Chester Hawkins interviewed by Jack Hertz
Q: What year did your involvement with the home tape / recording scene begin?
I have two answers to that. The “real” answer would be 1978, when I was ten years old. I had a portable cassette recorder and took it EVERYWHERE. I’d crawl into the dry sewers of Laurel, Maryland and record myself making monster noises with the reverb of the concrete tunnels. I’d hassle cicadas with microphones, I’d record anything.
Then I discovered that if I held the PLAY button halfway down when recording, it spooled faster (making slowed sounds on playback) and it didn’t fully erase previously recorded sounds, so I would get layers of barely controllable noises overlapping. These recordings were like murky alien soundscapes and it was mad fun. I had discovered a primitive form of multi-tracking at a freakishly young age.
Then I got some friends involved, making these little audio treasures and trading the tapes back& forth. So we had our own little experimental audio tape-trading culture before any of us were out of 7th grade.
That’s the super-literal answer. The other answer would be 1986, when I discovered the greater universe of home taper/noisemakers, and realized that lots of other folks had the same disease that I did.
Q: Where did name “Blue Sausage Infant” come from?
I used to mess around with freeform poetry in my teens. I’d sit in Dupont Circle for hours, scribbling endless pages of tripped-out nonsense into a steno pad. My first public performance was at DC Space, at an open-mic poetry festival: I played a backing tape of loops from sound fx records (cars crashing, babies crying, sonic booms) and I improvised a shouting rant over it all. At this point I didn’t have a name for the performance stuff.
But soon after that I was going through one of my notebooks and found a one-line “poem” I had written: just three words in tiny print, BLUE SAUSAGE INFANT. It got in my head and wouldn’t let me
go. So in the spirit of revisionist history, I call that DC Space event the first BSI happening.
The texts I wrote were using words for their sounds only, stringing together lines and phrases that had a fluid arc or cadence—trying to get into the sound of language and not the meaning of the words. And there was some weird alchemy in the phrase “blue sausage infant” that kept its hooks in me.
That was some 24 years ago. So now it’s a shock when reviewers comment on the name as disturbing (expecting some kind of grindcore death metal mutant hellfire stuff) — In all these years “Blue Sausage Infant“ has become like my own name, so it’s like saying “Steve” sounds like an ashtray full of devil-worshipping shellfish. …what?
I stopped making noise in late 2000 and the muse didn’t come back for nearly 8 years. When I did start it up again, the name still felt comfortable. Never thought of changing it, which also keeps the
history& back catalog nice and tidy… Does that answer the question?
Q: Were you recording your own music before you heard about the tape trading scene?
Not counting those early childhood experiments, yep. I was already recording these terrible no-fi bedroom-studio noise tapes by the time I discovered the scene. And THAT discovery can be traced back to one Saturday in 1986:I walked into the Record& Tape Exchange in College Park, MD, and randomly bought a cassette compilation called THE SPACE MEAT SHOW. I was probably attracted to the handmade look of it, the low price, strange name, etc. That comp started it all for me, and I still have the tape.
Q: Talk about some home tapers you have met.
The guy behind the counter that sold me THE SPACE MEAT SHOW (Carl Merson) happened to be on several tracks, though he didn’t mention it at the time. I dug that tape like crazy: it was 60 minutes
of self-indulgent mayhem. I wrote a letter to one of the acts (The Fastest Headshrinkers, who were an early form of Stolen Government Binder Clip). My note was part fan-letter and part “Hey, I do this kind of thing too.” Arthur Harrison wrote back and soon afterwards I was invited to perform an improv set at WMUC with a few of the folks involved.
So almost immediately I was in the company of weirdos from acts like SGBC, Jobs for America, and New Carrollton. That axis led me to the greater DC-area home-taper network with folks like Rupert Chapelle, Brian Horowitz (later of Date Bait), Matt Grace (Clowns In Space), Ken Francis (Brain Center Staff), and Jerry Busher/Charlie Moats from Pythagoras….
Once I started sending tapes around, I met Jhan Dean Egg (Haunted Toilet) in Brooklyn and we hit it off right away. Through him I connected to the greater NY scene and up to Syracuse (the Lethal Dose Musick tape label with LD50 and Cane Toads), over to Albany (Changes to Blind) and beyond…. It all just exploded immediately after that chance purchase of THE SPACE MEAT SHOW.
Q: What are some of the cassette releases you have done?
I was collaborating with Pythagoras by “˜87, so the first release I put together was the Pythagoras half of a split with Haunted Toilet for the Lethal Dose label. Then came the series of Blue Sausage Infant cassettes, starting in “˜88 with Trance Warfare. Then came Infinite Sky, Sound for Dreams, Blue Clown Toilet (collaboration with BSI, Haunted Toilet, and Clowns in Space), Captain Smooth Wants You, Warm Human Refrigerator (with Haunted Toilet), Luna (later reissued as Lighthouse), I-Mode (reissued as March of the Zooites), Owl’s Egg, and Mother’s Meat.
I’m missing a bunch in that list, and there were a lot of compilations as well, but that takes us up to about “˜97, at which point I started to slow down. That first decade was a non-stop volcano of creative energy.
The next finished product after Mother’s Meat was Supple Supple in 2000, and that marked the big leap from cassettes to CD-R. After that (and a compilation track for the Krautrock Karnival festival in the UK), my muse died, basically. It took moving back to DC, where it all started, to kick the noise back into action. It’s been going insane ever since.
Q: Were you involved in mail art before the music projects?
My graphic design habit evolved at the same time as the music. I was always doing show flyers and tape cover art, etc. I was never too aware of the mail-art movement at the time, but I started generating these paste-up “curiosities” and sending them off to friends and people I admired; other artists. Just little anonymous salvos of psychic energy in the wilderness. Religious tracts and tabloids like the Weekly World News were a great source of imagery and headline typography. It was great
Q: What excited you about the early days in the tape music scene?
We were constantly being inspired by each others’ work, and all levels of technology were welcome: There were the folks with multi-track capabilities and swanky digital effects, and there were us poor primitives banging on thrift-store toys. The ideas defined the music more than the equipment, which might sound a little utopian but that’s how I remember it.
There might have been a slightly competitive angle as well: With each new tape of genius noise by Friend X or Y, I’d be inspired to advance my game a little.
Often as a solo artist it’s easy to get into comfortable routines, so it’s good to be shaken by someone else’s wacky concepts. Seeing New Carrollton live in Dupont Circle (circa “˜88), bowing contact-mic’d styrofoam was mind-blowing enough to get me into a whole new level of electro- acoustic playfulness. Sometimes just one show or one tape would inspire a creative revolution.
Q: You just released a new CD “Flight of the Solstice Queens” how has that been received?
Unbelievably well. That was my first non-DIY, mass-produced release, so there was a lot of obsessing over details. By the time it went to the plant, I had heard the material so much I had no idea what it sounded like anymore. If you listen to something too much, it becomes gray static. So
the reviews are quite eye-opening; they remind me (more or less) what the hell it really sounds like.
I wanted to mark the occasion of releasing my first “manufactured” CD by including a gang of invited guests; people that had a big impact on BSI’s history. I contacted Lida Husik for permission to sample something from her 2nd album; we had played some truly strange shows in DC in the “˜80s. Jeff Surak is in there as well: he’s curating the Sonic Circuits festival in DC now, which has been crucial to my recent activities.
Jason Mullinax (aka Pilesar) and Gary Rouzer are also on the album, both of whom were around in 2008 when I began playing after that long silence. They’ve been great, inspirational folks to work
with: After the Solstice Queens session, we were inspired to legitimize the trio& called it Bastard Squid Implant. You have been warned…
Q: You have been playing live a lot these days. What drives you to create new stuff?
I just love the ride. Performing as Blue Sausage Infant is deliberately being only 50% in control. It’s a teetering ballet of layers. Sometimes there are battles and friction between the layers of sound, and sometimes it’s all hugs and sunshine and humping rainbows. And the improv factor means there are no “mistakes” as such.
There is magic in the mistakes. “Mistakes” are an intellectual problem, nothing to do with this music. It’s just when something doesn’t go as expected, but if you embrace the error and dance with it for a while, you’ll find yourself an equal partner with the music, which I find much more interesting.
Q: I love the costumes and extra visuals in your work. Is that something we will see more of?
Absolutely. I’m not touring now, so each show can be planned separately, like an installation. If it fits the venue, I’ll make up projections, films, etc. Or bring in weird lights. Or enlist volunteers to do irrational things. I just want to lift the vibe from being simply a bunch of people in a room watching this guy make noise. Once you can detach a room from being “just a room,“ anything is possible performance-wise.
One recent show involved me doing deconstructed trance techno with distorted beats, synth noise, feedback, and shortwave static. I was dressed in a hairy white rabbit suit and firing confetti guns over the audience’s heads while hugging a bunch of strobe lights going full-tilt jittery…and the psychedelic swirly projections were going on as well. I handed out more confetti guns to the folks closest to the stage and tried to incite a riot of joy, while the music gear was churning out layers of
loops and insane noise all by itself…
Sometimes it’s just not practical to go nuts like that. Maybe half of my shows have no theatrical stuff going on, and half the time there will be some heavily damaged visual concept. You just never know with BSI. The music can be brutal or all trance-drone. I usually don’t know what it’s going to be until it’s too late to stop it…
Q: Compare the community of the cassette heyday to now. Talk about how the internet has affected what you do.
The internet has been a mixed blessing. Now that it’s so easy to find and communicate with like- minded artists, it can be overwhelming to realize how much DIY music and art there is out there. This is great, of course, but the challenge is to filter out the crap and zero in on the stuff that really resonates.
The ironic thing about the web is, with all the global reach, the most tangible benefit has been locally: Using sites to promote shows and find venues, etc. It’s great that folks around the world can find BSI easily, but the local benefit has been the most obvious to me. That probably means I have a small mind, and no aspirations for anything bigger. Maybe. I am thinking about some shows in Britain next year so maybe I’ll get the hang of pimping this web thing yet…
Q: Can you give us your take on what’s wrong or right with today’s current music industry / non-industry?
In a sense, it’s GREAT that pop culture has become so wretchedly shallow. It means there’s no mistaking the industry-cloned, cardboard cut-outs for the real thing. They don’t try anymore to present these creatures as legitimate artists. This makes it easy to ignore that whole nightmare culture.
Or maybe it’s because I’m older and on the other side of that generation gap now, but I’m finding it easy to simply TUNE OUT all that stuff. I have no idea what’s popular these days, it makes no sense to me. The “music industry” has nothing to do with any of my activities, so we ignore each other happily. I just putter around in my magic rabbit-hole, making noises that please me, and hopefully taking a few willing passengers along for the ride.
Q: What’s next?
More of the same, but different!
—— images and stuff ——-
So here’s some scans& images of cassette releases to help along that rambling nonsense:
I mentioned the SPACE MEAT SHOW compilation that Brian Horowitz put out in ’86, as the comp that started it all, for me. I had nothing to do with the making of it, but I’ve still got my copy so if you
want it, cover is here
TRANCE WARFARE, the first BSI cassette release. 1989. This is the first issue that Carl put out on his MEGALOMANIA CASSETTES label
and various other mugshots& photos here