WHITE FLAGS OVER GEORGIA
Twenty years after its dissolution, German experimental rock ensemble Faust made its American debut at the Table of the Elements Manganese festival, joining British improvising institution AMM, members of Sonic Youth, and others. Jason Ferguson sees all.
To say that the first-ever performance by Faust in the United States, during the Table of the Elements’ Manganese festival, was anticlimactic would be a bit of an understatement.
After two consecutive nights of brilliant performances by some of the most daring and intelligent musicians of the last 30 years – including early Faust collaborator minimalist Tony Conrad, Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino, electric harpist Zeena Parkins and guitarist/composer Jim O’Rourke, as well as AMM, Gate and the Thurston Moore Group – the moment that all had been waiting for was rendered asunder by a wide variety of soundboard snafus. A crowd of 350 weary, shivering souls milling about were left milling about Atlanta’s TULA art gallery and an electrical outpost station in a state of profound confusion.
“Well, this is the first gig we’ve done – the first show of the tour,” said Faust’s Jean-Herve Peron the next day. “We had trouble finding scrap metal, people don’t know each other yet, we don’t know the town, the PA had to be moved. But I would like to come back to Atlanta and do what we wanted to do. Unfortunately, the people who are first on the tour always get the best or they get the worst.”
Jeff Hunt, founder of Table of the Elements, the label that facilitated the tour, put it a little more succinctly. “I don’t know what the hell happened. They soundchecked for eight hours.”
Marred by perpetual sound glitches and an uneven mix, original members Peron and Werner “Zappi” Dermaier struggled to make the best of the performance, and, at one point during “Picnic On A Frozen River,” things seemed to have fallen into place. But then the generators went dead, inspiring Peron to strip naked and begin painting a huge plywood wall that he would later hack to bits with an axe.
Throughout the performance, a concrete wall was being constructed that would later be toppled, and Dermaier and Peron seemed to be venting their frustration by smashing televisions and banging on sheet metal, but it was something they surely intended to do anyway. Police came and shut the show down, threatening the TULA Foundation with hefty fines for blocking the substation, as well as the street in front of the museum. (Hunt admitted stealing road pylons to block off the street. “It’s a requirement to break the law in order to put on Faust shows,” he said.)
“We were quite heavy last night,” said Peron. “And that’s okay, but that’s not the only thing we want to do. We also wanted to do some spacey, soft, semiacoustic things – things that only work if the sound is good.
“You set, at the beginning of Faust, we explored electronics before it was popular. Then we introduced these elements – jackhammers, televisions – and then we split. Now, we are back and I realize that the electronic side has been taken so far that it would be foolish for us to try and be a step ahead. That’s not the direction where we can bring new elements. The industrial part though, I think we can bring it further. In the beginning we made sketches, now I think we can get a bit further into it.”
Prompted by recent interest in their 20-year-old records, Peron and Denrmaier decided in 1990 to try and play a show. Their performance at the Prinzen Bar in Hamburg was a haphazard affair (“It happened within two or three days. The first time we practiced together was at soundcheck for the show.”), but was sufficiently inspiring to get the ball rolling for Faust to perform two years later in London, Oslo and Brussels. And, at the urging of Hunt, the group found itself on a full-fledged American tour. Not bad for a band that hasn’t released an album
in 20 years.
“We blew it.” said Peron of the group’s essential demise in 1974. “But it was good to blow it. It’s hard to be Faust. We were under tremendous pressure, first from Polydor, then from Virgin [each label released two of Faust’s four ‘official albums’] to tour, to sell records. Of course, at the beginning, there was no pressure – Polydor sent us to the church at Wumme to record for a year with no hassles, Virgin let us release Tapes as our first album for them – but eventually, they wanted us to sell records and to tour. That was not the situation Faust wanted to be in, so we split.”
1994 finds Faust in a world that has grown accustomed to Einsturzende Neubauten and has seen electronic music develop from Kraftwerk into an altogether different beast. It’s a world in which Faust may finally have found their niche.
“We never really had aims like that,” Peron said. “We never were conscious of what was happening then, and I don’t think we’re really conscious of what’s happening now.”
Fortunately, the Manganese show was the only disappointment in Faust’s seven-city itinerary. The group played stellar shows during the rest of their stay in America, including a show in Hartford, where all the lights were red and Peron let a red samurai fighting fish “perform”; a night in San Francisco where he carried a sheep; and a trip to Death Valley where the band, joined by Keiji, lugged their equipment on opposite sides of the ravine and engaged in a call-and-response piece while the audience lay situated below
“When you make a big machine and set it rolling there are always a few squeaks at first,” commented Peron by phone later after the tour’s end. “But after we got started, it was a beautiful crescendo, everything went better and better. The tour was ever so good for us because we met so many people with so much energy I feel like doing it all over again from the beginning.”
Also performing at TULA was the legendary British group AMM, who, by all accounts, turned in the most phenomenal set of the weekend. AMM’s balance of glacial structure, communicative interaction and improvisation left the Saturday night crowd unexpectedly floored.
“We realize this show does have a certain degree of status, considering the people that are playing,” said AMM guitarist Keith Rowe. “And it’s really nice to be associated with groups as diverse as the ones that are playing this weekend.”
“I think in a way, we’ve really son of jumped a generation,” commented Eddie Provost, AMM’s percussionist on the surprisingly young age of the crowd. “There’s still a few people – boring old men like us – doing this stuff, but the people that immediately followed us seemed to have lost their way. But now – and I really hate to talk about ‘generations’ this way – there’s this new, vigorous generation, people like Jim [O’Rourke] – that are truly doing something new and daring. It’s really nice to be a part of that in our own way, with shows like this…sort of bridging the gap.
“There’s this extraordinary interest among young people for more adventurous music. Even under all this pressure to conform, they still manage to say no, and seek out something new. This sort of music can be very difficult to find, so it’s obvious that most of the people here tonight are making great efforts to find something new.”
Although AMM never disappeared like Faust, the improvisers’ appearance at the Manganese festival was no less anticipated, since AMM shows on American shores are quite few and far between. As Rowe put it, AMM has never stopped performing, and the nearly 30 years of vital interaction between him and Prevost (a span that usually turns improvisers to repetition) has only strengthened thetr desire to seek out newer forms of communication.
“We hope there’s still that very important communication between the two of us,” he said. “Eddie and I are, most importantly, really close friends But, at the very same time, we butt heads quite a bit on the direction of the music – it’s really very important for the two of us to remain individuals. If we weren’t, this whole endeavor would be rather pointless.”
“It’s still a challenge and it’s still something that’s actually interesting to do, because I don’t think we have said all we set out to say,” adds Prevost. “It’s not like we’re being dragged out of retirement for some sort of ‘show.’ It’s nice that we’re still making progress.”
First appeared in the Aug. 1994 issue of Alternative Press.