I suppose I create audio art.”
Much of that art is created right in this room, the nerve center of Zeromoon, his one-man CD, CD-R, and MP3 label. Since 2000, Zeromoon has released music not only by Surak but also by such relatively obscure peers such as Swedish glitch-punk artist Thomas Ekelund and Rinus Van Alebeek, an “itinerant sound collector,” according to the Zeromoon Web site, originally from the Netherlands and now residing in Italy.
Surak clicks his way into “Straw Sandals,” a track he collaborated on with Swiss free-jazz saxophonist Bertrand Denzler. Denzler plays the sax as if it were a blowgun while Surak allows the Styrofoam cup—which he fondly refers to as “the porcupine”—to work its voodoo on the Beatles.
“I just use whatever materials are around,” Surak says. “It’s all a question of context, whether a person is able to listen beyond what they’re used to hearing.”
He queues another track: “Kwangmjonghoehle,” the opening jolt on a Surak release called Let the Sunshine In. It’s a droning cycle that sounds something like a broken pinball machine—or maybe a car stuck by the side of the road, hazards on. In the background, there’s the distant, underwatery noise of metal against metal. Soon a bubbling cauldron takes over—or are those footsteps?—and before long, this gives way to a radio tuner scanning an empty dial, then a record player with nothing to play, feedback, and a sound that conjures images of a tuning fork melting in the desert.
In other words, it’s difficult music, even to your average Lightning Bolt or Albert Ayler fan—and exactly the kind of thing Zeromoon was founded to promote. Total number of copies released? Twenty-three.
Surak has been unconcerned with the numbers for a long time—at least since 1983, when he founded Watergate Tapes. At the time, the cassette underground was thriving, in large part due to labor-of-love zines such as the San Francisco–based Unsound, which was largely responsible, Surak says, for drawing him into the underground of audio artistry.
Soon enough, he’d made connections with like-minded nonmusicians all over the world. “I’ll never forget the day I got six cassette tapes in an empty beer six-pack from a friend of mine,” he says. “I was just like, What the hell is this? Back then, the envelopes themselves were works of art.”
At the same time, Surak performed with the notorious Washington industrial band New Carrollton. The band specialized in surrealist and dadaist ambience, which, on at least one release, was arranged so as “to confuse the listener,” according to Zeromoon’s archive notes. Over the years, Surak has adopted a myriad of musical pursuits, including the band V., which wrought noise from a hurdy-gurdy, knives, and whatever else was around; Violet, a solo effort focusing on turntable and autoharp drones; and side projects such as Second Violin and Normal Music. Music-nerd mag Wire gleefully described the last as “producing noises that might be capable of breaking people’s bones…if played at the right time and volume.”
Surak remained active in the cassette underground until 1991, when he took a break to study and perform in Russia, where he met the woman who is now his wife, freelance film and television producer Tatyana Pokrovskaya. But much of the old Watergate catalog has now been re-released on CD-R through both Zeromoon and Amsterdam’s Staalplaat label, including a 1988 recording of 1348’s Six Girls in Search of Heaven, which was remastered from a third-generation tape copy “in order to restore the intentionally poor quality of the original recording.”
The rudimentary and often repetitive nature of such material—common themes: decay and the destruction of recording itself—has prompted the oft-repeated criticism that, as Surak puts it, “my 5-year-old kid could do that.” “Yeah, he could,” he says. “But he wouldn’t know when to stop.” Nor would he know exactly how to control and allocate density, texture, or tone—“all the things people don’t normally talk about when they talk about music.”
“To me,” Surak says, “turning on the radio and listening to Top 40 radio stations is noise. It’s useless information, and it bombards you from people’s cars, in stores, when you don’t even ask for it. When you analyze pop music, it’s totally compressed. Whereas experimental noise gives you a wide range of frequencies.”
Although Surak began exploring said frequencies on tape, he doesn’t over-romanticize the days of six-pack packaging. With the advent of the Internet and the desktop CD burner, he and others who were once involved in the cassette underground discovered that they could share music much more rapidly and conveniently. “Everything is immediate, from producing to sending,” Surak says.
That immediacy has facilitated new noise bonds worldwide. In the Washington area, local artists have put out music not only on Zeromoon but also on Silver Spring’s Insect Fields and D.C.’s SocketsCDR, run by 26-year-old demographics-information specialist Sean Peoples.
“It’s fun to be able to say to someone, ‘Your art’s really great. Let’s try to make it happen and get it out there as fast as we can,’” says Peoples. With Sockets, that speed has helped create a local identity for what its founder calls “low-attention-span beats, noise, chanting, and world music.”
“We try to make it as local as possible, so that it’s got a frame of reference,” Peoples explains. “You know, ‘This is D.C.; here’s what’s going on.’”
Of course, there’s also a significant downside to the ease with which artists can find distribution with CD-R and Internet labels, Surak says—namely, that it’s become harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, or the experimental noise from the noise noise, a distinction Surak contends has to do with the degree of conscious thought put into a piece. The Zeromoon Web site warns, “Due to excessive spam and tons of bad demos we no longer accept them.”
“People released crap on tapes, too,” Surak says. “But since there was more effort involved, it sort of weeded people out faster. Today you have people making music that would have had no intention of doing so before and probably have no talent. So it goes both ways.”
Talent, of course, is a judgment call, but Surak is confident that he’s a fair judge. In fact, he’ll soon be deciding whom to invite to the sixth annual Sonic Circuits festival, which will draw electronic and experimental artists from all over the world to Washington this October. “There are enough people in D.C. doing this stuff, and there are plenty of people who would come out to see it if they knew about it,” he says. “This festival is partly to show people in D.C. that, hey, there’s a lot of interesting things going on here. It’s also to show the world that D.C. is an international city with a vibrant culture, not just government scandals and stuffed shirts on K Street.”
Though Surak won’t say exactly who will be on the bill until the fest’s funding is finalized, one artist who’s likely to find a slot is his longtime co-conspirator Ekelund, who goes by the artistic handle Dead Letters Spell Out Dead Words.
Ekelund is the invisible hand behind the artwork on countless Zeromoon releases, which come in all shapes and sizes, from 3-inch CDs to CD-Rs nestled in DVD-box-sized casings. He and Surak formerly worked together on Normal Music and are currently plotting a new release, Saint Vitus Dance, under the name Dead Violets.
The pair is also taking a big step back into the world of the cassette underground: Surak and Ekelund recently celebrated the first release on their new cassette label, Fukk Tapes Let’s Erase. According to Ekelund, the idea of returning to the format appealed to him and Surak as a way to reassert the more personal style of experimental-noise distribution that flourished in the ’80s.
While the market today leans heavily toward enhanced distribution and decreased personalization, “Fukk Tapes will be the other way around,” Ekelund writes in an e-mail. It will, he hopes, restore the “mystique” to underground music consumption.
He and Surak know just how to do that, whether it’s including a square of an original painting with each copy of an album or offering free downloads of others. (The most clicked-on? Let the Sunshine In, the one-time 23-copy wonder.) So far, Surak’s most ambitious releases have all hovered at right around the 400-copy mark. But that’s largely beside the point.
“It’s not a business,” he says of Zeromoon. “It’s about the need to create and exchange ideas.”
Back in his computer-room workstation, Surak shows off his very first recording as V., a project he sweated through with French drone outfit Ultra Milkmaids. “It’s important to reach out to people with this kind of networking, especially people in other countries,” he says. “Because those bonds can’t be formed via the mainstream corporate system.”
And if creating those bonds opens Surak up to the critique that a 5-year-old could do it, so be it. Those people aren’t really listening: A great piece of audio art, he asserts, “reveals itself slowly, so that each time you listen to it, there’s something new to discover.”
Just then, Surak’s wife and 5-year-old son, Maxim, come through the front door.
“Papa!” the boy yells.
“He’s totally into” experimental music, Surak says. “We did one release together. I mixed it and rearranged it.”
A quick smile crosses his face: “He played all the instruments.”CP
Surak performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 9, in Room B-120 of the George Washington University’s Phillips Hall, 801 22nd St. NW. For more information, visit panicresearch.com/electric_poss.html.