MusicWeekend

Pioneers of Michigan’s Noise Scene Return to Their Land

The 2018 incarnation of Universal Eyes has been a moment to look forward to, and an opportunity to look back on the noise and experimental music scene that emerged in the 2000s in Michigan and the Midwest.

Universal Eyes at the Trip Metal Fest at El Club in Detroit, May 25, 2018 (photo by Marissa Gawel)

On an unseasonably warm evening in May, the third annual Trip Metal Fest at Detroit’s El Club began with a homecoming of sorts. First on a lineup headlined by Martin Rev and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Universal Eyes — the union of two bands from the dawn of Michigan’s noise music scene, East Lansing’s Universal Indians and Ann Arbor’s Wolf Eyes — took the stage to raucous cheers from familiar faces, old friends, spouses, and children. The members — Aaron Dilloway, Gretchen Gonzales Davidson (formerly Gonzales), John Olson, and Nate Young — were focused and in sync with one another. They were pioneers returning to their land.

Since its first year, the Trip Metal Fest — founded by Young, who received a Knight Foundation grant for the project — has brought audiences and performers from around the world to Detroit. But 2018’s incarnation of Universal Eyes was a moment to look forward, to the festival’s future, and back, to the organic growth of the noise and experimental music scene that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s in Michigan and the Midwest.

Universal Indians ca. late 1990s (image courtesy Universal Eyes)

In a 2009 Pitchfork article, “The Decade in Noise,” Marc Masters addresses the rise of new noise scenes in the US, after a period of floundering in the early 2000s. In addition to the Rhode Island scene, headed by the bands Lightning Bolt and Black Dice, he cites Michigan as a key locale.

Michigan may have seemed an unlikely place for a noise scene to those outside of the Midwest, but Dread, the 2001 debut from Wolf Eyes, stems from a local lineage of avant-garde weirdness, that eschews convention in favor of the theatrical, subversive, or freaked-out, and includes bands such as Destroy All Monsters and The Stooges (both formed at the University of Michigan) and Detroit’s rock and electronic acts. What sets this scene apart is its synthesis of avant-garde music with antagonistic performances at the volume and intensity of metal genres such as grindcore, thrash, and death.

Universal Indians ca. late 1990s (image courtesy Universal Eyes)

Early Wolf Eyes live shows were characterized by manic aggression and, in some cases, props: at one show, Olson injured himself swinging a mace. The performances invoked, for example, the onstage self-abuse by members of England’s Throbbing Gristle, or the bulldozing of the stage by Yamataka Eye of Japan’s the Boredoms. Wolf Eyes, however, replaced the genre’s emphasis on shock or fear with an internal intensity that could, in theory and (judging by audiences’ involvement) sometimes in practice, become a collective source of catharsis.

In a documentary short on the scene, Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results (2016), featuring Young and other local artists, he associates the area’s creative energy with its isolation. “[People] are not so quick to dismiss things because there aren’t that many people doing things in general, making music in general,” he explains. “You’re a little bit more open-minded and also curious.”

Driving on the I-94 freeway around Ann Arbor or I-96 around East Lansing, surrounded by small towns and farmland, life can begin to feel isolated. In the winter, especially, the area seems desolate, dead. In the early and mid 1990s, the music underground in Michigan and surrounding Midwestern states constituted a community that fed off the region’s desolation, rather than fighting against it.

Universal Indians ca. late 1990s (image courtesy Universal Eyes)

Universal Indians began in this climate in 1993. Led by the creative core of Gonzales Davidson and Olson, they sought out like minds through word-of-mouth and alternative spaces around the Michigan State University campus. The band improvised instruments and played in basements and dive bars throughout Southeastern Michigan. The scope of their sound expanded in 1998 when original member Bryan Ramirez was replaced by Aaron Dilloway, already a member of Wolf Eyes in Ann Arbor.

With Wolf Eyes, Universal Indians found a co-conspirator; the two bands played together so often that they almost merged into one. Together, the four musicians also pushed each other beyond improvisation and into more structured experiments in sound and composition. In 2001 Universal Indians dissolved, with Olson joining Wolf Eyes full time and Gonzales Davidson moving onto the Detroit psychedelic band Slumber Party and, later, the moody guitar-and-accordion duo Terror at the Opera.

In the meantime, Wolf Eyes became one of the most important bands working in the genre, alternately collaborating with such experimental luminaries as Merzbow, Anthony Braxton, and Smegma, and bringing their shattering sonic nihilism to the margins of the mainstream, with releases on Sub Pop and Jack White’s Third Man Records and an assigned spot on 2004’s Lollapalooza tour. (The tour was ultimately cancelled.)

Universal Indians ca. late 1990s (image courtesy Universal Eyes)

The community was fueled by small labels and the tape trade; Olson and Gonzales Davidson started the label American Tapes in 1993 and Olson continued it until he reached 1,000 releases, while Dilloway’s Hanson Records has remained vital to the genre. And despite the international reach of Wolf Eyes, the scene retained a sense of insularity, with handmade, one-of-a-kind tape editions and basement recordings, sometimes made with DIY instruments or household items, distributed within a small circuit of friends and fans.

In previous years, Gonzales Davidson and her husband, Detroit-area folk musician Ethan Daniel Davidson, had helped fund the festival. For 2018, Olson and Young proposed instead to record new material with their former bandmates, both of whom had become distanced from the sphere of Wolf Eyes. Dilloway, who left the band in 2005, moved to Nepal and has since relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, where he focuses on Hanson Records as well as solo and collaborative projects. Olson was Gonzales Davidson’s first husband; since their divorce around the time Universal Indians dissolved, as she told me, their paths “never really crossed […] and so it was pretty intimidating to think, okay, we’re gonna record a one-sided LP and now we’re also getting Aaron in the mix, and John and Aaron hadn’t really talked.”

Universal Eyes at the Trip Metal Fest at El Club in Detroit, May 25, 2018, Gretchen Gonzales Davidson on left and John Olson on right (photo by Marissa Gawel)

Gonzales Davidson is the only member who has moved away from noise and experimental music. For her, the reunion is a particularly poignant return to her roots, not only in collaborating with Olson but in re-entering a genre dominated by men and machismo. While the abstract anti-glamour of much noise music would seem to level the conventions of gender in music — say, the bewitching front-woman or tough-girl guitarist — in the moment of sonic assault, women comprise a small minority in its world.

The double album that resulted from the Universal Eyes sessions, Four Variations on ‘Artificial Society,’ is spare and loosely structured, inflected with avant-jazz and the musical stylings of Fluxus. It has moments of sonic dissonance. Yet the abrasive textures that made listening to Wolf Eyes at times a visceral experience are sublimated into subtly atonal sweeps stippled with sharp edges. It can be convivial despite its minimalism, and subverts its own structure in a supremely satisfying way, reflecting musicians who have become old friends with the sounds of transgression and with each other.

Universal Eyes at the Trip Metal Fest at El Club in Detroit, May 25, 2018, Nate Young on left and Aaron Dilloway on right (photo by Marissa Gawel)

“It was so good from the second we were sound-checking, to wanting to play more and more and more and we did a double LP — got it pressed in two weeks,” Gonzales Davidson said. “It was like we hadn’t missed a beat and we just all felt really great.”

The recording and Trip Metal Fest are also about expanding the scope of noise, as it’s been defined since the Michigan scene emerged. Before the first festival in 2016, Olson had redefined Wolf Eyes as “trip metal” as a means of changing perceptions about experimental, anti-music music. The band’s efforts to de-instrumentalize noise are echoed in Paul Hegarty’s book Noise Music: A History (2007). Hegarty writes in the introduction, “noise is a negativity (it can never be positively, definitively and timelessly located) […].”

The Trip Metal Fest is the culmination of these efforts. The 2018 lineup concluded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while previous musicians have included Sun Ra’s saxophonists Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson, pioneering electronic composer Morton Subotnik, and Body/Head (Kim Gordon and Bill Nace), along with Detroit art-music stalwarts Princess Dragonmom and longtime Wolf Eyes friends and collaborators Nautical Almanac, whose performances can include spoken word.

Universal Eyes in 2018 (photo by Leigha Rankin)

Importantly for the organizers, festival admission is donation only. In an article on Vice, Olson says, “A free event changes the atmosphere 10,000 percent […]. Free means EVERYONE.” One afternoon after the Trip Metal Fest, I visited Gonzales Davidson in her home. While her kids played in the backyard, I asked what her friends from the parenting world thought of her music. She told me one had noted that the music mirrored the sounds of construction a few houses down. She seemed happy to open her friend to the music of “noise”; for her and her Universal Eyes bandmates, noise is for everyone.

Four Variations on ‘Artificial Society’ by Universal Eyes (Trip Metal Limited Series/Lower Floor Music) comes out today, with a record release show at 7 p.m. at Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport. A Universal Eyes tour will follow, with performances at Cafe Oto in London, September 21 – 23; Thalia Hall in Chicago, November 1; and Oberlin, Ohio, November 8 – 9.

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