Cruising the neon glories
"EEEeeeeeeuuuggghhhh!" Playing opposite to type, the local music writer is utterly sincere as she twists her face into a rictus of pure disgust. The effort--which pulls the corners of her mouth down and the cartilage around her nostrils up, and for a moment makes her face look like one of those severe Japanese Noh theater masks--has been elicited by Vas Deferens Four, one of a series of albums made by the Vas Deferens Organization, a local avant-garde/experimental musical aggregation.
VDO4, released in 1995, arrived as a cassette in a CD jewel box enclosed in a biohazard specimen bag. The CD box is smeared with a flesh-colored (if you're Caucasian) wax in which tangles of human hair are impressed, and is overlaid with a spotty red pigment. The tape inside has "FLESH" written on one side, "BLOOD" on the other, in what looks to be White-Out and in the same scrawl usually associated with notes that give directions to previously unmarked graves. Most disturbing of all is the fact that the pink stuff massed around the corners of plastic gives no sign of ever hardening and is still sticky to this day.
The music on the cassette is weirder still, seemingly the product of an outre Ibogaine- and LSD-fueled soundtrack to a movie in which actors dance and twirl about, following a script only they've read. Metal machine noises carom off of processed rhythm tracks and less definable sounds that might be what shortwave radios hear in their dreams. Gnomish babble comes and goes. Strange days indeed, but the music of the VDO--working in conjunction with Brad Laner, formerly of Medicine, and members of Mercury Rev (Grasshopper, Suzanne Thorpe, and Jayson Russo) on this year's Transcontinental Conspiracy--has just gotten some very big attention in the form of an absolutely ecstatic review in Alternative Press which called the VDO "geniuses," the disc "the heavenspawn of unfettered musical creativity," and correctly judged that the album's "results come not so much out of left field as from clear out of the ballpark."
The Vas Deferens Organization got its start in Dallas in 1992 when Matt Castille, Chris Moock, Forbidden Books' Jason Cohen and his wife Barbara Lambert, and Craig Carlton decided to embark on a 10-tape journey that would chart their interests and tastes. Although currently mostly a studio/engineering endeavor, the group has played live, appearing hooded, masked, made-up, and hurling hot dogs; they were also regulars at the Galaxy Club's Orgone Night.
"Every performance we've ever had has been completely over the top," Castille says. Around the time of the group's second tape--1994--Castille met Eric Lumbleau, and the pair bonded over a love of what for most is musical arcana: bands like the Silver Apples, Shub Niggurath, Mahogany Brain, and Steaming Coils. Together with Moock they form the VDO's main drive, uniting a rotating roster of other players with varying degrees of association like Mercury Rev, Japanese noise rockers the Ruins, and Laner.
Lumbleau is the rumpled philosopher, the kind of a guy who might not ever change out of his bathrobe if provided with enough stimulating media. "I don't listen to much that's 'straight' anything," he says, describing his musical ideas with hyphenated adjectives like "electronic-spaz-no-wave." Castille is a bit more direct, with Ohio Players and Howlin' Wolf albums in his collection. "I know it's a cliche to say 'I like everything,'" says Castille, who has twiddled knobs for acts as diverse as J. Bone Cro and Dragline. "But I do. I mean, I love Dwight Yoakam." Maybe so, but the suspicion persists that if the VDO were to make a Bakersfield album, it would be by recording the various tones and noises produced by the mammoth windmills that crowd that town's high ground. Throughout the VDO's history, the product has been sound freed from its moorings, decontextualized, and re-presented, sounding one minute like falling rain, the next like frying meat, and finally like the chitinous bustle of thousands of insects.
It's a creative impulse that spills over into their packaging as well: VDO3 came in a form-fitting "sock" of silver and black fabric; VDO4 was the waxy, hairy mess described above.
"In hindsight that was a mistake," Lumbleau says. "But at the time it seemed like a riot; everyone just took it wrong."
"The music was so goofoid and so unlike the packaging," Castille adds. "Electric Shock magazine gave it their 'most offensive cover' award, and they're hard to impress. I'm glad we did it, though. I still think it's funny."
With VDO5, the group abandoned the tape format for CD. "We just weren't getting any respect on tape," Castille says. "And our stuff needs distinctly hi-fi equipment to sound as good as it can." (In fact, due to sub-par manufacturing, VDO5 was pulled from circulation, to be reissued properly later.) The group no longer feels compelled to follow the 10-album idea out to the bitter end, releasing Miasmata this year with Moock and presenting it as a work by Christopher and the Vas Deferens Organization, an amalgam of sound that apparently fried brains over at The Met, which found it less than radio-friendly.
"Duh," Castille says, rolling his eyes. Both he and Lumbleau cheerfully acknowledge that their stuff can be grating, and that some sort of structure makes listening easier; it's just that they're not interested in easy listening.
"We have a lot of restless creativity and energy," Lumbleau explains. "We're always coming across something--a genre, a style--that we want to try. We have a lot of varied tastes, and we're intent on touching on all of them."
"We're the only studio in Dallas--and probably in Texas--that I know of that's completely dedicated to nothing but experimental music," Castille says. "Whether it be rock or non-rock based...we're looking to make something that's completely new, whether it be country, blues, rock, jazz--anything."
"It's like a hub of sockets," says Moock. "People that want to go into the experimental stuff can come plug in and work with us."
"We pull out ideas and nurture creativity," Castille adds. "It's not like you're going to Joe Blow's studio out on Industrial. I want a band to come in and deliver whatever they want to deliver to me, and I want them to be absolutely assured of getting everything out that they can possibly express."
The fact that the VDO often works with the raw materials of others' creativity has led to headaches in the past. Some people, entranced by Lumbleau's knowledge, Castille's studio chops and equipment, and the Organization's impressive output, have gotten in over their heads and freaked at the results, or found VDO's philosophy at cross-purposes to their own. Which is to be expected: Anyone creative and self-possessed enough to think an album of his musical ideas worthwhile is going to have his own definition of what's right, and seldom do two creative people agree completely. Thus when Todd Deatherage took the Calways to Castille and heard the results--think of Bob Wills broadcasting live from Moon Base Alpha--he was most disturbed. "I mean, I need stuff we can play when people come to hear us," Deatherage would say later, quickly adding that he bore no ill will toward Castille and Lumbleau.
"It was all a misunderstanding," Castille says now. "Todd kinda flipped out and erased all the tapes," he adds in a tone of voice that indicates he would have preferred a swift poke in the nose rather than that indignity. Still, he remains equable: "There are extremities of music, and sometimes people don't hear what we hear. I'm dedicated to really professional, over-the-top cosmiche music, hippified--no, not hippified, but the kind of stuff that 40- or 50-year-old hippies could sit and listen to and just go, 'oh my God.'"
More recently, the VDO produced and engineered Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night by noted astronauts Mazinga Phaser and experienced a bit of friction when headman Wanz Dover--being seriously courted by Sony--wanted to redo some songs sans the VDO's trademark treatment. On one hand, you can't fault the VDO--who did the work on Neon Glories against future earnings--for wanting recognition for their contribution. On the other hand, they're still Mazinga's songs. Given the headstrong creative mixture, some mutual bristling was unavoidable.
"I guess there have been instances where it hasn't been crystal clear at the outset what the implications of being in the studio are; from now on we'll spell it out right up front," Lumbleau says. "If you're gonna work with us, there's going to be a certain amount of us doing things [to your work]...you're coming to us for processing...playing it straight out isn't necessarily the only way to do something in the studio. With us, you're signing on for a signature sound, a recognizable intensity and tone. As long as we're explicit with bands--if you're coming here, it's to experiment--we should be OK."
The work on Transcontinental Conspiracy went much more smoothly. Castille and Lumbleau first worked on the album with Brad Laner (late of Medicine and Squirming Coils and a previous collaborator with Lumbleau), and then managed to abscond with the members of Mercury Rev that appear on the disc. "They were going to be interviewed," Castille recalls, "but we took them to our place first where we had some drums and stuff laid out--"
"It was more or less a trap," Lumbleau admits.
"--and when they started playing, I stuck my head over the mixing console and said, 'Hey, d'ya mind if I record you?' and they said, 'sure.'"
"If you ask them, they'll joke that we kidnaped them," Lumbleau says with a laugh.
"We were essentially kidnapped," Jayson Russo says affably. "It was a really strange incident...they plied us with alcohol, but it was a good time." The band had earlier gained access to Brad Laner in very much the same way.
"The last time I was in Texas, I had hurt my foot at a show," Laner recalls. "Everybody was on drugs, and Matt kind of rescued me, took me over to his house and took care of me." That was the start of what Castille describes as an "ADAT mailing frenzy" between Russo in New York, the VDO in Dallas, and Laner in Los Angeles--the "transcontinental conspiracy" that gave the album its name.
"They would send me music, and I'd mess with that, and I'd send them music and they'd mess with it," Laner says. "We tried to be as brutal as possible. I tried to push it in as musical and rhythmic a direction as I could, and keep things concise and focused."
The players on Transcontinental were seldom in the same room at the same time. "That's the beauty of it," Russo--who hasn't yet met Laner--says. "I'm sick of dealing with personalities and such...hopefully, that can be a thing of the past."
"It's always better not to have to look at people," Laner says. "Not to worry about egos. I mean, I butchered their stuff, and they butchered mine, but if one of us did something really good, the others stood back. The whole project just gelled. It was a bizarre phenomenon...sometimes you can allow randomness to prevail and it works; other times it's just crap...but I think this time it works. One of the cool things about that record is that it skips from as many ideas to as many ideas as possible, taking as many archetypes as it can and piling them atop each other, like a catalog of ideas."
Russo concurs: "I fell into it quite naturally and felt very comfortable. Sometimes music isn't just for playing for your girlfriend--it can be a tool to set a mood."
That mood-setting function is one of the things Christopher Moock finds so attractive about the VDO, and one of the dominant features of his Miasmata, an album that is a bit more flowing and less jarring than Transcontinental. Although varied in texture, there's a deep, almost oceanic feel to the album, as if it were the soundtrack to what a whale might see, from a sun-shiny surface full of light to caverns and chasms so far below that their dimensions are more sensed than seen.
"I'm very much influenced by films--it's so nice to see somebody's artistic vision, to have your feelings triggered in a certain way," Moock explains. "You can do that in a song. Like at 5:30 in the morning after an all-nighter and you're sitting on the steps and everything's just starting up; while you can't say 'the sun coming up sounds like this,' you can play something that has that feeling, something that gets the sounds and the thoughts in your head down on tape."
In a society that has resources enough to provide (if not guarantee) everyone his moment of precious self-expression, productivity bestows real credibility, and the VDO is nothing if not prolific. The group has just moved into a new space in which Castille has deployed his digital studio, and Moock has a complementary analog setup. The Organization is working both with Doug Ferguson of Fort Worth's Ohm on some truly remarkable material, and with the group Primitive Echo--changing even now from their thrash-metal origins into something Castille describes as "tribal bone rhythm" and Lumbleau predicts will end up as "very dark, angular, avant-progressive stuff." VDO6--titled Saturation--is ready to be released, and they've just signed a deal with highly regarded psychedelic reissue label OR. There's even a pop effort called Interface in the works, and the VDO is working with filmmaker Cary Talkington (Love and a .45) on the soundtracks to his upcoming films. Mazinga Phaser's Dover has recently called Castille, wanting to work with the VDO again, and the group is again contemplating live performance. "Something like the MAC," Lumbleau maintains. "Not just playing for a bunch of drunk people."
"So many people just aren't productive," Castille says. "In the time that most people do one album, we've done at least eight or nine." He pauses for a moment. "But that's OK, because we're looking for that timeless stuff.
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