LAFMS: HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?: CHASING THE DRAGON
illustration by elza burkart
For the last forty years in Los Angeles, a collective of musicians, experimenters, tinkerers, and Captain Beefheart-obsessed stoners have been inventing and reinventing sounds in ways you never thought possible, right under your nose. They make sounds that hearken back to krautrock and the disciples of John Cage, and yet each new gathering is a brand new start. But surprisingly, for a band so connected to some of the 20th century’s best-loved visual artists, not much has been documented on film about the Los Angeles Free Music Society since they formed in 1974. Luckily, filmmakers Holly Thompson (also a member of the band PRESENT) and Mark McNeill (co-founder of dublab) know a thing or two about promoting older forms of music in order to reinvent the new, and their new short documentary LAFMS: How Low Can You Go? is not only a loving introduction to LAFMS, it’s also a brilliant film with moments of poetry as rich and strange and warm as the aging anarchic soundscapers who populate it. It will screen on Fri., Oct. 21, as part of an arts night including the LAFMS in Pasadena. This interview by D.M. Collins.
How did you decide that this would be your first widely-seen foray into film?
Holly Thompson: We were in a documentary class together and had a need to make a project. And our interests collided because I play experimental music and I knew some of those guys, and so did Mark.
Mark McNeill: These guys and gals have been a huge part of the fabric of L.A.’s noise scene, underground music scene … really proto-noise and super DIY. And they were putting out records! In a short film like this, we couldn’t be darlings and include everything we’re interested in, but something the film had to include was the idea that nobody else was making their own records. It was a revolutionary thing in the early 70s.
And they were doing revolutionary things, like taking flexi-disks and crumpling them up, re-flattening them, and recording what they sounded like played on a turntable. How did they release these albums?
Mark McNeill: They were doing it on their own label. They would do the artwork, record the music, and then deliver that to be pressed. One funny story we didn’t get to include is their mastering engineer called them and said, ‘Hey, I think you sent me the wrong recordings. This sounds like garbled noise.’ And they said, ‘No, that’s the record.’ It was 1974, and the stuff on the radio was big overblown pop music, or whatever drivel is always on the radio. The music these guys were geeking out over was Captain Beefheart, the Residents, Frank Zappa, Sun Ra … they were bonding over weirdo music in the back room of Poobah [Records]. They’d have ‘brick breaking’ sessions where they’d break up a brick of cheap weed after hours and listen to the new the brand new Beefheart or whatever was happening. But making their own records was a big leap. They realized, ‘Hey, we can go straight to the pressing plant and have this music pressed.’ In small quantities, like 100 copies. They would give records out to friends, and sometimes the friends would give the records back: ‘Thank you so much! But this is not really for me.’
Holly, besides being a film-maker, you also play in a band PRESENT that makes music, and noise kind of in the same spirit as LAFMS. Do you find in modern times the same resistance from friends and family when you share your sounds with them?
Holly Thompson: When I was interviewing them, I could totally relate—those were all my experiences of friends having to admit that they don’t like your music. My brother and sister would say, ‘It sounds like pots and pans!’ I just felt really bonded to them.
Like Breaking Away makes me want to ride bikes or Rocky Horror Picture Show makes me want to have bisexual glam orgies, this documentary makes me want to join the collective! Did you guys get tempted to … you know, join the cult?
Holly Thompson: Yeah! Though it’s so loose of an organization that it’s barely an organization …
Mark McNeill: They call it a ‘disorganization.’
Holly Thompson: … so that is kind of the goal of it, an introduction to that world where everything is an instrument, exploring the new possibilities—that YOU CAN MAKE THIS MUSIC, TOO. That’s one of their mottoes, you know? Their mantras!
Normally in L.A. where you hear this kind of music played—whether it’s an academy-approved theater like REDCAT or the Hyperion Tavern or Pehrspace, or just listening to a recording over headphones late at night—it’s very dark. That can be a good thing, because it lets you lose yourself in the actual sound rather than what they’re using to make those sounds. But in this film, LAFMS actually thrives in the light. In one part, Mitchell Brown turns on a portable radio and puts it into a cylinder, which already sounds interesting, but then he takes a Jimi Hendrix record cover and kind of ‘warbles’ it over the top of the cylinder to make these interesting sounds. And you can’t escape the idea that it is important that this is a Jimi Hendrix album, even though you’d get the same effect with any album cover.
Mark McNeill: John Cage is hugely important to their sound, and that’s kind of a Cage-ian aspect—this Dada weirdo effect. But a lot of it’s about being a very ego-free music, in a way, because it’s not really about them or virtuoso playing. It’s about friendship, having fun, and seeing what the moment reveals—being creative with whatever is at hand. That alone is pretty inspiring—to realize that you might just need some friends and some metal pipes, and you’re making music!
There were so many moments of beauty in this documentary, like the fragile chiming sounds of dropping sections of metal pipe onto the ground. But for fans of more ‘normal’ noise bands and composers, what are the most abrasive things you saw?
Mark McNeill: In that same place where they were dropping those pipes—and later in the film, three people are playing on the same drum set—we got all these people together in one room at Potts Plumbing. Joe Potts and Rick Potts from LAFMS are obviously brothers, and it was their family’s business, and we got everybody we could in that space to jam and it was total cacophony! And there are so many moments where all of this gels together, and it just goes ‘GOOMPH!’ and it all locks into place. You have these magic moments of sonic epiphany … They’re chasing the dragon.
Holly Thompson: What stood out to me especially, being the camerawoman, is that the moments we got were all impromptu.
Mark McNeill: Rick [Potts] says it really well: ‘It’s like what I imagine a surfer must feel catching a wave. Once you do it, you want to get back out there and do it again.’
One of their musicians in the Society is Tom Recchion, and your film talks at length about the many instruments he’s created from found objects—pieces of wood or hubcaps which produce interesting, resonant tones.
Mark McNeill: He was constantly creating instruments and inventing new things—things like ‘the nail shoe.’ The world of invented instruments is usually more highbrow: you might think of Harry Partch. But theirs was almost like ‘trash’ instruments, more like Dada construction. It’s goofy, it’s trashy, it’s funny! But it really does the job. He was really into the idea of instruments that disintegrate while playing, you know? It’s this weird, shambled set. And they also take this seriously! They have a sense of humor, and it’s intentionally funny, but it’s for the purpose of being expressive. They’re teetering on the brink of being an inside joke, but it’s also really heartfelt at the same time.
How those opposites come together makes me think of something David Bowie said about Brian Eno: ‘Brian will take things from low-art and elevate them to high-art status; I tend to do exactly the opposite, which is to thieve from high art and demean it down to street level.’ On the one hand, LAFMS has classically-trained, maybe jazz-trained members who are casting aside all the formalities, and on the other side are untrained musicians who use that lack of precision like it’s their own ‘found art.’ Would you say that’s correct?
Holly Thompson: Yes, I would! Vetza [Trussell] is classically trained. Other members, specifically Ace [Farren Ford], purposefully decided not to learn how to play in a more formal way.
Mark McNeill: He came at it from a punk rock sensibility.
Holly Thompson: A lot of their intentions were to do new things with instruments and music that they weren’t hearing. Vetza, in the beginning scene [of the film], plays cello in way you normally wouldn’t hear.
Mark McNeill: She was a trained performer. She was also an actress. In their world, a lot of people come from an art background. You know, Mike Kelley was part of that crew in the periphery. Paul McCarthy was kind of an OG when they were just starting. I saw him play with them just last year at Paramount Ranch! And Fredrik Nilsen is a well-known art photographer. Tom Recchion was one of the lead designers at Capitol Records—he did the Smile! release that finally came out… All these people, they’re all coming from different artistic worlds, but they’re from a Southern California era that’s extinct now. They all liked Big Daddy Ed Roth. They grew up Beach Boys fans, but then they weren’t finding what they wanted in the pop world. They were outsider weirdos who bonding over different music. And it wasn’t like there was the internet. You had record stores, like Poobah Records, and these little hubs, and shows. Anyone outside of that sphere might hear it like, ‘What the hell am I listening to?’ The fact that it’s still packing a punch forty years later says a lot. When hip-hop came out, it might have been revolutionary, but now you can play hip-hop at a shopping mall and nobody bats an eyelash. If you play LAFMS at a shopping mall, people will lose their shit. Forty years down the road, it’s still visceral impactful music, but to think of it at the time it came up in the early 70s—it must have been totally bananas!
LAFMS: HOW LOW CAN YOU GO? SCREENS AS PART OF BENEATH UNDERGROUND: THE LOS ANGELES FREE MUSIC SOCIETY (LAFMS) IN OLD TOWN PASADENA ON FRI., OCT. 21, AT THE ARMORY CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 145 NORTH RAYMOND AVE., PASADENA. 6:30 / 7:30 / 9:30PM: SCREENINGS OF LAFMS: HOW LOW CAN YOU GO? 6PM: WALKING TOUR OF OLD TOWN PASADENA FEATURING 70S-ERA LAFMS MUSIC SITES. 8PM: LIVE PERFORMANCE BY LAFMS. PLUS ZINEMAKING STATION, VIDEO PROJECTIONS AND MORE. FREE AND ALL AGES. MORE INFO AT ARTNIGHTPASADENA.ORG. WATCH LAFMS: HOW LOW CAN YOU GO? AT LAFMSFILM.COM.