THE NOISE THAT ANNOYS
AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK CAIN
OF OPPROBRIUM MAGAZINE
by Dave Lang (February 1998)
Remember back in the '80s/early '90s when all the hip 'n' happenin' fanzines were all over you like flies? You had gems like Gerard Cosloy's Conflict, San Francisco's Superdope, Australia's B-Side, Your Flesh, and Forced Exposure and Black To Comm came out more often than their current once-every-three-years schedule? For me, those were truly the halcyon days of independent DIY publishing, but sadly these days the music fanzine biz appears to be sagging under the weight of too many lame publications (covering the same music over and over) and very little inspiration. With many of the above-mentioned having since burned out or gone "pro," a fanzine-hungry geek like myself is often left pondering this very question: what can a man read?! The answer is simple: New Zealand's OPPROBRIUM. Nick Cain is the man behind the mag, which in only four issues has set world-wide standards in its coverage of New Zealand noise, underground Japanese psych, free jazz and all kinds of non-standard, improvised musics. The in-depth interviews, snarling reviews and sheer depths of information are staggering and a welcome relief for a person like myself who's always after a zine one can read (as opposed to lots of fancy graphics and little content). Seriously, in searching out the opinion-addled world of Opprobrium, you'll be doing yourself quite the favour.
Nick Cain was kind enough to write back and give me the rundown on his mag, his universe, and what makes those notorious New Zealand instrument-abusers tick...
PSF: How old are you and when did you first start getting interested in music? Are you an ex-punker or indie-geek from your teen years? When and how did you first start getting more "involved" in music? What was the impetus?
I'm aged 25. I've been listening to music since I was about 11 or 12. I was kind of a late bloomer musically - I wish I could tell you I was listening to Peter Brotzmann when I was 13, but up until I was 15 or 16, I only really listened to commercial stations on the radio. Around that point a friend of my brother's named Iain Cowper-Smith (who would later become my partner in de/create magazine) introduced me to The Jesus And Mary Chain, the first 'alternative' band I really ever listened to. From there I got into a lot of the stuff he liked, in particular Husker Du, and over the course of my seventh form year and first year at university (1989 and 1990), we journeyed into the American underground/grunge rock hinterland - Big Black, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney, and a lot of stuff on Sub Pop, Touch & Go, Dischord, Homestead, SST, and so on. Iain was the biggest early musical 'influence' on me, and although I liked some things he didn't and vice versa, our tastes were pretty similar. We were very enthusiastic about the music, but our focus was pretty narrow and limited - mainly white boys with guitars. We weren't at all interested in rap, dance, or anything with beats, 'industrial' music, soft indie-pop, or anything else that wasn't sufficiently 'hard'. We went through a lot of duds on the way, naturally, but it was an exciting time - sifting through this landslide of music and music magazines to try and sort out what was what.
After a while we gradually began to explore more and more obscure and/or weirder material, with the financial help of our student loans. In I think early 1992 I bought the Dead C.'s Eusa Kills LP, which, in retrospect, was an important purchase. I remember being highly confused by it. Shortly thereafter, inspired, I made contact with Xpressway, and around mid-that year wrote to Forced Exposure and got one of their catalogues, which pretty much opened up a whole new world of music to me. Over the next year I started getting into the wilder New Zealand stuff - Dead C., Gate, and so on - and foreigners like Skullflower, Ramleh, Caroliner, Borbetomagus, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, much of the Twisted Village roster, Sun City Girls, Haino and other PSF (ED NOTE- the Japanese label, not us) artists, Hijokaidan, and the odd improv/jazz thing - Derek Bailey, Charles Gayle, AMM and so on - all plucked at random from the FE catalogue.
Throughout 1993, due to boredom with life in general and my course of study (I was at that point in the death throes of an Arts degree in English), and excitement with all this wild/crazy music I was now listening to, I came up with the idea of putting out a fanzine. I had that year written the odd music review for the Victoria University (my alma mater) student newspaper, and having been exposed to the Forced Exposure style of writing (which, after years spent suckling at the teat of the NME, I was extremely impressed by), fancied I could shake things up. I was also by now a real Xpressway fanboy, and wanted to try to get those bands a modicum of exposure. NZ music media is and has been in a pathetic state for well on a decade now, and as far as I could tell, the best music was receiving the least amount of attention, and the absolute worst was plastered over the front cover of every magazine one could find.
I came up with the name 'decreate', and wrote to Michael Morley for an interview - he replied and was very forthcoming (I'd reviewed his Guitar LP in the Vic Uni paper earlier that year - the first ever review of a Gate release in any kind of 'mainstream' paper, he later informed me). I did a mail interview with Omit, and this guy Ted who Iain had gotten in touch with in San Francisco (he had gotten into the habit of writing abusive and nasty letters to those people who would place classified ads in magazines like Flipside looking for musical penpals to flirt with; this one happened to write back) was friends with Trumans Water, then one of Iain's favourites, and interviewed them for us. The first issue came out in January 1994, and we sent copies to anyone we thought might be interested. People like Bruce Russell were very encouraging - I recall he was pretty amazed I'd gotten hold of and reviewed A Handful Of Dust's Concord LP (due to some sort of communication mixup with Twisted Village there were at that point only three copies in the country), and knew who Robert Fludd was. Iain and I agreed that we should try and publish every 4 months, so that even if the magazine wasn't massive in size or scope, at least it was regular. Over the next two issues what had started out as a joint project gradually became 'my' magazine. Iain was in the last and academically most challenging year of his law degree, and was also working very hard, in order to save money to go overseas. So he basically had a lot less time to devote to writing and the drudgery of mail interviews, and I took up the slack. At the end of the year he left to work in San Francisco for six months on a student work abroad-type program (along the way meeting some of the people with whom we'd established postal contact, and getting to lay eyes on Darren Mock's record collection), and from there shifted to London to work. By the time of the third issue I was firmly ensconced as the 'editor' (ho ho).
So I wasn't really an ex-punker - I never really listened to a lot of punk at all. I suppose I was a bit of an indie-geek, bit maybe 'grunge victim' would be more appropriate. I did jump ship before Nevermind broke, though.
PSF: Why the jump from the low-budget de/create to the big-time Opprobrium?
It was mainly a matter of circumstances and access to equipment and materials. In 1994 I did a publishing course at a polytechnic, at the end of which I somehow managed to get a job editing the student newspaper at Lincoln University (agriculturally-minded tertiary institution, about 30 minutes' drive out of Christchurch). I shifted down to Christchurch at the start of 1995, and found myself with access to my very own computer with desktop publishing programs on it. The layout for the first 3 issues of de/create had been done by a friend on a borrowed computer, and a couple of hundred copies (I never did more than 250 copies for any of the issues) then run off on a photocopier at a local shop, because that was the only way I knew how to do it. I couldn't get it "printed" traditionally because of lack of knowledge - all I knew was that it would cost too much. Although I did the fourth issue by photocopy as well because of lack of funds, by the time Opprobrium came around, at the end of 1995, I was knowledgeable and confident enough in the ways of computers and printing to get it done commercially.
The decision to abandon de/create was queried by some people, and I suppose I should talk about it. I found the job at Lincoln very draining and stressful, especially in the first few months, and coupled the energy expenditure involved in moving to and settling into a new town, I to an extent lost the urge and inclination to publish. I was still listening to a lot of music, though, and by the time I got the itch to publish again, I wanted to make a fresh start. I felt I had moved on from that time, and wanted to establish some sort of new identity. I chose the name 'Opprobrium' as a reference to perceptions of my "hardass" style of reviewing, which a few people had taken issue with. The first issue was birthed in an ill-fated partnership with a guy called Graeme Douglas, who I worked with in 1995 - he sold ads for the Lincoln newspaper. I had mismanaged my finances badly throughout that year and had not enough cash to pay for a magazine, so the idea was that he would fund the printing and do some writing, and I would do the rest. It didn't quite work out like that, and much as I like Graeme, he didn't quite meet his promises. He was credited as "Editor" in an ironic nod to his lack of participation and assistance in putting the magazine together. So I suppose Opprobrium may seem big-time in comparison to de/create, but for various reasons, the print job was often better when I was using a photocopier.
PSF: Are you surprised by the success and attention it's been greeted with?
Yes and no - I think it's a success in terms of what I wanted to do with it when I first set out, but it's not even close to being a financial success. It's hard for me to gauge any kind of broad or overall sense of opinion or general reaction to it, that kind of thing doesn't really work its way back to me too much. But the response overall has been favourable. I mean, I think it's a pretty good magazine, but I'm always flattered when people whose opinions I respect are so taken with it. Has it been greeted with a lot of attention? You'd probably be in a better position to say than me.
PSF: Is it a money pit for yourself? Could you see yourself taking up publishing as an occupation?
Yes, as hinted above, it is not a financially viable proposition. The economics of doing a magazine of this size and this kind in New Zealand, when 90% of the audience lives overseas, are pretty crippling. With the fourth issue it got to the point where I simply didn't have the means to save $4000 in one working year to pay for it, so I put borrowed some money and put out the 'Waiting To Be Old' CD as a means of genreating revenue. I don't want to digress into some sort of soapbox confessional, but de/create never broke even, and Opprobrium hasn't yet either (and probably won't for a few issues yet) and both publications have been pretty tough wallet-wise and very much financial labours of love. That said, sales are slowly increasing, and #4 is going better than any of the previous issues. The comp CD has had the nice add-on benefit of publicising the magazine itself, and has built a bit of momentum for me now, which I plan to capitalise on.
I can't see myself ever doing it full-time, it would never be feasible economically and it's just not that kind of magazine. The Professional Music Journalist is one breed of human for whom I reserve special scorn, and I'd never want to get to the point of having to rely on writing about music as a means of living, because in order to do so you have to write about a lot of music that you don't really care about simply to make a buck, which is not a position I want to be in. That doesn't mean I don't have to invest a lot of time in the magazine - I think the last issue ate up about two months' worth of weekends.
PSF: People overseas have this idea that the NZ "noise/improv/whatever" scene is big and thriving, yet it is actually a very small, closeknit scene, isn't it?
Yeah, you're pretty much right. One thing about the noise scene over here now is that it is geographically spread out, whereas with Xpressway, much of what I considered to be good music was coming solely out of Dunedin. In the past three or four years the Dunedin scene has pretty much splintered, and good music has started to seep out of places like Wellington and Auckland, though not so much Christchurch. But, as you point out, it's still very small, and this is still a highly obscure form of music over here. When you talk about the Wellington "noise scene", or the Auckland "noise scene", there's only really about 10 people actually playing that kind of music in those places, certainly no more and probably relatively a lot less than the number in, say, Sydney or Melbourne. Taken together they seem to give the appearance of a lot of thriving activity (especially when helped by the Le Jazz Non comp and relentless proselytising in the pages of Opprobrium), but in actual fact they're all still fairly marginalised.And it is closeknit as well - although some of the practitioners might not like each other, they tend to group together, and are aware of what everyone else is doing.
PSF: Why do you think there's been such a trend towards this kind of music of late in NZ? Is there in fact a deluge of really bad noise/improv NZ bands as well that we don't read a lot about?
It's kind of a combination of precedents being set, and this gradual cultural leftward shift we all seem to be stuck in. In this, The Dead C. are important, because they have basically been playing their own particular brand of "noise/improv" in one form or another for about a decade now, and along the way - possibly unintentionally - have made the idea of poorly-recorded noise music feasible and viable in this country. Corpus Hermeticum is also important, mainly because it's a label that releases only noise CDs. I can point to an album like Handful Of Dust's Philosophick Mercury as being really important for me, because at the time that it came out, it was so far outside what was acceptable as "music" in this country that it was like this amazing permission-granting to do what you like with music and listen to what you like, and for it to be a valid form of human expression in and of itself. I can vividly remember listening to it for the first time, and wondering if these guys knew how much trouble they were getting themselves into! I doubt that it was so affecting for many others, but I do think that what Bruce has done with Corpus Hermeticum is really important in establishing some kind of path. Several of the NZ noise/improv practitioners I've spoken to have admitted to being inspired by Xpressway, The Dead C. and Hermescorp, whether it be on the level of musical creativity or in the approach to making and releasing music.
And, as I said above, the musical climate is a little bit more permissive - ideas about free music, about noise, and about improvisation seem to be in wider currency than they were, say, ten years ago, and people seem more open generally. I remember reading an interview with Alan Licht in which he was asked about the current rush of popularity for free jazz and improvised music, and he said he got the impression that it had become the thing for jaded ex-punk rockers to get into. He was perhaps being flippant, but there's some truth to that. There's perhaps been kind of a "fad" here to play free noise in the last two or three years, but at the same time it's all been on such a small scale and so underground that it's hard to really say for sure who's faking and who's not. There are some people playing free noise who I don't think are worthy of consideration, naturally. I can't say exactly how many, but probably not a deluge. I've given up trying to keep up with the whole lathe-cut scene due to the tail-chasing nature of the exercise and the dubious financial ethics of the producers.
PSF: What's the vibe towards Flying Nun like these days? Are they considered a bit irrelevant in regards to quality music right now, given their recent garbage like Loves Ugly Children, Garageland, etc?
I can't say with any degree of certainty, but I would think that most people have accepted that Flying Nun are not in any kind of position to foster relevant or interesting New Zealand music. In my opinion they did themselves in - around the mid to late '80s it was pretty obvious that the stuff they'd been putting out was drying out and getting very tired, and they had the opportunity to start releasing some new/different bands, but just kept on plugging on with the same old shit. Need I remind anyone that their most recent release is a Clean tribute album? I think the thing that irks me about Flying Nun is this hallowed, legendary position they hold in the Great History Of New Zealand Music, how the very concept of independent music in this country was invented by them. You get fed all this pulpit testimony about The Clean, Chris Knox, Verlaines, Bats etc and how the whole of independent New Zealand music could never have even come into being were it not for their valiant and brave pioneering efforts, when all I can see is that they released a shitload of average to bad pop music and screwed up a lot of people's perspectives about what New Zealand music could and should be, and what it was/is "supposed" to be. All we get is the glossy side of the story, about what a "guitar god" David Kilgour is, and how Chris Knox is such a "maverick genius". What we don't get to hear is all about Flying Nun ripping their bands off, taking three years to put their records out, and never paying them royalties.
PSF: The mag is quite centred on experimental non-rock forms of music; could you ever see it as becoming more rock? Do you "ROCK", so to speak? Is it in fact a genre you listen to much of these days? Any current rock bands you like?
I've never substatially covered rock music in either de/create or Opprobrium. Initially this was because the rock music I liked was being covered better by larger forms of media and didn't need the space, and since then I (like many other people, it would seem) have become a bit disillusioned with the form. I don't think the mag will ever become more 'rock'; on the contrary, my intention is to focus more and more on free music and improv. 'Rock' 'music' has been so thoroughly bastardised and all its forms so completely co-opted that it's hard to see how anything worthwhile can be communicated or expressed through it in its current state, and even the very term has a massive welter of unavoidably awful cultural associations and resonances. It's now literally impossible to even say the word "rock" without some degree of at worst embarrassment or at best self-consciousness.
I'm not anti-rock by any stretch of the imagination, but there's basically not a lot of good rock music about, and I'm much more excited by and interested in improvised music. However, I do like a lot of bands that could loosely be termed 'noise-rock' - Fushitsusha, Dead C., Skullflower, and so on, and much of Asahito Nanjo's work - Musica Transonic, High Rise, Mainliner - is pretty 'rock' in its own way. I do "rock" - I like all the older rock bands that everyone likes, and listen to at least a little bit of rock music. Last year I 'rediscovered' the Electric Eels, and spent a fair amount of time in the company of the God Says Fuck You reissue in between bouts of listening to music I had to listen to because I had to write about it. I like some current rock bands, especially Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Doo Rag, Guitar Wolf, and the Bassholes, as well as what I've heard of bands on In The Red and Bag of Hammers.
PSF: What are your opinions on a mag like The Wire that covers a fair bit of what you do, yet in a typically "English" and slicker fashion?
I don't know that it's possible to make any kind of meaningful comparison between Opprobrium and The Wire, mainly because the fact that the two publications cover some of the same music is all they have in common. No doubt some or most of their staff have feelings towards music and motivations for wanting to write about it that are similar to mine, but their publishing reality is almost the exact opposite: they have to publish every month in order to keep afloat, I publish once a year when I can afford to; they have strict space constraints, the whole idea of Opprobrium was that there would be no space constraints; they have a large parent company backing them up (or at least I presume they do), and I don't. The reviews section of Opprobrium 4 contained no fewer than three snipes at the Wire penned by me, but in fact I think it's a good magazine. I read it every month in the bookstore - some months I even buy it - and it's certainly the only monthly magazine I would ever consider purchasing. I agree, it is a bit "English", ie. sometimes dry and humourless, and their coverage of New Zealand music seems to be distressingly uninformed when it does appear. But it's still something of a luxury to have a magazine covering the music that The Wire covers with the kind of circulation that it has. I remember reading a review of The Wire in Rubberneck a few years back, which expressed some reservations about it, but which concluded that it was still the most important music magazine that you can buy from your newsagent, a view I substantially agree with. [In the time between me answering these questions and me sending the answers to you, I've added to my staff a regular Wire contributor (David Keenan), and Opprobrium #4 has been favourably reviewed by Biba Kopf in the February issue of The Wire!]
PSF: Do you buy a lot of records, or are you reaching a near burnout phase (or do you get nearly all your records for free now)?
I don't buy a lot of records, mainly because I'm now at a point where I can't really afford to, and where I can source most of what I want to hear without money changing hands, whether as promo/review copies, in trade with labels or contacts overseas, or simply borrowed off friends in Christchurch. Which is not to imply that I can easily blag everything I want - I miss out on a lot of stuff, and only get to hear many things some time after they've come out. I've been through about three burnout phases, all occurring as a direct result of deadline-induced reviewing binges. After #4 went to press at the end of November, I couldn't even look at the stereo, and have only in the past few weeks gone back to regular periods of listening.
PSF: What are some of your current fave artists?
Recent favorites have been Robert Wyatt's Shleep album, Motoharu Yoshizawa Play Unlimited CD on PSF, and the Alan Licht/Tamio Shiraishi Our Lips Are Sealed CD on Pure. My favourite album of 1997 was the Donald Miller/Michael Schumacher Flood CD on Warm-O'-Brisk, the world would definitely be a better place if everyone owned a copy of it. I've also been listening to a bit of Neil Young (specifically the late '60s/early '70s material), and any Roscoe Mitchell I can find - I'm particularly partial to the Maze/SRII/Examples 2 LP on Nessa, from 1978.
PSF: How would you respond if someone was to say that your mag is clique-ish?
It would depend on why they think it's clique-ish. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons why someone would register this complaint: because of the range of music it covers or because the people who write for it and get interviewed in it seem to comprise some sort of "inner circle." The second is the more pressing critique (the first basically amounts to a difference in musical taste), and my reply would be that if these people are basically my friends and associates - when you publish a fanzine, the people you come into contact with are people who make music and/or run record labels. If someone is on my staff, it's because they are in one way or another a kindred spirit, and because they can write well about music. That said, I am aware that people on the other side of the world are reading the mag in a polar opposite context, and I can see how it may in some ways be viewed as cliqueish (and these ways are much the same ones in which practically almost any other magazine you'd care to name can be called "cliqueish"). If it's a clique, it's my clique.
PSF: Why improvised music? Is there a political statement in improvised music (the lack of a standard, annotated form) or is it just a "musical" thing? How do you feel about politics and music?
My preference for improvised music is more of a gradual culmination of my musical development, the music I've listened to has basically led me to it. My personal tastes have developed in such a way that it's now the music I'm most interested in. For me personally, it's political not in that I think improvised music is a superior art form to structured or song-based music, but in that in the context in which I live, it becomes political by default. In New Zealand improvised music has little to no history, to a large extent hasn't been played, heard or talked about, and is and has been a pretty much non-existent form here. I'm not so explicitly political about it and don't adopt so clearly an oppositional stance as, say, Bruce Russell - although I can point to a quote of Bruce's I read four or five years ago (which went something like, "What's the point of writing a song, then playing it over and over hundreds of times? That's not being a creative artist, that's being a machine") as prompting me to begin thinking about these things - but I basically think that (a) improvised music is much less restrictive, more flexible, and offers more potential for its creator, and is more challenging, thought-provoking, stimulating, and generally open-ended for its listener, and that (b) it needs/deserves to be covered, publicised and discussed in this country more than it is, and isn't so accessible and marketable that it can do this on its own, that it can rely on larger profit-driven forms of media to 'discover' it and promote it.
So my main motive is a kind of naive idealism/altruism, to attempt to get the music I like and believe in into wider circulation. Publishing a magazine to achieve this end becomes, through the inevitable dynamics of publishing, a political act, and the promotion of the music, through the inevitable dynamics of representation, will come to be seen as promotion of an agenda which is political (or at least cliqueish) in nature. I think there is a political statement in improvised music, much as there is a political statement made by or involved in any kind of music, or art, or literature or film, whether or not the maker of it wants or intends to make one, or even realizes that they are or could possibly be making one, or whether those who consume the artistic gesture interpret, 'understand' or are told that some sort of statement is being made. The political statement improv makes is of a different kind because of the history of music from which it comes (i.e. obscure, not well-documented, and with much of the music unavailable or difficult to locate and access) and the theories and ideas about music which it references, which are often complex, and revolve around sophisticated academic concepts.
I haven't taken the time to reference improv to or correlate it with the appropriate critical theory - I don't equate it with postmodernism, as much of the music that attempts to directly reference or propose a postmodern view (or simply does so unintentionally) ends up sounding faddishly awful and dates very quickly, just like most music that attempts to be explicitly 'political' (in terms of addressing itself to events of the day) ends up sounding didactic and one-dimensional. I think of a lot of the music I listen to as essentially modernist - predicated on the idea that some form of real human expression/articulation/communication is possible through the medium of music, or concerned with the relationship of sounds to one another, and the relationship of players to each other in an improvising situation, rather than to their collective external social situation and cultural environment.
PSF: Future plans? Future issues?
From here I plan to cut down the page count to about 80-90 pages, and publish every 6-7 months in order to utilize the little bit of increased visibility I have, because it makes more sense economically, and also to avoid turning it into this ponderous annual tome. I have enough interview prospects in discussion, preparation or on the go to fill the next two, maybe three issues. My plan is to put out #5 in July this year, with interviews with, hopefully, Sabir Mateen, Masayoshi Urabe, Ralf Wehowsky, Neil Campbell, and possibly Donald Miller.
See Nick's favorite music
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