There's noise...and then there's noise.
This year marks the 35th year of that most cataclysmic of all possible sound from The Haters. Founded in 1979 by G.X. Jupitter-Larsen, they're a band that has released records (and anti-records) like "Wind-Licked Dirt," a blank record played by rubbing a dirt across its surface; "Oxygen is Flammable," a broken piece of plastic to be played by pouring water over it; and his 1983 7" - "Complete This Record By Scratching It Before You Listen To It On Your Stereo," which is fairly self-explanatory.
A Haters live action is all about things falling apart -- the mass amplified stapling of records until they break, or putting a contact microphone on a hole-punch and exploring the noise made from falling through that loud round eternity. The Zen philosopher Basho, via "Caddyshack," once said, "A flute with no holes is not a flute. And a doughnut with no hole is a Danish." And so it is not for nothing that one of Jupitter-Larsen's abiding fascinations is with donuts. Digging and otherwise creating holes are typical activities for The Haters -- they are nothing if not conceptually pristine in their approach.
My own experience seeing The Haters live happened 20 years ago -- in 1994, during the weekly experimental music salons at the Anomalous Records shop in Whittier. The dawn of the modern experimental music era in Los Angeles rose in Whittier, of all places -- and not knowing what to expect, the ear-shattering, spine-melting racket that stopped just as startlingly as it had begun was a performance that ranks up with the Pet Shop Boys or Kraftwerk in terms of sheer sensory shock and spectacle.
I bought a cassette of experimental music after the show. I listened to it later, waiting for other new vistas to open up to me, even as the van in which I was traveling coughed and expired along the long lonesome darkness of the 126 Freeway. The only light came later with the headlights of the car pulling behind us that would turn out to be policemen who understood that cassette only so far as how slowly I could put it on the ground in front of me. They didn't know what it was.
Neither did I, really. All I knew was that it just wasn't the same as The Haters.
The perpetually busy Jupitter-Larsen planned performances and recordings up to and beyond the May 1, 1979 date that technically marks ground zero of all things Haters. "I base the anniversary from the first performance," he reveals. It was a performance in New York City at which videotapes were soundly beaten with a video camera. "It was at a little gallery called Kick Art on the Lower East Side. I think it existed for only one or two events." He says there is a straight line that joins that past to this present.
He knew from his first performance that his life's focus would be in terms of the art. "There's no question about it," he says, "I made up my mind. It was very clear that there was no turning back, just working forward." He had a vision of the essence of Haters. "It's hard to put it in a sound-bite, but ultimately it's about finding peace-of-mind; finding the balance between life and death and rot and decay and beauty and all of it, really."
When it's pointed out that this sounds vaguely nihilistic, Jupitter-Larsen is quick to clarify. "Well, it depends on how you talk about nihilism. Back in the day- - back in the '70s and '80s - the term had a very different meaning than what it has now. Back then, you were a nihilist because you rejected society's morality -- because you had your own. You believed that you'd come up with your own answers. You put your own morality to the situation you found yourself in."
Clearly, it's a concept that he cleaves to with great enthusiasm. "You rejected society's answers for your own answers," he continues. "You believed in yourself. You believed in your friends. You even believed in some of your enemies. Through various media misinformation and popular culture misinformation, nihilism has come to mean doom-and-gloom; it means not believing in anything. In the old terminology, it's all about nihilism -- in current terminology, no, it has nothing to do with that kind of nihilism."
Nihilism aside, there have of course been high points over the past 35 years. One of the most infamous manifestations of Haterade was the ion gun that Survival Research Labs high-voltage engineer Greg Leyh built. Charging the audience to 50,000 volts, when two audience members got too close to each other, they exchanged a shock. And it didn't take long for people to catch on to that kind of audience participation.
"Ten minutes, tops - then all chaos broke loose," he recalls. "It was interesting; we did it in San Francisco in the early 1990s and people kind made it into a competition when people figured out what was going on. They'd chase one another; they'd try to get onto chairs and try to get a bigger charge from the ion gun that was suspended from above to give their neighbor a bigger shock."
Re-enacting the performance 20 years later in Graz, the Austrians had a different sensibility when it came to that kind of electrification. "It wasn't a competitive kind of thing with them," he explains. "It was more a communal experience. They were trying to figure out if a shock through lips was different than a shock through fingertips, or pressing arms or legs against each other. So it became almost a sociological experiment."
Grinding gears for a moment, I ask about what he listens for -- what he wants from the phenomenon of sound. "It's different with the record releases than in a live context. In the early years I was kind of interested in sounds like explosions, fire; glass breaking. The sounds that you might expect to hear in a radio play -- sounds that told the story of decay and entropy in a very literate sense. By the 1990s, I was getting interested in the concept of the hole -- the cavity, the void -- things like the sound of shovels, the sound of drilling, hole-punching. That kind of thing."
At the end of the 1990s, his tastes began to change. "I started getting more interested in friction and erosion being a more pure form of entropy, in strictly an aesthetic or structural sense. I've been fine-tuning that ever since. It started with amplified power grinders and electric sanders and since then, I've been building my own equipment that simulates erosion acoustically."
Even though Jupitter-Larsen's life has become slightly more domesticated, he's settled on a new tool: the suitcase. "I've been modifying suitcases so that acoustically they simulate the sound of erosion," he reveals, "And in the process they build up standing waves (of sound patterns) and feedback loops. I've become a lot more orchestral as of late compared to the early years."
When asked to pinpoint the sound of Los Angeles, he cackles. "Okay, so we're living just a few blocks away from LACMA. I'm off West 6th near La Brea and I won't say what the exact corner is, but there is a car accident outside my living room window at least once a day, if not, some days, two or three times. It's an insane corner -- everyone in the neighborhood is terrified of crossing the street at this intersection. It's a residential street, but people treat it like it's a freeway. So drivers aren't paying attention -- and all of L.A. is like a demolition derby en masse -- but this particular corner is just extra nutty, extra entropic, extra dangerous and there are fender-benders outside my apartment just constantly. I've used the sound of car accidents many times over the years, and now it's like the soundtrack of my living room. If I'm going to associate any sound with L.A., it's definitely the fender-bender."
Whenever people would ask me what The Haters were all about -- after regaling them with the story of that weirdness in Whittier lo, those many moons ago -- I'd always say entropy. Now that I know The Haters are really all about peace-of-mind, I wonder aloud if I've misread the cues all along. Jupitter-Larsen is quick to clarify. "I say peace-of-mind because I've learned how to deal with entropy. It's like that expression 'surfing on entropy' -- you have to find that balance in life so you don't fall in face-first. There's a sense of self-awareness that comes through this whole process. The Haters was never about confrontation. It's always been about finding self-awareness in among the chaos and the violence that you find yourself in, in this world. It's coming to terms and knowing that you can never control the conflict around you, but you can certainly find a way of getting through the cracks and getting through the other end okay."
The Haters perform Sunday, July 20 at 10 p.m., MATA Gallery, 3709 W. Pico Blvd. (between Crenshaw and Arlington), utilizing a variation of The Haters' Pump-Powered Permawave -- an amplified suitcase activated by the squeezing of hand-held pump-bulbs.