Ten-Speed Guillotine, Cassette Culture, Exotica Music, Noise Music.
Have you heard of any of these before? Good question. I would be lying if I said I did before two or three months ago. Luckily, my conversations with Jeff Chenault and countless others have opened my eyes to another world of sound in Columbus that was on a parallel, if not the same, trajectory as dance music in the 90s. Each of these bands, music scenes, or approaches to music creation or distribution had a formative influence on Jeff or on Columbus electronic music more generally. Thus, I think it is essential to give Chenault the space to discuss his life, his art, and his thoughts, but first a few words on Jeff and what his experiences offer us in the dance music community.
Looking to Jeff’s experience reveals the dogged Do-It-Yourself ethos that is encoded on the DNA of columbus electronic music. Though I don’t want to over-emphasize the impact of one man, I think its safe to say that Jeff and his contemporaries like Andy Izold, Carl Howard, Trademark Gunderson, James Towning, Steve Wymer, and many more inspired many people in Columbus to follow their dreams to create art in the broadest sense of the term. For instance, his work with Andy Izold in the experimental band Ten-Speed Guillotine helped introduce a new generation of Columbus music makers and listeners to think expansively about what music is. No doubt, his pushing of the ethos of DIY Cassette Culture with his Exoteque Music Label also demystified making art and made it an accessible for a wide audience. I know Jeff’s stories and work today inspire me to think broadly and never discount a sound.
I only hope we can continue to think broadly, like Jeff and his contemporaries did, when we curate shows so we can push for a merging of different music scenes with our dance music scene. For instance, I think listeners and artists can gain a lot by going to events where noise/ambient/experimental artists are showcased alongside dance music artists. The Body Release & ele_mental days saw artists fluidly moving between noise, ambient, experimental circles and dance music shows. Today, the merging of experimental and dance artists has been pursued though Scott Niemet’s KVLT events and The Fuse Factory’s Frequency Friday shows (Read more about that here), but I think we need to continue to think about more ways we can bring these two communities together again under one roof in innovative and different spaces. Have you checked out the work of Walleye, Mike Shiflet, Joe Panzner, Ben Bennett, Ryan Jewell, Tone Elevator, OHIOAN, Forest Management, Glacial 23, and countless other Columbus/Ohio Noise/ambient/experimental artists? Go listen and tell me they don’t add amazing musical contributions to our scene.
Yet, why stop at just merging these two scene? No doubt, there has been a general openness to merging scenes in Columbus. The merging of dance and hardcore scenes has been done with Scott Niemet’s most recent KVLT show and My Best Friend’s Party has attempted to bring together jam and dance scenes under one room with the Bass Jam shows. I propose we keep going. What can we learn from Jazz? What about Blues? That same gritty D-I-Y ethos that drives us when no one is watching should drive us to continually innovate, as so many of the foundational members of our scene always have. We don’t need to be the best. We just need to keep learning, listening, and creating and not get caught up in a rat race that is blind to values and those it is leaving behind.
Local Autonomy: What role did music play in your life growing up? How did you become a musician?
Jeff Chenault: I grew up listening to music my entire life. My dad’s first job after I was born was as a DJ in Chillicothe, Ohio so I was constantly exposed to music. When I was 5 years old I got my first turntable/stereo. My dad would always bring me records especially the radio station rejects they wouldn’t play because it didn’t fit their format. So at a very early age I went from the Beatles to The Plastic Cow Goes Mooooog. I was always fascinated by sound. The whole punk thing and the spirit of DIY is what really pushed me to make my own music even though I don’t consider myself a musician.
LA: We had a really interesting conversation about how the time period you come up in influences your approach to music creation. How did it benefit you to have to think about how to make music in a time period when studio quality tools and YouTube tutorials were not so readily available as they are for today’s generation?
JC: Well, back in the early eighties the only computer I had was a Commodore 64. There was no internet at the time and to make any kind of sound you had to type in pages and pages of text. Not very fun for sparking creativity in someone who wanted to make music with it. Eventually I bought a used reel to reel, a Moog Satellite synthesizer and a Roland TR-606. It all comes down to the tools that are available for you to use. If I had “real” computer or an iPad when growing up I’m sure composing would have been a lot easier. We had to approach sound from a purely physical standpoint.
LA: It seems that your experiences growing up in Port Huron, Michigan really shaped your love of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) music. What is it about DIY music that you love so much?
JC: Everything! I blame Lon C Diehlfor my audio issues. Lon was the manager of Full Moon Records and he would later go on to form Hunting Lodge with Richard Skott in 1982. Port Huron was a very small town but Lon would order the latest electronic and experimental music that nobody ever heard of. I noticed that a lot of bands would release things themselves. Bands like Throbbing Gristle, Nocturnal Emissions, SPK, Nurse with Wound, Maurizio Bianchi, etc. were all releasing things independently. They did everything from recording the music to making the cover art and then self promotion. This was very inspiring to me.
LA: You were and still are a member of the cassette culture movement. I think the movement is so fascinating. Can you tell us a little about your experiences trading tapes in the 80s and early 90s and the impact it had on you as an artist?
JC: Back in the 1980’s and 90’s this was the way you could share your music with like-minded individuals. Labels like Hal McGee’s Cause and Effect, Chris Phinney’s Harsh Reality Music and Carl Howard’s Audiofile Tapes were huge!
(L to R: Carl Howard, Jeff Chenault, & Hal McGee)
They had 100’s of tapes for sale or trade. Hence I started the ITN/Exoteque Music label so I could share my music as well. Some of the best music during this time period was made by people working out of their own homes. For me it was awe-inspiring! Check out Andrew Szava-Kovats incredible documentary called Grindstone Redux (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!). It’s the story of the cassette culture and includes interviews with the recording artists and label owners.
Hal McGee at Fuse Factory Frequency Friday Show
LA: What lessons do you think can we take away from the DIY and Cassette Culture Movements to help build our Columbus electronic music scene more generally?
JC: That if you have a passion for something, do it! A lot of people who were doing things 30 years ago are still very active today! Why? Because they are passionate about something and they feel the need to create things and share them with people. It’s as simple as that. I’m hoping that today’s youth are just as passionate. Getting people to come out and support electronic and experimental music is not as easy. Fuse Factory hope to change this by bringing in not only artists from around the world, but by supporting local artists as well. They are a think tank for creative ideas.
Mike Shiflet & Jeff Central From It Looks Like Its Open 5/22/12
LA: You have been intensively studying exotica music for the last thirty years. What is exotica music and why do you think it is important to preserve it and educate people about it?
JC: Exotica music is a huge passion of mine. In the original heyday of the 1950’s and 60’s, Exotica music was a form of easy listening that had the ability to transport the listener to an unknown South Seas island all from the comfort of home. It was a form of audio opium that sometimes included strange percussion instruments, bird calls, and sound effects. It was definitely music to escape by. I have been collecting and researching this music so long that I thought what better way to preserve it than by releasing it! So with the help of Dionysus Records we released The Beachcomber Trio “live” at the Kahiki” and “The Exotic Sounds of Jerry Sun.”
To help with the preservation effort I have also conducted seminars at the Tiki Oasis and Hukilau events. Through education and preservation I hope to save this very cool tropical music from extinction. My next seminar will be in Dayton at The Call of the Tropics Tiki Art Show in July.
LA: Ten-Speed Guillotine is cited by Body Release and the ele_mental crew as a key formative influence. I know such thinking is weird to do, but would you indulge me and gauge the impact you had on the late 80s early 90s period of dance music?
Ten-Speed Guillotine Poster
JC: I don’t think it’s weird to be influenced by other bandsor individuals that come before you. I was influenced by lots of different people growing up. I like the word inspiring better. As far as having an impact I can’t say. I do know that back when we were playing out live in the Columbus area, not too many bands were doing what we were doing.
Ten-Speed Guillotine poster
We had a unique sound that combined bizarre loops and samples, dark ambient, noise and electronic dance music. We were actually a combination of all our influences at the time. Local people also influenced us. Steve Wymer had his Spine project, Mark Gunderson had the Evolution Control Committee and James Towning was recording under the name Fact 22. We all knew and respected each other and influenced each other as well. Hell, Body Release influenced me!!
LA: It was so shocking to me to learn that in 2005 many of your noise/experimental sound projects had run their course and you sold many of your instruments. Would you be so kind to describe what led you to grow tired or disenchanted with electronic exploration and what sparked you to get back into it within the past two years?
JC: I think most artists get disenchanted or bored with their work at some point. For me I just wasn’t having any fun anymore and my sound ideas had run their course with the equipment I had. I still recorded a few side projects with Andy Izold but for the most part my output was next to nothing. I’m one who really needs motivation to do something.
In 2011 when Dan Rockwell showed me the iPad and some of the music apps that he had I was completely hooked. Not only was I hearing new sounds, it was a new way of thinking and a new way of playing. Since then I’ve completely embraced the iOS musical world and haven’t looked back.
Performance at Brothers Drake–December 2011
LA: Much of your sound work relies on you doing free form improv with your longtime collaborators Dan Rockwell and Andy Izold in a group called Circuitry Room. Why do you enjoy improv and what constraints do vocals and beats put on a “no map” approach to music?
JC: Working with sound improvisation leaves a huge palette to work with. No restrictions and no rules are very liberating for a sound artist. Vocals and beats tend to be restrictive. Vocals mean words and words have meanings which can be misinterpreted by different people so we tend to keep them out. Cut-ups and wordless vocals are interesting though and I love rhythmic waveforms but drum beats to me mean dance and we do not want to be a dance band. I want something that’s totally different and I get that with freeform improvisation.
Wonderful Video Interview with Circuitry Room By Rich Bowers
LA: You and the other members of the Fuse Factory have been looking to merge noise/experimental music with artists in the dance music community in Columbus for your Frequency Friday shows at Wild Goose Creative. I have always thought there was such natural cross between the two groups of artist that became evident to me in events like Scott Niemet’s Kvlt events. Why do you think it’s important to have these two communities playing on the stage with one another?
JC: It’s important because both the noise and dance communities are not only growing and evolving, they are connected as well. The artists and performers are actually influencing each other and we think it’s a good idea to bring them together. I think it will ultimately benefit both communities and will introduce people to new ways of expressing their creativity.
LA: I think this last question really gets to the core of your artistic motivation. What role does having fun play in keeping your artistic spark alive?
JC: For me personally it’s everything! I mean, if you’re not having fun then why bother.
Check out Jeff’s Bandcamp page HERE for more of his work.
(Thanks to Jeff for all the pictures)