Michael Gendreau is an artist who resides in the San Francisco Bay Area . He has been creating diverse sound projects for many years in various guises, most notably as Crawling With Tarts and as a solo artist. He has traveled widely and has collaborated with many international musicians and artists. To me, along with dAS of Big City Orchestra, Minoy, Kim Cascone and some others he is one of the most important artists of the home recording, underground scene on the west coast.
Mic and Suzanne appeared on my radio show in the late 1980s and then Mic appeared many years later with his daughter, Madeleine, in 2003. More gracious and creative people you will not encounter.
One of my favorite Crawling With Tarts tapes is “Bled es Siba” released in 1988 on audiofile tapes. This two cassette, improv classic is a three way collab with Mic, Suzanne and Cliff Neighbors from Big City Orchestra. The atmosphere is Xenakis-like with its metallic mysteries, spooky vocal tones and dark resonances.
In addition to the many cassette and CD releases Mic issued as Crawling With Tarts, he also put out a solo CD on the 23five label.
Mic’s CD release on the 23five label from San Francisco used accelerometers instead of microphones to harvest the micro world of vibration.
When did you first start recording your own music? Do you remember what equipment you used? What sort of music did you record first. Songs, experiments or?
MG: My father had an X-head Akai reel-to-reel that he brought over from Japan, as I understand it, that I used to record noises over some of his tapes when I was a lad. I was so proud of my first interaction with this device, I played my recording for my mother and she replied, “Are you just banging the microphones together?” (I was!) So my first music was noises. Later, when I had a job (1979), I bought my own, another Akai, 4-track, with sound-on-sound.
In the early 70s, inspired by electronic music, I started collecting whatever I could find of junk electronic things to make noise. I knew something about electronics, so would modify stuff like oscillators, amplifiers, etc. to make sounds they were not intended to make. I had a great homemade feedback amplifier that was a further modification of someone’s homemade device; it almost killed me a few times due to grounding problems. So that’s what I recorded first, usually with additional vocal and percussion sounds.
Were you in rock bands early on?
What excited you about the early days in the underground music scene?
MG: I played percussion in school, some of those orchestra gigs got recorded (awful!—I still have a tape or two). I switched to drumset in 1974 or so and played in various rock-like bands (any style that was fast and noisy I liked)—I recorded some of these and some got professionally recorded. I was a fairly competent drummer and ended up in bands with older people (one band had a VCS3 player!) who knew more about weird music, and that opened some horizons and made for some strange rock bands. I guess my orientation at that time (early-mid 70s) came from Stockhausen, Velvet Underground, and Pere Ubu. Later, I subscribed to OP Magazine somewhere in the middle of the alphabet. I had diverse interests. I came to underground music, then, by combining proto-classical training with performance in rock-like bands. I was excited because I could participate, and because my participation could be unconventional (normal music didn’t interest me very much).
What years did Crawling With Tarts operate?
MG: I met Suzanne Dycus in early 1983 and we formed CWT in December 1983 (after first playing together in a thrash-rock band and producing a small magazine for a few months). Our last concert, which I guess well marks the end, was 11 April 1997. We still had recordings coming out after that (Electro Motive 2000, Pogus 2006, Lunhare 2008), partly as hangover, partly because I was too lazy to think of another name (I still am).
CWT was a duo with Suzanne Dycus ( later to become Mic’s wife). Were there also other members or were there “guest” appearances? I’m thinking of people like Cliff Neighbors on “bled es siba”.
MG: Some day I need to make a comprehensive list of participants. Some were voluntary, some not. I was in the habit of tape recording everything: not only what might willfully be called music, but dinner parties, environments, etc.; some of this was mixed into in CWT’s music. Cliff was a special member, lasting the longest and helping define a special period (mostly pre-turntable) in our music. CWT’s music could use some thorough program notes. We never even listed our own names on the recordings until the later releases.
You had a very eclectic sound early on. From “naive” pop/rock with vocals to experimental sound work with instruments and scratched records. Was there a guiding philosophy or were you just trying your hand at different approaches?
MG: Definitely there was a guiding philosophy, several philosophies, that underlay all those styles, a certain sensibility. Also, I have interests in diverse musics and always felt that, in the realm of experimentation, style should also be a variable.
When you performed would you do both kinds of material or stick to one set of sound for a show?
MG: Our early shows contained all styles. But what a nightmare to perform! (I am thinking of a shared bill with Randy Greif in 1983 or 4). So we started using one style for a whole show. But we still performed in different styles to confuse the booking agents, other bands, and audiences. A few different versions of us can be seen in the YouTube videos posted.
Would you add members for a live show?
MG: We did a few times, yes, but mostly we were a duet to ease the rehearsals.
Crawling With Tarts released many tapes on many labels. How did it usually work…would the labels come to you or the other way around?You also appear on many compilation tapes. Did these usually arise from reading a mag, or being passed information in the mail?
MG: Mostly we released recordings on our own label (ASP), especially at first. I liked to know where the cassettes, records, and CDs were going. To be honest, I don’t recall exactly how we went about releasing things on other labels, but I want to say that there were probably just open offers in the days when people swapped things around a lot. Now I hand out CDRs of my recordings that haven’t been released at concerts and whatnot, and hope for the best. And I get asked. Sadly, I don’t have time any more to pursue people!
Yes, since you mention it, probably a lot of those early cassette compilations came from the piles of little bits of paper, notices, we would all toss into our correspondence with each other. Someone announcing this or that compilation or magazine on the smallest possible bit of paper.
In the case of one of my personal favorite tapes, “bles es siba” ( on the audfiofile label), did you already have a relationship with Label Chief Carl Howard? Or did you offer it to him in some way? It was a double cassette so it was no small commitment on his or your part.
MG: We had been trading tapes for a while before that came out, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember if he offered or we asked, but I tended to be shy about asking in those days. Yes, 180 Minutes before MTV. I think when he heard it he was happy to put it out, or, maybe he remembers differently which is most likely the way it is. In addition to performing, I can never overemphasize how important Cliff Neighbors’ production work was in making that tape, and a follow-up collaboration between Deathranch and CWT. He was the one with the big machines in those days; we just had our junk.
You have traveled widely. Did you both ever perform outside of the USA as CWT?
MG: The furthest CWT ever performed from California is Cleveland. The members of CWT had differing opinions over the desire to include performance in our visits to different places, which was a factor in its demise.
You have also collaborated with many people. Did this come as a result of your travels or through your involvement in the mail art/ music scene?
MG: My participation in mail art (which started before ASP/CWT), and then mail music, introduced me to many people who I later visited, or who visited me. These days I fly between 100,000 and 200,000 miles a year for work and music, and love to meet up with old pals in various places in the world, and to start new collaborations, hold impromptu (or sometimes planned) concerts or radio shows, or recording collaborations. I have to say, many of the people I have known through these collaborations are the best people I have known, whole human beings. Creative music tends to attract them. rRock music, on the other hand…
You were also a drummer in rRope, sort of a noise rock band from SF I believe. Were you also in other bands?
Lots. Thing Eating Stuff, Fluffy Pink Bunnies, Turbine, The Disturbing Group, Suicide Clutch, Speed The Parting Guest, Lucky Charms, 4tet, Disaster Opera Theatre, Foundation For Public Broadcasting, Lars Mars Orchestra, New Carrollton, Fleeing Villagers, Gojo, Everything In The World (Dreamland), etc., some for a while some for a gig or two.
Your ex-wife, Suzanne is an accomplished artist and did the covers for many CWT tapes. Did she also write the lyrics or songs on which she sang too?
MG: She did. Great lyrics, I thought. You can see her recent art
I never saw you perform the “Grand Surface Noise Opera” suite. Did you simply play records or did you manipulate them as played? What fascinates you about surface noise? The unexpected flaws in a record, the hidden qualities of sound?
MG: We set start and loop points (masking tape), varied speeds and reversals, and I have a lathe and cut my own discs. There was outboard processing, the use of tape loops, etc., whatever was necessary to accomplish the work. But most of all, those pieces represent hours of collecting odd records, careful listening, and sequencing. BTW, many of the performances are posted now (and more will go up in the future), so you can see what they look like. For me, the turntable is an extremely expressive device. That, combined with the potential to collage found cultural elements (and non-cultural elements found on transcription discs) with the infinitely varied signal of decay, makes for a great instrument. I still work in this medium, when I am not shaking buildings.
Your own solo work has also investigated the micro world of sound using accelerometers as devices to translate the sound. Do you like to elaborate the concepts/ realizations behind such work or like your friend, Francisco Lopez, just like it to speak for itself without elaboration?
MG: Francisco’s good advice to me was to shut up! And to work out my problems with performance in performance.
Lopez and Wittgenstein are correct, though, that you can only speak of the basest elements of what constitutes music (or language), and all of the finest work must be appreciated without words. I have not been silent about this, probably to my detriment, and have been working on explaining it obliquely through the process of parataxis. I think I will have a book out later this year containing a fraction of this work (it can only be explicated in fractions).
As regards microvibrations, after a life of trying to make something with little or nothing, I now try to make much out of little, using some fairly sophisticated instruments that I also use for scientific work. But, as with drums and turntables, too much emphasis on the device detracts from what is really happening. I can say as much about it as I like and will never get close to saying the experience of listening to music or, especially with the vibration work, a concert. I can tell you that I work with resonance and the physical properties of performance spaces, and that accelerometers are involved because the important frequencies are often sub-audio. But form and emotion are more important.
Do you ever record songs now as a solo artist? Can you foresee a time when you would do that again?
MG: I have been thinking about it, or think about it occasionally. I can still play “instruments.” And some friends who straddle these worlds, Phroq and Turbine, are great inspirations.
At some point Crawling With Tarts folded up. Was it because of family commitments by Suzanne with your children or what? I assume she still creates her art when she can. Any talk of reviving CWT at some future point?
MG: No, it wasn’t about family commitments. It wouldn’t be fair for me to state why that particular collaboration ended, except to say that it was a gradual ending. If it were to revive, Suz would have to approach me about it. I won’t revive it again.
Do you think there is any lasting legacy of Cassette Culture besides some interesting music
MG: Absolutely! It represented a great community and, in comparison with, say, everyday life in the streets, a very social and sensible society full of fine minds of various sorts. But I guess Cassette Culture never had the great marketing agents that Dada or Fluxus had, so any “legacy” is more localized. Probably because those more “successful” creative cultures were more limited in the variety of minds and in scope.
I have always tried to understand everything I could about music (and language), and also, being more interested in personal rather than corporate culture, for me it was a necessary branch of communication and cultural anthropology attached to real people.
Is the Internet inherently superficial or can there be deeper connections and sense of community achieved?
MG: You would get better and more informed answers from others to this good question. For example, I just saw Jaron Lanier speak in SF: I understand that he is an internet expert, but much of his talk had him playing strange instruments.
I can say more, briefly, about how this works in acoustics, a field I have worked in for 20 years. I am happy to be running a company that is one of the many BBN derivative companies, by which I mean was founded by one of its members and keeps its corporate culture of innovation and invention. BBN started the internet (called Arpanet then) in its base office in Cambridge. The scientific culture that surrounded such an achievement was one of great community, rigour, and eccentricity. (We still emphasize the latter as potentially conducive to creativity.) The internet turned loose is more like a whole society, for better or worse. An electronic version of the world. Within this, as it was before internet, there will always arise greater collective works, which in fact will steer the course of the larger society, by identifying within themselves community, rigour, and eccentricity. The internet is mostly superficial, but not inherently, and nor is it limited to superficial activity.
What excites you now to create?
MG: Everyday life. I don’t know any better.
What’s the next project?
MG: I am finishing a book, and then the accompanying CD, which will contain a collection of my pieces made of vibration recordings in buildings and performance spaces. I have a few other papers on scientific topics and some lectures upcoming. Also, I am trying to have my website configured to release all of my latest recordings (seeing what can be done about formats, since infrasound does not translate well through MP3).
Any plans to re-issue or digitize the material from the past? Like a “best of Crawling With Tarts”?
MG: Eventually, if I live through these crazy times, I will digitize all of CWT (and some predecessors). It has been a challenge because, coming back to your original question, much of this music was recorded on the “back” channels of that ancient 4-track (after I wore out the front channels), and in addition these tapes will need to be baked to get the sound off of them. I’ve thought about whether I should make a “best,” or to sort bests by style but, no, the art of those works was in the sequencing and in what we excluded. They’ll go just as they were. I am working on how to virtualize the packaging! With credits! That will also be a worthwhile challenge.
I appreciate your time Mic and continued good luck with all you do.
MG: Thank you, Don, for this great forum, and for carrying on the spark!