Intentionally Degraded: PC Worship’s Compulsive Hysteria

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“Grating sounds are not necessarily a byproduct of the process like they used to be—they’re more compositional.”

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Sam Lefebvre | December 3, 2015

Photo by Dana Pacifico.

Photo by Dana Pacifico.

Staple New Music venue the Roulette Intermedium boasts an archive of live recordings dating back to 1978, when a few intrepid composers decided to program a concert series in a Tribeca loft. Today, the Roulette endures in Brooklyn, where a stable of audio engineers uphold tradition by quietly and unobtrusively recording every performance. One of them is Justin Frye. And one evening last year, after staffers and the audience filed out, Frye primed the recording console anew and settled behind the empty Art Deco theater’s grand piano to work out a somber, languorous progression that’d been stewing in his mind all night.

Frye records professionally and compulsively. Like so many of his found sounds and captured musical ideas, the discrete piano figure wound up in a labyrinthine, richly textured PC Worship song, “Done”. It opens the recently recently released, four-song full-length, Basement Hysteria. There, the piano pulse undergirds braying horns and gurgling radio talk, which all gives way to a heaving riff and Frye’s eerily affectless vocals. A typical line, delivered in a seemingly narcotic stupor, goes, “Which way is down? I don’t know.”

As Frye recalls, the horn was culled from a lark session. His friend Andre Bernstein soloed, without accompaniment, while Frye rolled tape. They’d just finished up rehearsal for a wedding band. As for the modulated radio, another evening Frye tuned into AM and started recording. “It was some Christian, sermon-like program and it started talking about the power of sounds, their psychological effect, and how that related to religion,” he says. “It felt very necessary.”

PC Worship is an amorphous ensemble with Frye at the center. Performance credits on myriad titles since 2009 feature instruments esoteric and invented, long lists of names, and a few question marks. That underscores the hectic, disjointed process through which Frye collects recordings and welds them into songs, often regardless of the individual parts’ natural harmony with one another. “I let recordings marinate and develop,” he says. “The material tends to cultivate in a cauldron and then I weed things out.”

The bulk of Basement Hysteria, which follows the 2014 full-length Social Rust, was recorded at Frye’s studio and rehearsal space, a block from his Brooklyn home. Earlier titles were recorded at Le Wallet—a Bushwick venue and residence that Frye called a “recital hall with the ethos of a punk house”—or else professional studios and smaller rehearsal spaces. As the title suggests, Frye says that Basement Hysteria is especially reflective of the recording process as a maddening spiral—interior and alienating, even with collaborators.

“I spent a lot of time obsessively composing and sequencing,” he says. “There’s mixing, adding, and subtracting until I feel sort of hysteric, or emotionally unstable from a creative perspective.”

Frye grew up in Virginia Beach, VA, where he attended an arts high school and played upright bass in the orchestra. In 2003, he moved to New York and enrolled at the New School, immersing himself in learned improv communities and scrappy punk enclaves alike. “At the point [PC Worship] started, those things didn’t have to be subdivided or compartmentalized,” he recalls. “I wanted to stop creating those sort of distinctions.”

It’s strange to have commercial conditions influence your process.

Basement Hysteria collapses such cultural divisions. Elongated song structures recall durational performance art and minimalism. Rock riffs absorb the gauzy residue of distressed tape. Alien timbres mingle with the instantly familiar. It also feels more purposeful than earlier titles, featuring degrees of intent and discipline that seem to clash with PC Worship’s noise inclinations, the outfit’s reputation for embracing error and damage.

“I never had a demoing process before—that’d just become the record or the tape,” Frye says. No longer. Hesitantly, Frye calls himself a “studiophile.” He collects microphones and appreciates doted-upon production. “As you mature on the utilitarian front, it makes sense that it’d follow on the creative front,” he reckons. “I don’t know. It all has a place: things that sound good and things that sound bad.

“In the beginning, the corrosive sounds could be attributed to an attitude toward the recording process, more so trying to capture something spontaneously,” he says. “A lot of that is more calculated now; the more grating sounds are not necessarily a byproduct of the process like they used to be—they’re more compositional.”

Another distinctive feature of Basement Hysteria is the format: CD and digital-only. No vinyl. “That was a conscious choice made in order to get it out into the world faster,” he says. “Vinyl takes like eight months and for PC Worship that doesn’t parallel the creative rate at all. By the time something comes out on vinyl we’re a year past it… It’s strange to have commercial conditions influence your process.”

And that bore on Frye’s original cover art, ovular black rings intended to look like an abstract LP. “It was also a sort of aesthetic nod to the hysteria side of things—the melting and the warping.”

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