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Photo By Laura Roberts
People Noise

PEOPLE NOISE

Comes Clean

By Tim Roberts

"I don't mind it. . .I don't notice it anymore. It's just part of me."

-Kurt Vonnegut,

"Harrison Bergeron"

The year is 2081. Total equality triumphs. To the point where everyone is forcibly handicapped in one way or another: once brilliant thinkers are made to wear radios strapped to their heads that send out jolts of loud noise to keep a coherent thought from forming; ballerinas wear masks that are contorted into croneish ugliness so that they're not prettier than other women; athletes are made to wear hundreds of pounds of scrap metal on their bodies to slow them down.

Everyone is debilitated. But there's no jealousy and people learn to live with their handicaps.

But not Harrison Bergeron, the teenaged Adonis who escapes from his jail, bursts into a television studio featuring a program of ugly-masked ballerinas, rips off the jacket of nearly a quarter ton of scrap metal, declares himself emperor and frees one of the ballerinas from her artificial handicap.

They dance. They leap. They share a long, deep kiss. They have only an eyeblink of joy before they're blown apart by a shotgun blast from the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers.

Back row: Sam Marino, Woody Woodmansee, Matt Johnson Front: Zeke Buck Rahman

A life in music is obliquely similar. You've lost even before you get your toes on the starting line. The handicaps get hung on you the moment you first unpack your equipment to play in public.

And they are numerous: venues that are only quarter-full of disinterested patrons and most of them seem aggravated you're up there. Boxes full of unsold CDs piled in a corner somewhere in your home. People who say they know someone who works with a guy whose cousin once got to serve a drink to an A-and-R guy from A&M Records and. . .well, what do you mean they're no longer in business? That's the label Sting's on, isn't it?

There are also others who wear handicaps they aren't aware that they can shake off. Venue managers and booking agents who still want acts to send them a CD and a press kit, for example. Sure, you may have a web site, even a MySpace page with song samples, you're registered with Sonicbids and your latest work is available as a full, free download, but some booking managers won't think about you twice unless you hand them a slick folder full of press clippings, slick photos and a copy of your latest CD.

"Some venues still ask for press kits," Zeke Buck said. "It boggles the mind. You tell them about your MySpace page and they say, 'Well, that's not the way we do things.' I want to say, 'Well, that's not how we do things.'"

Indeed, what Buck said illustrates how People Noise isn't doing things that bands normally do to build their name, sell their product and get people to come out to their shows. They've bypassed the handicaps that are common for bands or solo performers who have the guts to get in front of a group of people and play their music. In a way, they are like Harrison Bergeron, shucking the metaphorical jackets of scrap metal and boldly striding out onto stages throughout the country, facing crowds large and small, declaring themselves to be, if only for a song set or two, Emperors of Whatever Venue They're Playing. They might even find a pretty ballerina to kiss.

So is it happenstance that one of the songs on their debut release Ordinary Ghosts is called "Harrison Bergeron"? Probably not. And they probably won't have to worry about a woman enforcing the handicaps all acts must face showing up with a shotgun. Just as long as they stay two states ahead of her on their impressive touring schedule.

"You have to make some big footprints to expand where you are," Buck said. "The momentum has been great and we're trying to use it to get more feedback."

"Forget sad things."

-Kurt Vonnegut

"Harrison Bergeron"

Formed initially as a duo with former Boom Bip drummer Matt Johnson rather quickly after Buck's sticky departure from VHS or Beta, a band he co-founded a decade ago (and a quick Internet search for reasons why reveals very little, other than the boilerplate of Band Member Leaving Because of Creative and Personal Differences that apparently grew during their own exhausting tour to promote Night on Fire), People Noise has the kind of sound that takes the electro-ambience of Buck's former band, slows down its groove and turns itself inward with vague, introspective lyrics. It is slowed-down, guitar-layered punk rock with brains, where the band members keep their bodily fluids to themselves, try to avoid any four-letter obscenities directed at authority figures and genuinely appreciate their audiences.

"It's very rock," Buck proclaims. "The comments about it are very widespread. We do get a lot of shoe-gazing comments, like [the music of] My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins. There are so many layers going on. And I think with a lot of layers, people have a hard time seeing through it."

Shoe gazing bands: the ones that never seem to make eye contact with the audience because their eyes are cast down to the stage. That's not a big problem because most people in the audience are probably doing the same thing. There must be some kind of intoxicant in the music that probably weighs heads down and prohibits them from raising until the band is finished its set. It's a wonder audiences even know who is on stage.

Indeed, a quick scan of the opening chords of each song on Ordinary Ghosts and noting their titles, the music is a departure of the techno-house pop of Buck's previous band and it puts you in the mood to slowly weave your head back and forth as you stare at a pair of Converses. But the music still has a vague similarity to that other band's work. Most likely it's the dreamlike ambience of the electric guitars, in wooly layers with organ, bass and more guitars and rhythms that vary from song to song from driving and steady to oddly syncopated.

Or, to put it another way, there's a good chance People Noise won't be opening for Duran Duran's next tour, the way VHS or Beta did two years ago.

But Buck refused to be bitter after he left. He and Johnson got to work immediately and recorded Ordinary Ghosts as a two-piece ensemble, each playing different instruments and self-producing the work.

"We had to hit the ground running," Buck said. "Matt was ready to go back into construction, or something like that. We were both anxious to get on the road and make music, be around great people and enjoy being a band. I don't think we could be happier, really."

But couldn't they have taken the act on the road as a duo, ranking themselves along other bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys with minimalist lineups?

"No, it wouldn't have worked," Johnson said. "We needed more players."

The band grew from two members to five, adding a second guitarist Rahman (no last name given, like Madonna or Roseanne or Prince or RuPaul) from Zero Element, punk-bassist Sam Marino from Two Minutes Lost and keyboardist Woody Woodmansee, who's played in about 50 bands throughout the city, but most notably with the soul-groove outfit Big Diggity and the experimental jazz-funk band Zongo.

And along with a growing roster of members, People Noise began growing a tortuously long tour schedule. The kind that would not only keep them out on the road for months, but would also be the anchor for their identity as a band.

"The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?"

-Kurt Vonnegut

"Harrison Bergeron"

Imagine you're a young musician, not really a veteran, but still not so green that people want to put you on a windowsill and wait until you ripen up a bit, with a few years' experience playing in bands or as a solo act. You've got the day job, rehearsals at night, gigs on weekends. You're living the Life of a Musician, but you're not to the point where you get stalked by paparazzi or obsessive fans or someone wanting to be your manager or build your web site.

One day you get approached by another musician you know. He likes your work. He shares details of his new project with you, plays you a track or two from his band's debut release. Just two of us did it, he says. We're needing more musicians. You'll fit in well.

You play a few rehearsals, meet the others who got the pitch, decide it all seems to work. The guy comes back to you and the other new members and says he's booked a few dates. He reads them off: a couple of them are in town in places where you've played, some are in other cities in the region (you especially brighten when he mentions Nashville).

But he doesn't stop naming cities where you'll be playing. They're places that seem to be getting farther and farther from home.

Does a knot the size of a cinder block form in your gut? Do you get the feeling you're being asked to join some kind of nomadic, monkish sect where your life is nothing but cold-cut sandwiches, rest stop water fountains, packed with four other guys into a high-mileage conversion van from 1982, with air-conditioning that barely works and bongwater stains on the tattered carpet lining the floor?

If you've joined People Noise, then the answer is yes. You quit whatever job you had (the photocopy shop won't miss you and you're tired of breathing in toner dust all day), you find a change of clothes or two and you head out.

But it's all part of a bigger plan: get the music in front of the people you want to be your fans.

"We've played 120 shows in six months," Buck reported. "We're out on the road, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, lunchmeats. We're lucky if we can get some Pringles to keep us going."

"The first two months were pretty taxing," said Woody Woodmansee said of the ongoing tour. "But after going back out on the road, it's just where I'm supposed to be. I get more rest and more comfort in the van driving and playing shows than I would be working a day job."

"We go from city to city," Johnson said, "and do the best show we can. While we're there we ask other bands what other places they play and who promotes the best shows. There's still a lot of grassroots networking behind what we do, along with the Internet and MySpace getting things out there."

"The first part is just getting out there," Buck admitted. "When you're starting off with a new group, you're kind of forcing the headline a lot, because you don't have enough notoriety to open up for bigger groups. You're basically trying to let yourself in."

To do that, the men of People Noise use the simple set of tools available to just about anyone: cell phones and e-mail to contact venues and book dates and keep in touch with home; laptop computers and free Wi-Fi to keep their MySpace page updated with new dates, pictures, news and any new songs; use of a file transfer server that has Ordinary Ghosts available as a download.

"You devise all of these things where you can actually make all these shortcuts," Buck said. "It makes it possible for bands in our position to be on the road and tour. We have to take a few extra shortcuts. Otherwise, it's impossible."

Taking advantage of all the technology has allowed People Noise to re-write the archaic rules that the industry just assumed would always be followed: an act plays a few dates in bars in town, seeks out professional management, gets it (maybe years later), gets a record deal (several more years later) and all is happy in Music-Land.

But like a young James T. Kirk reprogramming the unwinnable Kobiyashi Maru battle scenario so that he could win it, the band is working hard and using technology to cheat those rules. Because the needs of the many to hear People Noise outweigh the needs of the few industry gatekeepers, or the one who thinks he or she runs it all.

Another shortcut the band takes? Giving away copies of Ordinary Ghosts to those who really want it.

"Right now it's more about touring than selling records," Buck said. "I send out a lot of copies [of Ordinary Ghosts] to anyone who seems interested, even if they don't have the money. If getting them to buy a ticket to the show means giving away the record, so be it. That's a small price in order to get these people out to our shows. It's practical, too. And when people actually take the time out of their day to listen to your music, that's what it's all about. It's a blessing."

In his book Army of Davids, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds describes how technology has democratized many institutions and industries that had locked-in hierarchies and procedures, especially publishing and entertainment and communications and how these technologies are manifested in armies of citizens, after developing their own skills with the technologies, who confront and sometimes even bypass those once-stolid institutions. Think of citizen-journalist bloggers outpacing the mainstream media; filmmakers with rented equipment and a pirated copy of Adobe Premiere making short movies and posting them on YouTube; musicians taking their careers into their own hands, recording and mixing their own material, releasing it in spurts or as a full release, booking their own shows, devising their own publicity.

One of the founding members of People Noise experienced the comfortable side of the music industry, insulated from the scut work necessary to keep a band functioning. He and his bandmates are going through a cleansing that hard work brings. They are now on the other side, one new small platoon an army taking on the behemoths.

And being in that platoon with people you like, along with a consistent positive attitude, makes the work easy.

"You've got to try to stay positive," Buck insisted, "even when there's only a few people at the show. You've got to play for them like you would for anyone else. Sometimes that's hard to do, but we've done pretty well with it."

Thanks to Melinda at Wash-o-Rama and the Department of Philosophy of West Valley College for allowing me to freely quote from their online copy of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron."

Inspect the platoon at www.myspace.com/peoplenoise.