Saturday, October 1, 2011

ugEX Blast From The Past: Toy Killers

If you haven't heard it yet, Toy Killers' "The Unlistenable Years" anthology CD (ugEXPLODE, 2008) is a collection of early '80s Downtown NYC no wave/improv/noise/new wave/post-punk awesomeness featuring a cavalcade of amazing musicians, most of which remain vital to this very day. We still have copies in stock.

Originally posted on the Toy Killers' Myspace page, here are my notes about this release . . . 


The Making of Toy Killers' "The Unlistenable Years"

Out Dec. 15th, 2008 on ugEXPLODE appears the great, lost New York No Wave record: Toy Killers "The Unlistenable Years". this 67 minute CD features previously unheard recordings circa 1980-1984 by the destructive Downtown NYC duo formed by improv madmen Mark E. Miller and Charles K. Noyes with special guests John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Bill Laswell, Arto Lindsay and many more. "The Unlistenable Years" is a vital document of some seriously weird and awesome music by some seminal musicians at the top of their games early in their careers . . . here's the story. . . .

Back in 1988, when I was ripe 16 years old, I got hold of a compilation on Homestead Records entitled "Speed Trials". This LP was a document of an experimental music festival from 1983 and featured early live cuts by Sonic Youth, Swans, the pre-rap Beastie Boys, The Fall, Lydia Lunch, and others. The stand-out track was a very chaotic, violent song by a band called "Toy Killers", seemingly led by DNA guitar mutilator Arto Lindsay. Of particular note on this great recording was the hecticly discontinuous drumming of Charles K. Noyes - I had never before heard anything quite as disruptive and random as the percussion Noyes laid down on this song. I was instantly hooked. I did some further research and found another record Noyes was on: the bizarre 1983 Korean/free improv hybrid double album "Invite the Spirit", also featuring guitar legend Henry Kaiser. Over the years I often listened to this single Toy Killers track over and over, wondering what the hell was the deal with this mysterious band. Was it a one-off? Was it a continuing interest? Back in 1988, it was considerably more difficult to find these things out . . .

Time flies by and we skip forward to 2002. I'm on tour with the Flying Luttenbachers and I'm browsing the great NYC record store Downtown Music Gallery. Elliott Sharp walks in and begins chit-chatting with Bruce Gallanter, the owner. I walk up to them, introduce myself and ask them whatever happened to Mark Miller (with Noyes, the other 'official' Toy Killers member)? They both laugh and tell me some strange story about Miller's love for letting off explosives during concerts as well as an anecdote about some Elliott Sharp gig at the Kitchen where Miller lit his hands on fire and the show got shut down . . . Bruce tells me Mark is somewhere out on the West Coast . . .

Fast forward to 2005: I've been living in Oakland, California for several years now and through my associate, bass player Damon Smith, I make the acquaintance of guitarist Henry Kaiser and begin sporadically playing music with him. Charles K. Noyes comes up in the conversation to little ado other than Kaiser and I both agreeing that Noyes is a sort of drumming genius. The following year I notice a listing at local venue for a concert featuring ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, Fred Frith and . . . Mark E. Miller on drums. I get in touch with Miller and ask him to play some music with me. We quickly spark up a friendship and the million dollar question is asked: "What was the deal with the Toy Killers?"

Mark reveals to me that he and Charlie started playing together in the late '70s. The two would often pop up in the nascent downtown New York improvisation scene as a team, notably appearing together on classic records like John Zorn's "Pool", Elliott Sharp's "Carbon" and more. Initially they started just as a two-piece, abusing all sorts of percussion instruments, making feedback and lighting things on fire. Mark explained that his use of fire merely had to do with finding a way of separating himself from the herd of improvising drummers! Mission accomplished.

As time went on, a lot of various people in the scene would play with the Toy Killers, coming and going at whim. For a while Arto Lindsay was indeed in the ranks for a spell, lending his distinctively warped vocal outbursts and trademark guitar skronk to the proceedings. A very rare self-released cassette called "Humdrum" (of which all the tracks appear freshly remixed from the original multi-track masters on "the unlistenable years"), showed this guest star mania in full bloom with great, off-the-cuff performances by Material bassist Bill Laswell, Sharp and saxophonist John Zorn amongst others.

At one point, Mark suddenly envisioned Toy Killers as a "kick-ass rock and roll band", even though they didn't really rehearse and Noyes had almost no experience or interest in playing rock and roll! Mark morphed from being a drummer to being a true wild card, sometimes singing, sometimes abusing a bass guitar, sometimes deafening everybody with his amplified metal drink shakers, sometimes disappearing into thin-air half way through the set.

While Noyes explored his Eastern music inspirations with the exotic polyglot improv of Invite the Spirit, Miller helped found the Golden Palominos as well as Arto Lindsay's Ambitious Lovers (he appears on both groups' debut releases). By the time the Toy Killers made it to the studio near around 1984, things were beginning to unravel even more and the remnants from this aborted project produced by Bill Laswell (tracked at Martin Bisi's OAO Studios) appear fully mixed for the first time on the new CD.Luckily for us, Mark happened to be sitting on a box of Toy Killers tapes which I began sifting through earlier this year.

Many of the live recordings on the CD were made by DMG domo Bruce Gallanter back in the day and they still sound incredible. On one track you hear fireworks going off. On another track, if you squint you can detect Derek Bailey almost inaudibly fretting a few note clusters before walking out in total disgust. All the spit, sweat and noise of the various Toy Killers bands are in full evidence. The studio recordings sound amazing with their brand new remixes. This is a truly action packed hour plus of intense and varied chaos. Anton Fier was kind enough to write some succinct liner notes detailing yet another anecdote of Toy Killers property-damage-as-performance for us.

On a technical note, putting together this CD was a lot of work. Dozens and dozens of hours of critical listening, editing, mixing and mastering went into this disc. The material was whittled down from about 6 or 7 hours of possibilities of varying fidelity. We went through many revisions before we were satisfied that we had the best possible master version.

At one point earlier this year Mark handed me a box of cassettes from the early '80s which had been recorded at the actual gigs by Bruce Gallanter. Lots of interesting stuff featuring a wide swath of the prominent musicians in the scene at the time. There were several Toy Killers cassettes in the box which I transferred to digital with good results. Mark also provided me with more digital transfers of various Toy Killers tapes including multitrack masters, some of which had never seen the light of day in any form before.

Sometime in the early '80s - my guess is around 1981 or 1982 - the Toy Killers actually distributed a cassette-only release entitled "Humdrum", featuring different mixes of tracks 4 through 9 on the cd. I have never seen an actual copy of this tape and I'm assuming there's probably few-to-no existing copies of the original item, so we set about remixing from the original multi-track master. Having the good fortune of modern technology on my side, I was able to remix this music from scratch and really enhance what fidelity made it to the tape during this crude basement 4-track session. the results were excellent. on a track like "Bleed For the Mind" you can hear everything crystal clear, Mark and Charlie's duelling drums, Bill Laswell's trademark gutteral bass lines, Elliott Sharp's cyber-JBs chicken-scratch guitar and a great reed solo by John Zorn right on top of it all.

Tracks 3, 15 and 16 come from an aborted album session produced by Bill Laswell at Martin Bisi's OAO Studios. I'm assuming these tracks were laid down either sometime in late 1983 or early '84. Bisi's original tracking was perfect and totally clean so I was able to remix these tracks with incredible success. All three of these cuts have a ton of overdubs - i think "Away All Pests" and "24 Handkerchiefs For Roger Trilling" were both approaching 24 tracks each! - so the mixing was pretty meticulous and I had to cut away some stuff and pick and choose moments from this incredibly dense music. On "Away All Pests" some of the separate tracks include: bullroarer (a sort of noisemaker you whip around in the air to get a whizzing dopplar effect); a seemingly unrelated track of African drumming; various animalistic male and female vocal noises and turntable scratching - you name it!

"24 Handkerchiefs" in particular was what most people would consider true "remix": although this music was released on the Elliott Sharp curated "Island of Sanity" 2LP compilation back in the late '80s under the title "At Home", the cd version is an almost unrelated beast to the original. The main riff of "At Home" was written by Robin Holcomb, but mutilated almost recognition by me in the new version. The separate tracks include fingers whisking water around in a bowl, a flanged snare, a totally hilarious and destructive Charlie Noyes drumkit performance, some middle-eastern modal guitar playing and heavy metal whammy bar shredding by Nicky Skopelitis, a found tape of some girls in a swimming pool *, Charlie's distinctive bowed saw playing and much more.

In terms of the live Toy Killers material, things got a little tricky at times. the main live stuff came from tapes made by Bruce Gallanter at the gigs. Most of them were in pretty good shape, particularly the one with Zorn and Burwell. The tapes done at Toy Killers central a.k.a Studio Henry/Club Mort/Morton Street/whatever you want to call it, often had the sound of crickets in the background courtesy of the pet shop which resided upstairs from the venue. It was interesting to hear the genesis of the Toy Killers sound through the years. Basically they started as a duo with Charlie and Nark, focusing on percussive approaches. You can hear examples of this formation at the end of the cd. At some point Mark switched to bass and vocals . . . the resulting trio with Thi-Linh Le on guitar and Charlie on drums has a very destructive, DNA-like power approach.

The Kitchen tapes were in a very strange condition when i got them: the tracks were almost randomly separated into the left and right channels of a single stereo track, so i had to do some really weird EQ, compression and rechannelling to get them to sound like anything. I think things worked out really well, as you can hear on tracks like "Sex Carp". Mark thinks this gig might have been one with the early Beastie Boys opening . . .

Mark's favorite track on the cd is "Dance of the Were-Samurai", a brooding, sparse but shocking stretch of anti-music recorded live at the defunct Danceteria club.

There was a tape from an unknown source featuring 3 songs total from the infamous White Columns gallery "Speed Trials" gig (without Mark, who was in Europe with the Golden Palominos at the time). Unfortunately the fidelity was insanely terrible and degraded on this particular source and we chose to release only "The Devil May Be 'Your Santa Claus", basically to show the difference between the live version and the studio version. There is probably video and audio for the entire White Columns festival, but the whereabouts are unknown.

The improvisation on track 20 created a strange quandary for us. I cut the recording of the gig down to what I thought the best segment was, considering that the overall fidelity was not great. At some point Charlie kept remarking about the track "with Derek Bailey". Mark and I were totally confused - we kept wondering what the hell he was talking about! There seemed to be no tracks with Derek on them whatsoever. Charlie insisted that Derek played this particular gig and that his guitar was indeed on there. Neither Mark or I could detect it, so we gave the clip to Baileyphile Henry Kaiser for the final decision. Henry said, yes, Derek certainly was on there, albeit almost undetectable. It seems that the Toy Killers (with Wayne Horvitz) began their set and Derek played just a few notes before walking offstage, apparently in disgust!

- Weasel Walter, 2008


* "Actually the "fingers whisking water around in a bowl..." and "a found tape of some girls in a swimming pool..." are the same - and neither. What they actually are is a cassette that David Toop once sent me of something called "Balinese Water Splash Gamelan," where girls rhythmically slap their cupped hands on the surface of some water, and get the giggles doing it. Something about the piece caused Mark to realize how appropriate it would be in Robin's piece, and right he was."

- Charles K. Noyes


Anonymous said...

RIP Mark Miller died Feb. 8, 2015 in Oakland CA. Shocked and saddened. New Toy Killers tracks coming out

Anonymous said...

Spending the morning googling my friend Mark Miller. Lovely to read this and remember his brilliance. Rest in peace Mark. You'll be missed.