An oral history of Ejaculation Death Rattle: fake jazz vets awaken from their slumbers

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      Ejaculation Death Rattle doesn’t perform very often these days.

      EDR, as they are known for short, were veterans of the original Fake Jazz Wednesdays scene, when it used to be held weekly at the Cobalt, under whose sign the band posed for a photo for a Wire article which, full disclosure, I wrote. They were one of the bands from whom Mr. Chi Pig, bussing tables, could be seen retreating in mock horror; they had a singular weirdness to them, delivering improvised noise jams with a perverse, playful inventiveness.

      For instance, wasn’t there a gig where they had a guy in an executioner’s costume giving massages to audience members?

      “That definitely happened,” Sean Arden,  the band’s bassist, remembers, and apparently, pictures exist; but I like the idea of imagining this particular night more than I need to see what it actually looked like.

      The band describes itself on its Bandcamp as offering “an unholy poisoning of ambient, free-folk and pseudo psychedelic primitivism amid sweeping tides of noise, drone music worship, spastic panning, bent and decayed notes, and assorted digital debris meant to keep everyone off balance. Deceptively improvised, and/or intentionally contrived? An atypical journey through uplifting murk and lurid bliss.”

      Even if you can’t fully make sense of it, that’s a pretty accurate description, actually – because you won’t fully make sense of their music, either. You can get a further sense of what to expect on Ross Birdwise’s Soundcloud, (stick around past the three minute mark, when the vocals really kick in; that’s either where it will get really interesting, or utterly terrifying, depending on your level of psychic hardiness). Birdwise does vocal improv and throat singing, using a variety of microphone setups (including contact mics) which he assembles himself, often mutating his voice through filters and/or the rest of the band.

      There are probably not many Soundcloud pages that include #psychedelic, #throatsinging, #ambient, and (my favourite) #moaning among their descriptors.

      With a Quiet City gig this Friday, the Georgia Straight caught up with the four current members of Ejaculation Death Rattle to bring us up to speed. Interviewed below are Ross Birdwise, Sean Arden, Dan Kibke (on modular synths), and Heather Jean McDermid. Also known as Lee Shoal of the Creaking Planks, McDermid is the (sort of) “folky” of the bunch, and will be playing accordion on Friday, though I believe I have also seen her contribute banjo, fiddle, and other instruments to the EDR soup which are not usually associated with psychedelic ambient improvised noise, whether served with #moaning or without. She’s also the Assistant Curator and Communications Manager for Vancouver New Music.

      GS: Can you give us some of EDR’s backstory?  

      Ross Birdwise: When I lived in Ottawa, back in the early to mid 1990s I went to high school with Heather and also a friend named Alex.  Unfortunately Alex passed away last summer, but he and I were in the original incarnation of EDR.  It came out of a lot of idle jamming, mostly in my parents' basement, just a crude mixture if distorted Casio keyboards, possibly an MT-32 and other cheap equipment, home-made crude microphone feedback, a couple of distortion pedals, an overdriven karaoke machine (with cheap echo effects) and the ability to overdub in realtime.  We had a few short lived projects (mainly based around recording live jams with a bit of overdubbing and some minimal compositional ideas alongside a lot of improvising, we rarely used any sequencing and struggled with basic aspects of our gear). EDR was one name we tended to stick to, and we produced a few tapes for our own edification, but never released anything, nor played to an audience of any kind except possibly a few friends who would happen to be around at one of our jams.  At the time we were probably influenced by early industrial but also later stuff like Skinny Puppy, horror movie soundtracks and some 90s noise music; I recall we both liked Merzbow.  Al also had a thing for Krautrock and Tangerine Dream and stuff like that, I recall, and I believe aspects of that worked its way into our sound.  I don't think we really thought (or cared) very hard about what genre we were and a lot of stuff we did was very intuitive and exploratory and very amateur.  Fast forward to 2006 and I moved to Vancouver, living in the same building as Heather (she found me my apartment) and we soon started jamming, probably forming the second incarnation of EDR in late 2006, alongside Shan Syed (who now lives in Toronto) and Sean Arden, and very soon after joined by Dan Kibke who I believe played with us at our first show which was at the old old Red Gate space in early 2007.  Christie Watson joined later that year I believe, a recent import also from Ottawa, who I had known since about 2003.

      I see EDR take two as embodying aspects of the original EDR spirit of the '90s.  Noisy, at times very sloppy, exploratory, not emphasizing genre, at times serious, at other times tongue-in-cheek or simply playful.  Prior to EDR, I had been playing in a somewhat more "serious" band and I wanted to get away from that to some degree and also to explore improvisation more and deliberately work with fragments and discards from my solo electronic explorations, like a kind of recycling.  I was also getting tired to some degree of artists playing with dark and heavy or simply earnest tropes (it felt heavy handed and obvious) and in some senses EDR was a pisstake on that, but at times I think we were legitimately heavy (and I think I was probably channeling some shit at times as were other members) and I think some of our sets tended to confuse people with their mishmashes and odd sequences of at times disparate elements (such as minimal techno and dub, folk music, butting up against pedal noise, extreme vocals, drones, et cetera), which was something we tended to embrace and occasionally came up in how we chose to present ourselves visually and otherwise at performances.  Once or twice I played drunk in a pair of neon pink briefs for example, and there was the mummy show [more on which below], as examples of this approach.

      Because were tended to be sloppy and I was determined to embrace this somehow, in many second wave EDR computer rhythms there are deliberately awkward moments, trainwrecking, et cetera. It was an attempt to explore and integrate sloppiness and brokenness.  To make an (anti) aesthetic  feature, if you will.

      Dan Kibke: Initially it was Ross and Heather and maybe Shan. When I was putting together the second pancake noise breakfast, Ross and Heather approached me about getting on the bill with their new project "Ejaculation Death Rattle" and I said absolutely, on the basis of the name alone. Shortly after that I got invited to the Sunday jams at Ross's apartment.

      GS: Where did the name Ejaculation Death Rattle come from? It’s from Artaud, right?

      Ross Birdwise: I thought of the name. I've been into Artaud since I was a teen. I like the intensity of the name and I like how it feels for me at once tongue in cheek and earnest. Its very over the top! I felt in a way it condensed a lot of themes in noise music (I think I wanted an ultimate noise name, only to subvert it) and themes I was interested in as a teen, sex and death mainly, but also, as you might get from the poem posted below, anxieties about the body, identity, autonomy, madness and society, the sacred and the profane, mystical experiences but also horror and madness, et cetera. It’s from this

      Ejaculation Death Rattle circa 2008.

      GS: What are your top three EDR gigs?

      Heather Jean McDermid: In no particular order for me: Secret Location Spring Equinuts party (I got kicked in the face by a bandmate who was being dragged around by one foot, which resulted my a microphone living out the rest of its years with a noticeable dent); the Cobalt show that featured the executioner and a piñata; one at Video In (VIVO) where we all dressed as toilet paper mummies (it’s actually quite difficult keep the toilet paper from falling off, and retain mobility). I can’t remember the specific event for that one.

      Ross Birdwise: I also think the Tunnel Canary doc show [“Noise Night” at the Vancity Theatre, in 2011] was a highlight for sure.

      Sean Arden: These were all epic but there is one Destroy Vancouver show we played where a speaker caught on fire from playing too loud.

      Heather Jean McDermid: I believe this was during Ghost Taco’s set (I think at Shitstorm Noise Fest, not Destroy Vancouver) where her vagina noise set rocked so hard the speaker did in fact catch fire. IT WAS TOTALLY EPIC.

      Dan Kibke: Heather has this, it was the Shitstorm Noise Fest where Ghost Taco set fire to a speaker. I have the photos. The first Tunnel Canary reunion show and Shitstorm are one and the same. It was all part of the same 12 hour fest that Lashen [AKA Flatgrey] put on. EDR played at something like 9 p.m. and I played again with Scott [aka Fritter] as G42 at 3 or 4 a.m.

      GS: Heather, you seem to straddle three different worlds, from working for Vancouver New Music to playing in “the jug band of the damned”, the Creaking Planks, to your jams with EDR. Do you feel more at home in any one of those realms?

      Heather Jean McDermid:  I don’t feel any more "at home" in one over the others, because what draws me to them is how each is a product of, and hopefully contributes to, different (but often overlapping) creative communities in the city, rather than any aesthetic leanings. So, in the way that I interact with each, I think they are much more connected than they might seem on the surface. I don’t know if that makes sense...

      GS: Do you listen to a lot of improvised noise, these days?

      Heather Jean McDermid:  Not really, except if you stretch it into marginally associated subgeneres, like some forms of ambient music. Perhaps a hot take here, but I’m not so interested in it outside of a live context.

      Ross Birdwise:  Like Heather, I am more into noise music in a live context with few exceptions.  Live noise can still be an amazing thing for me. [When not at gigs,] I listen to less improvised noise now than I did then, but I still listen to a fair amount of improvised and semi-improvised music, whether its non-idiomatic improv, free jazz and related sounds, or contemporary music pieces that incorporate improvised elements in one way or another. I listen to a fair amount of composed or sequenced music and probably less electronic music (such as techno, glitch, industrial or ambient) than I did as a teen or the 2nd period of EDR.  I guess this is the 3rd period.  I have still been playing improvised noise music, but it’s very much merged with aspects of metal, free jazz, lowercase improv, contemporary classical and a bit of post-rock with Crawling Human and the feel is quite different than older EDR, I think. My tastes overall are still informed by my past but I think I've been on a quieter music kick more recently with some occasional louder forays into metal, punk, and hardcore. I am also listening to less pop, such as indie rock (and free folk et cetera), than I was when I was in second-wave EDR, no idea if thats relevant or not. I am still making electronic music (under my own name mainly; I have releases on a few labels such as Orange Milk, Hotham Sound, and Never Anything) but Crawling Human has been become more vocal-centric.

      Dan Kibke: I’m listening to a lot of improvised and abstract music, if anything more so. Borderline scientific recordings. Film tastes influence my aesthetic as well with lots of slow and observational cinema, like Wang Bing or Kazuhiro Soda.

      GS: The Vancouver scene stopped being as fun without a regular event like Fake Jazz Wednesdays: true or false?

      Heather Jean McDermid: Do you mean improv/ noise scene? Did it go away? I don’t know … I don’t think it really did. There still are a number of one-off events, venues and series that (against increasing odds) regularly cater to the same sort of scene as the original Fake Jazz series (e.g., Deep Blue, Red Gate, Toast, Sawdust Collector, Quiet City, 8 East, Mixtophonics, and Fake Jazz).

      I think that (the nebulous and fuzzy boundaried) “scene" evolved to adapt to venue pressures, organizer burnout/turnover, and shifts in the kind of music and communities people find relevant, and want to hear and be part of. I’d wager that any perceived ‘decline in fun’ is related to cumulative impact of the city’s unaffordability rather than the loss of any particular event or series. There has definitely been an outflow of a lot of creative people to places where they can actually make a living making the music they want to make, or they at least have the time and energy to make it on the side of whatever day job they work. Which is increasingly difficult to do in Vancouver.

      Dan Kibke: I agree largely with what Heather has said here. And yet despite all that there seems to be a tremendous amount going on. Certainly more than I have energy or time for.

      GS: How did the Wire article impact you? Wasn’t there someone in California who got really excited about the band, for awhile?

      Ross Birdwise: I can't recall anything about the guy in California.  I think the Wire article probably helped us get more gigs locally, that’s for sure, and probably got us a few long distance fans. 

      Sean Arden:  I couldn’t believe it when I saw us in the Wire.

      GS: What other projects are you involved with these days?

      Dan Kibke: Playing and recording a lot in the home studio, occasional solo performances as the Memory Palace, AV collaborations with Emma Tomic, playing with Jaewoo Lee for upcoming recordings and live performances in an as yet unnamed project. 

      Heather Jean McDermid: I've mostly been working on art film projects with my partner, Keith Langergraber. I’ve done videography for the past five films and music for the last two. Sound from the first one is up here

      The second one is forthcoming. (Ross did the music for the first few, and Sean did some of the videography and post production for all of them so EDR connections abound!)

      Ross Birdwise:  Crawling Human, recording as Ross Birdwise, VEE, various short term collaborations, some A/V, occasional sound design for Keith and other artists.

      GS:  What does an EDR gig for 2019 mean?

      Heather Jean McDermid: Couldn’t say.

      Ross Birdwise:  I think we are all going to find out soon enough.

      Sean Arden: I think it means that it’s still important to us, the collaboration we had and sharing that took place during all those weekends jams and Skylight breakfasts. The conceptual exchanges that we translated through sound were meaningful. 

      Dan Kibke: I've particularly enjoyed our recent jams [with EDR] and how comfortable it felt and how easily we fell into things again.

      GS: When was the last EDR gig? Why the long hiatus?

      Heather Jean McDermid: I couldn’t remember exactly, but our website says November 1, 2013. It was at Red Gate I think. We still have a website because I couldn’t bear to give up the domain name. Everyone got busy with life and other projects, so we haven’t played together in a long time. Ross and I recently played and accordion/ laptop/ voice duo set for the Accordion Revolution book launch party at Co-op Radio and wanted to play more with that project. So here we are.

      Dan Kibke:  The analogy I like to make is that EDR is like Cthulhu lying asleep and dreaming at the bottom of the ocean. Has the current state of the world awakened us? Are disciples calling for our return for the apocalypse? Time will tell.

      Quiet City #67 takes place this Friday at the Toast Collective (648 Kingsway), where EDR will play alongside Faxtar, and a duo set from Sam Shalabi and Elizabeth Millar. More information here.