PBK Interview for Personal Best, 2016

Personal Best #6, 2016 by Lasse Marhaug 

Lasse: You started PBK as early as 1986. What fueled your interest in music? 

PBK: I started getting really interested in music during high school. I went to Davison High School, in Michigan. One of my upper classmates there was the great liberal filmmaker, Michael Moore. At the age of 18, he got onto the school board, and at that time he was the youngest person elected to office in the U.S. His involvement on our school board created a very progressive high school culture. So, I studied art there, literature, theater and I also learned to DJ in our high school radio station. I was 14 years old, mixing record playlists, making commercial promos, using tape cut-up like all the old-school DJ's did. When I graduated in 1978 I went to work in radio and I also DJ'ed on the club scene. That was at the height of the disco era. So my interest in music was there from very early on, but it was more from a DJ perspective. 

Lasse: So you listened more to disco than punk rock? 

PBK: Yeah, for sure. But I really loved progressive rock more than anything. Punk became a passion of mine later on when I moved to California.

Lasse: What did you do after high school? 

PBK: After an unsuccessful stint in the U.S. Air Force, I started going to college. I had always been interested in graphic arts and comic books, but in college I turned towards painting. I moved to California in 1983 and started showing my work in exhibitions, mostly group shows and mail-art exhibits. I was working in a neo-expressionist mode, quite popular at that time. But I became dissatisfied with expressionism and wanted to paint more abstractly.

 Lasse: How did expressionism rub you the wrong way? 

PBK: Well, first of all, everybody was doing neo-expressionism. It was the prevailing style of that time. To me, it was getting sort of played out, plus you couldn't get any better than, y'know, Basquiat, or Schnabel, or A.R. Penck. I wanted to get further away from any identifiable imagery in my work, but there's a point in abstraction where technique defines the painting, you see this in banks and hospitals all the time, these harmless paintings that are more technique than substance. I didn't want to have my works defined by the manner in which they were painted, that's a dead end, right? Even Pollock felt trapped by his famous technique. So, I couldn't define a good direction to go in with painting if I were to forgo imagery.

Lasse: So you got frustrated with painting in general? 

PBK: Well, the galleries in L.A. during that time were pretty much showing only neo-expressionism, and I fell in line with that because I was desperate to have my work exhibited. That was sort of a calculated move, not to say I didn't like what I was doing, I wasn't trying to be fake about it, I just couldn't stay on that path because my big interest was in abstraction. A painting that contains representational imagery tells a story, you see? 

Lasse: What’s appealing with abstraction then?

PBK: Abstraction, to me, was "pure idea", as opposed to a "storytelling" form. I was also very interested in surface, the pigment itself is fascinating – splashing, blending, creating textures, scratching into them, making collages and painting over them so that the surface could be very complex. But, as I said before, I was seeking something more than could be achieved by method or technique alone.

Lasse: Did you go straight into making experimental music, or did you arrive to it through something else?

PBK: In 1985 I started playing around with a Casio SK-1, and the things I was coming up with, the textures and loops, made me start to think that sound was a possible direction to go in order to find the abstraction I was seeking. This correlation hadn't occur to me until then. I think what made the difference maybe was the sampling keyboard. Because I already had some fascination for Casio-type keyboards anyway, the ones with the primitive drum machines, and so on, but until I began experimenting with the sampler, only then could I hear a parallel to abstract art. Coupled with my musical limitations, not knowing how to play music in any conventional sense, I tried to play some post-punk stuff, I bought a four track recorder, a guitar, drum machine, and synth. I was comfortable using the tape recorder but playing the instruments was pretty awkward. The only things that seemed interesting to me were the droney or ambient looped pieces. So, out of accident, I sort of fell onto the experimental side of things.

Lasse: You didn't know how to play any instruments the conventional way? 

PBK: No, and I still don't.

Lasse: Do you feel it's been an advantage?

PBK: I'm a little regretful about it to be honest. I was talking to O'Rourke about that. I took up the violin as a kid, third grade, but stopped playing that same year, it was too rigorous, and I just gave it up. The thing is I've never been very good at prolonged study. I get just enough of what I need in order to plow in and begin working, basically I'm too undisciplined to study very intently. What I do could be considered a sort of DJ technique.

Lasse: In what way?

PBK: It's the skill of listening, assembling and mixing sounds, so a lot of the developmental phase of composing for me, the creation of sound sources, is really sort of accidental. My only goal when I began working with sound was to find a way to create abstract sound paintings. I knew that what I was trying to do was not something that could be taught to me, because it really didn't exist, or at least I did not know any of the precursors for it. Now I'm aware of Xenakis' background in architecture, or Stockhausen, John Cage, but at that time I didn't know of their work. So not having musical skills there's no advantage or disadvantage, it's simply that I taught myself a different skill set in order to create my work.

Lasse: Did you know about any experimental music when you started making it yourself?

PBK: In the early 1980's the most experimental music I knew of was the new wave scene: Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby, Japan, Ultravox, groups like that. When I moved to California in '83 I got totally into punk rock for a few years. But by '86 when I was experimenting with sounds on my own, I was just working from my imagination. Then, when I found Option Magazine and started reading the tape reviews, it sounded like some of the stuff I'd been doing, so I started buying tapes from different labels, which is how I met Minóy. I remember asking Minóy in 1987 about what Throbbing Gristle sounded like. I'd never heard any industrial music.

Lasse: You were too busy with disco when it was going on!

PBK: Haha, yeah! But once I got into Minóy, Illusion Of Safety, found "RRRadio Six" by Due Process, and discovered Zoviet France, Nurse With Wound, SPK, all those bands, that was it, I knew I was creating something similar to that and I began to consider releasing my own work on tape. I asked Minoy what should I call myself? He had a few ideas, but I finally decided on "PBK" which was the same way I had been signing my paintings, and the name didn't dictate a particular musical direction either, so I was free to be myself.

Lasse: I know what you mean. I started with a bunch of corny-sounding project names, which I’d change every other week, but eventually I just started using my own name. You can’t really get tired of it, because you cant get rid of it.

PBK: Right. 

Lasse: You seem less interested in movement or changing structures, you seem to favor more a pure exploration of sound, letting the sonic elements unfold by themselves without too much tinkering with structure.

PBK: Yeah, for sure. Particularly in my earlier work, where the movement in the piece is not defined by any distinct changes and you have to seek out deep within the structure just what those movements consist of. If you let the composition wash over, stay attentive to it, you start to feel the changes, but they're not overt. That's why I think some of my early work resembles what they now call HNW – harsh noise walls.

Lasse: To me most wall noise sounds flat and with little depth – which I guess is why they compare it to walls – but I understand the parallel.

PBK: In those early works I was seeking the equivalent of an abstract painting with colors, field/ground relationships, moving very slowly, evolving extremely gradual. This approach, these ponderous, slow moving masses of sound that have not too much overt movement, was somewhat controversial at the time, not understood by everybody. 

Lasse: Did anybody tell you?

PBK: Yes, Paul Lemos wrote to me in '89 saying that dynamic and frequent textural shifts would make my work more compelling!

Lasse: That’s an odd statement coming from the guy who made “Phlegm Bag Splattered”.

PBK: To be fair, it was a simple misunderstanding of what I was trying to accomplish.

Lasse: Are there other artists of your generation you feel akin to in this method of exploring the fabric of sounds? I think that people like David Jackman and Andrew Chalk with their Organum and Ferial Confine projects in the UK, and Japanese artists like S-Core and Agencement were on a similar paths as you around that time. 

PBK: I have very limited knowledge, even today, of the artists you mention. I owned one S-Core tape back in the day.

Lasse: S-Core is one of the best Japanese noise artists, but very few seem to remember his work.

PBK: I know O'Rourke was a huge fan of David Jackman's stuff, he used to talk about it frequently, but I never heard too much of it. I think that Jeph Jerman, in his Hands To-mode, might sound a bit like some of my early stuff, although I believe he used a lot of field recordings which I never got into. My early works were sometimes compared to MB, even though his imagery and metaphors were quite different from my own.

Lasse: Speaking of imagery and metaphors, you were never interested in the shock and confrontational themes that so many industrial noise artists of the 80s were working within? A few of your works like “Warfare State” and “Vivisection” hints at this, but its still a long way from the gas chambers of Ramleh and sexual perversion of Whitehouse. 

PBK: I always felt it was important to create a body of work that added up to a legacy I wouldn't be ashamed of later. So I never went for those shock themes too much. I knew that noisy sounds had a power to them, but I didn't feel that it was a strictly negative energy. It certainly could be used metaphorically in a cynical context, but I felt there were more meaningful possibilities there. Like Coltrane's later works are chaotic but they point towards something higher, they have a visionary potential. I wanted the same for my work, I wanted to use that noisy power for the positive even when, in the case of "Vivisection", I was trying to create a protest statement.

Lasse: It’s interesting that you took that stance in that time, as it seemed so many of your contemporaries attached confrontational subject matter to their work almost by default. For example, MB, I always felt his music was comfort music, warm analogue drones, and that his holocaust and death imagery was completely off the mark. 

PBK: The graphics and titles become the metaphors for what is essentially an abstraction. You could attach any reference to it. In MB's early work, had he not used the morgue imagery, or titled his work less provocatively, he likely would not have found the audience who have made his work sort of legendary. (SPK did the same thing) But it's silly isn't it, "Menses"? Really? And you notice that after his long absence Maurizio now uses different analogies.

Lasse: You came out of the 80s US noise scene, do you have any thoughts about that? For me the 80 American scene was an incredible time, with artists like yourself, Eric Lunde, Boy Dirt Car, Due Process, Minóy etc. So much incredible work was being done. How do you look back on it? Are there artists you feel have been forgotten over the years? 

PBK: When I met Minóy he was getting his work reviewed favorably almost everywhere, he'd been written up in the New York Times, there were very few in the U.S. tape underground who were getting the same kind of attention he was. And yet today he's remembered by few. Hal McGee too, who has a long history in the noise underground, his work is not valued as much as some others, partially I feel because he doesn't try to create a mysterious persona. I believe if he'd kept on using the more controversial name of Dog As Master he would have a larger fan base now, his work would be valued differently, funny how a name would have that power. But all this points to is an expectation in the fan base that noise music must symbolize something negative or provocative. Plus, this is only a speculation, so maybe I'm off base about it. We'll never know because in the end Hal could not continue using a name that framed his work so narrowly.

Lasse: To me a lot of Wolf Eyes recordings sounds a lot like what Boy Dirt Car did on their “Winter” album 20 years earlier.

PBK: That's an interesting observation. Since you bring up Eric, he and I have been in touch over the last several years too, and though I believe he is respected, he is also somewhat ignored by the new noise generation. Most of his work in the 2000's was released on his own label. As far as I can tell he simply was not getting outside offers to release his new projects. Lunde is extremely prolific, but his comprehensive work in the area of degraded electronics is also really important, he's a noise artists who has defined his work in a very individualistic way, and it's a shame he isn't given more attention in the current timeframe. For all of us who began doing this sort of thing during a time when nobody cared too much for it, it has been difficult. Robert Turman, who is a little older than me, has said he thinks about quitting all the time. You have to remember, especially for those working in the noisier sub-genres, in the beginning the work was deeply misunderstood. It didn't help that a lot of those who were doing it built their personas around taboo subject matter, or backwards ideology. That became, in some sense, a burden for all noise artists to bear, that we were essentially misanthropic in our endeavors.

Lasse: ______explain a bit_______?

PBK: When I first started trading tapes I wasn't familiar with the extreme scene in noise. The first people I traded with were Zan Hoffman, Al Margolis, Big City Orchestra, Dave Prescott, Minóy, and they weren't doing that kind of thing. Well, some of Minóy's stuff could be rather perverse... hahaha! Once I got into it though, it didn't take too long to encounter the ugly underbelly. When Mark Solotroff of AWB (or M. Sanderson in those days, same person) sent me that single in 1988, "The Sickle Cell", and I read his interview in Chemical Castration, I thought he was pretty fucking stupid. As I got a wider look at the overall scene and saw more labels, especially in the U.K., releasing noise with racist, nazi, fascist, and sexist themes, I remember talking with Dirk Serries about this, saying we should try to be careful, and not inadvertently align our work with those kind of groups, because in those early days his stuff was appearing on compilations with racists like Terre Blanche, so I warned him against it. And Dirk understood that if you have strong principles and self-respect then you don't want your work associated with that idiotic shit. I certainly don't object to extreme content as a narrative within noise music, so I'm not trying to say that controversial subject matter shouldn't be addressed, it really should be. But anything done stupidly, immorally, or only for shock value, has a lot less value when the shock has worn off, and the shock aspect wears off pretty damned fast. If your defense is you were only trying to shock people and make them think, well, in my opinion, you should have provided a better point of view of what your personal angle was, otherwise it's too obtuse. There are better, more intelligent ways to do that, ways that don't leave it open to interpretation as to what the artist's point of view is in relation to the content. On the other hand, if you sincerely align your work closely to these backwards ideologies, then in the long run you're going to ruin your legacy, especially if you really don't even believe in what you're doing, but just trying to make a controversial statement, it's fakery. But always there is going to be a subculture in the fan base that enjoys this sort of extremist content. For those of us who have been honestly trying to use the medium as a means of evolving the language of music, those groups, those labels, made it harder for us over the years to be taken seriously in a genre where racist or licentious ideas were the norm.

Lasse: What happened in your life in the 90s? It seems like you were disappeared for some years and stopped making music.

PBK: No, no, never. That's a misconception. I moved to Puerto Rico in 1992, which cramped up some of my networking, but I continued working on sounds while there. I completed the material that would make up "Listening To The World Vibrate", and I also finished "Life-Sense Revoked" while there. But those didn't actually get released till a couple years later when I moved back to the U.S. in 1995. In 1996 I went to Paris to perform at the Experiences Festival along with Con Demek and Schimpflucch Gruppe. From '96 to '98 I worked closely with my cousin, Artemis K, in a duo called Acclimate, we performed a lot of live shows, and played the Knitting Factory in New York. My least active period was From 1999 to 2002, due to some personal upheavals in my life during that time, the divorce took a lot of my energies, but even then, I managed to get two collaborative CD's with Artemiev out on his Electroshock label. 

Lasse: How did you feel about the 2000’s noise scene around No Fun, Wolf Eyes, Prurient etc. Did you feel at home with it, or did it feel like a different generation? 

PBK: The younger noise generation are very well informed, they have great knowledge, but the scene is more cliquish than ever before. Sometimes it is hard to gauge their interests, some are so distant, it's difficult to befriend and keep relationships with them, especially those who embrace that washed out rock-star mentality.

Lasse: In what way?

PBK: Many of the younger generation do seem to have strong affection for death or black metal. This also affects their ideas about persona too. I remember Greh Holger wearing gauntlets when he was performing, or Dom with the black leather, fingerless gloves, the sunglasses. All these props create an artificial persona. At the extremist side, it's like the racist noise artists saying that they were just doing that to "provoke", which is fake. I don't believe in mystification. It's like some of them are playing a game to see who is the hardest, the most extreme. But I wonder if they have dedication, because it seems to me there is also some bandwagon-jumping going on, like the noise thing is played out and they are now onto synthpop, or the next cool thing. For the younger generation, the download culture brought out everything, all the obscurities, they could find anything, and they know everything, but do they really feel it? Some do, there's no doubt. But some are playing a game with it and I suppose that's okay too, but I'm just not interested in it.

Lasse: Have you performed live a lot? When did you start?

PBK: I haven't performed live that much compared to somebody like GX, or Wolf Eyes.... My first live gig was with Minóy in 1988 at Cal. State. That concert was shut down mid-performance by the students who thought we were performing a satanic ritual!

Lasse: Was there anything outside the music that suggested it was a satanic ritual?

PBK: That's the funny thing, I know I was naïve about it, but I had no idea it would be interpreted in such a way! The unfamiliarity of the audience with such sounds, and Minóy's use of Japanese Butoh dance ideas, combined with a television tuned to static and my instrument stands on which I had collaged a bunch of punk propaganda, all combined to create the controversy, and the students shut us down!

Lasse: So you never toured that much?

PBK: Never toured much, only a couple of times, but I enjoy doing live performances, especially collaboration onstage where I have someone to improvise with.

Lasse: But you toured with Government Alpha ten years ago, how as that?

PBK: That was really great! Of course it was nice to meet Yasutoshi in person, but we were good friends for many years before the tour. As a matter of fact, when I was offered the opportunity to do that particular tour, the promoter asked what artist from overseas that I would want to tour with, and I chose Government Alpha. And when Yasutoshi came over we got the chance to do several live sessions together and those recordings ended up on our CD. 

Lasse: Were you in touch with the Japanese scene for early on? Did you ever go there?

PBK: I've never been to Japan, but I've been in contact with some Japanese noise artists over the years. Aube was one, he sent me some of his source material to work with, that ended up on the "Under My Breath" CD. I did some trading with MSBR, and was saddened about Koji's early demise. Merzbow and I have been in touch over the years but never worked together. K2 and I keep talking about doing some collaboration. And, of course, Yasutoshi and I have worked together on and off since the mid-90's.

Lasse: Can you tell more about Minóy? What kind of a person was he? 

PBK: He was a brilliant artist; I learned a lot from him. Sort of an extremist but a lot of that was due to him being on anti-depressants. He could be very difficult, he'd go through down periods where he would stay in bed for days at a time, you couldn't talk to him on the phone, and then he'd suddenly be up and super happy, working fanatically on mail art and recording cassettes. During those times he was extremely prolific and very fun to talk to, we would talk for hours on the phone. Of course, I am also one of the few people to have spent a lot of time with him in-person, we lived close enough to each other that we could visit and spent many hours doing improvisations in his living room that would end up on our tape releases.

Lasse: Did you stay in touch throughout the 90s? 

PBK: No, as a matter of fact, he and I had a falling out. But I loved the guy, he was a mentor to me in fact, and I did try to stay in touch with him, up till about 1992. I even sent him my vinyl box set that year. But he could hold a hard grudge and he never responded to any of my mail or calls after 1988.

Lasse: What happened when he passed away? You took care of his audio archive, and preserved and made it available, right? 

PBK: That's quite a story there. Minóy disappeared after 1992, when he ended his musical activities in this dramatic gesture, writing to Zan Hoffman that his label, Minóy Cassetteworks, had been permanently terminated: "My soul has dried up and blown away." After that, nobody ever heard from him again. He wouldn't reply to anybody's letters and dropped completely out of sight. So after many years passed, about two decades, where we heard nothing, I became determined to find out what had happened to him. In 2012 I did some deep research on the web and found a comment on a mail-art site from his partner, Stuart Hass, that spoke of Minóy's death two years earlier. It appears that Minoy had been still working, but mainly on digital art, no music. I made contact with Stuart and asked to take Minoy's master tapes so they could be digitized and made available. It took some time to do this, Stuart was still mourning the death of his partner, and for a while it seemed like nothing would happen, but by a miracle I finally received the Minóy master tapes, hundreds of them! Plus much of his digital art collection and some of his mail-art archives as well. Since then, I’ve been slowly going through the process of remastering his taped works and making them available.

Lasse: Isn’t this something that ideally should be taken care of by the state, to preserve art history? If Minóy didn’t have a friend like you his works might’ve been lost. Do you think musicians have a duty to preserve the work of fellow musicians? 

PBK: So many crucial art, music and film works have been lost through negligence and disinterest. The underground is too vast for the state to grapple with it. It's of utmost importance that we who are "in it" take care of it, disseminate it,so it's not lost. Seriously, Lasse, those tapes were about to be thrown out by Minóy's own partner! It would have been a shame. So, to make a long story short, I'm very pleased to have the Minóy archives in safe hands and I take it as a project that will last for many years to digitize it all and get it out to the people who will preserve it for the next generations.

Lasse: How about your influences? have you seen throughout the years changes in your taste both musical or in other fields of which you draw inspiration?

PBK: I've always been a very eclectic listener of many styles of music. My grandmother was absolutely essential to my interest in music as a child, she had classical records that I listened to intently. I was already collecting jazz records in my teens. I've always had a large collection of music. The internet opened up a lot of great music that was new to my ears, the krautrock and garage-rock albums I could never find as a kid. My own work was perhaps born out of John Coltrane, Cage/Tudor, Sun Ra, SPK, Klaus Schulze, but I've absorbed them by now, and nothing is really an influence on my soundwork anymore.

Lasse: If i recall you have a pretty large family how do you manage to balance everyday life w/ your work or are there times that things are hard and others easy enough? or is it also a source of inspiration to keep on creating things?

PBK: Yes, I have a large family and, yes, it can be a difficult balance between creative activities and being a father to the kids. But for me the importance of parenthood, the children will always take precedence over my music work. I think my friend, Slavek Kwi (Artificial Memory Trace), has a family life with two young boys where there is creativity in so many aspects of the parental obligations, there are in fact no obligations at all in such a situation because parents and children can learn and thrive on shared experiences. i am striving to create such an environment in my own home, but it's something I am still working on, not there 100% yet.