Bill Orcutt is on the phone, sounding perplexed, bemused, and slightly exasperated. "We're like the 2 Live Crew of noise bands now," complains the guitarist and vocalist who makes up one-third of Harry Pussy, the lords of Miami's small but noisy avant-garde underground. He's just found out about the hubbub generated recently by the cover art for Harry Pussy's second album, Ride a Dove, which was slated for an early April release on Siltbreeze, the Philadelphia-based indie label that also issued the group's 1994 debut album. The art for the serenely titled disc was lifted from a 1940s edition of Denis Diderot's The Nun, which is illustrated with pornographic line drawings depicting nuns in various states of undress. When workers at the Ivy-Hill manufacturing plant in Canada took a look at the spread-eagled sisters, they refused to print the album covers and CD inserts. After representatives of Ivy-Hill brought the offensive art to the attention of the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which distributes Siltbreeze's releases through a deal with WEA and Matador Records, ADA refused to distribute the album.
"I thought it was a nice, beautiful cover," Orcutt says in all sincerity. "It seemed very happy to me. I just don't understand it."
Siltbreeze owner Tom Lax says he will subcontract the cover manufacturing to another plant and seek other means of distributing the album, which is now scheduled for release this summer. In the meantime, the label will issue a collection of Harry Pussy's out-of-print recordings under the title What Was Music. The album should be available by early April. As for his take on the Ride a Dove flap, Lax is more direct than Orcutt: "We're dealing with lily-white, high-office types who for whatever reason are scared of the cover. It's simply a pathetic muscle-flex on someone's part. I mean, why work yourself into a lather over a couple of penises and naked women?"
Surprisingly, this is the first major brouhaha generated by the colorfully named group, which has maintained an extremely low profile since forming in 1993. Their shows at Churchill's Hideaway are few and far between, and they've only occasionally ventured out of Miami for live gigs. Their name alone guarantees them zero coverage in the family-oriented daily press. The faces of Orcutt, drummer-vocalist Adris Hoyos, and guitarist Mark Fehan have never graced a Harry Pussy record sleeve. Most of the time they don't even bother titling their songs. And their shrieking, cacophonous melange of clanging guitars, crash-bang drums, and screamed vocals isn't exactly the musical stuff of Emilio Estefan's dreams. Nevertheless, Harry Pussy has attained an almost mythic status in noise circles; they've generated more national and international interest, and released more records, than just about any other Miami group of the last ten years.
Orcutt, who works days as director of the Alliance for Media Arts and has performed in local groups such as Watt and the Trash Monkeys, downplays the achievements of the band he formed with Hoyos, his wife. "I can't say we had a motive when we put out the first record," he claims. "I don't think we had any expectations. I had just always wanted to put out a record and I had never done it, even though I had been playing music in some form or another for about ten years. Even though it only cost $500 to do a single, I never had enough money to spare $500. But suddenly I did and it seemed like a cool thing to do. I was astounded that we sold those records. It was un-un-un-un-unbelievable. I didn't know anything when we recorded it. I didn't know a label like Siltbreeze existed. I didn't know there was a place for a band that could only sell a thousand or maybe 500 records."
Harry Pussy operates in a substratum of the rock underground that embodies punk rock's do-it-yourself ethos. It was born in the mid to late Seventies, when British groups such as Throbbing Gristle, Nurse with Wound, and Whitehouse were releasing self-financed slabs of adventurous white noise in ridiculously limited quantities. Although their music bore little resemblance to the primal rock of the Sex Pistols, Clash, et al., the tape collages and electronic screech presented by these outfits sent an equally liberating message to bedroom experimentalists around the globe. Soon a cottage industry was born. Independently released albums and singles were being sold through small mail-order houses such as Rough Trade, RRR, and Forced Exposure. Labels popped up all over the place, from New England to New Zealand, and the records and their creators were featured in the pages of obscurantist publications such as Unsound and Bananafish, among many others.
In South Florida, the audience for this kind of sonic esoterica has traditionally been minuscule. A few years back, those who were interested tended to gather at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti, where Scraping Teeth and Esync studio guru Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra hosted Thursday-night free-for-alls. "There was a little bit of experimentation going on then," recalls Orcutt from his South Beach apartment. "It was more or less the same people every week, but every so often somebody would pop up out of the woodwork and do something weird. We would play shows with Kreamy 'Lectric Santa because they were our friends and they liked us, but it was scary playing out. It's really scary playing music without a beat. It took a lot of guts. I remember being nervous as fuck at Churchill's, even though we were playing to ten people. I had no riffs to fall back on, because Adris wasn't going to be cranking out some snappy beat. She'd been playing for only two months at that time."
"We could hardly even play before Kreamy 'Lectric Santa because people would walk out," recalls Hoyos, who had never played drums until Harry Pussy's first recording session. "I can remember having people just walk out because they couldn't deal with us."
The din created by the duo on its first two singles captures the sound of those early shows. On the maiden single, they grind at a slow, almost stately pace. By the second, released later in '93, the trademarks of the Harry Pussy sound have been established: short, tight songs during which Orcutt flails away at his four-stringed guitar (stripped of its A and D strings), and Hoyos smashes into her trap set with the intensity and abandon of an angel-dusted Keith Moon. On their third single ("Please Don't Come Back from the Moon," on the Los Angeles-based Blackjack label) and their untitled debut longplayer on Siltbreeze, the racket became louder, meaner, and at times shorter. They added local guitarist Mark Fehan to the lineup, and took a few short hikes up the East Coast and throughout the South and Midwest to baffle and perplex a new group of listeners, who naturally assumed that the band's musical anarchy was created on the spot.
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Not so, says Orcutt. "I've long since given up convincing people that we rehearse," he sighs. "Sometimes I just refer to it all as improv because I get tired of the skeptical looks and arched eyebrows when you say otherwise. I'm not bragging, but I used to be the kind of guitar player that when I came off-stage, people were buying me beers and asking me for guitar lessons. I was good. And to suddenly be in a band that's semi-successful and having people say, 'Ah, just learning how to play, huh?' But now it's become like a joke, trying to tell people that you've been rehearsing this stuff that sounds like noise -- like it's something somebody could do without having to think about it."
Any close listen to the Harry Pussy canon lends credence to Orcutt's statements. Particularly on the six-song EP released in 1994 on Planet Records, and the band's half of a split-release with Washington's Noggin, there is a complexity in Harry Pussy's chaotic constructions that transcends the limitations of postpunk's legion of improv racketmakers. Both Orcutt and Fehan play with equal amounts of control and invention, creating knots of squalling sound, while Hoyos thrashes her drums and cymbals, laying a foundation of delirious noise. On the two epic tracks that make up Ride a Dove, live cuts recorded on tour last winter are woven into some four-track tape manipulations that greatly expand the Harry Pussy sound (as does an increased emphasis on Hoyos's slasher-flick screams and wails).
"The opening stuff on the album is the freest we've ever done, but the rest of it is just ridiculous how much it was rehearsed," Orcutt says of Ride a Dove, which the band will be touring behind in June. "The songs are shorter and more arranged. Those little bursts of songs are all worked out.
"In a way, this is our 'dicking off' record, because it's so out there," he concedes. "But there are very few things on there where we're just jamming. Harry Pussy cannot jam. You can make a four-stringed guitar sound like two, but when you add another guitar on top of that, it just becomes this huge wall of sound without a steady beat. You can improvise to an extent, but it's not like playing blues licks on top of chord changes. When you go out, it's just impossible to come back. You have to know where you're going next. We have to have a structure to it, otherwise the energy level drops. It's like a weird psychology, but for some reason, even though it just sounds like noise, unless the structure is there, and everybody's in it, everything just fucks up.