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Dreams of Field Recordings

Nineteen Live Recordings

by Emperor X

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2020 Preface

These recordings were already old when I released them in 2013. The accompanying text was meant to ground the audio in a specific moment in subcultural time. I tried to describe the slowly-eroding public sphere with its shopping mall rent-a-cops and stolen sleep in Waffle House parking lots, and to paint music scenes in relief as mostly-friendly counterstream incubators that protected against mass cultural stagnation.

I wrote the text too soon. Changes between 2013 and 2020, both in our music scenes and in the world at large, dwarf those between 2005 and 2013. The white supremacist reaction to Black Lives Matter, the explosive so-called growth of the so-called gig economy, the patriarchal reaction to #MeToo, the wars in Syria and Yemen, the Ghost Ship fire, the hegemony of Spotify, the xenophobic reactions to the migration crises, Brexit, Trumpism and the emergence of a right-wing avant-garde in the arts, the current pandemic and the (temporary [?]) end of touring which relegates us all to endless lonely pale Twitch streams...I could go on.

But I won't. Because I am writing this text too soon, too. We won't know for another seven years how wrong (too naive? too pessimistic?) my words here are. While we wait to find out, there are songs to listen to, to write, and (hopefully some day soon) to sing together, spit spraying and masks safely off in sweaty basements. Music, especially live music, is a cultural object with unpredictable consequences. And I like to think that we will make it together again soon.

I can't wait for the next tour. But I will. Be well until then, friends. And happy May Day. (CRM 2020-05-01)

// // //


2013 Preface

I spent the past few years looking around America for people who might find my music useful. I woke up in a different city every day for months at a time, usually on a friendly stranger’s couch. Most days I spent exploring the town or working in a defensive crouch in a library, protecting my laptop and mixer behind a barricade of poetry anthologies and technical manuals from the mumbling homeless men and squealing school kids. On lucky days I found solitary space to record in -- a kind host’s home when they were at work, a seldom-used community college auditorium with an unlocked piano, a small church sanctuary no one was guarding too closely, a friend’s car. But that was all during the day, and sometimes the daytime felt half-lived.

Most of my effort centered on singing for people at night. Every evening I faced rooms of recession-dulled concertgoers and ran tests on them to see if they’d respond to my songs. I gauged their reactions to some established post-rock techniques and I intuited their response to new ones I improvised. "NO INTERFERENCE," I screamed unamplified to a rowdy audience of several hundred impatient Nada Surf fans at a college ballroom in Gainesville. "GOD IS GREAT," I yelled through a 400-millisecond delay battery amp at a handful of bored LED-lit faces squinting at status updates on their smartphones at an empty dance club in El Paso. "MAS DURO! HELLO? HELLO? HELLO? HELLO? HELLO? HELLO? HELLO? ATROPINE!" Sometimes people ignored me and got drunk. Sometimes they responded with hushed attention. Sometimes they started a circle pit and yelled with me. Regardless of the specific reaction, there was one consistent mood: uncomfortable curiosity. Maybe, I told myself when I was depressed, even if they don’t let on, even if they don’t know it, hearing my racket lets them see the things I see -- lovely things, absurd things, horrible and funny things, things I didn’t know were there until the songs told me they were.

That slim hope is enough to keep me singing for the rest of my life. Even when I’m anonymously stumbling around filthy streets drunk on nothing but how tired and hungry and cold I am waiting for the next Greyhound, I remember that I’m tremendously privileged to be able to sing and write and gaze from a bus window hypnotized by the freeway lights and the refinery flares and the fireflies. Everyone fights an endless personal war against nihilism; they give their lives to causes they believe in, they band together with others who share their faith, they start businesses, they raise families. Making music is the endless personal war I signed up for, and this flawed audio is a record of several recent battles. (CRM 2013-03-06)

Tracks: 1 ("Compressor Repair")
Sometimes a bunch of great things happen all at once. It would be so much more convenient if we could save up luck, but we have to take it as it comes, in megadoses like this show in a rural farm house on the outskirts of Northampton, MA. The promoter for the show also organizes a video blog of bands who stop through town. For our visit, she opened her home as a venue for a pre-show daytime concert. It was cold so the first thing we were offered when we walked in was hot cider. People brought beer. People brought instruments. People brought ridiculous overflowing Norman Rockwell piles of home-made everything. Saintseneca, the band I was traveling with and who provided the Subaru that made the whole tour possible, set up in the back room while I wrapped myself around a nylon-stringed guitar, one of many instruments casually lying around the house. When it was my turn to set up I was blown away by the back room: a multi-channel digital recording rig, several HD video cameras, L.A. film shoot-style lights, and a handful of interested people sitting on the floor getting slowly drunk. It bears mentioning that this recording of "Compressor Repair" would not have happened without that last half-stiff glass of cider; I felt warm and uninhibited enough to move to the piano with no warning and play it and the nylon string I’d been getting to know all afternoon at the same time. The recording was marred with some ghosty digital clicks, but the production team wrote their own VST plugin to remove them (!). A version of “Go-Captain and Pinlighter” from this session exists too.

Tracks : 2 ("Low Orbit Ion Cannon"), 4 ("Swim Laws"), 6 ("At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy"), 10 "Partial Eclipse at the Dollar General")
These tracks were not recorded at a public performance. They happened impromptu in my friend Adam Harding's apartment when he was away at work for the day. They were performed for an audience of one if you count the upstairs neighbor who stomped on the floor occasionally to protest the singing. The apartment is in MacArthur Park, a teeming neighborhood in central L.A. known for gang battles and fake ID salesmen and megaphone-wielding Pentacostal preachers, and when I took breaks I walked to the grocery or the laundromat through a gauntlet of salesmen hawking tamales and cell phone cases and corn cobs grilled over hot coals heaped into Home Depot shopping carts lined with aluminum foil. Inside my friend's building all was quiet and absorbent, the space filled with books and records and papers and figurines and a large upholstered couch. But not all the insulation in the world could block out the fact that the hunt for rogue cop Christopher Dorner was on, so the sound of sirens and LAPD helicopters was even more common than usual. They’re audible at several points in these tracks. The work was done in a few hours and printed live-mixed to a stereo audio file using the same recording setup as the 2012 winter tour.

A BOSTON BASEMENT -- 11-24-2009
Tracks: 3 ("Shut Shut Up"), 13 ("Approximately Nine Billion Tigers")
In the fall of 2009 I was invited to perform a concert on the roof of an apartment building in Boston. Several weeks before this performance I ripped off Glenn Branca and decided to assemble an orchestra of drone-tuned acoustic guitars as accompaniment. I sent an e-mail to several people I knew in New England and the entire Emperor X Massachusetts mailing list asking if anyone would be interested in participating. Almost a dozen people committed, and some friends gave me access to their basement rehearsal space. I showed up a few days before the show and practiced with the other musicians a handful of times before singing on the roof on a cold November night. We also performed at a less-publicized show in a basement in Allston the following evening, and parts of that performance were captured by drone orchestra member and old friend Dan Gonzales on his portable field recorder. We were a last-minute add-on to the show, and the crowd's response to us was indescribably apathetic, almost hostile. As the long pause after the last beats of "Shut Shut Up" imply, there were only a handful of people in the room by the time we were done, and they did not clap. They stared at us in silence. It was pretty awful for everyone concerned, but in retrospect it's one of my favorite "SCREW YOU, APATHY" tour moments so far.

SUNY-PURCHASE -- 11-02-2012
Tracks: 5 ("The Magnetic Media Storage Practices of Rural Pakistan"), 14 ("Raytracer"), 16 ("Use Your Hands")
Hurricane Sandy tore up the Eastern Seaboard a few days before we got there. The drive from Philadelphia was easy but we had to plan well to get through the New Jersey fuel shortage. Lines snaked for blocks around the very few open gas stations. Most were closed, and those with fuel but no power were guarded by township cops. When we drove up we were a little worried, but the guard stationed at the entrance to SUNY-Purchase told us the school was open. We were early but the skies were dull and the power was out in most of the town, so we drove around to the Stood with a few hours to kill. We parked and pried ourselves out of Zac's gear-crammed Subaru. Inside we found indoor skate ramps and rows of aging video games and acres of free wireless internet -- tour paradise. Our group scattered; I was exhausted as usual so I flopped on one of the several dozen dusty couches and fell asleep. When I woke up an hour or two later I decided to brush my teeth and found one of the worst bathrooms I'd seen since a particularly vile piss trough I’d visited in Geelong, Australia a few years earlier. It didn't look willfully dirty; more like one of those places that just can't help but ooze filth. The floor seemed permanently damp, the walls were slippery, the toilet stalls had no doors, and the smell of urine was overwhelming. But the graffiti was first rate, almost literary. SUNY-Purchase: advanced thought > public hygiene. I walked around brushing my teeth by the video games instead and went in there only when I had to spit. The Stood always feels great to play music in, though. The show later that night was one of the best of the tour. And the students who organized the show bought us pizza and coffee. And The Act of Estimating As Worthless brought us back to their house, which was full of organic produce they brought home from their job on a co-op farm.

Track: 9 ("Allahu Akbar")
The Barbary is punk. Not, like, DIY punk. Punk punk. Whiskey-a-Go-Go punk. Everyone there is really nice and organized and helpful, but there's an unshakable overwhelming sense of alcohol-fueled abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here nihilism that permeates everything. It’s hard to pinpoint: the floor isn't all that dirty, the sound system is good, and no one's mean or scary. But there's a nerve to the place. Maybe it's the fact that it's in a bleak-looking warehouse district next to a gas station and a sad trolley transfer stop. Maybe it’s that the shows are all-ages and full of healthy youthful rage. Maybe it’s just the way a venue’s supposed to look in the Great Recession. Whatever the cause, the Barbary was the punkest show I played that tour, so I was shocked when the room full of kids waiting to hear much louder bands watched in complete silence while I played my quiet, minimal songs. "Shock and surprise us," one of them said to me during an awkward pause in the set, so I decided to change the song I was planning to play and immediately started the "TAKBIR!" part of "Allahu Akbar" as loudly as I could.

Tracks: 7 ("Everyone in Jacksonville"), 8 ("Addison Aceh"), 12 ("Laminate Factory")
A few hours before the show I was skulking around Cambridge and settled down in a café/grocery to get some writing done. I noticed some unusually chintzy atmospheric music in the room, but I ignored it at first. It took me a few minutes to realize that the woman next to me was the source; a soft, shy Korean girl singing Wham!'s "Last Christmas" furtively into an echo-drenched karaoke machine over and over, head cowed towards the countertop, trying to ignore me and everyone else in the store but nevertheless exhibiting her performance in public for some reason. She made me happy, and I stayed to work and listen for about an hour. She was singing songs from the _Titanic_ soundtrack as I packed up. I headed to the venue feeling sneaky in posh Cambridge, which is the last place in America I would've expected to find a warm, comfortable wooden room with a bunch of open-minded punk-leaning listeners and an all-you-can-drink coffee machine for the bands. But there the Democracy Center was, crammed between Harvard offices and affluent boutiques. Saintseneca stomped on the wooden floors like no one else can, and I wish I captured their set too because it was gorgeous. We slept in their gracious friend's apartment, and they kindly offered us blankets to keep us warm.

Tracks: 11 ("Right to the Rails"), 15 ("Island-Long Dirt Dealership")
These are by far the oldest recordings on the compilation. I was on tour with So Many Dynamos in 2005 and we visited a residence to play this house show between dates on our way back east from a long trip to California and back. There were a handful of people there, and we played our songs feeling futile and silly, but the residents seemed pleased and I recorded the set on a small handheld tape recorder, so not all our effort was in vain. Our hosts were drunk by the time we finished, so they took us to the child care center where they worked which they also used as a rehearsal space. They set up some drums and amps on the story time rug and played us a few tracks of their own. Then I lost the tape for several years. When I re-discovered it recently I scrubbed it up as best as I could for this compilation.

Track: 17 ("Erica Western Geiger Counter")
The drive to Columbia was easy and we were running ahead of schedule, so we spent most of the day in a large mall in the suburbs. We sat in the couch area, we stalked in and out of Starbucks, we made too much noise and drew attention to ourselves dancing and improvising show tunes in the courtyard. A security guard wagged his finger at one of my friends for falling asleep over his laptop in a big comfy chair outside of a Sears. We talked loudly about how awful the place made us feel and probably sounded very ungrateful and obnoxious to anyone passing by, and we weren't oblivious to this, but we ignored it. We looked weird. We smelled bad. We were somewhere between misbehaving kids and fiery street preachers. When we left the mall and arrived at the show space we felt...there isn't one English word for the feeling you get when you spend all day at a mall and then drive up to an industrial warehouse in an unfamiliar city to play for twenty or thirty strangers. Combine queasy and angry and scared and curious and grumpy into one word and that would come close. One Unit is a +/-2,000 sq. ft. industrial building with bare concrete floors, bare sheetrock walls, and several dozen couches. I untangled a blanket from someone’s pile of ‘70s light rock records and slept until it was time for my set, coming out to meet new friends and see the other bands for a few songs between dozes. The friendly promoter told me a story about a recent controversy involving the space. I've forgotten the details, but it involved some metal band throwing part of a dead animal (the head, I think...?) into the audience. All the blogs were scandalized. That didn’t happen at our show.

Track: 18 ("Texscan")
An entry from my tour diary for this date reads as follows:
"Sat.31.May.2008: Playing a song in front of a Huddle House for youth pastor golf conventioneers; walked across Sandee State Park and made paper airplane video;"
Apparently I made the entry before recording this song, but the entry captures the insomniac grime of the day. I got a lift to the freeway late at night from the promoter of a show I'd just played in Charleston. I planned on meeting a friend of mine at the on ramp the following day as he drove north, so I was facing twelve hours of nothing to do at a two-gas-station exit, and I was tired. It was warm and humid out, so sleeping would be easy if I could find a place. I laid down behind one of the stations and closed my eyes. But every time I nodded off a car with tinted windows drove by blaring loud music. This happened every fifteen minutes or so, and I realized it was the same car. I got nervous. Bored rednecks? Drug dealers? Who knew, but it wasn't good news, and anyway it was keeping me awake, so I gave up on sleep and went into a 24-hour Huddle House. The kind staff served me coffee and left me alone to draw and write. Around 2:00 a.m., though, two rowdy drunk men came in and shattered the calm. They mumbled and slurred that they were youth pastors away on a "weekend retreat" which, according to the stories they recounted for everyone they talked to, involved getting wasted and playing golf with great skill. They never mentioned what they were doing out at 2 a.m. but if you asked me at the time I would’ve told you I thought they were coming home from a strip club. No proof, but they projected a distinct macho sexual energy I’ve only ever seen coming from guys fresh out of strip clubs. Gross. Anyway, they eventually focused their frat guy vibes on me and started asking questions. "Hey man, where you from? You got a guitar, play us a song!!!" They wouldn't stop asking, so eventually we went outside and I sang them a rather abstract aeronautics-themed song called "Aileron." They were clearly disappointed but polite, and the conversation turned to theology. And that’s when these wasted Baptist youth pastors, fresh from a bar and maybe, if my sixth sense was right, a strip club, started preaching to me about how I needed salvation. I quickly changed the topic to Calvinism and how much I hated the idea of predestination and left them scratching their empty heads wondering about free will...nah, probably not, who am I kidding? They might’ve thought about it briefly but they were back to golf and bacon in twenty seconds, I’d bet. I walked away and kept going for miles as the sun rose, away from the freeway and into a state forest. I texted my friend telling him where to find me and threw all of my equipment down by a buzzing utility pole. I napped for a bit but mostly just stood around waiting for the day to get brighter, and then I got my field recorder out and made this track.

KXSC IN LOS ANGELES, CA -- 04-13-2012
Track: 19 ("Hybrid Defiance for Jawad Nabulsi")
The college radio station at USC asked me to drop in for a series of lunchtime concerts they broadcast on their small AM radio station and web stream. It was a rainy day and by the time I walked from the Expo Line to the student center I was soaked, so I stopped in the bathroom and dried my hair and sweater underneath a hand drier. Good thing, because I was shocked by three very visual things about this performance. 1) The venue was a massive echo-y dark room in the basement of the student center with bright stage lights and a crew of half a dozen black-clad students, including a photographer, 2) there was free coffee and pita and hummus on a massive garnished platter, and 3) about halfway through my first song -- keep in mind that there were no more than thirty people in this massive room so the bright gel-saturated stage lighting already felt like overkill -- one of the crew kids turned on a few smoke machines. The photographer grabbed several Guitar Center catalog-worthy shots of me singing in the haze. It was very hyper-produced and something about that made me go a little nuts. Instead of my usual set, I started playing with some samples I'd loaded onto my computer the night before and ran them through my delay pedal. I built the performance around an interview of Jawad Nabulsi, a democracy activist who’d lost an eye to an Egyptian army bullet in Tahrir Square in 2011. I was going to play "Defiance (for Elise Sunderhuse)" and I eventually did, but first I let Jawad's voice ping around the huge room, talking about purpose and meaning and sacrifice while we spoiled Westerners hid from the drizzle munching on free pita and hummus and sipping free coffee. It droned until I couldn’t take it anymore and I cut it off and played some of my standard set list. But at the ended the set I reverted to the interview/echo drone. "Hybrid Defiance for Jawad Nabulsi" is a fade from the beginning to the end of the set.


released March 6, 2013

These tracks were recorded between 2005 and 2013 throughout North America. The audio was compiled and remastered in the winter of 2013 in Los Angeles. This compilation would not exist without the musical and/or technical and/or personal assistance of S. Betlyon, Z. Boyle, T. Bussey, L. J. Frezza, D. Gonzales, , B. Landry, Y. R. Lojko, M. Tatagatha, the rest of the C.A.L.E.X. whose names are lost in the data avalanche, Saintseneca, So Many Dynamos, J. Brown, M. Capon, C. Clavin, C. Clement, F. Cooksey, B. Golding, A. Harding, G. Horbal, S. Jackson, J. Nabulsi, and T. Simmonds.


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