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Arlington music writer Marc Masters, 39, is a regular contributor to the Wire, Pitchfork, Paper Thin Walls, Baltimore City Paper, and Signal to Noise. He’s also worked as an editor on recent Jeff Krulik films like The Psychedelic Secretary and Al Breon, Throat Vocalist. Black Dog Publishing has recently released his book on New York’s No Wave scene, reviewed in this week’s CP, and he’ll be celebrating with a couple of release parties. The first is this Sunday at 8 p.m. at George Washington University as part of the new-music series the Electric Possible. And next
Friday, Feb. 8 Saturday, Feb. 9, he’ll take part in an event at the Velvet Lounge featuring Kohoutek and DJ sets by Mark C. of Live Skull.
Masters answered questions about his book via e-mail.
How did you first take an interest in No Wave music as a fan, and what prompted you to write a book about it?
I’ve been interested in No Wave since I first heard Lydia Lunch in the late ’80s. Going back into her early stuff with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks led me to No New York and all the bands from that period, though it was and still is hard to find a lot of the records. It really clicked for me when I got Mars’ 78+ CD on Atavistic (the Chicago label responsible for many crucial No Wave reissues). My tastes generally run towards the noisy side of rock, from the Dead C to Merzbow to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, but I love punk and new wave too. Mars bridged that gap, in a totally uncompromising way. Their stuff still sounds challenging today, which is kind of amazing when you consider that most “movements” from the ’70s and ’80s sound less unique now because so many bands since have re-used the ideas. No Wave has somehow maintained its originality through three decades of ancestry.
As far as what prompted me to write the book, Black Dog approached me about writing a book about another subject, but for various reasons that fell through. They mentioned they had been considering doing a No Wave book for a while, and I jumped at the chance.
No Wave often seems to be conflated with the larger New York punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. What were the key distinctions?
There were a lot of overlaps and similarities—the line is blurry at best. The simplest difference is that Punk, as radical and rebellious as it was, was still steeped in rock and blues. Whereas the No Wavers didn’t want to modify musical rules, they wanted to discard them. Punk bands certainly had members who weren’t technically adept, but that was much more common with No Wavers, many of whom wanted to be artists but found music a more exciting medium for their ideas. So in that way No Wave was rebelling against Punk, especially in the way the Punk bands were getting bigger and signing to major labels and so on. But No Wavers were also friends with Punk groups and supported by them—Patti Smith offered to release the first Mars single, Suicide were mentors to Lydia Lunch and James Chance, etc. In a way you could say No Wave tossed out the last few rock rules that Punk had hung onto. So in that way, No Wave was both a rebellion against Punk and the logical extension of Punk (the art of Suicide, the nihilism of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, etc.)
You obviously tracked down a lot of key people for interviews in this book, though a few people are missing from the conversation—Brian Eno most notably. Were there other people you had hoped to track down for the book? Were there people you were surprised were willing to speak about it?
Just for the record, Brian Eno’s management told us he wasn’t doing any interviews in 2007. I of course would’ve loved to talk to him. In terms of other people: if I had had more time and space, I would’ve spoken to John Lurie and Glenn O’Brien, and some other filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo. I wasn’t particularly surprised that any specific person was willing to talk, though it was nice to track down Charles Ball of the Lust/Unlust label, as many people I spoke to hadn’t seen or spoken to him in years. But I was generally surprised that no one declined or was even resistant. Given the attitudes in No Wave and the way many of the figures like Lunch and James Chance treated the press at the time, I figured some of them would be wary of how they were portrayed, or bitter about it, or tired of being lumped into a movement, etc. But each and every interviewee was incredibly talkative and forthcoming, and they all seemed really pleased to speak about the time period. I think that even though the attitudes at the time were somewhat nihilistic, they were also very passionate, and I think the participants on the whole look back fondly on that time, when they were all excited to be doing music and films together.
What interested you in getting Weasel Walter to write the introduction?
When Black Dog first mentioned the idea of the book, I immediately contacted Weasel, who has long been a really tireless researcher and collector of all things No Wave. At one point he toured the country with his collection of rare No Wave videos, and he has done this all strictly out of fandom and passion for the music. I really couldn’t imagine doing the book without his input and approval. Many people had suggested to him that he should write a No Wave book, but he didn’t want to, even though he’s a great writer himself. But he was more than happy to help me, and his assistance and expertise were invaluable. I visited him in Oakland and pored over his collection of music and especially magazines — his collection of New York Rocker issues was total gold, as those are very hard to find, and there were No Wave-related articles in nearly every issue. Over the course of writing the book, he answered a million of my questions, and went through innumerable rounds of proofreading on tight deadlines. In a way I consider him the co-author of the book, and I felt his name had to be on the cover. So a foreword was a perfect way to include his voice in the book alongside his research and assistance. I also think his foreword is really funny and captures the essence of both No Wave and his work in keeping its memory alive.
How crucial were the New York critics at the time to the scene? They have a lot of colorful observations in the book, but did their writing bring people to the shows and bolster the scene?
That’s hard to say—no one directly stated that the critics bolstered the scene. But it seems impossible that they didn’t — I can’t imagine that many people outside of the bands themselves would’ve heard about No Wave if it wasn’t for New York Rocker, The Soho Weekly News, East Village Eye, and, surprisingly, The Village Voice and The New York Times, both of whom covered No Wave a lot more often than I would’ve expected. I also got the sense that a few of the writers, especially Roy Trakin, wrote so often about this music and interviewed the bands so frequently that they were like de facto scene advisors. Roy’s ideas and support had to boost confidence in what they were doing, and maybe even make them think differently it and its value.
How much legwork was involved in digging up some of the archives you feature in the book?
In terms of the text sources, the majority of it came from two places: Weasel’s New York Rocker collection (and a few issues housed at the rare book room of the NYU library), and the archives of the publications mentioned above, all of which are housed on microfiche at the New York Public Library. In terms of the pictures and illustrations, those were primarily acquired by my editor Ziggy Hanaor and the research staff of Black Dog. I helped point them to people and places to find images, but they did most of the work. We were lucky to have some great photographers like Catherine Ceresole and David Godlis give us their images. Flyers, ads, and other ephemera often came from the musicians and filmmakers themselves, who were incredibly generous in supplying material.
The documentary Kill Your Idols makes an argument for bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gogol Bordello, and Black Dice being inheritors of the No Wave scene, but you choose to end the book around the time of Sonic Youth’s early works, and don’t really speculate about No Wave’s influence beyond the early ’80s. What do you think No Wave has influenced today?
I considered including a section on No Wave descendents, but ultimately felt it would date the book. Also, No Wave had a pretty definite end, even if its influence didn’t. It was a clear product of the times in terms of it fermenting in New York in the late ’70s, and without that element, you can’t really call a band No Wave. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t living in abandoned buildings, siphoning electricity off of lampposts.
As to who No Wave has influenced, that’s hard because the bands really didn’t sound alike. It’s hard to imagine a band sounding like all four bands on No New York. I think some recent bands got called “No Wave” because they were somewhat similar to the second-wave bands like ESG and Bush Tetras, who themselves were really No Wave descendents, not actual No Wave bands in terms of time period.
Personally, I do feel some of the same rush I get from Mars and DNA in some of the noisy New York bands now. I specifically hear it in Sightings and Mouthus, both of whom use dissonance and abstraction to create abstract, challenging rock music. Both use extreme guitar noise and harsh rhythms in a way similar to DNA; I can imagine Arto Lindsay’s guitar would sound like that of Mark Morgan of Sightings, had Arto stayed on the No Wave path up to now.
Speaking of staying on the No Wave path, I would also include Dial, a band that includes Jacqui Ham from No Wave group Ut. They are really noisy and uncompromising, and even though many of the No Wavers are doing great music now, I think Jacqui is the only person from the original scene who is still making something as challenging today as she was back then.
Byron Coley and Thurston Moore have a No Wave book of their own coming out in June. Excited? Worried? Feeling competitive?
I’m excited! Of course, when I first heard about their book, I was intimidated a bit. Byron Coley is my favorite rock writer; I used to read him in Forced Exposure and Spin religiously. His stuff was like poetry, and certain lines of his rang in my head for years. One of my biggest thrills came when he wrote the liner notes for a record I released back in 1994. So I didn’t think I could match him, but I also knew that he and Thurston were there during No Wave, and would most likely be providing an insider’s perspective. Whereas my book might be more like a primer. So it seems to me that there is definitely room for two No Wave books, and while it’s an odd coincidence that they are happening so close together, I think it’s good for both books. It seems like No Wave’s time has come again in that sense. I definitely can’t wait to see their book.