It’s Labor Day here in America, so to celebrate, we thought we’d play you all something that has the power to actually induce labor. Here’s “Insomnia,” nine minutes of crazy from the Norwegian experimental singer Maja Ratkje. Our thanks to our old pal Miss Hawkline for this one. Miss M, when you post stuff like in the comments section, that’s how we know you really love us.
To hear more of Maja’s unearthly shrieks and sighs, check out her website.
Today’s weirdness comes to use from reader Jake (not to be confused with TWBITW co-founder Jake, who’s passed out under my desk as I type this). It’s a piece of music featuring a unique and not nearly famous enough instrument called the daxophone, performed by its inventor, a German luthier named Hans Reichel. It sounds a bit like a ballet for frogs, and every time we play it, we can’t stop laughing.
The daxophone works with a combination of contact microphones and friction: a thin piece of wood gets attached to a tripod, and from there, the musician uses a thicker block of wood and a violin bow to change the vibrational frequency of the wooden blade. Think of it as the overachieving offspring of a musical saw and a lap steel guitar. Different blade shapes also produce different tones, and Reichel produced dozens of them, all of which stand as beautiful artworks unto themselves.
Reichel passed away in 2011 at the age of 62, but his daxophone lives on; although he never mass-produced the instrument, he made the plans for it available for free on his website (in the downloads section), so other woodworkers and instrument makers could make their own versions of it.
What’s your favorite version of the classic Hank Williams weeper “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”? If you said anything other than Diamanda Galas, you’re obviously just wrong.
This track comes from Galas’ 2003 live album La Serpenta Canta, on which she interprets a bunch of classic Americana songs, from “Ain’t No Grave” to “I Put a Spell on You.” I suspect Hank would not have approved of her wailing, avant-dirge take on his tune, but he would have been wrong, too. It makes loneliness feel like the scariest emotion in the world—which, in many cases, it is.
Thanks to reader Rembrandt for passing this along to us. We’ll have more on Diamanda soon, buddy!
So here’s an idea Jake and I came up with after too much eggnog: On Sundays throughout 2014, we’ll be sharing some of our favorite weird things that come in non-band form: blogs, podcasts, magazines, record labels, books, films, radio shows, YouTube channels, visual artists and more. There’s just too much good weird shit out there that deserves more than the occasional retweet.
We’re kicking off this new series with one of our absolute favorites: Bepi Crespan Presents…, a weekly radio show and podcast broadcasting out of Canada on CiTR Radio (also home to legendary radio personality Nardwuar the Human Serviette). Host Bepi Crespan plays a self-described mix of “difficult music, harsh electronics, spoken word, cut-up/collage and general CRESPAN© weirdness.” He favors artists like Merzbow, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten, Negativland and Ryoji Ikeda, but also features tons of newer bands and composers who probably don’t get airplay on any other FM radio show in the world. He remains, to the best of our knowledge, the only FM radio DJ to regularly play the twisted art-pop of TWBITW favorites Chimney Crow and Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin, and that alone makes him worthy of a hat-tip in our book.
Crespan broadcasts his show every Sunday morning from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. on CiTR; if you live in the Vancouver area, you can find him at 101.9 FM, and if you live anywhere else, you can livestream his show on CiTR.ca. Past shows are posted in podcast form on the Bepi Crespan Presents… website. So next time you’re in need of a heavy dose of avant-garde noise, give one of his shows a spin. You’re pretty much guaranteed to discover something you’ve never heard before, which is more than we can say for 99.9% of terrestrial radio anymore.
Do you think Santa Claus feels under-appreciated? I mean, sure, everyone dresses up like him for a month and erects effigies of him on their rooftops and sends him mail and sings songs about how great he is. But does he get any presents on Christmas? I mean, apart from milk and cookies, which are nice and all but far less satisfying than an Xbox? No, he does not. It’s fair to say that come Dec. 26th, Santa is probably the bitterest motherfucker on the planet. He probably locks himself in a dark room for a month with all those cookies and a box of porn and wonders why the hell he even bothers.
Fortunately, British art-rock weirdos a.P.A.t.T. are here to help Santa out. Not with actual presents or anything—I mean, let’s not go crazy. Like most art-rock weirdos, they’re probably too broke to buy Santa an Xbox. But they did write him an adorable little song called “Spare a Thought for Santa,” which is available now via Bandcamp for a mere £1. All proceeds go to help Mrs. Claus get Santa some post-Christmas therapy and maybe a trip to Barbados. I’m kidding, of course. They all go to line the pockets of a.P.A.t.T., who could probably also use some therapy and a Caribbean vacation. Either way, it’s a good cause.
So it being Halloween and all, we were going to make some wacky costumed act our Weird Band of the Week. But then we were going through some old reader comments and a few different folks mentioned Nina Hagen and we said, “You know what? Other acts wear Halloween costumes. Nina Hagen is a Halloween costume.” People have been ripping off her unique style for decades, to the point where some of them (ahem, Lady Gaga) probably aren’t even aware of the original source. So for all you young’uns out there, let’s get acquainted with the so-called Mother of Punk, shall we?
Nina Hagen was born in 1955 in East Berlin, at the height of the Cold War. She was pegged very early in life as an opera prodigy, but she was more interested in pop music. After singing in a more traditional German pop band called Fritzens Dampferband (you can hear one of her early vocals here), she formed a “rock” band called Automobil in 1974. I put “rock” in quotation marks because this was one of their more rockin’ tracks:
The song title translates roughly to “You Forgot the Color Film” and the lyrics are basically all Nina Hagen berating her boyfriend on their vacation for, well, not bringing color film. Apparently it was interpreted at the time as a sly critique of the drabness of East Berlin. Yeah, life behind the Iron Curtain was not fun.
In 1976, she and her parents defected to West Germany, and that’s when the Nina Hagen we all know and love really began to blossom. Inspired by the nascent punk scene on a visit to London, Hagen formed the Nina Hagen Band and began playing a theatrical mix of punk, glam and progressive rock, all punctuated by her increasingly over-the-top, operatic vocals. The music was frankly not all that exciting, but Hagen was developing into an astonishing vocalist and live performer. Here, for example, is the Nina Hagen Band in 1979, performing a track called “Naturträne.” It’s basically one minute of song followed by three minutes of Nina wailing over a bunch of prog-rock noodling, but this woman could wail over a Yanni record and I’d still camp out for tickets.
By the end of ’79, the Nina Hagen Band had already broken up, as Hagen went off to explore wilder musical frontiers as a solo artist. Even in this 1980 clip of her covering “Ziggy Stardust” on Swedish television, the style and attitude she became famous for is pretty much all there: the crazy hair and eye makeup, crazier facial expressions, and positively batshit vocals.
In 1982, Hagen released her first solo album and first album sung entirely in English, NunSexMonkRock. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds recently called it the post-punk era’s greatest “unsung masterpiece” and it’s hard to argue with him. From beginning to end, the record sounds like it was flown in from another planet, not exactly punk or glam or New Wave but somehow channeling all those forces into a totally original sound. The best-known track is an anti-heroin anthem called “Smack Jack,” which isn’t the weirdest thing on the album but which features a music video that has to be seen to be believed. Yes, that’s Nina in male cop drag. And Nina singing backup. And another Nina singing the other backup. It’s a Nina-palooza.
Hagen’s done plenty of other weird shit in the years since: One of the most amazingly ’80s videos of all time, “New York New York” (her only real hit here in the U.S.). A Rammstein cover with the Finnish cello-rock band Apocalyptica, which is fitting since Till Lindemann stole many of his vocal affectations from Hagen. She released an album of Hindu devotional chants, with cover art featuring herself dressed up as the goddess Kali. She once told David Letterman about a UFO she saw over Malibu—actually, she told lots of people about UFOs. In more recent years, she’s recorded an album of big band standards, covered Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and, sadly, lost much of her once-astonishing vocal range. She’s also become a devout Christian, which probably alienated some of her old punk fan base. But she remains as refreshingly kooky and totally original as ever.
We’ll leave you with one of Nina Hagen’s signature cover tunes. Sid Vicious may have punked up “My Way” first, but Nina’s version is untouchable, even after all these years.
P.S. Thanks to readers Singing Grass, Alex and Denny for reminding us to add Nina to the Weird List. Better late than never, right, guys?
This week we’re adding another band to the Weird List that many of you have been clamoring for: Steven Stapleton’s venerable experimental/industrial/sound collage project, Nurse With Wound. For over three decades, Stapleton and his many collaborators have been producing some of the creepiest (and, on occasion, funniest) music ever to come out of the U.K.—which, considering the Brits also gave us such influential noise mongers as Throbbing Gristle and Current 93, is saying something.
From their very first album, recorded live as a trio in 1978, NWW announced themselves as something completely different. Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella was a jarring mix of squiggly electronics, prog/psych guitar freakouts, primal howls and ominous, ambient noise. Though originally released in a run of just 500 copies, it made quite a splash in the emerging London industrial scene—and not only because of its BDSM cover art.
One of the more interesting aspects of Chance Meeting was the inclusion of the now-legendary Nurse With Wound List, an eclectic, expansive catalog of the band’s many influences, from Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire to Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream—though most of the name-checks were far more obscure than those. A handful of bands on our own Weird List appear, including American rock primitivists Cromagnon and French avant-garde accordionist Ghedalia Tazartes. But overall, I have to admit: When you do a blog like ours, reading through the NWW List is a humbling experience. Clearly we’ve got some catching up to do.
By 1981, founding NWW members John Fothergill and the excellently named Heeman Pathak had left the group, leaving Stapleton to forge ahead as a solo act. Enlisting the help of a live drummer and his friend J.G. Thirlwell of Foetus, Stapleton recorded an album called Insect and Individual Silenced that he himself has since dismissed as “terrible.” Then, after a collaboration with power electronics pioneers Whitehouse (a very bleak and atmospheric record called The 150 Murderous Passions, released with the liner note, “This record may be played at any speed”), Stapleton hit his stride with 1982’s Homotopy to Marie, the album he has since referred to as the first “real” NWW release. Full of tape manipulations and dread, Homotopy became the blueprint for what remains Nurse With Wound’s signature style: abstract, slow-moving, cinematic, occasionally abrasive and even more occasionally terrifying. Depending on your disposition, it’s either music that should only be listened to in the dark—or it’s music you should never listen to in the dark.
As weird as eerie noise epics like “The Schmürz (Unsullied by Suckling)” can get, what really makes Steven Stapleton a world-class weirdo are his twisted and often hilarious spins on mainstream music and pop culture. Take, for example, 1985’s The Sylvie and Babs Hi-Fi Companion, an early experiment in sampling, NWW-style. Yes, that’s really the cover art on the YouTube clip. And yes, this track really is called “You Walrus Hurt the One You Love.”
Over the decades, Stapleton has released more than 40 albums and countless collaborations (with everyone from Current 93 to Sun 0))) to Stereolab), singles, EPs and compilation tracks, all exhaustively cataloged on the Nurse With Wound website and much of it now available via Bandcamp. More recently, he’s brought back a touring version of the band, with a rotating supporting cast that includes longtime collaborators Colin Potter and Diana Rogerson (Stapleton’s wife) along with newer cohorts like sound collage artists Matt Waldron and Andrew Liles.
It would be asinine to try to summarize a career like Stapleton’s with a single video—all the more so because he hasn’t released any “official” Nurse With Wound music videos. (A few short films have used NWW music, including this one, but they’re not music videos in any traditional sense.) But this fan-made clip for the 2008 track “The Bottom Feeder,” using the stop-motion art of Czech filmmaker Jiří Barta, actually does a pretty great job of encapsulating all that is spooky and brilliant about Nurse With Wound’s best work.
This week’s weird band was one of many we’re still sifting through from an aptly named reader called Sick Nick. Thanks for all the suggestions, Nick! Clearly, you’re a sick man, indeed.
Lucrate Milk was a French punk/No Wave band active from about 1979 to 1984. They’re often compared to other bands of the era like The Slits and X-Ray Spex, mostly because they featured a saxophone and aggro female vocals. But their twisted, dadaist take on punk rock was really like nothing else before or since.
The band was started by a pair of underground artists named Lombrick Laul and Tomas Huser (aka “Masto Lowcost”), who borrowed their name from their day jobs as milk delivery men. Adding a drummer named Raoul Gaboni, an American-born keyboardist named Nina Childress and, briefly, a vocalist called Helno, they began by playing various punk squats around the seedier parts of Paris and stenciling their name all over town. According to band legend, they forced one another to play their least favorite instruments—with Laul picking up the bass and Masto taking on the saxophone, which he did indeed tend to play like he was awkwardly handling a cumbersome foreign object. Presumably because it was everyone’s favorite, nobody played guitar.
Lucrate Milk live shows were noisy and highly theatrical affairs, often featuring bizarre homemade costumes and highlighted by Childress’ spastic stage presence—she took over vocal duties when Helno left pretty early on. Here’s a clip from one of their last shows in February of 1984, rescued from the dustbin of punk-rock history by the miracle that is YouTube:
Laul and Masto Lowcost designed all of the band’s graphics and videos, most of which were not music videos per se but just used as projections during the band’s live shows. Sadly, most of these are not available online, or maybe anywhere, but a few shreds of their video output still exist. In particular, there’s a 2006 DVD that was released as part of a compilation of their music, and it seems to contain a few classic Lucrate Milk clips (though we haven’t had a chance to see it) as well as newer visual interpretations of their stuff like this one. The DVD’s not widely available, but this site appears to still have it in stock.
After Lucrate Milk called it quits, Laul and Masto went on to work with another, more popular French punk band called Bérurier Noir, who were sort of a cross between Lucrate Milk, Black Flag and DEVO. Nina Childress became a successful painter, and poor ol’ Helno died of a heroin overdose after briefly fronting this band. Yeah, there was a lot of weird music in France in the ’80s.
We’ll leave you with the greatest surviving piece of Lucrate Milk eye candy, the fantastically twisted “Nepla Relou,” which sounds like The Residents and X-Ray Spex trapped under a collapsed circus tent and looks like a Troma movie directed by Johnny Rotten. Oh, and we’ll add this quote from another website, which sums up Lucrate Milk’s music better than we ever could: “It’s absurd, short, violent, brilliant and funny, like your mate puking on himself.” Yep. It’s exactly like that.
Of all the bands on our Weird List, The Residents probably offer the richest vein of subject matter for a documentary. You don’t last 40 years performing in outlandish costumes and releasing tons of music, video and multimedia work without racking up some serious film fodder.
And yet, apart from a short, satirical 1990 film called The Eyes Scream: A History of The Residents, no one has ever really captured the story of one of the weirdest and most mysterious bands of all time in cinematic form. A group of filmmakers from a company called Well Dang! Productions tried just a few years ago, but that project was apparently abandoned, probably due to some combination of lack of funds, the band’s unwillingness to participate, and being called Well Dang! Productions. But now, it looks like The Residents documentary void is finally about to be filled.
The film, called Theory of Obscurity, is being made with The Residents’ full participation, which is a big plus. They just completed shooting the band’s 40th anniversary tour, and claim to have been granted “unprecedented access” to the Residents archives. They’re aiming for a 2014 release, but they’ve already released a preliminary trailer, which you can watch below. You can also watch their ongoing 143-part Vimeo series called “In My Room,” featuring interviews with Randy, the band’s old-man-masked lead singer. In the latest installment, he talks about his wishbone collection.
No self-respecting independent film project doesn’t invite some form of crowdfunding these days, and Theory of Obscurity is no different. So if you want to help the first official Residents documentary see the light of day, follow this link and give generously. Hey, it’s way cheaper than a box set in a refrigerator.