Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Little Fyodor: Walls of Genius, Architects Office, Under the Floorboards

My friend Jimmy and I would obsessively spend our Saturday nights together and going to shows at Kennedy’s or the Packinghouse, but more often than not, we sat in my bedroom with an improvised metal hanger antenna duct taped on the top my ghettoblaster tuning in the Wild West Show on Boulder’s KGNU 88.5 FM. We’d stack up on the cheapest cassette tapes from the aisles of Skaggs drugstore looking to swipe new music DJs Richard and The Wolverine (Doreen) spun.

If we didn’t pass-out after three hours of taping, then we’d stick it out for Little Fyodor’s show, Under the Floorboards. Jimmy and I were convinced Little Fyodor went to the edges of the earth searching for the most absurd sounds, the type of stuff not suitable for casual listening. His collection of songs weren’t going to win you many new friendships. Through his show, we learned early on the unlimited possibilities to music and sound. By the time one of my professors in college turned me on to John Cage’s 4’33”, though I appreciated the concept, the idea didn’t seemed far fetched or radical compared with what I heard on the radio and going to shows at the Art Department and other spaces in lower downtown Denver. In short, Little Fyodor’s radio show should assume partial blame for corrupting my musical sensibilities.

I recall reading an issue of Der Moderate Times (DMT) and coming across a Walls of Genius article. The photo of the band was off-putting, they looked like a Scottish troupe dressed in the most obnoxious threads even the Salvation Army was embarrassed to sell. I read the piece only to find out Little Fyodor was a member. I now had a face to put with the guy that spun strange late-night music. One concept I walked away with from the article was the part of putting a ping-pong ball in a Mason jar and recording it.

Along with Walls of Genius-Architects Office was another outfit that experimented with sound and often formed a collective with other players for live performances…including the Walls of Genius guys. Additionally WoG was a label of self-released cassettes with hand-made covers, fliers, as well as creating offshoots of their own groups sometimes using pseudonyms. Honestly, looking at the band’s catalog, scrapbook, liner notes, aesthetics, and the completionist/obsessiveness of the entire mission makes a case for when intelligent people run amuck with uncensored ideas, concepts, and an infinite amount of time. The documentation can be found on: The disclaimer states: The Walls Of Genius Comprehensive Online Archive site has been conceived, constructed, guided, goaded, shepherded, edited, and created with love and devotion by Hal McGee... with the generous cooperation and contributions of Evan Cantor, Little Fyodor, Ed Fowler, Don Campau, and numerous others who have loved, hated, derided, admired, and thrown objects at Walls Of Genius.    

When I recently asked Richard from the Wild West Show what his thoughts were on Little Fyodor’s show, he politely proclaimed: “Never have I met anyone with such a sustained, uncompromising and single-minded focus and devotion (obsession?) to creating musical mayhem. Little Fyodor and The Walls of Genius will always leave me baffled and very frightened.”

My conversation with Little Fyodor.

Little Fyodor-Joy to the world. Image courtesy of Little Fyodor.
Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina).
Walls of Genius versus your solo career?

Walls of Genius existed from about 1983-86; I was more solo in the 80's than I was in that band when I think to calculate it, though it surprises me to realize that. Walls of Genius was right smack in the 80's when I started to get involved with underground music as an actual participant. Little Fyodor was more theoretical at that time.

What is exactly Little Fyodor?

It's an expression of my perspective that included a lot of alienation, social awkwardness, not fitting in, taking a dark skewed view while trying to have fun with it. It's the creativity that largely grew out of being influenced first and foremost by an experience of listening to the Ramones-Leave Home album while very stoned. Before that, I was a little unsure of what I thought about punk.

How did you come across punk?

My very first experience of what I think of as punk was probably a news report I saw right after I graduated high school in 1976. The report depicted the early London Punk scene. It was like, "Look at this, what a bunch of freaks, what the fuck!" and that was how they presented it. They played up the pogoing, they showed someone pogoing on top of somebody else as if it was this demented violent thing. I was wondering if this show created hardcore in America. I have a friend in London when the first wave of punk hit in the mid-70's and he didn't think it was anything like he experienced when he came to the U.S. He was one of the latter day members of the Dancing Assholes and later the electronic post-punk group, Doll Parts. I wondered if the news program planted seeds to make punk look more sick and fucked-up than it was. That was my first exposure to punk and I’m not sure where it went after that except I remember the first person I remember actually say they liked punk was also somebody who ended up introducing me to a lot of experimental music. It was all a part of the same spectrum to him.

Who was that?

Will McLeod, a friend in college.  In the fraternity I joined, believe it or not!

You were in a frat? How? Why? I guess, I’m curious about your hazing experiences and I can’t quite imagine you doing beer bongs.

(Laughter) Frats were so numerous at University of Virginia that there were all kinds, if that makes sense to you. Mine was by far the most casual. It was known around campus as the hippie frat, though I met several people there who were into punk and a few who were into weird or intense experimental stuff, so it was only hippie if that’s anyone not so mainstreamish or prep or who doesn’t take the frat thing so seriously. The “hazing” was limited to a couple of pranks where we were tricked into thinking something fucked-up was going to happen to you and it didn’t (instead you were presented with a beer and a joint!).  It was a little sadistic to have fun watching the subsequent classes go through it, I’ll admit, but you knew it was going to end up fine, so it really wasn’t such a big deal.  Ha-ha, don’t remember any beer bongs, but we did party a bunch, what can I say.  I’ll only add that being introverted and shy actually gave me my own, if maybe ironic, motivation to join a frat, as it was like having 30 instant friends.  Naturally, it didn’t always work out quite like that, but I’ll leave it there….

When did you start getting into experimental music?

At the beginning of college, but more so after I moved to Colorado in 81. It went along with starting a radio show focused on that.

Was it your show Under the Floorboards?

I was doing it awhile before I finally settled on that name. I started doing the late night shift on Saturdays on KGNU in 82.

I stared listening to the Wild West Show in 83 with Richard and the Wolverine.

I remember them, when I first started it was Peter Tonks' show, Over the Edge. The Wild West Show was the replacement and Smash It Up with Vanzetti replaced the Wild West Show. I always like following the punk show and now I follow the Techno show. (laughter).

Festival of Pain flier. Images courtesy of Little Fyodor. 
I have fond memories of seeing the Festival of Pain flier on a light pole months after the show, mostly because it occurred on my birthday. I was intrigued. I asked Duane Davis about his involvement in the Small Appliance Orchestra…he also mentioned Blood Ball?  

Well Blood Ball was an ad hoc or one time sport they played that night, just for the festival, to fit the “pain” theme. It involved a ball and a lot of squirting red liquid and a lot of macho running around. I didn’t participate myself; instead I huddled on the sidelines next to Duane wearing some protective covering from the “blood”.  Susanne Lewis from Spray Pals and Thinking Plague etc. was also in the Small Appliance Orchestra, who, as you might guess, made music/noise with a bunch of small appliances.  My Walls Of Genius crony Evan Cantor and I performed as The Pus-Tones.  He played acoustic guitar and warbled old top forty hits while I played found percussion (beer bottle, sauce pan, etc.) with a drum stick while dancing around like an incensed goon in my loud thrift store fashioned clothes, about which several folks expressed fascination: “Where did you get those clothes/that jacket??”  I told them via “the Great Ed” cause it was Ed Fowler from Walls of Genius (not there that night) who got me interested in loud thrift store fashion and who picked out many items for me personally, including the weird, dazzly red jacket that someone (Gil Asakawa?) called “one of the most awesomely homely sports jackets to ever disgrace the human figure” in the write-up of the show in Westword. Various stories, both good and bad, can be spun off from that night, but overall it was a lot of fun. Evan actually recorded the whole event on his own reel to reel recorder that he brought for the occasion, and as a result we were able to include our rendition of CCR’s Green River, with sounds from the Blood Ball as recorded from underneath, in the basement where the music happened, edited onto the front and back of it, on our Crazed to the Core cassette release.  I remember once seeing a video of that event, and oh what I wouldn’t do to get a hold of such a creature now….

I remember hearing a lot of strange music and lyrics, words or what have you on Under the Floorboards. I have to admit, it was challenging for a 14 year-old kid. 

I was playing the weirdest shit I could get my hands on. That was my philosophy. I was trying to find anything worthwhile artistically to justify playing it.

Image courtesy of Hal Tapes
How do you define artistically?

That’s hard isn't it; you know it when you smell it.

Does it mean pushing limits?

My show is for the insects of society. I tried to find material that represented unique individuals. Nowadays, people might call that outsider. That can have different meanings. That word didn't exist as such back then but I would define it nowadays as an intersection between outsider and experimental.

How did that coincide with playing in Wall of Genius? How did that band fit with what you were playing on the radio? 

If you were going to stick it in one category, Walls Of Genius was experimental. There was a lot of pop, traditional, and classic sensibilities that were interwoven into it. Some people might be perfectly happy with those elements in experimental music whereas other might say that is a compromise and not real experimental music. A lot of the stuff I played on the radio was probably weirder. Overall maybe my show was a little more out there than Walls of Genius.

I loved the radio growing up. My mom was an avid listener to mostly country or any station that had a contest. She was very open-minded about that sort of thing. In my pre-teens I would roam the dial and listened to anything I thought was interesting, even talk radio. In my early twenties, I discovered Art Bell’s Coast to Coast and that shit spooked me in a big way, especially when I lived in the South and drove in rural areas. For a moment I thought maybe your show Under the Floorboards would be the perfect soundtrack for it.

(Laughter) Yeah, I would probably have to lean toward the more instrumental side of things. You really can't get more outside than outer space or aliens; they're outside of any normal experience. I'm sure many listeners thought that stuff I had on my show were played by people from other worlds or dimensions. I could definitely go along with that. Then again, it’s really all part of the human experience, and that was an important part of what my show was about, too.

Back in the early to mid-80's how well did you feel connected to a scene?

I felt totally connected; it was exciting in that sense. I got a lot more phone calls on my radio show back then than I ever do nowadays. I made some important connections to people in my life via calling in on my radio show. Maybe it was because I was young, dumb, stupid and naive, but it felt like it was one of the only few things I ever felt a part of in my life. It felt I was part of an international scene. One of the musicians I played with via Architects Office, Rick Corrigan. I remember him distinctly saying he was hoping to change the world, at least when he started out. I didn’t know how many people are aware of it, but I really felt that a certain sense of 60's idealism as you might say about the whole sense of there being a scene and having some sort of an affect on things. Of course, nobody would really define that other than something going on that mattered.

Architects Office image. Image courtesy of the
Walls of Genius scrapbook on Hal Tapes.
Speaking of Architects Office, I once bought a cassette from the band at an art show and it came in a ziplock bag with a cool booklet with Architecture-I think it had the Sleeper House on the cover. I didn’t know what to expect when I popped in the tape, but it was hard to wrap my brain around it. It sounded complete damaged. Going back to Art Bell, I think A.O. was otherworldly. What did you exactly do in Architects Office and what was up with hand written labels on cassettes tapes? It was obvious that they didn’t press a lot of them. I’m thinking dubbing machine and maybe made on demand? 

Everyone was doing it whatever way it worked for them. You gonna tell someone you can’t record and share your music just because you didn’t come up with some sort of official artwork for the label? That said, I prefer official like packages myself, for my own stuff and for others.  Just makes it more real.  But I can understand why some people aren’t into that. They’re just not into it!

When I listen to experimental music, and this is a far stretch, I hear droids from Star Wars? Do you think the sci-fi craze in the 70’s/80’s contributed to what was to come later on?

Heh, I read a Pink Floyd bio which said they hated being thought of as a sci-fi band!  Think I gotta draw a line here and say no, experimental music doesn’t really have to have a damn thing to do with sci-fi.  It might, and it could just as easily not.  At the risk of sounding hippie, if it does for you, fine.  But for others, including me, there’s no inherent connection.

We did something like this when I lived in Boulder, except we did the
Hare Krishna mantra. Image courtesy of Hal Tapes.
Was the scene more open and less defined back then?

It is a lot more codified now. It seems like everyone had figured out what genera they want to emulate or preserve from that past. Even like punk and noise seems like, "Ok, this is a box" and people who want to do that are going to go over and open that box. I may seem like a cynical old fart, but I call things the way I see it. I don't get worked up over these matters; I figure there are pros and cons going on all the time. I’m not entirely connected anymore these days; it might not be my time for that. I should add that I’m talking about musical trends there, cause I don’t know what the musical trends are, and I don’t quite understand all the technology, either.  But there’s still plenty of stuff happening and I see it happening all around me especially when I play out live with my band and people respond to us and I feel a part of it then.  Even if I’m not always sure what it is!

What sort of phone calls did you on your radio show?

Sometimes they were form crazy people and sometime they were from friends...or both. (Laughter) Well... I also worked graveyard shift at the Hotel Boulderado at that time. I had weird interactions with people in the middle of the night. One lady was convinced I was the reincarnation of a 16th century poet.

You remember shock jock Alan Berg from KOA 850 when he was ambushed after pissing-off anyone and everyone. Were you ever threatened? Did you feel that that crazy people tuned into your show and hoped they got that special message they had been hoping for the next set of instructions? 

(Laughter) Maybe I was too naive to worry about that. Though I did meet a guy through my radio show and through Wall of Genius who I gave a ride to once and he started telling me how he was meditating on death. That was a little unnerving.

The combination of the strange music you played mixed with a nocturnal audience brought out craziness?

I think you hit it on the head there. It was an intersection of those two things, maybe even more late night. Nowadays I do a show from 11pm-midnight, but back then I started about at 1 am to 4 am. It was perfect for me since I worked the graveyard shift and was up those hours anyways. 

‘Snake want's to be your friend’ is a song that always stuck out listening to your show. Who played that? It started off with a slow country waltz, gradually speeding up and it turned into this fast-tempo screaming how the snake wanted to be your friend.

Wow, I don't know. You're testing the limits of my brain cells!

That's your homework, find the song, I want to know who played that.

I think you’ll have to wait till I’m in my 90’s and have nothing else to do.  Sorry!

Speaking of forgotten songs, you also played a Krautrock one with the line, "There's no Coca Cola in Angola"

In the mist of all this experimental music, I played stuff that had some sort of cheesy catchiness to it too. That sentiment was reflected in Walls of Genius as well. Some people were into the experimental music I was playing and other thought it was appalling. Someone has to think it's appalling or it's not experimental.

I always think if most people like it, you miss the point of being to say if you're parents like it...

That's a strange thing to old farts like me-we never had that problem. 

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