Full disclosure: I am not “into” noise. My buddy Steve Lowenthal started sending me stuff and I listened to everything he sent me, but I most identified with Prurient’s Pleasure Ground. When I started talking to him about interviewing Dom Fernow, the man behind Prurient, it felt like we were talking about a vampire or a mythical creature of some sort. Only 46 cassettes released of Cocaine Death, only 25 copies released of Colonial Nature. In this secret, private, orderly chaotic, forbidden world of Prurient, Dom seemed like a mad genius.
I descended the steps to Hospital Records in the basement of the Reggae store Jammyland one rainy Saturday to meet Dom and my friends: Lowenthal, who runs Hospital Records with Dom and sings for Taylor Bow, and Gabe Spierer, who grew up in Milwaukee playing in bands while Dom was exploring noise. Hospital Records is not just a record store. It is not just a label. It is a heavily curated experiment in creating a hub of Dom-approved music. The entire time we talk, he evaluates everything around the store — from the way the CDs line up, to the way the cassettes are stacked, to the order of the vinyl, to the preciseness of the three red circular rugs on the black floor. He is a man of rules. Here is the world according to Dom.
Kristen Thomas: Pleasure Ground is probably making me closer to killing people than I should be.
Dom Fernow: Well, it marks a huge turning point in the mechanics of how I was making the sound, for starters because it was the first all-digital record. That was the first one composed entirely on the computer. But the idea was just to take four loops essentially with vocal accompaniment and add in a sense of melody linked to trance. Everybody says it’s a black metal record but it actually has no influence from that. It was really coming from straight trance, club music, like top-40 club music, and in no way do I mean that in any kind of ironic way because there’s this incredible album, Trance Nation America 3. I’ve always had a fascination with minimal techno, but have never really delved into it head-on. But if you take these melodies on guitar instead of synths, they’re basically black metal riffs, because they’re just minor descending melodies. So it’s really more influenced through that. The idea was to make something overtly electronic. Whereas noise music, at its heart, is electronic. But it’s so destroyed and altered it almost takes on a sort of earthy, organic quality. So Pleasure Ground was the first attempt at making an overtly electronic record. So that was a huge turning point from everything that was going on to that prior, where I was trying to capture the most real sound that I could in terms of the rawest, loudest document, very raw extreme sound, but recorded very well, captured with all the details that you were never able to really contain on record that you see in the shows. The piercing tonal feedback that always gets lost on records. In that sense it was a complete reversal from what came before it, whereas all the previous work had basically been building up to trying to harness the detail of high volume. Feedback changes at high volume. People don’t understand that you need volume for feedback. Like when I’m playing these shows and the sound guys are freaking out and they’re always telling me to turn down, but it isn’t just loud for the sake of loud, it’s loud because it changes the entire tonality of what you’re hearing and in turn the emotional quality of what happens at high volumes and the physical effect on the body is completely different.
I couldn’t tell, when I was listening to it in headphones, how loud it was.
I couldn’t tell if it was loud or soft because there’s just so much crushing noise, because when it’s quiet it doesn’t feel loud enough and even when it’s loud it doesn’t feel loud, if that makes any sense.
It makes a lot of sense. And there is softness to that record in comparison. It lives primarily in the middle range. It is by no means the most extreme record in terms of frequency, but that’s also part of the effect of the idea of loops, meditation, trance, repetition. Cutting off beginnings and cutting off ends and just dealing with what happens in the middle. If you start thinking about it in terms of sound, the midrange is really what represents that stagnation, that floating, isolated, alienated type of feeling. Because it isn’t extreme, it isn’t light or dark it isn’t the beginning or the end; it’s this period of stasis. So in that sense, sonically, I’m trying to represent more about the kind of landscape that the sound becomes, the way the sound enters your mind in a visual way even though it’s aural, that there is a lack of dynamics in it. And that’s all very intentional, to try to feed the kind of emotional quality of that lack of progression. It’s never really finalized. It’s never satisfying in that way, it’s intentionally tedious. People don’t understand that a huge part of the work that I do is about tedium and repetition because noise isn’t entertainment. It may be entertaining but the motivation is not to make you feel good. It’s to express. People have a lot of hard time with it because they want a kind of special effects show to be happening. They want to be in this bubble bath of porcupines.
Gabe Spierer: When people tell me they’re into noise I think it's bullshit. Are people missing the point that it’s not about enjoying the sound?
Absolutely. It doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the sounds, and I’m not taking away from the fact that it can be entertaining. In the same way that everyone’s always saying, “oh it’s shock value,” that just speaks to me of their lack of understanding of the mechanism of the art. Because there’s a difference between shocking and shock value because the intent of shock value is simply to shock. You may use a tool to reach a further tool to reach a different place, but that’s the way people feel about the sound. They’re unable to get passed the surface and look at the underbelly of it. And whether that speaks to my failure as the artist or their failure as the audience remains to be seen, but it is not about entertainment in the way that you would traditionally think about music. To me, I don’t think of it as music. It’s art, it’s away from the traditional structures of music but ironically the main ideology of what makes noise noise is there’s an inherent freedom. You’re supposed to be able to approach anything in any way you want to and in that sense ideologically I think the new work is more related to noise, although starting to be more overtly musical, in that sense shattering the expectations of what people have begun to associate with the genre of noise.
GS: Couldn’t you flip it and make something overtly beautiful and musical and call it…
Exactly. And there’s two ways to look at it, the ideology and the philosophy of noise and the genre of noise. And people furiously, as fast as they can, scoop it into a genre. Like any other sort of music, with any other set of predictions and expectations. But at the real core of it it’s supposed to be the freedom to pursue personal obsession outside of audience or genre. So in that sense, making it more musical at this point is further negating that idea of gentrification. But also in terms of lyrical content, there is this emotional sadomasochism or a sadomasochistic quality to it where there is this play between the abused and the abuser. But it’s also, in that sense of yin yang, what makes the yin yang what it is, is not simply the idea of two opposing forces, but that both of those forces and elements are constantly trading places with each other and transforming into the other. So in that sense there isn’t a clear distinction given through the lyrics about who is the perpetrator and who is that victim, so that is another extremely important notion behind the record and ultimately the core of the project. Those ideas of paradox, those ideas of hypocrisy and conflict are essential to it, because the conflict, the meeting point in the middle between the x and the y, that’s where the energy happens. And that’s where the force happens that drives the record. It isn’t about being all one side or all the other, it’s the gray area in the middle which is ultimately where the problem and the paradox, that terrible nagging existential question that is on our minds, that’s where it comes from. It would all be so easy if you could identify something as belonging to one side or the other, but as we all know, life just doesn’t work that way. The idea of paradox and hypocrisy is core to the project.
How do you decide to stop a song?
It just depends what the intent is. There are songs that are fast and furious and are just a few seconds, and there are pieces that are upwards of thirty minutes. It’s all a question of what is the mood, what is the image, what is the intent behind it. And the extremes can be equally as devastating. Something that’s thirty seconds long can be just as frustrating and anxious as something that’s dragging you through the mud for thirty minutes. So there isn’t really one answer to that question, it all comes down to intent and what tool is needed for what mood.
How long have you been playing?
Why’d you start?
I was really into underground metal and I kept wanting nosier and noisier sounds and that led me to so-called industrial music. But what found was that industrial at the time was basically just mediocre rock music, and was not what I had been fantasizing about. To me, industrial meant the sound of machines. So a friend of mine had this very primitive computer, with a computer program, and we started making what we thought industrial music should sound like. His stuff basically turned into techno and my stuff basically turned into noise. At the time it wasn’t easy to work with computers like it is now. CD-R technology wasn’t domesticated yet, it wasn’t easy to get the sound off of the computer, so I became totally frustrated and despondent with it, so I decided fuck this, I’m going to start an organic noise project, and that’s really when Prurient started. And the idea was to make some thing raw, and earthlike and musical.
Steve Lowenthal: (points to the wall at Hospital Records with a painted black power strip, black chords and microphone) That’s the first set up right there, in those boxes.
So you went from wanting to make something that sounded like machines to something that sounded like earth?
Yeah, ironically enough. And at that time I was totally unaware of the massive noise network that’d been operating for twenty plus years at that point.
GS: I’m really interested in how you became aware of it. That’s a part of your story that I know nothing about.
When you go on a search for industrial music, inevitably, if you look hard enough, you’re going to start to find, quote unquote, “noise.” There was a radio show in Madison at the time that played a mix of gothic music, indie, and they had Throbbing Gristle, amongst other bands, but it was an article in Resound Magazine, written by Joe Romer of Macronympha that was the first time that I made the conscious decision to reach out and became more aware of a “scene.” And he said in the article: “Everyone listening to noise should be making noise. Send me the tapes.” So that’s what I did and I wrote him maybe the most obnoxious letter I’ve written in my life, saying tell me everything. And within a week I had a five page, meticulously written letter in my mailbox with addresses and names and advice and criticism. Those were the days I would consider the real underground, before the Internet was the main form of information and communication. That’s when you had to send a letter and wait two weeks and see if there was even a reply. Everything was much more hidden and mysterious back then and much less accessible. It was a slow process but it was through that search for industrial music that I was able to find real noise.
So then my lifelong goal was to make Hospital a physical place and it wasn’t until I started really touring that I became aware of the need for a place like this in New York at this particular time. It seemed that the time was right. The first No Fun Fest had happened and that proved that there were a lot of people who were into this music, more than just a handful in New York, and on my entire tour I just started collecting records, as much as I could from the bands I played with, people I would stay with at their house and I just started buying and trading as much as I could and building up inventory. Moved out here with my aunt who lived in White Plains, the last house on a dead end street in the middle of the woods, and I would commute into the city and I would look for work and look for a storefront. And I was working as a file clerk at a drug company in Jersey City in a windowless, clockless room for eight hours a day. Friend of a friend, Steve from Swingset, had asked to do an interview, started hanging out with him on this block and he knew I was looking for a space. Everywhere I looked just wasn’t quite right. I found a space on Graham Avenue that was fucking perfect but a computer company took the spot before I could get in. And Steve knew these guys and half jokingly said, hey, do you know anything opening up and Ira the owner said, well, I do know one space. And from there it just snowballed and there it was. It was complete old school friend of a friend New York style hook up.
What’s the deal with the record label?
The label started simultaneously with the store and at first was simply a means to release my music and the music of my peers, nothing more. It just continued to grow and for a very long time there was no growth whatsoever. Years before anything really happened. I used to just go to shows with a bag full of tapes and just give them away to anyone who looked remotely interested. You have to understand at that time there wasn’t the mechanism, there wasn’t the channels, there wasn’t the support, there wasn’t the knowledge that existed. You really had to hunt and search and dig so I was just concerned with physically getting the work out there. I used to get two to three mail orders a year and for about eight years, that’s the way it was. It really wasn’t until the very end of my time in Providence that things really started to pick up.
So you went from Madison to Providence to here?
I went to RISD. Studied Graphic Design.
SL: He does all the design for all of the Hospital releases. Every one. The artists don’t provide their own artwork.
There’s a strong sense of curation. It isn’t a free-for-all. That’s what I think a good independent label is. If you look at major labels, the only link or thread between what they release is what can sell the most copies, and there’s no real aesthetic. I mean, you think about the range of records that Warner Brothers releases. I think what separates the idea of the independent label is the label actually means something. The stamp that you’re putting on it means something. You’re sending a message to the people that are interested in the record that says this is about this. I think that’s something that’s really lacking on the new people that have come on the scene. They’re just trying to release as much stuff as they can but there’s no vision or intent or meaning behind what they’re doing other than just releasing records. And to me that’s sad because the entire benefit, advantage, distinguishing factor of independent music is the intimacy involved in it. You know the people that you’re working with. You go to see the shows and you’re standing next to the guy who played in the band before. There isn’t this kind of barrier that exists in a lot of other music and that transfers right down to the label and ultimately the band, it’s about the sweat and the blood and the tears and the personal touches. So I think that the people that are just trying to come in and shit out as much as they can are missing the entire lifeblood of what gives this value, what separates it from anything else.
How much of when you were at RISD and had to be making visual art, how much of that played into the music you were making?
I certainly separated them to a large degree. My time at RISD I saw as doing the dishes. Just something that I had to do. I didn’t really blend the two worlds totally. I was operating the label and doing all the activities the entire time I was there. RISD was the sidebar to this. I will say this, RISD was a great education and I use what I learned there everyday, here.
When you started making music ten years ago was this little empire that you’ve created around yourself part of the master plan?
No. I never dreamed that it would have developed into what it has developed. There was no choice; it was just something that I had to do. That was my life, and whether anyone gave a shit or not it didn’t matter because — I just can’t stress it enough. It isn’t about having fun. It’s a necessity. It’s not a hobby and that applies to today just as it did then. Obviously the situation has changed and what motivates it is different. I could put out a lot of records that would sell a lot more copies, but I can’t honestly do something I don’t actually believe in because people expect a certain aesthetic from this place and there’s a reason for those aesthetics, and if that ever really starts to deviate, as sentimental as that might sound, it’s going to go against the foundation of what’s been built up.
Is Taylor Bow a recreational hobby for you?
That’s probably out of all my projects the least fun project. Taylor Bow is to me what punk rock used to be, which was a nasty kick below the belt instead of the pathetic, dogmatic, bumper sticker politics that it’s become. So the idea behind Taylor Bow is to make punk rock nasty and unpleasant and crappy and give it that grit that it used to have. And I make no pretenses to be associated with any so-called punk. Punk to me means independent and to me noise is the real punk and the idea of punk music is just a farce as far as I’m concerned.
GS: Everything you were just describing, not changing or corrupting anything at all, is exactly what punk started as.
Exactly, but you have to distinguish between that idea and that genre. So what I mean when I say that don’t have any interest or connection to so called genre of punk rock.
How often are you writing? Is it noise in your head all the time?
Constantly. I mean, I get in moods, it comes and goes. You know, I might be really into guitar for a while and then I might be really into scraping a plastic bag against a microphone for two weeks, there’s no schedule. Making noise isn’t like having your period. It comes when you feel it and if it isn’t there you don’t do it.
How physical is the creation of your music for you?
It can be extremely physical. Recently it’s become less. The goal of it was how sound effects the body and how, in turn, becomes an emotional metaphor. But it’s much less harsh sonically these days and much more harsh conceptually. Something Merzog said that was great was, “I’m always looking for more brutal sounds. And by brutal I mean more experimental.” I think that’s another thing noise has lost sight of as a genre. When everybody has the same sets of distortions, it just wears off after a while. It’s much harder to listen to when they read off all the names from the World Trade Center. You know, that’s brutal listening. Name after name being read off. There’s this great recording from J.O. Malladar from Finland that was a recording of all the voting ballots being turned in in Finland, it’s just one word being repeated for an hour. You know, that’s devastating. That’s fucking noise. It isn’t always about volume and distortion in the most obvious way. The irony of noise is that when people listen to so called harsh noise, they think that it’s just a complete white wash and it’s just clobbering you over the head from start to finish and the funny part is that it’s really some of the most subtle, delicate sounds. There are so many textures and layers and details and you really have to open your ears to absorb them, and that’s anything that's crude and brute. And half of the so-called acoustic noise or electric acoustic noise is much more difficult listening than the supposed harsh noise. Intensity is not synonymous with volume.
How do you go into your live shows? Are they concerts? Are they performance art?
They are highly ritualistic performance. And by ritual I mean there’s a set of physical and mental repetitions and scenarios that I need to go through to obtain and reach what I would consider to be a successful performance. And that’s a very difficult thing to do because there are so many factors that can interfere or effect what you’re doing. The primary one being technical problems. If you’re struggling with a chord or something’s not working, it’s impossible to reach that mental place where you can act out these moods with any kind of authority or sincerity. It’s difficult to find that place. It’s a paradox. It’s a performance, there’s an audience, there’s a stage, people are expecting something but at the same time you’re constantly trying to make it as authentic and real as possible. A good friend of mine once said, “performance is about tension” and if you’re not tense and nervous then something’s wrong and that still holds very true to me today.
Do you think about the audience at all or is it all about your repetitions?
I try not to. It’s more about trying to find a place in your mind. It’s what I refer to as a negative mediation. You’re trying to reach a place within yourself to access these emotions and negative energy. And that’s hard to reach. There’s a reason I don’t face the audience, because I think there’s a big difference between screaming in somebody’s face and screaming at the wall. And that’s a critical thing, as a performer, that's very important to me. People don’t look at what I do as a simple act of anger or aggression, it is an attack but it is not an attack on the audience, it’s an attack on myself that the audience is witness. And part of that idea of not facing the audience. Some people think it’s pretentious, but there’s a formal reason for it and I want to try to create a sense of voyeurism for the audience. That they are witnessing an event that was already going on and is not defined by their presence. I do that not out of disrespect for the audience but as an attempt to heighten the senses and communicate the ideas of alienation and discontent. Performance is the most challenging test of this game, but it also holds the greatest rewards, when you effectively harness the negative energy on stage, there’s a great potential for transcendence. People say, oh it’s such a catharsis, but I totally reject the idea of catharsis because catharsis means you have something and you’re letting it go. These feelings are never gone, they’re always there, they’re always with me. So in that sense it’s a transformation of negative energy, and that’s different from catharsis. And the other important thing to remember about negative energy is that it’s still energy and it can be used. That’s what I try to do. That’s what the work at its core is about.
It’s easier on tour because you never leave, you’re Prurient one hundred percent of the time. It’s kind of like war. There’re these extreme periods of boredom and tedium followed by brief moments of intensity. And that boredom is a huge part of it, you just go into your mind because there’s nothing else to do.