An Interview With Crank Sturgeon
11.23.15 by Jacob DeRaadt
Crank Sturgeon is the multi-disciplinary visual and sound artist Matt Anderson, who currently resides in Western Massachusetts. His discography is among the most prolific of American sound artists, his performances incorporating elements of improvisational comedy, homemade electronics, and jarring junk noise. Positioned in a unique space within the American underground, his artistic practice encompasses elements of dadaist sound poetry, Viennese Actionist confrontation of art/non-art boundaries, and good old fashioned screaming noise dysfunction. After admiring his craft for over half a decade, I had the chance, back in 2012, to sit down with the man behind the cardboard fish-head over a few pints and discuss everything from the meaning of ‘Americana’, to getting an audience, to straddling toilet humor and more academic commissions.
There’s certain songs on (Captain Beefheart’s) “Trout Mask Replica”, where it’s just like a song-poem that you can tell he’s sitting down in the middle of a field and observing his surroundings which is kind of, for lack of a better word, Americana.
I was just gonna say he’s what I see as Americana. There’s such a direct line from him to hobo music, standing on side of trains and that kind of culture, that kind of backwater-y, well-traveled. I can correlate that as anteceding Kerouac and all this free-verse, Americana, folk which would never espouse itself as being avant-garde, but, what can you say is? But everything else is for that matter. (laughter) Because they’re saying, “we’re not doing this as an art tradition.”
Maybe Pierre Henry (electro-acoustic stuff) and Kurt Schwitters in their own right were doing the same thing. Like Schwitters, who was doing all vocal poetry, which was probably coming from a German folk art tradition, it was just collaged and layered differently, ya know? And therefore was deemed avant garde. Who knows?
You can say the same with Beefheart. Beefheart’s sound was probably one of the more jarring things to come out of the 60s. Definitely a mad man behind all of it, with a little help from Frank Zappa mixing, especially on “Trout Mask Replica”. He wanted to view it as a world music, technographic field recording, and he wanted to record it out in the field. (He) would leave the tape glitches in, that sort of thing. But also it really embellished Don Van Vilet’s poetry, really going out on a tangent.
Again, I was doing things unaware of that tradition, but parallel to it. I was just interested, personally, more in Kurt Schwitters and James Joyce. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Finnegan’s Wake, but he had the ability to take up to 14 language references and make new words out of it.
I could never get through it.
Yeah, it’s difficult as hell, but for some reason there’s a deep cosmic laughter I have when I read that kind of stuff. When I first heard Beefheart, I was like, “Oh, a reason to start playing guitar again.”
Yeah, these are people that are deconstructing. You mentioned Joyce, and who was aware of that tradition, but they felt the need to reinvent them to reflect new time, a new era, and you work with the materials at hand.
Yeah, that which is provided.
Speaking of, you don’t work exclusively analog?
No. Not at all. I enjoy it, but I’m not one of these adherents to it. Even the ones who are considered adherents to it, aren’t. For instance, Hal McGee. Other people might say “Oh, he only uses microcassettes. But he’s a hypocrite because he put out a CD-R.” No. It’s what you use, what’s really audible. It’s funny about that conversation about Hal on the Troniks board and people ripping him a new asshole and him just holding his ground. It’s that whole internet bullshit thing, where it’s like, if you guys just hung out, you would not be squabbling.
I feel like there’s a huge misunderstanding between the younger, up and coming generation and the older. People have a lot of different backgrounds and traditions that they come out of. Maybe a lot of people my age didn’t absorb the same things, I mean you’re 12 years older than me.
How could you, because you didn’t have my upbringing. You didn’t live through the Reagan 80’s like I did. You weren’t there for mail art or tape art, all that stuff. Not that I was a full-fledged applicant in that regard either. But I caught on, and whatever age I was, 22 – 23, just sending tapes out to whomever and marveling at the response these things that would arrive in your mailbox daily. Christmas every fuckin’ day.
Do you feel like there’s an over-saturation right now in things? I feel like if you would’ve started a band 10 years ago, you would’ve started a punk band. Now it’s a noise project.
I don’t know. Because of travelling, it still feels like everywhere you go, each city or borough has its own allotted by-law, 20-22 years old, experimental/noise/weirdo artist types. And after that, they send ‘em off to another place. For me, there’s more opportunity, I’ll put it that way. There’s potentially more people coming to shows, there’s more people who are informed by it because of the internet. Yeah, I don’t know, I definitely have a wealth of really, really crappy releases that I’ve acquired on tours, an earnest as they are, I’ll give them a once-through. I can’t give them away because they were given to me, you know? It’s not because they’re a crappy person, it might because they’re still learning and new to it or I might just not like it. Everyone’s trying to do it and everyone’s starting at a different place. They’re putting out a handmade CD-R with felt marker on it and Xerox and there’s not enough hours in the day to go through all of these things in a box.
It’s gonna ebb and flow, regardless. Like, you go on tour and it was a great show. Maybe a couple years later all these people have moved on, or have kids, or whatever. This stuff just happens to people as they get older.
Here (in Portland, Maine), it’s never been hip. The only drawback is I get a lot of emails asking me to set something up in Portland. I just tell them there’s not a scene here. I can tell you a dedicated 3-5 people will show up, but not more than that.
Tell me about the origins of Crank Sturgeon and how academic music and performance art came together.
I was getting frustrated with music at the time. I knew I never wanted to be that. (makes noodly guitar solo sound with mouth) I didn’t have the fingers to do that kind of stuff and I was interested in different sounds.
(Going to Boston University) was a really great, nourishing environment, teachers and student body alike. We were basically teaching each other to do this shit. There were a couple of us who had the most amazing music collections. That was the biggest sponge phase for me, absorbing everything I could. John Cage, Neubauten, Glenn Branca, Fred Frith, on and on.
Why the sturgeon?
As a kid, I was really into dinosaurs and weird biology, so it was just an easy transference from my subconscious because I had (as a student) started to get into stuff like Futurist poetry. And I had parents that reinforced that. They took me to the library. I could name every reptile in every book. The sturgeon just came about in art school.
What’s the best audience interaction you’ve ever had?
Most of them are really amazing. There’s so many. I did this show in Antwerp and I did one of these monologue things with noise tape going and ventilation hoses going. And I did this crazy set, and my table fell with all my stuff on it and I thought that was the end. But at lightning speed, those guys picked it up and said, “You continue.” There was a sea of people waving their arms and I crowd surfed to end the set. That was such a rock-star ending. It’s almost like there’s no end to the joy; you keep on doing it whether there’s police that show up and are just laughing or whatever. Each response seems to be pretty unique to each tour and situation. Nine times out of 10, it’s great.
I’m playing in Gainesville and some guy, who wasn’t being mean, makes a joking comment. And the audience was just rabid, following every move. So I made some dry comment like, “What’re you, some homophobe?” So I got the whole audience to chant, “Homophobe!” at him. It was just one of those moments, where he’s saying “No, I’m not.” And they’re saying “Yes, you are!” Just this call-and-response thing. things come out of your head and then they do it, willingly and joyously.
Do you ever have moments where you find yourself saying, “Why am I doing this?” Have you ever gotten to that point?
Moments of self-reflection are good. I think having really bad shows is a good thing, you’ve got the capacity to improve and reflect on it and say, “Why did that suck?”
I’ve had a couple, of course. You’ve gotta look at it as dry and emotionless as possible. What are you trying to convey? Is it the noise? Is it the gear? Is it the persona? Is it fake? Is it real? All of these things go through the sieve/filter and you go back and reflect on it and hopefully you learn very quickly what to improve. At least for myself, I have moments of realizing why this isn’t working, and how to make it better, but it’s only after a couple of flops, where you’re like, “I can’t continue on this path, I have to change gears”.
It just reinforces that you do have to practice, you do need to know what you want to convey, whatever that is. You can’t go in completely blind, roll down your pants and expect people to say, “Oh, that’s really funny.” You pull down your pants and it’s like, “Sorry, honey. You’re limp.”
As far as the process goes for Crank, do you feel like there’s a general path that an idea follows from inception to completion? Or does it seem to form uniquely each time?
Oh, definitely. You find comfort zones in patterns, in the process. Take the instance of a tour and ensuring that not all of these shows are going to be harsh, loud and noisy. That can cause oneself to step outside of one’s usual patterns. I mean, noise tours are great and I love them. You have your case of gear and you open it up and you know exactly how each pedal lines up in the exact order. You can get into a comfortable pattern with knowing how your gear works.
When you’re on tour, you’re in tour mode. Your brain perceives everything at such an accelerated fashion that you can walk out and do whatever because for the previous three weeks you’ve been doing this show and you’re in such balance with it. But another nice thing to do is change the gears. Not having shows that are necessarily harsh noise every night, doing more arty nights or environments, or galleries, people who you can’t convince this high-decibel craziness is something they should be enjoying.
I’m reading Alan Kaprew’s books on happenings, looking at how he was interacting with people, and of course reading Fluxus stuff. It’s great because the early happenings (not the doped-up, later-60s addled minded, and stupid, psychedelic crap), where it was about conveying a collage of ideas and senses, instead of relying on LSD.
As full-sensory ideas go, I find them to be things that I can reveal and get inspiration from, so I really tap into that and hoard these books at this point. I don’t actively buy music. I buy books because it’s important to me to think about that historical context.
So you don’t find Dada or Fluxus to be anti-art as commonly perceived? Because there’s a difference between getting rid of the elevation of one form of art over another, and wanting to burn the forms themselves.
No, the Dadaists were artists. They were just reacting to the mad, upside-down bourgeois world that had created the war. And anyone that creates and calls themselves an anti-artist is full of shit. You’re an artist. Period. You make stuff, you draw, you paint, you’re in a band. You make a zine and you’re passionate about it. You’re an artist.
As far as thinking art is disposable, I think a lot of it is, certainly. I don’t mind these things fading out over time, either. You know paper’s gonna rot, CD’s are gonna lose their memory, tapes are gonna flake away, records are gonna lose their grooves. But then again, all the Dadaists are dead and it’s nice to have their books. It’s also reflective of the human condition. What we’re interested in is our behavior.
For me, what I got out of Dadaist art was a deconstruction of the logic of “art”, because they saw it as supporting logic and culture that upheld horrendous, anti-human behavior. There was this angry, absurd reaction. They felt trapped.
And we live in very Dadaist times. And is some ways, things have gotten worse as far as a logic-operated culture exists.
Do you consider yourself to be a primarily visual or sound artist? I was wondering about the interactions on this last tour with PCRV. You do a lot of installations and drawings.
Yeah, they feed into one another, definitely. And I wouldn’t be able to function without one or the other. I mean, I consider myself a visual artists who ended up doing sound. I was never really a good enough musician to consider myself a musician, but over the years of making noise, cardboard costumes and working with junk for installation, it’s like “Well, I’m not that great of a visual artist either, so…” (laughter)
Tell me about the workshops you’ve been doing lately.
Well, I’ve been doing instructional workshops with microphones and adults, students, and other artists. It’s “how to build you own” kind of thing and that’s fun. This year I got invited to work with kids. It was for a reading program. Read Across America or something like that. So I read them Dadaist poetry and gave them the “Intro to Dada”. We made Dada poems together and it was nuts. I’ve been doing that now working with a local arts organization, state funded, who works with people in group homes. The mentally disabled, (people with) brain injuries, what have you. We’ve been doing the same thing making a zine with our poems and making a CD together. It’s so fucking cool to work with these people. Again, these are the folks that are shuttled off to the side of society. People may have been like, “Oh, I don’t know how this guy is going to respond. He’s a little weird.” You know what? We’re all fucking weird.
I think you’ve tackled a little bit of Dadaist art – that mentally jarred parody that’s not completely right. It seems like a perfect fit.
These guys are great. They don’t approach with any of the stereotypes that we approach it with. They fucking shine. They’re like, “Let’s do this! This is great! Oh, we get to sing it?” I tell them, “You can do whatever you want. You can read it backwards if you want.” You play back the recording of all of them reading it together and they think it’s hilarious. Some are laughing and they find the same joys. It’s really rewarding to be in that place to work with them. It’s an honor.
That’s cool. That defies the stereotype of the avant garde artist being aloof and secluded in castles, only coming out to reveal their precious masterpiece.
Certain rock musicians have that sort of identity too. They just position themselves into a place on par with senators and kings. They expect this adoration and suddenly people throw tomatoes at them. (laughter)
Do you find art to be a communal thing for you or is it fulfilled by a function for certain times?
It can go many ways. It’s deeply, deeply personal because I love to poke around. I can peer around the corner and see what happens when I touch these two cables together or build this or this or whatever it is. I like the idea of it also being communal because I don’t mind it being seen. I don’t mind process showing. I don’t mind duck tape or seams showing during a performance, whether that be an aesthetic choice or whatever. Yes, I do make forms and I hope they stand up, but I do believe in creating quality. I also like the elements that allow you to understand its humanity. As far as creating in a communal fashion, I’ve worked on group projects many times for many years, the battle of egos thing always happens. Not battles per se, but you find that everyone wants their piece in the pod. Working with groups is nice 10% of the time.
I think we had a conversation at the Denver noise fest where you made a remark about the multimedia collaboration that you were involved in the Czech Republic. I gathered part of it was not entirely satisfactory. There were some clashes.
There was. We got along really well and we did what we did, but I think the idea of the residency, and I’m actually kind of fantasizing of doing it again knowing what I know, is about forcing people of different aspects of art making and compelling them to make an art project together. It’s the mangling of language barriers and customs, political, social, cultural. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know if it makes necessarily for the best art. It makes for some interesting offshoots, if not compelling. That kind of approach can be very difficult for me. What it forced me to do was to find my personal time for work in very strange hours when everyone would be asleep. I never pull all-nighters when I’m working on my other stuff, well, occasionally, but I was really toiling extra, extra hard from like, 9pm on to 2 – 3 in the morning. just because I needed to vent from being around people all the time. Not that they were bad, hardly, but it was trying to work together that drove me bonkers sometimes. We’d come up with new things for the project and then we would all go off in our different directions to work on that, which we contribute back into it. But mine became very physical because I was actually the one building this structure for this installation. It was a lot of physical work, and after a while I became so obsessed with it, literally. I was just like, “I don’t want any one’s input.” I couldn’t stand any more input. “Go do your thing, man. This is mine. Let me have my one thing.”
This opera singer we were working with had all these great ideas but they were impossible to achieve. (with accent) “Why can’t we put a swing here? What do you mean you make video all over the place?”
Do you find that you clash with really traditional art establishment people?
No, not necessarily. I think you can draw a lot of similarities. The will to create and where that stems from, whether you come from drawing, oil painting, even architecture; I think you’re coming from a really primal, basic idea on creating form and I think that should be the standard amongst all of us. It’s interesting with some artists, when the clashing starts while working with or being around them, they put a genre or style first. I’m willing to work with people to take and see what I can make aesthetically and make it contribute to a whole.
What we all did as artists, we made it so hard on ourselves by holding onto what we had thought, that collaboration usually meant conflict. When I look at it, I look at it fondly because our group was all genuinely fond of each other. The four of us amongst the 40 people, we were the one group that held it together. We were the one group who would go out drinking together, hanging out, joking, whatever. We saw a lot of each other. The other groups were crying and yelling and fighting. We never did that. We got exasperated, we would pull back and reconsider how we are approaching this. Everyone had the maturity to do be able to do that. We were always having fun. When it came to work, there were a few stepping stones. All told, the angst was probably the length of this conversation. People would get it and leave you alone. That whole idea of compelling people to work together is still interesting because what they’re trying to do as an artists residency is put forth very interesting examples to a local community of what is happening in the international art world. They have their doors open and a lot of the locals are involved, so I like that. It’s this little tiny peanut-sized town in the hills. It has this huge international bundle of artists working there, maybe begrudgingly, but I think when it’s all said and done, everyone enjoys being there.
Do you feel like there’s a distinct difference in doing a recording and a live performance? Are there different motivations, different process?
Recording is about sitting there with head phones and popping things, whatever I have splayed out in front of me – wire ends, bits, maybe something I’ve built. It’s really the sort of hacked approach of trying to take all these little things and put them together. I’ll build a little FM transmitter and run that through a Walkman, take the output and shake the antenna, filter it through all these different sounds of distortion and a microphone that’s running into the transmitter. You get amazing textures that way. And you keep playing. Through this playing process, and microphones, and trying to build new microphones that fail, and through the process of failure, and trying to record those things all in the studio, that approach is much more of the tinker guy. What I do for a live show is try to take that which worked, it might be a little tenuous, but I can trust the effect it’s gonna do. I take those elements and create a piece out of it, something I can rely on and having a broad range of dynamic sound that can deliver all those tasty goods you have in a big show or a little show. It can be loud or soft, amplify this or this, whatever I’m fixated on at the moment. So what I work in the studio and recording through tinkering channels go through into a live show only by technique and what I’ve learned from recording. So when I’m doing a live show it’s kind of operating on trusted elements. The big unknown is what’s going to happen in the show and how it responds to the audience or whatever circumstances are at the venue. Whatever concept I want to be building or a costume might not fit right, all those things.
The recording element, backtracking, it’s not just playing with broken cables and stuff in the studio. I have the field recorders with me, most of the time, when I’m hiking or going on walks. Having that whip-it-out-and-grab-that-sound kind of thing, yell into in the car kind of thing, or I’ve gone to top of a mountain and I’m exhausted and my brain is working and endorphins are flowing and just spraying out a poem into your recorder. That’s always been happening so I’ve always got that kind of tinker tape element going. Basically, a tape recorder, digital recorder, or reel-to-reel recorder in every room or one on me. When you work a four track you can record 10 million ways. You can do theses exquisite corpse versions where you don’t listen to anything you’re recording, and of course there’s musical sensibilities that come into it too and the little songs start squeezing out mid way within a recording session on the 4 track. Suddenly, I’m doing prepared guitar, and how would it sound if I just started doing this, and then you’ve got a tone going.
I will differentiate between pop and experimental. But sometimes I experiment to get to pop. And some times you can take a pop song and deconstruct it experimentally. I don’t actively write songs, but once and again the just come out. Part of my process is I write a lot too. I still love guitar. Guitars have always been a part of my body. It was the first cool instrument I learned. Clarinet was the first, actually, because my parents wouldn’t let me get a trombone. I wanted a trombone because there was a girl in the band who was playing the trombone. They said, “Well your brother’s clarinet is free and the trombone is $200 dollars.” So I learned clarinet to be in the band and be near the girl who played the trombone who was way over there (points to the other side of the room). Long story short, I ended up playing guitar when I discovered rock music at 13 or 14.
I have reconstructed, deconstructed, and taken out the pick-ups and put them back in. As a result I’ve given away guitars and I collect new ones. I have hoards of them. Some very playable, some just made for destroying during your show. Not destroying, but doing that kind of thing. It’s instant texture. The nature of electronic pick-ups, strings, clips, metal, wood, whatever you’re treating it with. I like the instrument still.