This is my 100th post on Local Autonomy. I have been covering dance/electronic/experimental music in our city for almost a year. I could get all sentimental and wishy-washy–emotional is the operative term for the repertoire of such actions. Alas, I will save those feelings for closer to the one year anniversary in November. Instead, I will funnel all of my feelings into featuring the thoughts and work of Columbus-based noise/experimental artist Mike Shiflet.
Shiflet has been making music in and around Columbus for over 12 years, and ran a record label called GMBY that released over 100 albums. I think his music and his live performances are some of the most powerful I have encountered in our city. Yet, Shiflet’s music defies easy characterization. I loosely describe his work to people as noise and experimental. He describes it to people unfamiliar with noise/experimental music as ambient punk or mangled new age (he talks about that a little more below). Yet, I really wonder what good such characterizations of his music are? In my discussions with Shiflet, he too questioned their utility when describing his work. Who really cares what you call the music right? All that matters is that at the core of Shiflet’s music is a curiosity to explore what it means to be human in the 21st century. I feel we need more music like Shiflet’s that is willing to take risks, test your preconceptions of what music is, and help you explore the possibilities of different forms of music. I know every time I listen to his albums the world seems to slow down for a bit, I can breath a bit easier, and I can get lost in the waves of distortion and simple melodies. That seems to be pretty important today when it is pretty hard to slow down. My hope is that you too can take some time out of your day to read his thoughts, listen to his two recent albums “Merciless” & “Sufferers” released on Type Records (One of my favorite labels now), and check out his other work on his bandcamp (I suggest llanos–Its pretty great). Enjoy.
Local Autonomy (LA):You have been creating what is loosely termed “noise” music for some time now. What attracted you to this form of music?
Mike Shiflet (MS): I had a discussion with friend and tourmate Jason Zeh earlier this summer about what we ultimately coined the positive dissatisfaction at the root of our interest in noise. The only way to find experimental music is to seek it out and the people who do that are doing so because they aren’t fulfilled by what they are hearing elsewhere. This definitely applies to myself and I have a feeling it is pretty much universal. I wasn’t bored or unhappy with the music I was finding elsewhere – in fact, I hold the indie rock of the 1990’s in the highest regard – but I couldn’t help myself from seeking out forms of expression that were more free and more unique. That dissatisfaction is a deeply embedded character trait that I still see in myself and most of my peers. I think it’s why you see so many of us exploring various niche genres, delving deep into arcane ethic music and so forth.
(Mike Shiflet & Jeff Central at the Gallery/Performance Space It Looks Like It’s Open On East Tulane)
LA: What inspired you to start making music and getting involved with the local noise scene in Columbus?
MS: I arrived here at just the right time in the summer of 2000 when the Madlab theater downtown started hosting shows on a regular basis. To the best of my knowledge it was the first time in the city that these types of shows were happening on a regular basis in a steady environment. The scene was much smaller then, but Madlab brought all of the unique experimental music personalities out of the woodwork. Meeting, listening to, and performing with people like David Reed, Larry Marotta, Mark Gunderson and Rocco DiPietro (to name just a few) so early on in my time here definitely helped shape me as an artist and a person. Having that go-to venue made it much easier for us to come together creatively. It also laid the foundation and prepared me for when the scene grew exponentially in places like BLD and Skylab a few years later and we started bringing more and more touring acts through town.
LA: You often describe your music to those who aren’t familiar with it as Ambient Punk. Why is that?
MS: Well, I tend to use that term when talking with people who aren’t familiar with experimental music whatsoever. There are plenty of other descriptors I would use with people in the know. I started using it after NPR published a feature on me a while back and the link was circulated around my workplace. I had several co-workers with zero points of reference approaching me about my work and I found that punk ambient combined two fairly universal terms that almost everyone understood. I don’t find it entirely accurate – mangled new age might be more appropriate – but it is strong enough to leave an impression on the uninitiated and hopefully pique their curiosity.
LA: This seems to connect with your goal to keep simple melodies in your music. Why is this important to you?
MS: It’s a part of who I am and a part I want to share. After several years creating noise, I settled down and finally came to place where I felt that I was truly projecting instead of being reactionary with my work. Not long after that, I became comfortable enough to start incorporating the musical elements I had in my head. I’ve described that process as being the opposite of noise rock. Acts in that realm are distorting and manipulating accepted musical forms. Conversely, my goal is to coerce some kind of structure out of a swirling mass of chaos. Keeping the melodies simple has been more necessity than desire to this point. I need the sounds to be easy to mold and able to fit within the larger, noisier structures so I’ve taken it slowly as I gradually work in more complex music.
LA: We talked a bit about how you like to take a long-term historical approach to music making. Why is artistic longevity so important to you as an artist?
MS: This was a byproduct of a couple different things. I’ve been doing this almost half of life now and when I was younger I had several ‘next year’ years where I felt I was on the brink of achieving a certain level of success. I watched a lot of friends get flown overseas and perform at large festivals during the noise boom in the first half of the last decade and honestly felt jealous not to be there alongside them. At the same time every single year I was getting turned on to more and more artists from decades past whose work had eluded me, many of whom were still active. So rather than brood about the events of the day, I opted to look to artists like Elaine Radigue and Henri Chopin, who developed their work over decades, for inspiration. I now feel a bit foolish about the feelings I had at the time, but I’m glad they helped me attain this perspective.
LA:In your branch of the music universe, releases come out in cassettes, CDs, and digitally. How do you decide what music you create goes onto each format?
MS: I try to start each project without a format or destination in mind and let the material tell me where it should go as they take form. The things that end up on cassettes and CDRs are progress reports and sketches of sort. They are usually fully formed works, but might be lacking that certain something to earn a spot on a full length CD or LP. Which isn’t to say they are scraps – this decision is usually made after the recording, which can take months, is done. On the web I will usually post all matter of material: live works, skeletal tracks, improvisations; the things I definitely wouldn’t want to charge people to hear. And then I try to cherry pick the best material for the CDs and vinyl. The Llanos CD actually came about very quickly when I realized material that had been set aside for a few cassettes and a web release would actually work better in a cohesive album format. Of course it’s all guess work, but I want the best material on the formats that will reach the widest audiences.
LA: You have released two Albums on Type Records: Merciless (2012) & Sufferers (2011). You told me that you think they are an excellent model for record labels and for the music industry in general. Why?
MS: Type has fully embraced the duality of the music business. They treat the the records like artifacts and collector objects while simultaneously putting their entire catalog up on Soundcloud and making it available on their website. Everyone has authorized access to the music at their fingertips and the people who want high fidelity archival documents have access to those as well. It’s a great something-for-everyone approach.