Nautical Almanac and the Baltimore Noise Scene
September 24th, 2005
I am sitting in a non-descript Metro station parking lot in Greenbelt, Maryland. It is the day of Operation: Ceasefire’s DC war protest concert event, attended by 100,000 people, give or take. As I watch the exhausted but content protestors come and go in drips and drabs, I listen to Nautical Almanac’s “Cover the Earth” CD. My plan is to sit and read and wait for my girlfriend.
The plan is quickly thwarted. Nautical Almanac’s music demands your attention.
Employing self-made instruments, spasmodic percussion, and the more distressing aspects of the human voice, their emanations are as challenging as they are assaultive. This ritual musik has the potential to make you feel nauseous, give you the most profound migraine of your life, or at least a very thorough cerebral cortex scrubbing. You must be respectful of the power of this. The group plays with the edge and questions fundamental assumptions.
Having said this, it is profoundly difficult to describe and do justice to the music of Nautical Almanac in words.
Whereas brothers in arms Wolf Eyes, Lightning Bolt, and Hair Police can be drawn out and compartmentalized a bit more into the rock and metal cannons (a task I will avoid here), Nautical Almanac stays willfully outside of translation. Rock critics try and fail to pin them down, but Nautical Almanac sounds like Nautical Almanac, and that’s that.
Baltimore town, 1729
“There is but one entrance by sea into this country, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly bay, 18 or 20 miles broad. The cape on the south is called Cape Henry, in honor of our most noble Prince. The land, white hilly sands like unto the Downs, and all along the shores rest plenty of pines and firs … Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation…” – Captain John Smith
When the hard men of the New World created a town on the banks of the Chesapeake bay named in honor of the illustrious Lord Baltimore, they may not have foreseen that this town would become a city.
They probably had no idea that, as the population exploded and the city expanded, the cutting off physically and legally of the city from the surrounding counties would cause it to become stagnant in the post-war rush to the suburbs. They could not foresee that their humble little settlement, known for its pioneering shipbuilding center, would have a thriving and diverse music scene several hundred years later that would exist, for the most part, in the shadow of another. This other scene, in a yet to be founded nation’s capitol situated in the squalid swamps on the border of Virginia and Maryland, was a mere dream in 1729.
May 08, 2004
“Celebration (not to be confused with the Birthday Party or Black Celebration… oh what the hell, go ahead and confuse them) will be, uh, celebrating the release of their debut album with a tour supporting gloomy New Yorkers Calla in October. But first they’ll be playing a one-off show this Saturday in Baltimore. Which happens to be their hometown. A-ha! So that’s why they’re so miserable!” – Amy Philips, pitchforkmedia.com
There is nothing quite like a New Yorker putting down Baltimore. It is an easy pot-shot despite the quality of the music pouring forth from here in recent years. Despite the successes of Oxes, Celebration, and More Dogs, Baltimore is industrial ruin and decay. Despite the frenzied improvisations of the Red Room collective and the diversity of showplaces and types of music produced, Baltimore does not measure up to New York or Boston or San Francisco or DC in any number of ways. Despite the recent explosion of record stores catering to stranger tastes like The True Vine and Once. Twice Sound, Baltimore has problems with crime and murder and drugs and poverty and disease. There is no getting around Baltimore’s history as a redheaded stepchild.
But this also makes Baltimore affordable, and, as the rents rise nationally, Baltimore stays closer to the ground.
While longtime rival DC’s music scene enters into the autumn of its years after an illustrious run, Baltimore’s wild trees have borne fruit.
June 21st, 2001
Nautical Almanac’s Carly Ptak and Twig Harper arrived in Baltimore at the dawn of the Twenty-First century, having found affordable digs in a particularly neglected patch of the west side. The first shot fired occurred when Neon Hunk, Spread Eagle, Forcefield, and Lightning Bolt played in front of an audience of about 20 people at their new home. Carly and Twg knew few if any people in their new adopted home, and outside of some minimal promotion by friend Ian Nagoski, the show was almost a secret. It was, for those who attended, a life changing event.
September 14th, 2005
The shows Nautical Almanac perform today are hardly secrets. Their gig with Human Host, Sunburned Hand of the Man, and Magik Markers is well attended despite its occurrence on a Wednesday night. I am nervous and recovering from a cold.
Though existing in the trajectory of these people for several years, I have never attempted to communicate with them. I read about them in the Wire, I purchase their releases, I am a friend of friends. They are friendly and willing to talk, and I am put at ease. I am wearing a t-shirt of a local band that features the image of a wolf eating a baby.
After much suffering and tragedy, Edgar Allan Poe, delirious and in ill-fitting clothes, dies in a hospital in Baltimore. He was discovered on Lombard Street on Election day. He had lived here years before, and was on his way to somewhere else. He dies with only marginal appreciation, most famous for his poem “The Raven,” which he had the incredible misfortune of selling the rights to for some paltry sum. It will take many decades for his literary reputation to grow. On this day, he is merely another new member of the Baltimore spirit world.
September 14th, 2005 (continued)
“Wait a minute. Let’s back up here. I think you just asked an interesting question. What is it like to be in a band that people aren’t interested in?” –Carly Ptak
One hundred and fifty two years later, on the street that runs parallel to where Poe was found, Tarantula Hill began in a former dentist’s office. This space has prospered and flourished over the past four years, despite leaking roofs and car break-ins. Due to the ungentrifiable neighborhood surrounding it, the property is owned as opposed to rented, which means it shall not meet the fate of other similar spots, like Providence, RI’s Fort Thunder and Philadelphia, PA’s Anetheum.
Today, the space serves many functions: show space, office space, duplication center. A place for bands to perform and stay free of charge, A place with rooms to spare. A space perpetually under construction. Due to the label they run, Carly and Twig don’t have day jobs (some “E-bay hustling” is involved), although Max Eisenberg, the band’s most recent addition, still pulls shifts as a waiter.
The band would be the first to admit that they are not engaged in the business of making music with the potential for mainstream crossover.
“I am an outsider. I make outsider music,” was Twig’s response to my question, quoted above and almost lost without the focus of Carly. Nautical Almanac had had their power turned off onstage. They have been asked to stop playing. They have been spit on by punk rockers, the irony not noted. They have had their hand-crafted CD-Rs rejected for sale by independent record stores.
Their performance that night is a series of mishaps and messes. Max’s back is tweaked due to recent show-off stunt kicking, their full assault gear is not in place, a back-up CD malfunctions. Even here, in their adopted home, at a show showcasing extreme music, there are a few calls for them to leave the stage. Throughout, Carly remains calm and smiling. Twig is grinning through the contact microphone lodged in his mouth. I smile as the monster they create kicks and screams, a bit bloodied but unbowed. So what?
So what? So what if the set didn’t go well? So what if not everyone dug it? So what if this wasn’t their best evening? This is their music and this is tonight and how any night happens is a complicated thing. There will be other nights where the full power of what they are making will be unleashed. So what? They have seen worse.
I flash back to our discussion, I questioned the band about the “future of outsider music.” I think back on my raw pre-interview first draft rant, excerpted here:
“Sullen kids don’t go to the mall anymore and buy overpriced CD’s because they can download and burn them. So, Carly and Twig burn their own. Hell, they even have a lathe. When I am in an independent record store in Baltimore I see evidence of their movements, the selling of their wares. I have the “official” Nautical Almanac CD, “Rooting for the Microbes” on Load records, but I can also buy any number of other CDs on their label HereSee, by them and a host of others, each hand created and lettered, based on their guiding vision and available materials. I have seen, in the past two years, CDs packaged in underwear, swatches of cloth, hand painted and spraypainted. I have heard tell of CDs packaged in human skulls, of packages containing reels and one off lathe records to loop at home. I have bought audio cassettes and DVD-Rs from the same touring band.”
In the moment, fired up, my rough draft charges on…
“Try to co-opt the model, corporate America! Try to turn a large profit! Sorry, dudes! Your model of commerce is outmoded, and it is only time before popular music becomes more fully a minor concern of a shoe corporation. There is nothing wrong with pop music. The shit works. And popular music will contain some prefabricated version of what works eternally. But the revolution is coming! The end is near! I am sure that those paying attention during the era of classical music could not see the end coming. I am sure that the people of the golden era of Tin Pan Alley were certain that they would be on top for a long time. The end is some hard shit, record dudes, but it’s here. Here’s your pink slips!”
I cringe at my irrational exuberance and mentally vow not to blog so much. My question about the future was politely shuffled away and handled. Yes, the paradigm has shifted. Yes, it is exciting. It is fun to release things in editions of twelve, but it is also important to avoid “record geekery.” The band is polite and acknowledges that things have changed, and their unique releases are accepted and appreciated by a growing number of like minded individuals all over the country. To make the future happen is less exciting than to observe the future unfolding, perhaps.
September 22nd, 2005
It is the first night of the High Zero, Baltimore’s Festival of Experimental and Improvised Music. After a blistering solo set by Melissa Moore in which she tested the limits and aural properties of bilious clouds of distorted noise via what appeared to be the amplification and modification of the sound of dripping water, Audrey Chen, Baltimore City Paper’s best musician 2004, the aforementioned Carly Ptak, and Los Angeles Free Music Society member Joseph Hammer take the stage and freak the hell out.
To be more specific, Chen played cello and made fucked up baby animal noises while Ptak attacked with animal growls and helps, with busted-assed violin and “mind” while Hammer hammered tape loops into submission with a white-gloved hand.
The international audience of those on the same brain wave sat, rapt. This was the first night of set of after set of improvised, delightful mayhem. A “feral choir” was in the works. The Theater Project is filled with guttural yells and caterwaul of the first order.
April 4th, 1968
Following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Baltimore city erupts in rioting. Racial tensions in the city, already high, cause Baltimore to burst into flames. The looting and burning is especially bad in West Baltimore, an area of the city with a large African-American population.
For many, this was the last straw, and white flight, already a burgeoning phenomenon, entered into its final phase, creating inequalities still apparent today. On April 6th, the National Guard is called in to aid the Baltimore police. Lombard and Pratt streets west of the harbor are a turbulent vista of burning buildings, angry insurrectionists, smashed store fronts, riot police and those caught in the crossfire. Baltimore’s revival and renewal are but a distant dream.
September 27th, 2005
The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) has been a part of the fabric of Baltimore city since 1826. Embedded in the heart of Mount Vernon, MICA has provided a steady stream of art students, drop outs, and freaks essential to the cultural ecosystem.
To walk onto the MICA Commons on a mid-day is to be awash in art people, all dressed to the funky nines, all heading in various directions, some carrying canvases. The Brown center, all modernist architecture and gleaming whites and neutral grays, towers above you, appearing to be a kind of translucent Jawa transport vehicle. I am a stranger here, and I am heading for Twig Harper’s audio installation “American Insurgency,” which is running in the lobby of the Brown center continually.
Or, at least, that is what is supposed to be happening. The cluster of amplifiers and CD players, attached to various speakers placed in strategic places, has been turned off or dismantled. Was it a disgruntled security guard? Was it a sculpture student on a lunch break?
I spend a moment pondering the mechanism, all clearly marked DO NOT TOUCH and DO NOT TURN OFF as light steams in via translucent glass panes. Students swirl around me, taking no notice, off to classes on PostModern Deconstructionist what-have-you. Is this really an art school, or art school in a movie?
After a moment of contemplation, I flip the appropriate switch. The Brown center is suddenly swept up in buzz and howl. A police siren seems to pan across the room. I stand in what I believe is the best spot to take in the discord. Students still swirl around me, taking no notice.
After a few minutes of absorption, I have had enough. I leave “American Insurgency” running, as it should be. It will be dismantled by security guards and art students. It will be turned on and off and on again in its final twenty-four hours of installation. The sounds will echo throughout the Brown center, underground will meet overground, insurrection will meet institution, and life in Baltimore will continue to be interesting.
Brown Center at MICA: http://archrecord.construction.com/projects/portfolio/archives/0407mica.asp
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