Monday, October 22, 2007

Dismemberment Can Be An Art - An Interview with Andy Ortmann (November 2006)

This interview was originally published in a truncated version by The Machine Media around February of 2007. It was edited to such a degree that the conversation didn't seem coherent, which included changes to my questions that make me seem unclear and somewhat insensitive, if not someone that espouses an opinion that he doesn't have. A full version exists on their website, but with those same edits of my questions still there (and no pictures). I hope you enjoy the uncircumsized version.

Andy Ortmann is part of a dying breed. A quick Google search will reveal that he, through his band, Panicsville, his label, NIHILIST, and various other projects, has proven to be one of the last thought-provoking, prolific, and wholly “against-the-grain” types around. While most of his recordings can be classified as “experimental”, it’s not simply noodling or “avant-fuckery”, as they call it. Among parts of his live performances with Panicsville, he’s been known for microwaving shark meat on stage, throwing plastic Easter eggs filled with rotten food and live insects into the crowd, igniting dry-ice bombs, and wearing all manner of costumes as that of an octopus, plague doctor, newspaper mummy, or bizarre stuffed animal.

On any given work he’s taken part in, each piece is it’s own unique cupcake, baring a strong attention to detail, sometimes coming in impractical formats like 8-track or 13” lp, and in unusual frames such as galvanized steel, ceramic tiles, lingerie, vinyl bags, or latex. There seems to be an innocent, genuine, and poignant element of what fashion judges call “beautiful ugly” in a lot of what he does, and in a lazy, jaded, politically correct period in time where performers don’t quite act the part and actors don’t quite dress the part, it’s refreshing to know that someone has all of their bases covered. I was fortunate enough to correspond with Andy via email between his trips to San Francisco and England near the tail-end of 2006.

AZ- How long have you been in Chicago and was there anything that prompted a long stay (and return)?

AO- I used to come up to Chicago (from St.Louis) for shows and to go record shopping on a monthly basis from about '90 onwards. I always felt some deep connection with the city and knew I'd be living here sooner or later. I finally made the move in August of 1998. Since that time I've had an endless amount of awesome times and have met a ton of cool people along the way. As many cities as I've been to around the world, I still wouldn't want to live anywhere more than Chicago.

AZ- Can you pinpoint anything in particular other than good times that set Chicago apart?

AO- As far as the music scene goes, there's a vast number of people working making it a diverse scene. So much so, that I notice many genres represented (noise, electro-acoustic, improv, power electronics, drone, etc.) Outside of the music, we have some of the most awesome Mexican food around! If you’re a thrift shopper, there's an endless wealth of options to go shopping and always score interesting things. I could go on and on...

AZ- I’ve put it together that Chicago seems to have the best Philly cheese steaks too. What's your favorite Mexican place? I personally rule out places that aren't open 24 hours on principle alone. So, I would say El Charro on Milwaukee and Fullerton, but the jury is never quite out on that one.

AO- I think I've had better Philly Cheese in Philly! They're really good and cheap too. My Mexican current fave is probably Tecalitlan, on Chicago. Though the location around the corner on Ashland has a pretty amazing d├ęcor. If you’ve been there, you might agree. But El Paisano has the coolest logo, a guy riding a taco like a bull, and he’s got a lasso…!?!

AZ- Some may not know that Panicsville has been around since 1992, in times where abrasive textures and punishing structures didn't have nearly as much of an audience as it does now. What do you think was the catalyst that eventually led to your vast amount of gear, personnel (in regards to the great deal of revolving members in Panicsville, other collaborations), and Nihilist Records?

AO- When we first started Panicsville, we used whatever equipment was laying around, which was incidentally, rather limited... I knew what kind of sound I was going for but it was near impossible to get the equipment I needed to achieve this. I was constantly out on the prowl for better gear, as I was painfully dissatisfied with the first four years of recordings! Now I have a wicked-ass arsenal of electronics...

I've had to change band members more often than the bed sheets of a grossly obese-mentally-retarded-chronic self-pisser. The first two members left to join a hippie commune and a "rock band” respectively... after that I would recruit various riff raff within my peripherals (I moved around a good deal, which made having a steady lineup out of the question). Jeremy Fisher has been the most stable member, since about 2001. Though I constantly work with other artists, mainly for some specific idea I may be developing, where this individual is the perfect element to concrete that idea. Panicsville has always been a collaborative project.
As far as Nihilist goes, I wanted an umbrella moniker that would encompass all my interests (art, sound, video, text, etc). It's not like I just thought one day, "Oh, I want to start a record label!" It just seemed like a logical way to organize my thoughts and ideas.

AZ- So you had these sounds in your head and wanted to get them out, so you started with what was lying around? I guess nearly everything could be considered stimuli, and result in ideas, but were your ideas influenced by anything you can put your finger on before starting Panicsville?

AO- My influences at that time included movies like The Holy Mountain, Re-animator and Satyricon. Art movements like Fluxus, Da Da, Futurism and Aktionism were as much an influence as direct industrial/psyche bands like NON, Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound, and Smegma.

AZ- You seem to be acquainted with Boyd Rice. In particular I read that you took part in a CJ competition with him. It must've been cool to work alongside one of your influences, especially since you're on equal plains with him in many respects. He seems to be a bit elusive, though. How did meeting him come about?

AO- Well, the CJ competition actually had nothing to do with Boyd. That was an entirely separate event. I initially met him in Houston, TX in 1997 where he was playing with Death in June (I did a brief interview with him). Later, after I moved to Chicago I did DJ a show with him and Luftwaffe in St.Louis in 2000. I was more of a fan of his work when I was first getting into this stuff than I am now, though it was pretty funny going shopping with him though…

AZ- Were you shopping for Barbie Dolls with him? Apparently he's said to have the largest collection of them in the world... or Record Shopping?

AO- Actually, neither. We ended up checking a couple military surplus stores, then we went for cheeseburgers and malts.

AZ- I know Nihilism can be defined as something to the effect of "rejecting current ethics and principles", which in it's context is great for a record label to champion, but I have to admit that I associate Nihilism with Apathy and Indifference, as it is applied to people I've met who carry the views. While your work seems to be pretty thoughtfully and eloquently put together, it seems like detrimental imagery to the people who may judge by a name rather than even a cover before content. Do you have any thoughts on that?

AO- That word has several different meanings, I've generated another association with it through my work. I could care less about how/what people think when drawing comparisons to my label and textbook definitions. I don't feel that having a substandard set of aesthetics is in any way synonymous with nihilism. These people's opinions you're referencing mean about as much to me as a car is to a bird.

AZ- Regarding the music scene, there are always questions abound about the appeal behind noise or experimental music etc. and what constitutes a "good show". It goes without saying that some people get it and most people don't, but since Panicsville has always been a variable and well rounded presence live, I thought I would ask what noise shows and the like do for you.

AO- I like seeing what other people are doing, it’s more telling (live shows) versus listening to a recording at home. Not that it’s always about “performance”, but the live atmosphere gives you a good idea as to where someone is coming from. Elements like volume can totally alter your perception of someone’s work when you’re in a room being vibrated by sonic waves rather than normal listening level on a home stereo. The live shows are essential!

AZ- You've said in another interview that you find noise to be emotive. Some of your work seems to incorporate chance happenings or have the qualities of "serial music" as well as being the result of everything else that happens on the cutting room floor. For instance, there was the "Four Notes in Search of a Tune" record, which was a record made up of carefully placed shards of broken records. In other mediums there was the piece of a art that consisted of a fox inside of plexi–glass, and that "Absorb” project, a project about releasing cassettes that will make a cassette player erase the content of the cassette that succeeds it, as I understand. This stuff is much more than simply writing your name on a urinal or a pair of underwear, but is it all emotive? Or do these things have another function as pieces of art?

AO- The conceptual art isn’t really about emotion. Those projects have more to do with getting people to think about things differently than how they normally would, rather than to evoke emotions. Two inherently different things there…

AZ- Would you say that there has been a time when there was a union of conceptual and emotive? I mean the fox thing, well, I wouldn't necessarily call it emotive, but there's definitely expression in it, in gesture alone. I feel the same about the cover of Perverse. I think the way that the pictures of disemboweled cattle are portrayed and manipulated was beyond conceptual.

AO- Actually, the fox was a piece that combined emotion and concept. It was based on a Brothers Grimm story, The Golden Bird. It involved a man who was transformed into a fox and needed to be dismembered, to return to his natural form. This is a relatively moving story to me. The mutilated bovine photo is an obvious commentary on the beef industry, whether or not that is emotional is for the viewer to decide...

AZ- I'm pretty fond of the Brothers Grimm stories, there are the roots of all the morals I was spoon-fed as a kid, only it was before Disney got to them. That story can be found here for anyone curious. I think now that the association to the story has been made, that fox piece exists as not only conceptual art in the sense of challenging the boundaries of art, but also in commenting on the often much more leisurely ways of making art, i.e. the rusty cage vs. the golden cage juxtaposition. Quite brilliant. Bravo!

As for the bovine photo, I actually interpreted it, because of the use of colors in particular, as a representation of the aspects of life that everyone has to deal with, and a reminder of what people try to forget about in their every day life more so than a commentary on the meat industry. Instead of the colors being dim or black and white, they are vibrant and lively, almost as if to create a dichotomy. But in any case, it seems like we might both have something in common in that regard. We both eat meat, but we disapprove of the excess that the meat industry uses, such as force feeding, hormones, and the ridiculous amount of natural resources that are compromised just to produce the maximum amount, not to mention the fact that an animal can be bled to death and still be considered kosher by industry standards.

Or maybe I'm just projecting. But either way, what's your stance on the meat industry?

AO- I do think that we could do without the hormones in the USA meat industry, where as in Europe you don't see this kind of thing. The meat is more expensive over there, but you get what you pay for. It's places like McDonald's that have me puzzled. How they can make chicken that is porous is beyond me. But then again, White Castle now has chicken rings!? Go figure. I buy all my meat at the local Mexican grocery stores, they use ALL the parts, and none of it is wasted.

AZ- What do you think about animal rights in general? Should animals be used for experiments in laboratories, or for fur coats etc?

AO- I think if animals are being used in research experiments that are actually furthering scientific advancement it's acceptable. When it's pointless sadism like injecting perfume into cat's eyes, I think anyone would agree that those scenarios are just wrong. I am a leather fan, I think leather is OK, I generally don't like the way fur looks. I'm more against it on a level of aesthetics.

AZ- How does activism sit with you?

AO- It seems to make other people feel good about themselves, and gives them some level of justification for their droll self righteous behavior.

AZ- Speaking in terms of Chicago, can you list some local characters that you would say are your peripherals?

AO- I don't understand the question.

AZ: You've been doing this since 1992 or so. Would you say that there are people coming out and still capable of showing you something new, or influencing you in some way? Do you think you're still impressionable in this realm?

AO- Absolutely! I've always an open ear to new and interesting work from people.

AZ- When I say "peripherals", I'm basically asking who else in Chicago you think are on equal plains, creatively speaking. You've got a lot of different ventures in a lot of different mediums on your plate; anything from VJ’ing, participating in bands with almost diametrically different styles, mastering, production, making a wide range of art, and while a lot of what you put out on NIHILIST is of the experimental vein, there are some pleasantly asymmetrical acts being released too. The casual observer can guess that your field of interest is not limited to just one direction, and since many people who read this interview may not be very familiar with you especially, I'd be curious to know who else in Chicago rouses your interest. Are there any others, artists, musicians, or writers that "speak to you", so to speak?

AO- There's a few people that come to mind... Gregory Jacobsen is a very talented painter. Peter Sotos is a considerably provocative and intriguing writer. There's a wealth of musicians about town; Oakeater, Kevin Drumm, Steve Krakow, Rory Lake, Thymme Jones, Magas, Nicole Chambers, the recently dissolved Coughs... I could go on and on.

AZ- I know you've been a member of more conventional acts like Plastic Crimewave Sound, Lovely Little Girls, Behold! The Living Corpse! and others, I'm sure. To what extent do you understand music?

AO- I began reading music in the 4th grade. After three years of this I knew that this path was of no interest to me. Anything I've ever accomplished after this time was of my own self taught ability and intuition.

AZ- Learning an art form could be detrimental to the creative process sometimes. I've met a lot of film and music students that say that what they've learned destroys the way a person appreciates the overall effect, and while I don't know a whole lot about music or anything else myself, I pick up on formulas or plot structures pretty quickly anyway. Do you think you're less inhibited by learning on your own terms? How do you think it would've affected your creative output to be trained on how to do it?

AO- Definitely. I always hear from trained artists or musicians that they have to unlearn what they've learned to truly be free. I feel completely unrestrained in most every sense. I feel like I make the most progress by exploring ideas and thoughts, no matter how far out they might seem. I can't see how being "trained" would've been beneficial to me as an artist... you can't teach people to have ideas.

AZ- I'm fascinated with the idea of a child picking up something without encouragement and sort of spurring creativity, like tapping on a desk at school or scribbling on paper before having ever seen a coloring book. I like to entertain the idea that creativity is instinctive rather than simply a hobby or what-have-you. How long have you been making visual art, which creative medium did you pick up first, and do you have any interesting story about how you came about doing that?

AO- I've been drawing for as long as I can remember... In kindergarten my teacher (Mrs.Nicholson) wrote a letter to my mother telling her that my obvious skill warranted that she buy me thin crayons versus those fat ones everyone else was using. That may have been the first time someone took notice, though my mother may argue that it started in the delivery ward where I pissed on the wall! Both mediums are still an integral part of my work.

AZ- What do you have on the horizon? I know there's Panicsville, and you've been developing material as a solo artist for a while. What other stuff have you got on the boil?

AO- Yeah there's some new Panicsville records due out next year (including a 13"
LP entitled "A Dragonfly for Each Corpse" on the Rococo record label), I've been working out my electro-synth-dance-punk project, Fashion Dictator. I have a show with Bobby Conn coming up (this past December 06), there'll be an LP out next year for that one.
For the past year I've been doing vocals with Behold! The Living Corpse as well, a new LP should be out in the Spring sometime. Running Nihilist is a full time job, so that's keeping me pretty busy. There's some new stuff in the works from Kevin Drumm, John Wiese, Schimpfluch Gruppe, Sixes, Evil Moisture, and Thurston Moore. Other than that, just trying to get more editions of my radio show (The Eternal Now on WFMU) recorded and doing more artwork. I have some new drawings coming out from a couple different French magazines; Hospital Brut is doing a new book and CD and the controversial magazine, TIMELESS will be printing three of my pieces.

AZ- Do you see yourself staying in Chicago for a long time?

AO- All signs point to yes.

All Photos Courtesy of Andy Ortmann

Panicsville on Programma Di Religione Comp

Panicsville on Hospital Tested Comp

Panicsville on Kausing a Kommotion - A Tribute to Madonna (Nihilist)

Andy Ortmann's Nightmania CD (Nihilist)


Andy Ortmann on Ebay

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