Vinyl anthology essay


For the sake of history, let’s say it began with Brian Eno.

Sometime in the late ’80s somewhere in Australia, a young Philip Samartzis sighed at the noticeable warp on his copy of Here Come The Warm Jets, but put the record on anyway. “Maybe, it’ll play,” the optimistic thought bounced in his head. All seemed well as the needle tentatively slid into the silent introductory groove of the vinyl; but when the opening bar of “On Some Faraway Beach” sauntered into the realm of perception, its trajectory collapsed. That minor imperfection in the record forced the needle backward, trapping it along an infinite path so that the song never soared beyond the cyclical disruption of a distressed piano note caught in a locked groove. Samartzis had never learned to play a musical instrument. But at the same time, this clipped mantra bathed in a sea of surface noise immediately spoke to his understanding of punk as a social agent that authorized the urgent expression of individual thought regardless of the practitioner’s abilities. Given the historical precedents of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg in the recontextualization of visual fragments as allegories on the plasticity of the signifier, Samartzis took this aural revelation as his calling to construct a music entirely based on the textural abrasion housed within the locked groove.

There is a fitting irony to this particular locked groove influencing Samartzis so profoundly, as Eno’s abstracted pop songs were grounded in a confluence of opposites. These were pop songs marked by quizzical passages of rhythmic discord, lyrical nihilism thinly disguised as love songs, and flourishes of electronic squawking nestled inside the crescendo of a song’s chorus. Eno’s counter-intuition later evolved into Oblique Strategies, a deck of playing cards branded with a idiomatic statements that set out to challenge the conventional ways of thinking. The first card fittingly reads, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” This has served as a premonition to the flourishing of glitch based electronica during the late ’90s; but could have been the slogan for Samartzis and Andrew Curtis for their distinctly lo-fi project Gum.

Gum began in 1986 when Curtis had posted a few advertisements around a couple of record shops looking to connect with people who shared his passion for Industrial music. It just so happened that Samartzis was the first to answer the ad. Yet despite their mutual admiration of the work itself, Gum was never comfortable accepting the instruction manual for Industrial Culture. Curtis explains that Industrial productions “did not represent the environment in which we found ourselves, nor did they correspond to our overall sensibilities. Industrial’s deliberate abjectness and infatuation with everything grotesque — the careful nurtured and developed ‘dark personality,’ the elitism, the arrogance, the magickal, the monstrous — were amusing enough in a playful, detached way. But soon, these became stoical, tiresome and banal. More importantly, they emerged as a hindrance to our main musical objectives which was to make and enjoy absurd configurations of music without any overt distracting elements or restricting dogma.”

Samartzis and Curtis subsequently scrapped their initial ideas of Gum synthesizing rock standards with a metal bashing machismo. They then began tinkering around with an arsenal of record players spinning locked grooves, a couple of multi-track tape decks, and a few effects boxes. Given the raw materiality of these objects and their admittedly limited engineering skills, this became Gum’s signature sound, bristling with dense heapings of debris, static, lo-fi noise, sonic abrasions, and tactile phenomena. During their brief career, Samartzis and Curtis produced two self-published albums — Vinyl and 20 Years in Blue Movies and Yet to Fake an Orgasm — and a couple of seven inch single productions. Their aesthetic language developed from a Frankensteinian recombination of collapsed sound which originated in the physical act of marring the surfaces of vinyl.

   
Sanding.
Corroding.
Melting.
Breaking.
Gluing.
Scratching.
Baking.
Scattered.
Smothered.
Covered.
Chunked.
Topped.
Diced.
Peppered.
   

For those who have traveled anywhere in the Deep South of the US, this latter set of adjectives should be familiar as the colorfully chosen descriptions of how you can get your hash browns prepared at Waffle House, a chain of greasy spoon restaurants that appear at almost every interstate exit from West Virginia to Texas. To order the works at Waffle House — which, if you must know, amounts to potatoes, chili, cheese, ham, tomatoes, onions, and peppers haphazardly piled onto a single plate — is to risk indigestion. But at the same the act of eating this much gut-busting food amounts to a gastronomic excavation on anthropological proportions. So is the music of Gum.

They did not shatter their vinyl in a vacuum. The ripples of this destructive act necessitated a logic that addressed Gum’s relationship to mediated technology and pop cultural codes. Having upended a medium which transmitted those pop cultural codes to the masses through the act of their vinyl disfigurations, Gum exacerbated the crossed signals and mixed messages which work beneath the surfaces of most pop cultural productions. They directed their barrage of sonic detritus back upon the physical body, demanding that you sort out this ungainly mess. Gum does not beseech your ear, but your exposed nerves, open wounds, blistering ulcers, and all of the blemishes and scars that accrue over a lifetime. There are even tracks from Vinyl entitled “Testicle Stretch” and “Stomach Irritation.” These are the sites of perception where Gum wants you to hear their music; but it’s certainly not a psychoacoustic experience. Rather Gum speaks metaphorically to these sites of the body through their own mangled take on pop cultural semiotics as an expulsion of the id.

Sex and violence coldly splatter across Gum’s already messy stereo field, without any of the handy mnemonic devices that make such references so easy to digest within pop culture. With its giddy recontextualization of scripted phone sex banter sliding into an awkward system from asynchronous locked grooves from archetypal ’70s funk records, the previously unreleased cut “1 800 Gum” may be Gum’s most obvious piece of physiological deconstruction. Bordering on the carnivalesque with such bawdy material, Gum seeks to render the stereotypical cultural signifiers of sexuality (pornographic or otherwise) as transparent, impotent, and useless. It is Gum’s volatile countercurrent of surface noise that speaks with the greater clarity in suspending the instant moment of ecstatic release as an infinite crash of overstimulation.

However, not every reference is as obvious as on “1 800 Gum” or the disco perversions of “Hard Times,” a live recording that slashes through stuttering samples from the Bee-Gee’s and found Gum collaborating with the noise veteran John Murphy. Archetypal to the Gum agenda is the tactility of surface noise as it splinters into abstract moire patterns, detached exercises in Minimalism for coarse dust, and vertiginous glissandos tumbling back to Earth after failing to achieve hyperspeed. Every sound which might hold a code, a signifier, or a reference suffocates within that surface noise. A clinical rigor applies to Gum, but their’s was a sloppy science until the investigations ended in 1990 having exhausted all that they needed to say.

Since, both Gum partners have taken up solo careers, with Samartzis pushing forward as a sound artist and Curtis returning to his passion for photography. Although Samartzis admits that there are occasional glimpses of interest, it does not look likely for Gum to reunite. Yet Gum has aged very well under their patinas of grit and corrosion, with the current line-up of avant turntablists in Philip Jeck, Janek Schaefer, and Thomas Brinkmann catching up with the pioneering logics of Non, Christian Marclay, and Gum.

Jim Haynes, December 2003