INTERVIEW: PBK interviewed by C. Reider

AUTOreverse #14, Summer 2011
aka Phillip Klingler
interviewed by
C. Reider 

First of all, congratulations on your twenty-five year anniversary!  Twenty-five years is a long time to be doing anything, and I think you’ve been consistent and principled in pursuing realizations of your ideas, and deserve a lot of credit for that. Considering the occasion, I think it’s probably appropriate to start with something retrospective. Why don’t you tell me about the beginnings of your work with sound, and your first experiences with noise music?

Thanks for the kind words, Chris. I never think about things like that too much, although it’s nice that you said them, coming from you it’s quite a compliment! I do sometimes enjoy telling people how long I’ve been following my creative compulsions, it has it’s own absurd impact.

The beginning of my music-making started with a Casio SK-1! I bought my first one in 1986. I was on my living room floor making absurd loopy songs with the memory function, real facetious and shitty stuff, but a few things I did hinted at a direction, these were the more ambient pieces. I started thinking that these little textures, that’s all they were basically, that they were sort of “painterly”. I was living in California at the time and was just out of college, trying to live the artist’s life, painting canvases, showing at different group shows, I got into the mail art scene, all this at a time when “neo-expressionism” was the prevailing style and many of my works were done in that mode. But I really wanted to become more abstract in my painted work and I was beginning to move in that direction when I discovered that little Casio keyboard!

Obsessively, I started to buy more instruments: guitar, bass, drum machine, synths and, with the acquisition of a four track cassette recorder, I began recording. There was a short time, over a few of months in ’86, when I was improvising the best I could manage, trying to create actual song structures. Some were funky, weird, others more of a punk style with wailing guitar played shakily over the top of everything. Most of these were very quirky and amateurish, but there were things that sounded better to me and those were the more free-flowing, psychedelic improvisations. I decided to drop out most of the conventional aspects of rhythm and melody and work more with the free and noisy sounds. Then it struck me that these psychedelic soundscapes were correlations to ideas that I had been wanting to explore in my paintings. All the movements in art and the ideas I was most fascinated by: Abstract Expressionism, Collage/Cut Up, Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, they all seemed to come together for me when expressed in terms of sound. 

pbk live 2004

I arrived at a noise solution in my work by seeking, again, an increasingly abstract sound structure which could only be achieved by using sounds that were not so self-referential. It became more important in the first years (up to 1990) to try to abandon sounds that would create distinct pictures in a listener’s mind. Like a bell sound creates an image in your mind, I wanted an image to be there when listening to my music, just not one that could be so easily defined. As with anything in art, the conceptualizing of a piece is often different from the end realization, but I’m trying to convey my mindset in relation to “noise”. I knew nothing at the time of Merzbow, or The Haters, nor any of the others already working in the noise genre. The first thing I heard that was along those lines was a Due Process album, “RRRadio Six”, (in 1987) and I started sending Ron Lessard my sound sources immediately after that for him to use on his RRRadio live show. My view is that the noise aesthetic was being defined in very personal ways by a whole group of sound artists who had little contact with one another. The driving force behind this zeitgeist is probably some sort of accumulation of energies and forces which I can only speculate at. 

How interesting that so many people I know from the cassette underground migrated there from the mail art underground.  There really is no current-day correlation to this intra-networking pair of communities, which is a pity. 

The famous SK-1!  I never had one but I did covet them in the 80s.  This simple “toy” really did seem to encourage people to think differently about sound and what was music… 

So, eventually you were drawn toward the turntable as an instrument.  This was during the time when it wasn’t unheard of to use vinyl, but it wasn’t very common.  There were people like AMK on the lesser-known side & Christian Marclay on the more famous side of things using it.  How did you gravitate toward this instrument, was there a connection there to having heard hip-hop music?  

I never really knew much of Marclay’s work, though he was the most well-known conceptual turntablist. I was, however, very impressed with AMK’s use of cutup, re-assembled flexi-discs. The one that really got to me was “Floppy Night”, his brilliant collaboration with Das of Big City Orchestra. But his approach was so personal, I didn’t want to adopt it outright for my own purposes. But there was one single “accident” that led to my use of the turntable and it also has to do with flexi-discs. 

pbk live paris 1996

So, in 1992, while living in Puerto Rico, I was teaching art to kids there and working on some large-scale posters for the local English speaking school. I had a book called “Music Of Many Cultures” which included two or three flexi-discs of world music stored in a pocket on the inside back cover. Using an upright projector to blow some of this book’s illustrations up large for these posters I was making, the heat of the projector melted the flexis slightly, not much, but enough to warp them so they would never play “correctly” again. Well, this is the way happy accidents occur that when I played them on my turntable, they would jump around and loop in the most interesting ways! So, I used those sounds a lot in the 90’s and through that process then began to think of other ways of using extreme turntable manipulation. I melted and warped records. I cut flexi-discs into odd shapes and placed them on top of other records to skip the needle, or make it hang up and slide. I would throw coins and small things onto records to bump the cartridge while playing. My use of turntables, therefore, was not at all related to hip hop, but totally about creating random sonic events that could not be anticipated.

The music you do, especially recently, has a very “live” feel to it, and from what I know of your methodology, there is an improvised, real-time performance at the heart of your recorded work.  Are you more comfortable, then, as a live performer or a recording electronic composer?  

You’re right, I have always used improvisation as the basis for my soundwork. But in the 90’s I started to think more specifically about how to actually go onstage and work in a highly spontaneous mode like a jazz artist would do. I admire musicians with the skill to “sit in’ with other artists and create something meaningful without a lot of planning or rehearsing. I thought, well, as a post-modern musician I may not have, you know, conventional musical skills, but I still ought to be able to do something like that. So, I’ve made an effort to push myself to perform live in a lot of different configurations: heavy metal, jazz, even hip hop and working with spoken-word artists. i’m no more comfortable either purely improvising or working in a more constrictive, methodical way, it’s all the same to me. The entire spectrum of creative invention is always a learning experience.

You were active in the cassette underground from early on, having experienced the so-called “golden age” of tape trading days.

I notice now that cassette labels are resurgent, which I find simultaneously really ironic and yet somehow quite cool.  Toward the  end of when I was in the network, everyone (including myself) was jumping all over themselves to get on the CDr bandwagon, because they were so ‘superior’ to tapes.  Now people are way more interested in tapes than CDrs.  Kinda funny.  People are even actually PAYING for tapes, which leaves me speechless.  I wonder if you could comment on the resurgence of tapes… and on the burgeoning free-netlabel community (which I am very excited about)… and perhaps also on the importance of community in the underground music making scene.  I realize that’s a kind of big, multi-part question and you can take that whichever direction you want. 

To be honest, I sort of had a good laugh about the “rebirth” of cassettes. I never cherished cassettes, always considered them to have inferior sound quality… although I sort of liked the compression characteristics they gave my sounds. But realizing that the younger generation of noise fans and artists have nothing tangible in the acquisition of an mp3, and also the fact that in my life I have been a collector of many things: books, comics, LP’s etc., so I think I understand where they’re coming from. It’s not only a fascination for the art object, but also everybody wants to show what they do with their life and interests (& money!). At this point though, the music buying/collecting is a lot less important to me. 

One thing I love about download culture is finding albums that are really obscure, but still correlated to other music I am already obsessed with! So, for instance, to finally be able to hear the rare krautrock I could never get my hands on, the earliest Kraftwerks, or Heldon, the immense Sun Ra catalog, that was to me very satisfying. The essence of music is still vibrational and that is how I want to experience it, I don’t care if I “own” it or not, I don’t even really care any more if I have the cover/booklet, whatever! The music is essential. It’s sort of hard to predict where this somehow-important fetishism aspect of music buying will go, how it will manifest itself, but the important thing for any sincere musician is to have their music heard by people. So, I feel it’s very important to have high-quality, free releases online and I offer a number of mine. I have always been supportive of the trade ethic, it doesn’t matter to me so much selling my music, but rather, in whatever way, to get my music into some new ears, that’s the point of it.

I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between illicit downloading and netlabel culture.  It must be said that in netlabel culture the artists have control of their licensing and personally choose to offer their music for free, and I’ve heard a strong sentiment of unease from some in the netlabel culture about being grouped together with illegal downloading.  Not that I have a problem with the latter, I just feel it’s important to state that here.

Well, let me step back a bit. I understand about the controversy over illegal downloading and file sharing. For most musicians there are not going to be the financial opportunities in this kind of system, granted, but the commodification of music has certainly not helped the evolution of the form. And, here’s the thing, there are a whole bunch of brilliant musicians who have never made any money off their work, and many are still working at their art form 20, or 30+ years later! The forces that drove them to make music are inner, personal forces. They are not supported financially by the system, it’s almost like being an “unofficial” artist in Communist Russia in the 50’s/60’s, the only way to acquire your materials to create art would be in the black market! To this I see a metaphor. 

Respect and validation are important, that’s why I started writing reviews for my blog. Sometimes it was only a review that indicated if your creative experiment had been successful to any degree. When you’re “in it” it’s hard to be objective. But getting back to my point, the human mind is inquisitive, the young artists want to know, need to know the history of the music in order to approach it from a more enlightened and advanced place. There is a history of music and there is an unwritten history of music in the vast amount of really crucial albums that were never played on radio, that never got heard because they didn’t make the playlist. Important music that ought to be heard but was obscure until the internet came along and enlightened people decided to share some of these obscurities. 

The flipside is a lot of people also started sharing newly released stuff too and the people who couldn’t afford music downloaded that and it stuck a pin in the profit balloon. So? Move on, people, profiteers have ruined music, listen to the popular songs of this time frame, driven by television imagery and a public radio system that is owned by a few corporate giants, who only want to play the music that they put out. It’s very self serving and extremely mediocre. Now here we are in the 21st century, still a huge underground of artists literally dying to be heard. The sooner that the old system dies, the better. Home taping wasn’t killing music, the corporations were killing it. Maybe now the internet will kill their ability to commodify it and we can take a different path.

I’m rather interested in the idea of being influenced by a place.  I’ve always considered my music to have been influenced by the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where I lived for most of my life.  I think we share this sentiment, as you’ve frequently mentioned Flint, Michigan as an inspiration, you’ve even started a blog about it, and have a recent release… 

I’d like to hear your thoughts about the significance of place in the inspiration of art, and more specifically Flint and PBK’s music.  I have heard that the Flint area has a healthy noise scene, (which, incidentally, contradicts the Michael Moore film intimating a lack of culture there.)

So, you ask about Flint, I can talk for a while about Flint! Michael Moore was right about Flint, a town of working class people who were interested in cars, sports and leisure. That’s my dad in a nutshell, and also my uncles, my grandfathers, etc. It’s such a huge part of the history of Flint, the birth of the UAW, the strikes and violence, that’s what these people did when they got shit on. But they wiped up the shit with something green that had dead presidents on it. As long as the money was right there wouldn’t be any more showings of such solidarity. Take people’s comforts away and they get mad fast. But if an art program got cancelled it meant nothing to these working class. 

Now, there are some people who are trying to remake this dead city into an art haven, a cultural entity of some sort, but that’s not it’s past. This town’s history was based on automobile factories. Assembly line work doesn’t exactly build a person’s aesthetic character, it sort of tends to dull it actually. It was the children of those factory workers, third generation children to be exact, who as automobile dreams were fading, set out to be different from their parents. Well, you know, a lot of what pushes people towards individual thought is a reaction to the conservatism of their parents. But here, it was even more difficult to move outside of the frame of reference because any other narrative didn’t create a comfortable living money-wise. So, Flint went through these upheavals and maybe now it’s image from the past is dead, but any city is like an organism, or group of cells, always reshuffling and fluctuating in different ways to cope with changes in the environment. 

So, it’s a bit different now, but what I like about it is the ghosts of those factories and how they somehow haunt the perceptions of the people who live here. The way forward for a lot of people here is to recapture the glory of the past. So, even now, with many parts of the city in a shambles, hundreds of houses abandoned and burned, all summer long they have car shows here, parades that commemorate General Motors, etc. and nobody thinks about the fact that they are celebrating their own demise!

I decided recently to create a series of tapes, in this case a trilogy, in dedication to Flint. The first was “Fenton Road Beast”, the second was “Cornwall Spectre/Holloway Reservoir Creeps” and the third (as yet untitled) one will come later in the year. But really these “tributes” are sort of examining the underbelly of this community, focusing on the things that I find most interesting here, darkness, entropy, ghosts and rot.

pbk – Tout Va Bien, directed by Greg DeLiso

Working on music for twenty five years, you’ve got to have a pretty damned clear idea about what you’re doing.  So what is the present state of PBK and what are your goals, and how is your recent available work reflective of these?

I’m not dogmatic about my work at all. I go from project to project, approaching each one with a different outlook, seeking more possibilities through my process. I know that I want to be honest in what I am doing, I don’t want it to be contrived, so I work very spontaneously and I still play all kinds of games to try and thwart my instincts. Accidents happen in good and bad ways. There are times when you exceed your expectations and other times when you fail yourself. I’m often bewildered by the act of creating music, I guess I still sort of don’t know what I am doing, to be honest, and I think that is important too. The post-modernist approach guarantees nothing, it doesn’t come from talent so you can never exactly count on a result. But what it does get to is something talent cannot anticipate, the pure invention of chance. So, if anything, I’m still trying to apply my approach to different scenarios hoping to come up with more compelling results. 

My musical heroes are so insanely great! Coltrane? Is it fathomable to create a body of work like that in a lifetime, much less a short lifetime? Sun Ra? Xenakis? (so many others) The blueprint is there already, I’m not trying to imitate it, but making an honest attempt to achieve a better, more forceful statement. My work should be reflective of this, but I can’t be objective about it! I get obsessed with a project only to soon never listen to it again, so it’s mostly, for me, about “process” and not the end result. But I still hope the end result sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard!

Thanks for the interview, it’s been informative!