You haven't seen anything until you've seen Andy Ortmann onstage in tight leather shorts and a full leather S&M face mask, doing a sort of Safety Dance while mouthing the words to a Yoko Ono song.
The sight sends the imagination reeling: You picture him in his bedroom practicing, door locked, putting on the snug-fitting mask and the short-shorts only a German would be fool enough to wear in public. You see him checking the look in the mirror from all angles, walking over to his record player, putting on the song Ono's "Who Has Seen the Wind?" returning to the mirror and making arm poses in front of it in time to the music. Then repeating it, again. And again.
Only a fool would do this in public or maybe a genius, actually because the gestalt of the presentation isn't very pleasant to witness. It's borderline embarrassing, and it's hard to imagine why anyone short of maybe a Gong Show contestant would willingly subject himself to such potential embarrassment. In front of cute girls, no less.
But Andy Ortmann did, and no one was holding a gun to his head.
Ortmann is Panicsville, a one-man band with a rotating crew of mercenary helpers that makes some of the most deliberately fucked-up "music" in St. Louis. Over the course of three full-length CDs, a cut-and-paste record, a 5-inch vinyl single, a handful of side projects (including the fascinating Venerealectric), a Madonna tribute record called Kausing a Kommotion and a few tapes, Ortmann and Panicsville have created abrasive, curious sounds your grandma most definitely wouldn't call it "music" that range from flat-out static assault to disturbing utterances of evil to strange, otherworldly hums. The record label he runs, Nihilist, sells to distributors all over the world, and in the cloistered community of like-minded noise aficionados, Ortmann is gradually making a name for himself.
"I just come out and tell them "noise,'" responds Ortmann when asked how he describes the music he creates. "This punk kid I ran into the other day, we were talking about music, and this and that, and he said, "What do you play?' and I said, "Just noise.' Then I had to explain to him that I don't have a drummer and a guitarist, a vocalist. They just don't understand the point of it."
To call it noise, on the surface, would seem to be a sort of dismissal of his own work, but an entire movement, one that's been sprouting for the past 15 years (though, of course, its seeds were planted long ago), embraces the tag, and within the community are record labels (RRRecords out of Boston being the most successful) and magazines (the best of which, Bananafish, is an amazing piece of work it's smart and incredibly well-written, and each issue comes with a fantastic CD sampler) that prop the scene.
But what does it sound like? Take Ortmann's description of his most recent performance at the Side Door: "We had a can opener, pencil sharpener, power sander, vibrator, autoharp, synthesizer, computer and contact microphones. Two other people played with me Chris (Smentkowski) from Brain Transplant and Jeremy Melsha. Usually I come up with a loose sketch, almost like the directions for a Fluxus performance. It's like, you take certain objects, and then you have a couple sentences about what will be done with these objects, like, "For this X amount of time do this' just linear drawings of sound that will slowly escalate."
The results are at times jarring, at times incredibly beautiful. On the first full-length, Floccinaucinihilipilification ("Harder to listen to than pronounce," the Nihilist catalog declares proudly), subtle hums last for minutes and power-saw sounds last for an eternity. Bumps and buzzes akin to a shorted-out stereo system are intercut with bouncy feedback. Sometimes it's annoying enough to make the listener a bit cranky; other times it's so grating that you wanna track Ortmann down and shake him by the shoulders.
When Ortmann talks about the first big Panicsville project, he rambles excitedly. The project, released in an edition of 100, is a self-titled LP. On the outside, the record looks standard. A strange abstract collage adorns the cover, and it looks beautiful, until you examine it closer. Then animal hair starts to reveal itself. Get closer, and you'll see what looks like a rat's snout, as well as various unidentifiable skinlike appendages, what looks like an eyesocket, and more hair. It's freaky, but not anything that would clue you in to the contents within. When the record is pulled out, it is a record, but one consisting of countless pieces cut up and then glued back together, resembling a pizza.
"We just had stockpiled crates and crates of different records," explains Ortmann. They cut them up, mixed up the pieces "and then we pieced them back together so they'd fit in an order we fashioned so that they'd actually play. They're not all just junked together but put together in a way that when your turntable turns, the needle falls off of each piece, lands on another, falls off. There's two really cool elements of it that can't really be experienced in any other medium. It's like taking the medium to a different level; when it falls off each piece of the record, it becomes a rhythm. It's like (makes thumping sound), and that in and of itself makes a "pop' sound, and that becomes the rhythm track. And then you hear the tiny loops on the record itself, and those become audio patterns. Plus there's a random element. I've fallen asleep to one, and like four hours later it was still looping the same area. Some play from the inside out, some from the outside in."
The records don't all work that well, of course. On my copy, the ledges of each piece are so extreme that when the needle drops from one surface to the next, the whole tone arm bounces, and each side is finished within a minute or two; perhaps with a heavier tone arm the problem would be rectified. But the loops and pops are there, and the results are fascinating.
With each successive release, Ortmann has refined his sound; where once was pure, abrasive noise, at least most of the time, his more recent work occasionally touches on beauty. His second CD, The Last Compulsory Exercise, packaged between two metal squares held together with rubber bands, pulls back on the assault in favor of a more minimalist approach. The highlight is "Cyclical Fuck-Ups (Random), or the Continual Will Fuck-Up," a collage of a single woman's voice uttering the phrases "They're all fucked up," "They always will be fucked up" and "They just continual will just fuck up random cycling off." It lasts for what seems like an eternity and, with the use of the "shuffle" button on the CD player, can be reconfigured to play in infinite sequences. It's pure concept but executed with creativity and imagination. "That track alone we put about 30 ID tracks," says Ortmann. "If you watch your CD player, it keeps jumping every two seconds to be played in random order."
Taken as a whole, the work of Panicsville is a testament to the beauty of sound and its creation. Even if you hate the sounds within which, to be honest, you very well may the energy put into the work more than makes up for it. Ortmann works on his projects nonstop. "If I'm not recording, I'm outside on my front porch, shellacking plates for record covers. Or I'm just making record covers, or I'm working on a drawing that may end up being a record cover or an insert. Or jotting down ideas maybe come up with an image and try and develop the image into an audio version of it "How do I do that? How do I make that sound?' It takes all my spare time.
"The recording side of it," he continues, "is actually about five or six hours a month. I'll sit around and work on something for 10 minutes and then come back to it for an hour. It's just different than working with a band like having a two-hour band practice. It's more like painting. I'll come to it for a little while; if I think one little beep sound needs to be in this particular part of it, I'll go and add that before I forget about it, and that may take 10 seconds. I'm getting a lot pickier lately with the sounds I use, and the orchestrations. Do I want to drop a pile driver on someone, or do I want to invite them into this world? There's a lot of different things you can do."