Blake Edwards/Vertonen:
There is Peace in Momentum

Interview by Chris Sienko

Blake Edwards seems to be made entirely of forward motion. His sound/noise/drone project Vertonen has released a never-ending flow of CDs, CDrs, vinyl; he runs C.I.P. (formerly Crippled Intellect Productions), dedicated to releasing old and future classics (on sturdy, dependable formats like CD and vinyl) by his favorite artists, from Alu to Z’EV, Wolf Eyes to Halfler Trio, Spider Compass to Brutum Fulmen. He books experimental music shows, writes constantly, DJs (at gigs and on the radio), bikes in below-zero weather, tours the world as Vertonen, and still has time to bake the best vegan chocolate chip cookies around, and bring them to shows. Pay the ticket, take the ride…have a cookie!

My esteemed editor, the cruel-but-kind Mr. Dolman, made me promise, as he enveloped my head in electrical tape, gun pointed at my forehead, that I would talk about any subject, except what his music was “all about”…good advice, though my psychiatrist and I question the method of communication. Blake talked about life in his many cities of residence, his writing, sick fucking tricks, C.I.P, high school hijinx, and some secret science shit that I still don’t understand.

You’ve done a lot of traveling: east coast, west coast, Midwest, you’ve lived all over. Can you give us a brief travelogue of the places you've laid your hat, what brought you there, and what sent you onward? Your living environment circa "Captive Compositions/Peace in Providence" tapes sounds pretty fucked up.

A short travelogue would be: born and raised in the California Bay Area--about 20 miles inland from San Francisco. From there I shot down to Riverside, CA, about 60 miles inland of Los Angeles, for undergraduate school. From there I skipped across the nation to Providence, Rhode Island for graduate school, then bounced to New York for 4 or 5 years, attendant to a job offer and a girlfriend who was accepted to a Russian language / area studies program at NYU. I’ve been in lovely Chicago since 1999. Moving to Chicago actually was a spontaneous decision, and one of the better ones I’ve made.

As for correlations with music and where I lived, I dunno, I think the Peace in Providence stuff is pretty mellow--I was in my “derivative Zoviet France” phase, I'd say, with a lot of percussive elements, wind sounds, yadda yadda. Providence was one of my favorite places to live--affordable, 80% of the students would leave in the summer (it was a pretty chunky college area, with Johnson and Wales, RISD, and Brown all pretty close together), you could bike to Connecticut or Massachusetts easily in a day, there was enough cold weather to weed out the riff raff, some great greasy spoon diners, and some pretty creative folks as well.

Captive Compositions, on the other hand, was recorded during one of my crap times in NYC. I’d just moved out of Manhattan and into an illegal basement apartment in Queens--it was hellish in just so many ways, not the least of which was biking across the 59th Street Bridge (feelin’ groovy, etc.) through snowstorms to get to work. Don't get me wrong--biking in inclement weather kicks ass. The aggravation for me was that the ascent and descent spans of the bike path (which was pretty much a sidewalk tacked on the sides of the bridge, so you could look beneath you and see the water) were made of metal grating. If you’ve ever walked on metal with ice on it, you can probably envision the fun of biking on said surface. The perhaps obvious option of taking the subway to work was never a question for me for two reasons: 1) I dislike the “mass” part of mass transit; way too many people way too close to me; and 2) biking in cold weather makes me feel alive.

In Chicago, I've had this opportunity to enjoy zero and subzero biking myriad times--most noteworthy, perhaps, when I lived in Hyde Park and Lake Shore Drive was closed due to blizzard-esque conditions. I went out on my bike and had nothing but 20 feet of snow on either side of me for probably six miles each way. It was just me and a few cross country skiers out there, and it was fantastic.

Captive Compositions sez, "part 10 of a 10 tape series." Any of the other tapes see the light of day? How did the five 7" project happen?

Yes indeed, all 10 tapes were released; no more, no less. It goes a little like this:
01: Charlie Core (60 min.)
02: Sound & Vice (90 min.)
03: Derail: Conceptual Disaster (60 min.)
04: Vertonen: Sound Knots and Orchestrations (90 min)
05: Vertonen: Vertonen: anastasia (60 min.)
06: Arc/Ehnemho: split cassette (60 min.)
07: Vertonen: There is Peace in Providence (90 min.)
08: Loopspool: loopspool (60 min.)
09: Handmaiden Synergetics: cassette (60 min.)
10: Vertonen: Captive Compositions (90 min.)

The first two were done at a young age with hand held cassette recorders, and, aside from maybe one track on each cassette, are completely un-noteworthy, even in the "hmm, how has his work evolved?" way.

The five 7” project came about for a couple reasons. First of all, just to do it. There was something noncommittal about cassettes for me, since all raw materials were free. But to see if I believed in what I was doing strongly enough to actually spit out the money to produce it, that was a level I wanted to explore. Plus, I wanted to learn about the process of making a record. Not like I thought I'd be able to get to a studio to see them cutting the acetates, or get to the plant to see the records physically pressed, but I wanted to know, in as hands-on a manner possible, what all went on. So, a learning experience. And, of course, I wanted to see if anything I was creating was of enough interest to pique someone else's interest--warrant being reviewed, etc. Why I decided on the number five was just to have a goal--a point where I felt there was completion with the project and then move to the next phase.

Were all five records pressed/released simultaneously?

Nope--I didn't (and still don't) have that kind of expendable cash. Those were released (roughly) over a four year period.

On the CIP site, a slight mention is made of Derail, a former band you were in. What was the band like? Did you play the kind of instrumentation you used in Vertonen, or was it more rock-based?

Derail was a trio; we were a junk metal, effect pedal, abused cassette machine, turntable, "use anything you can get your hands on" project. What we aspired toward--and I'm not saying we reached it by any stretch--would be Neubaten meets Throbbing Gristle meets NON. Our (negligible) finest moment came when we performed in a street fair in Fullerton, CA and were asked initially to play quieter, then to move, because we were drowning out a mariachi band up the street.

I wanna know about your skateboarding days! What were your preferred skating jams on the boombox back in the day? There was a big conference of Chicago skateboarding noise dudes recently. Any injuries of note? Any tricks to give Tony Hawk the night-sweats? Slack-jawed punk kids left in the dust?

When I was 17, it was a very good year... I think my salad days of skating were probably from 15 to 20, when I had 1) little or no fear of serious injury and 2) didn't wear glasses. My hankering to skate resumed in NYC for a few years (after biking by a skatepark on the upper west side), and just in the past couple years I started up again, skating infrequently at several of the killer parks here in Chicago. As I was telling the other guys I skate with in Chicago, after a day of skating 20 years ago we’d be like “Man, you totally landed a sick fucking trick!” and now it’s like you get a phone call or email the next day: “Dude, I can still walk; can you? Awesome!” Technique-wise, I don't pull airs or do switch stance, or even ollie in any remarkable fashion, but I have fun--and that, plus the fact that I can still drop in without doing a faceplant, is more than enough for me.

As for favorite stuff to skate to when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, that's easy: Faction, Drunk Injuns, Misfits, Minor Threat, Crass, Dead Kennedys, the Gilman Street bands--Operation Ivy, Sewer Trout, Isocracy, Stikky... In reality, though, we usually didn’t skate to music, because we’d more often than not be skating point A to B to C to hit a handful of spots every day, and who the hell wanted to carry a boombox around? Plus, if we'd set up a launch ramp in front of one of our houses we were a little self conscious about "Angelfuck" blaring down the streets in the charming suburbs. But if we had a spot that we’d need to drive to, we’d bring the boombox and batteries…A related music and skating incident: I remember when the kid up the street dragged out the first launch ramp in my neighborhood and he started doing kickturns while "rockin' out" to Howard Jones... I went over and told him the ramp looked cool and oh hey, I might have something that might be better to skate to, which happened to be Septic Death. That definitely started his slippery descent into the mouth of hell; he eventually became the bane of his Catholic high school, building pipe bombs and stuff.

Let's talk about Incremental Press. It seems like writing was your primary focus originally, but now it looks like its mostly been displaced by your musical activities. Do you still do any writing, even if it’s not published?

Yessir. Writing was pretty much what I went to school for, and I still write all the time. However, my interest waned exponentially after Brown because I was pretty disenchanted with the creative writing program there, and with my writing as well. With audio releases, I’d always been interested in having something--texts, visuals--attendant to the music; something to do while you're listening to the music to enhance the experience. That sounds kinda foofy in some ways, but I believe packaging is an important trigger for how people respond to the audio…so if I can do something to make the audio more encompassing / engaging, or open up another avenue of thought about the sound, I'd like to do that.

The subject matter of some of your early writings sounds kind of savage (It’s Not Rape If They’re Already Dead, for instance). Was this largely black-humored, or more of a desperate cry for help to the school guidance counselor? What I'm trying to ask, Blake, is: did you wear a lot of black in high school?

That was my favorite chapbook--which I actually wrote in college, maturity be damned, clearly--and it became my favorite because I got an order for it from some guy incarcerated in Sing Sing. But to jump back to high school fashion sensibilities, I can say with the confidence of hindsight that I was probably just trying to play the trump card of being some hybrid arty skatepunk who "saw through all this crap" and was thus sooo outside the norm; after all, this was the rough and tumble white-bread suburbs, and the punks had all the "jocks," "preppy kids," "school spirit," "conformity," and "political" tomfoolery to rebel against, unequivocally sticking it to "the man" as we unwittingly filled just one more pre-assigned role in the high school hierarchy with our bad haircuts, self-righteousness, and sneers. In the galley of maybe eight punks at my school, my only marks of distinction would be baggy shorts that I’d drawn all over, a long chain for my keys (which I actually still wear), and intentionally mismatched argyle socks.

Your weekly radio show “War Bride” and your former curatorial duties on the all-noise radio show "Cacophonix," (both on WHPK FM in Chicago) feature a lot of radio collage. Has this regular weekly forum affected your style or compositional sense in Vertonen? Have you ever taken any ideas from here directly into a Vertonen recording?

Actually, I don’t do War Bride any more--now I focus on two shows for oddball audio, Radio Dada and Cacophonix. But no, I don’t think there’s been any real connection between how I mix on radio and what I do recording-wise. When I started doing radio at WHPK I would sometimes construct sound events specifically for radio performance--just so what I was broadcasting wasn’t like what anyone else was broadcasting--but I got more interested in using pre-existing audio and shaping it differently or playing material from my own collection which I knew we didn't have at the station.

Your list of cities played on the road is slightly shorter than Willie Nelson's. Any parts of the country you prefer playing to? Any towns that really "get it"? How big of a pain in the ass is it playing to the same 10 sit-down, chin-scratching semiotician-wannabes in Chicago? Scariest gig you've played (i.e. possible loss of life or limb at the hands of an ugly mob)?

I like playing in Chicago, back east, and CA because I have a decent amount of pals in all those places, so it's always great to just hang out with those people when I have the chance. But I also hold a pile of contrasting ideas about the whole live thing. For example, hanging out and playing with friends is great, but hitting new places and having an audience who isn't familiar with your material also is good times. Last summer I toured with three compatriots from San Fran and one stop was Allentown, PA, and that was probably one of the best crowds I've ever been involved with. Presently, I'm looking forward to a short summer tour with PCRV and Jason Talbot to the south and west this summer so we can all hit places where none of us have performed (save in CA).

As for Chicago, I don't find Chicago audiences to be a bunch of chin scratchers, etc. While the audience depends on where you're playing and with whom you are playing, whether I play at a more "art gallery" venue or some throbbing rock out fest, I go in with the hope that people get something from what I do--I mean, that's part of taking this crap out of your living space and into the world. So, although I'd like to be able to say I don't care about audience reaction, I do--to a certain point. Because I also think doing experimental hoo ha live, especially as a solo artist, is really just so much masturbation. I perform live because 1) I want to hear what I’m doing louder than I do at home (this applies to "harsh" stuff as well as drones); 2) It's a testing ground--"does this idea really work? Does this combination of sounds work?"--and hopefully you finish a show and have an idea of what you might want to try next; and, attendant to that, 3) I like to see what people think of what I’m doing--both friends who do music and those who just came out for the hell of it.

So yeah, the whole live deal is a gelatinous, contradiction- filled sojourn…and one I enjoy.

Forthcoming CIP releases you care to dish about? What advice would you give to someone looking to start a label?

Forthcoming goodies in early 2005, the "short list with commentary version."

- Alu: Autismenschen CD
Alu was a German electronic (almost like synth punk) band from the early 80s. I asked them if I could reissue their amazing live LP, "Licht," and they said "Well, we aren't really interested in doing that, but we do have the unreleased material from what would have been our first studio LP, how about that?" It was an incredible opportunity that I could not refuse to pass up in any way, shape, or form.

-- The first CD by Hans Grusel’s KrankenKabinet
Currently based in San Francisco, Hans Grusel's “sound” might be best described as the sounds you would hear from a Bavarian music box designed by an artist who had been bonked on the head with a brass cuckoo clock chime and then left in a dark room for three years with only the music of Scriabin, Wagner, and Prokofiev mixed with off-speed Throbbing Gristle and sci-fi soundtracks from the 60s pumping through the air vents. His music combines numerous divergent elements--rigid structures and sweeping washes of plucky improvisation, classic violin sounds turned in on themselves in a mobius strip of clashing yet oddly related sounds and tones, flitting marches and warbly traipsing among life at the bottom of the sea.

- The Hafler Trio: If Take, Then Take LP
There are three artists whose work I admired long before I even had the idea for seriously running a record label (which was truly in 1999, as I count “seriously” as meaning not just releasing my own work), so releasing work by these artists means a great deal to me. Z'EV was the first, and Hafler Trio is the second.

Who is the third?

The reason the third is unnamed is twofold; one, as of yet I do not know under what contractual obligations with another label that artist is operating--so I may not be able to release anything by that artist at all. The second is because hey: why give away all your plans?

As for advice for someone starting a label...that's a tough one. The thumbnail sketch would be do it for your own “right” reasons, I guess. I run C.I.P. for three reasons. One, as a labor of love. Don't get me wrong; although C.I.P. is not some altruistic hippy deal where I’m just going to press stuff and give it away, making a profit also has never been a concern in anything I’ve released. Given the limited audience for this sort of audio, I feel safe indulging in the “artistic integrity” path now and again. But, if that route sounds too off-putting, an analogy I’ve given friends is: some people spend their disposable income on cars, or clothes, or drugs, or whatever; I spend mine on the label. The second reason is so I can release material by people I know and/or whose work I like. When I started the label, it was pretty much Vertonen releases. After a while the idea of what was becoming a vanity label didn’t appeal to me (and part of that, perhaps ironically, was due to vanity--I wanted some other label to say “hey, we like your stuff, we'll throw down the cost to release it...”) Third, documentation and some historical angle. Whether it’s long out of print material by Z'EV, previously unavailable material by Alu, or the first CD by Brutum Fulmen, I like to feel like the label is serving some greater purpose in documenting this style of music.

In 20 words or less, though, I’m basically striving to do what so many labels other folks who run labels for this kind of music do: put out what I like and hopefully expose more people to those artists. And, as a personal goal for the end of the long day -- in this case that day being death -- I think it’d be cool if my label was regarded, in some small way, as one that took chances. For example, when Leticia Castaneda gets the greater recognition she deserves and someone searches for her first CD, they’ll see it was on C.I.P., and perhaps notice such things happened more often than not with this label.

Larry Dolman wants me to ask you this: “Re: the Return of the Interrobang album -- I looked up ‘toroidal circulation’ on google and got all kinds of crazy complicated scientific stuff. Is that something you've actually studied, or was it just something you heard once that sounded bad-ass for a track title?”

There are a few sides to this answer; the first and most direct is that no, I haven't studied that particular field of science...but I am extremely interested in words, so the title was chosen because it relates directly to the construction of the piece--how the sounds evolve, etc. On the other hand, delving further into that--explaining my reasons for titling the piece--is a tack I'd prefer not to take; I figure if people are going far enough to look up a word I use, or reread a bit of text I've written, let them continue on that tangent and shape how the title (or text) and the audio interacts according to them. Same goes for listening to the audio more than once. Personally, and especially for the dronish pieces, I find, I lean toward obliqueness being more intriguing than a concrete explanation.

This is becoming an iron-clad “final question” in Blastitude interviews, and far be it from me to break away from the pack, because I want to know the answer, too! Last five records listened to? Books/mags read? Movies watched?

1. a CDR comp of 80s stuff I burned from WHPK, featuring the likes of Missing Persons, The Pogues with the Dubliners, Nena, Romeo Void, Reagan Youth, Part Time Christians, and Berlin, among others.
2. Bran...Pos: Chirphuis CD
3. Iron Maiden: Number of the Beast CD
4. Fall: Totally Wired 2CD
5. Satan's Cheerleaders: Genocide Utopia 7"

Nabokov: Invitation to a Beheading
Haddon: Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Overnight Runner (actually forgot the title and author; it was an advance reading copy at my folk’s house in CA)
National Geographic

Oh! Mikey vol. 1-4
Theatre of Blood
Alley Cats
Swordsman II