Bring the Noise

Cover your ears or bask in the blare. Miami avant-skronkers Harry Pussy, Rat Bastard, and Tom Smith's To Live and Shave in L.A. have launched an audacious aural assault on the senses. But is anyone out there listening?

Harry Pussy is one of a handful of local bands playing a style of music that can best be described as noise. As with many musical genres, noise is hard to define. Guitar feedback, dissonance, and vocals that are screamed rather than sung (assuming there are any vocals) are common elements, but not prerequisites. Live shows are often where the bands earn their reputations, and the word flail is not uncommon to reviews of their performances. Noise music fits no other easy classification; then again, maybe it's one of those impossibly abstruse labels like "alternative" that have been used so widely they no longer serve any practical purpose.

However you define it, noise bands have been steadily gaining popularity. In this country Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, and Sun City Girls play -- each in its own distinctive way -- noise. The Knitting Factory, a New York City nightclub-concert venue, is to the noise scene what CBGB was to late-Seventies, early Eighties punk-new wave. But to develop a real appreciation for the full potential of the noise aesthetic, one must look outside of the U.S. to cutting-edge Japanese bands such as self-described "ultra shit band" the Gerogerigegege and especially the Boredoms. The latter band's live shows are all the rage among the indie- and alternative-rock cognoscenti; it was at a Boredoms concert that Hoyos met Thurston Moore and initiated the correspondence that eventually would lead to his endorsement of her band. Even the king of soothing new-age guitar, Pat Metheny, took the plunge with his recent (and appropriately titled) Zero Tolerance for Silence album.

Most noise bands, whether local, regional, national, or international, share one other common trait. They don't like being labeled noise.

"Don't lump us in with noise bands," pleads Orcutt, despite the fact that nearly every reviewer from Barlow and Moore to writers for 'zines like Short Cutz and Ben Is Dead falls back on the term (or thinly veiled euphemisms like "skronk" or "clamor" or "lo-fi sounds") somewhere in their description of his band's music. "They're more into ambient sound. Our name lets you know up front we're more of a rock band. Primitive. Chaotic. Harry Pussy is supposed to sound like crazy, backward shit A like country people locked in the basement somewhere beating the shit out of their instruments."

Orcutt pauses for a moment of reflection while cuing up a cut from the album that will, he assumes, drive home his point. "To put us into context, go back to the early, early, early rock and roll. Balls out, chaotic, psychotic. We're about getting it wrong in interesting ways," he summarizes before dropping the needle on god-knows-which song. The room is filled with feedback thunderclaps and crashing cymbals and frenetic guitar jabbering. It's a compelling, potent, anarchic free-for-all. A veritable clamor of lo-fi skronk. Noise, in short.

Harry Pussy is not the only noise band in Dade County. (Broward? Surely you jest.) They're just the one with the biggest national rep. If you accept the concept that Miami has a rock scene (a subject of much debate among local rockers who could be said to compose such a scene if they could agree that one in fact existed), then you can make the case that such bands as To Live and Shave in L.A., Scraping Teeth, Dimthingshine, and to a lesser extent King Felix, Snatch the Pebble, Drive Choir, Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, and Deerfield-West Palm Beach's Postface constitute a miniscene of their own. The noise thing is only part of the bond. It's got more to do with an aversion to playing what's already been played, a revulsion for looking and behaving trendily.

It's like high school, in a way. The noise bands are the social pariahs. No other clique will have them, so they've formed a loose clique of their own, almost by default. At the center of it stands an enigmatic guitarist-producer-promoter-DJ-gadfly known as Rat Bastard.

Rat (his real name is Frank Falestra, but only old-timers call him anything but Rat) is a veteran of the South Florida rock wars. A skilled guitarist (Myrin and the 2 Wotz) and highly visible presence during Miami's early Eighties glory days of rowdy punk at such alternative rock clubs as Flynn's, 27 Birds, and Beirut, Rat was one of the first local musicians to foresee the role noise would play in rock's future. In customary style, he dove in headfirst, turning his recording studio-record label (ESYNC) from an Eighties synth-alternative rock hangout into a more primitive and aggressive home for brash, get-a-reaction-at-all-costs sonic assaults on the status quo.

An airline employee by day who devours 'zines in his spare time, Rat is a music junkie who uses his travel privileges to fly around the country in search of whatever's next. American Music Club, the Mekons, Guided by Voices, Liz Phair -- if you listened to Rat you'd have been hip to all these acts way before they started fielding offers from major labels.

The knock against Rat (frequently used to disparage other noise bands as well) is that he can't play. You hear this a lot from people whose only exposure to Rat's music has been his recent solo gigs or his work as guitarist for Scraping Teeth, crowned the Worst Band in America last year by Spin. He's the lunatic who plays until every string is broken, the clown who spazzes out and wields a screwdriver for a pick. Even musicians who respect him fear him. Especially in Broward. No one clears a room like Rat (except maybe Tom Smith, but more on him later).

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