Split This
CoC chats with James Plotkin, about Atomsmasher
by: Paul Schwarz
James Plotkin's name may ring a bell with those of you who've not been exposed to his more experimental work, but do own a few CDs from the very early Earache days. You see, the first officially released record to feature Plotkin was Old Lady Driver's self-titled debut. With a name change enacted after the first album, James combined groundbreaking guitar work with the possibilities of sound processing and (with a little help from a friend -- avant-garde New York jazz saxophonist and part-time noise terrorist John Zorn, known for pushing the boundaries of musical extremity with such projects as Naked City and Painkiller) created much extreme and unusual music with OLD's next four albums. To date Plotkin made over twenty albums, including a number of direct collaborations with other artists, and, it is said, has experimented with various styles "from ambient drones to progressive pop". He is currently involved in making what is apparently some of most excruciating and nasty -- yet thoroughly brilliant -- doom on the planet in Khanate with OLD [sic] buddy (har, har) Alan Dubin and ex-Burning Witch [sic] and Sun 0))) man Stephen O'Malley, and with the assistance of drum-insanity harbinger Dave Witte and DJ Speedrach, Plotkin has delivered a frenzied mass of quivering insanity in the form of Atomsmasher's self-titled debut album. Trying to describe the experience of _Atomsmasher_ (HydraHead) yields hopelessly inaccurate and often misleading -- not to mention overly lengthy -- results, so I won't bother even getting into it. Suffice it to say that this is a CD you -should- hear, especially if you have a mind to hear music that truly deserves the label "extreme". Whatever your opinions on Atomsmasher, I suggest you read what James Plotkin has to say, for it is not only interesting and amusing but, I believe, also profoundly insightful.

CoC: What led to your collaboration with Dave Witte? Have many people mistaken him for a drum machine? Are there many other drummers you would have felt confident could have performed for Atomsmasher?

James Plotkin: Atomsmasher was a direct result of Witte and myself wanting to collaborate for many years. When I got into hard-disk recording I was finally in a position to start something up. It's hard to imagine this group without each of its individual parts.

CoC: Would you describe Atomsmasher as unique? I myself might, but I don't claim any extensive knowledge of the extreme electronic/noise scene.

JP: I should hope so, what point would it make to go on if it wasn't? It's not all that difficult to be unique as it is to be worthwhile. There's too much music in the world that doesn't really need to exist.

CoC: Would you estimate Atomsmasher to fall outside the category of "music" because it is so wildly divergent from what we traditionally think of as music, and because it is so taxing (yet, I say, marvelously rewarding) to listen to?

JP: Any reasons why Atomsmasher would not be referred to it as music would be due to the limitations of the listener's imagination, as opposed to the vast imagination of its creators. Personally, I don't really care to speculate at what point sound becomes music and vice versa. I consider some naturally occurring or incidental sounds to be more musical than some of the shite that is being passed on as music these days.

CoC: Some people have chosen to compare Atomsmasher with other bands such as Fantomas or Dave Witte's collaboration with Chris Dodge. Others have described Atomsmasher's music as "an insane mix of Extreme Noise Terror meets Thelonius Monk, playing the weirdest noise jazz that you're ever gonna hear" or as "what you get when you combine grind and noise (in the Merzbow sense)" or as a "unique combination of music that helps bridge the gap between electronica and new punk metal -- it's the shit!" Would you say comparing Atomsmasher to other bands is a fruitless exercise? Have any of the attempts at expressing of what constitutes Atomsmasher you've read or heard seemed accurate or insightful to you?

JP: Some of the reviews I've read have been very insightful, but in truth people will always get different things out of a piece of music or art. Atomsmasher can be successfully compared to other music, visuals, personal experiences etc. It's all about what the sounds means to the individual listener. This sounds pathetically pretentious, of course, but it's actually true. For myself, Atomsmasher is about having a blast with extremely absurd yet challenging sound manipulation.

CoC: Would you say Atomsmasher's music agenda could be compared with the direction material from labels like Warp, Ninja Tunes, Ambush or D-Trash is exploring? Would you say Atomsmasher could be "allied" with the output of any of these labels, or other so-called "tech noise" act? What do you think of "tech noise"?

JP: Certain aspects of it definitely fit in with forward-thinking electronica and this "tech-noise" which I've not heard of before. It basically comes down to the available tools for sound recording/processing, and since they are constantly changing, I suspect the music created and inspired by it will change accordingly.

CoC: Would you say that the manipulation of electronic noise is as respectable, or possibly a more respectable, skill than traditional instrumental musical skills?

JP: I think they are two completely different skills and shouldn't really be lumped together for a simple, surface base comparison. As far as respectability goes, it should be the level of skill -- not the type of skill -- that should be subject to scrutiny. Having said that, it should really be the results of whatever is trying to be achieved that should be ultimately scrutinized. Some barely-competent people make better music using horrid technique than virtuosos that make skillful yet mind-numbingly-boring music after decades of training. Yawn.

CoC: How much of the _Atomsmasher_ album was recorded live and how much of it was sampled and electronically arranged in the studio? Generally speaking, to what degree does the music of Atomsmasher rely on studio-based tampering, and to what extent can you perform it live (with electronic devices, but without using large, pre-recorded sections)?

JP: Without hard-disk recording and processing, Atomsmasher would not be possible. All parts are recorded live, though not necessarily to the music. Most bass and guitar is recorded to the arrangements while drums and vox are previously supplied, then everything is subject to brutal manipulation and rearranging. Live situations will be developed as they occur. Thus far I have only done laptop sets of live manipulations and live reconstructive mixes of existing material. Future sets will consist of a live unit of three or more people combining instrumental performance with electronics and real-time sound manipulation. It's difficult to fly everyone out when the gig fee is 200 bucks or less.

CoC: Is the sample at the end of "Placebo" actually from Sesame Street or did someone mimic the voice? Also, may I just say: WHHAAAT THE FUUCK!?

JP: None of the sounds in Atomsmasher are stolen. The vox in question either belong to an old friend or possibly my father, whose tapes I'm constantly debugging for assimilation into our gridwork. Thank you for your exclamations.

CoC: Generally speaking, what sorts of sources are your samples from, and do they have any purpose other than making the experience of _Atomsmasher_ thoroughly weird?

JP: Every sound adheres to the basic rock guitar/bass/drums/vox formula. With modern PC and Mac tools, you really don't need outlandish sound sources to develop really bizarre sounds. The sounds are carefully chosen though, maybe moreso than someone might think. Generally, it's a very dense overall sound so a lot of attention is paid to giving each sound its own space in the mix. I tend to dislike sonic clutter, and density doesn't usually mean clutter if you know how to cover the frequency spectrum efficiently.

CoC: In what way does the visual presentation of the _Atomsmasher_ album fit with its music? How important is good and extensive visual presentation to Atomsmasher, and if it is important, why is it important?

JP: Imagine it as a new toy, or a delicious piece of candy. Colors, lines and scribbles, stimulation... presto! We get excited and want to scratch the wacko-spot.

CoC: What can we expect next from Atomsmasher? Will it sound like "the band who made _Atomsmasher_" made it?

JP: The next CD is for IPECAC records, home of the Melvins and Fantomas. Same attitude, different sounds. I need to keep it interesting for myself foremost, so it will always expand at least a bit to each release. Also look for a HydraHead 7" featuring a remix by Venetian Snares as well as a track from Jack Plotkin's Atomsmasher...

Contact: mailto:jimbalaya9@earthlink.net http://www.hydrahead.com

For an extensive article on, and downloadable discography of James Plotkin: http://www.musiquemachine.com

(article submitted 14/1/2002)

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