March 9-15, 2006
cover storyMaking Noise
Tom Lax had left his Siltbreeze label for dead. Now he's dredging it up again.
: Michael T. Regan
But when SB-100 (local band 1929's Last But Not Leased) hit the shelves on April 15, 2003, many, Lax included, thought the silt had settled for good. Years swimming against the mainstream coupled with the aftermath of a deal that made strange bedfellows of tiny Siltbreeze and major label Atlantic had prompted Lax to call it a day. The day the noise rock died.
Between then and '92, Lax and pal Bob Aretz put out eight issues in runs of 150 to 300 of a zine that, explains Lax, "had the aesthetic of trying to appear as ignorant as possible." Combining '70s porn imagery with reviews of the deepest underground music, Siltbreeze was about "making fun of people who took themselves too seriously." The content was such that a shipment to Dead C's Bruce Russell in New Zealand was famously snagged by customs and, says Russell, "later led to my being suspected of importing LSD."
In 1989 Lax was approached by Tom Hazelmyer of Minneapolis' Halo of Flies (and Amphetamine Reptile records). His band had recorded a live 7-inch for Forced Exposure magazine, who turned it down. Hazelmyer wanted to do the release with a zine and was hoping Lax would be interested. "So these tracks are in the can, ready to go," remembers Lax. "Halo of Flies were a hot commodity. And while I had no idea what went into making a record, it seemed like a good idea."
It had never been Lax's plan to start a label; photocopying 150 issues of a fanzine and pressing 1,500 vinyl records are quite different propositions. Lax's grandmother had taken out an $800 life insurance policy on him, a policy he had the option keeping or cashing in. "That," says Lax, "is how I started Siltbreeze."
He made his money back and then some on Halo of Flies, and promptly sank his profits into a two-song LP, "Helen Said This"/"Bury," by Dead C, the New Zealand three-piece known if they were known at all then for making a lot of droney racket. "No one Stateside seemed interested in working with them, so I rolled the dice," recalls Lax, who'd first heard the band on their Flying Nun label release DR503. "The die was then cast. Everything fell into place after that. Pure serendipity really." Their first record together was negotiated entirely via international post.
"We formed an alliance with pretty much the intention of "fucking people up' i.e. people who didn't agree with our artistic agenda," explains Russell, who would put out upward of a dozen releases with Lax, solo and as a member of Dead C, Handful of Dust and Gate. "When you start from as near the aesthetic edge as where we were, pretty much everyone in sight is asking for a good goddamn lesson in what real music is."
Russell and company were happy for the stage, as even in their own country "they treat us as a national embarrassment," he says. "Tom Lax is just a fool who got suckered by us. I think he's happy with that."
It took Siltbreeze a few years to unload all of the "Helen" records. "Not an easy sell at first," laughs Lax, "quite the opposite of the Halo of Flies' 7-inch." By 1992, though following a string of now-legendary releases including 7-inches by locals Monkey 101 and The Strapping Fieldhands, Columbus, Ohio's V-3, Amherst's Sebadoh and New Zealand's Alastair Galbraith, generally in pressings of 1,000 Lax and Dead C teamed up to release the double LP Harsh '70s Reality, a sprawling, arching masterwork of noise, texture and atmospherics. "The breakthrough record," says Lax, "both for the label and the band."
The label itself has proven as thought-provoking as its music, as much for the artists themselves:
"Everyone was into making records that sounded real," says Dead C's Russell of his labelmates, "that were directly recorded with no artifice and certainly no agenda as far as pandering to any industry/media crap about how bands should sound. I think that extended to the artwork also. Siltbreeze released some great-looking records."
"I believe it was about stripping things down and removing the gloss," says Bob Pollard
Guided by Voices, who released one 7-inch EP with Lax. "Making music that was completely raw and natural. Not overfucked-with. In the room. Lo-fi. Punk, because punk is an attitude and this is the way we like to do it. Tom and [Siltbreeze tour manager emeritus] Mac [Sutherland] had good noses for this kind of stuff."
"Noise-saturated melodics, lots of treble, true catharsis, an ability to roll with at times uncomfortable chaos, and a deeply shared sense of deadpan gallows humor," says Anthony Bedard, talent buyer for San Francisco's Hemlock Tavern and
former drummer for Siltbreeze's Resineators. "Almost the whole Siltbreeze roster has read Journey to the End of the Night by Ferdinand Celine and thinks of it as a comedy."
As for fans and critics:
"Though the recordings may trend toward a murky, low-fidelity sound, underneath the murk might be buried wacko improv noise, loner folk, screeching punk or out-and-out pop music with hooks," says Jay Hinman, publisher of erstwhile zine Superdope and the blogger behind Agony Shorthand (agonyshorthand.blogspot.com).
"These records were noisy all right," says Brian Turner, music and program director for Jersey City's WFMU radio station. "But on closer examination, you can't help but notice the definite subtleties, like Alastair Galbraith's sea-chanty leanings, the nods to Mahavishnu Orchestra that dwelled within Temple of Bon Matin, the introspectiveness to which Charalambides directed their noise that revealed a lot more than just obliterating everything in sight. Though Harry Pussy obliterated everything in sight, they did it in a way nobody else had before. Deep within what seem to be poorly recorded records, you can literally hear a history of music, and in many ways I was discovering stuff like Tim Buckley and John Fahey through these noisy records and realizing how much they had in common."
Lax, however, likes to downplay his role. "Personally I find the term 'curator' indulgent, but thank you," he says. "I think the one unifying factor in the catalog is that the acclaim has been far more critical than commercial, much to the chagrin of some of the artists involved, believe it or not."
Siltbreeze was publicly lauded by the likes of Thurston Moore and Steven Malkmus. Pollard describes it as "one of the hipper labels of the early '90s." By 1995 Lax was flying high, still happily doing his 1,000-unit pressings when he signed a distribution deal with New York's Matador Records, which had a manufacture and distribution deal with major label Atlantic. Under the deal, Lax would discover, he could print a minimum of 5,000 of any release.
"I was putting out records that never had any chance selling 2,500, let alone twice that," says Lax. Normally he'd need to move at most 800 of a run of 1,000 as his bands would get 20 percent of a pressing to sell themselves. When he finally got out of the deal, all the unsold stock from those Matador releases was sent back to him.
With a basement filling up with Dead C, Harry Pussy and Yips records from that time period, "It became disheartening," he says. "It wasn't fun."
"By 1998, I pretty much [decided] to see the thing to sleep. That was the plan," remembers Lax. He "hobbled on" for a few more years emptying the pipeline, "and was sure that was the end."
"It reminded me of early Fall, Kleenex, Prats," he remembers. "It certainly had a shambling, DIY aura that I'm always a sucker for."
It sparked something in Lax that he hadn't felt in a while. "I wanted to work with a band like that."
Since folding the label, Lax had made his living both as a cook and doing construction work.
But by fall 2005, Times New Viking's Dig Yourself, a dishevelled slab of punk rock energy and disarray, was on the shelves, Siltbreeze's first release in more than two years.
The trio of 24-year-old Columbus College of Art and Design grads may have been in elementary school when that first Halo of Flies record came out, but they weren't oblivious to what it meant to join the Siltbreeze stable.
"My brother Kevin used to be in a band called 84 Nash," says Adam Elliott, Times New Viking's drummer/vocalist. "I remember in sixth grade listening to Strapping Fieldhands."
Kevin Elliott was pleasantly "shocked," recalls Adam, "that his little brother was going to be on Siltbreeze." It's something 84 Nash had aspired to.
"We had maybe been playing for four months, five months at the time," Elliott says of a band that had a name before it had songs. "We recorded at every practice, made a CD of all our practices."
That's what Hummel played for Lax, and, poetically, those recordings are exactly what you'll hear on Dig Yourself. "We didn't have to record an album or anything," says Elliott, whose band is just finishing up their next Siltbreeze release, a triple 7-inch.
"We have a weird relationship," says Elliott. "When we visit him, we're like half his age. A lot of the Siltbreeze people are crazy individuals and we're more laid-back than members of certain bands."
Lax and Times New Viking have something of a symbiotic, big-brother rapport. He turns them on to bands, books their tours. "It's pretty amazing that we sold 500 records," says Elliott, the "gee-whiz" implied.
And they've got him thinking about the future. Siltbreeze now has its very first Web site (www.siltbreeze.com). And he's got his sights on bands for upcoming releases as well, namely Louisville's Sapat and a possible side project with Philly's Bardo Pond. "We'll see," says Lax. "You know, I got ears. I hear things."
For Lax, the Siltbreeze story is a Philadelphia story.
"The circumstances that led to the formation of the fanzine that in turn led to the record label are directly related to my life here," says Lax. "Not to sound ominous, but it's true. I have often said I could do the label from anywhere which, nowadays, is right, but it couldn't have started anywhere but here."
For far-afield noisemakers like Russell, the label helped put the city on the map: "I think Siltbreeze is a bloody good ornament to Philadelphia. The city should put up a statue of Tom Lax outside The Khyber."