The Strange World Of… Tom Smith/ To Live And Shave In LA

The conceptual conceit of TLASILA is founded upon dedication to chaos, sleaze, hedonism, and libidinal materialism, says Adam Lehrer, on speaking to idiosyncratic poet and contemporary druid, Tom Smith

Tom Smith by Claudia Franke

The long-running, Miami-founded noise collective To Live And Shave In LA has counted an almost endless network of avant-garde American musicians amongst its ranks and as collaborators: producer and musician Don Fleming, Thurston Moore, Andrew WK, Hatewave’s Nándór Nevai, Harry Pussy’s Adris Hoyos, Bill Orcutt, Sightings’ Mark Morgan, COCK ESP’s Emil Hagstrom, Mr. Velocity Hopkins, and more. Oscillator wiz Ben Wolcott is probably one of the longest time-served members, joining in 1994.

International Noise Conference organiser, Laundry Room Squelchers leader, and demon of bass guitar destruction Rat Bastard was one of the two co-founders back in 1992, with the conceptual conceit and organisational structure of To Live And Shave In LA – a principle founded upon dedication to chaos, sleaze, hedonism, and libidinal materialism – being primarily the brainchild of the idiosyncratic mind of poet, producer, singer, good ol’ southern boy and contemporary druid Tom Smith.

Born to a working class family in Georgia in the 1956, Smith became enamoured with sound early. His dad owned a sub-NASCAR racing team, and Smith fondly remembers “the crackle of the PA machines and threadbare noise” blaring from its speakers.

“Three years later, at age 13 I was listening to King Crimson,” he says. “I listened to electric Miles and had a friend who got me into Sun Ra also. I knew something was up.” As the gods of avant-garde sound propelled him, so Smith’s destiny was written. When Smith was in his early 20s in the late 1970s and caught the punk bug, he briefly moved to New York. “I wasn’t working and got skinny from getting fucked up all the time just trying to see as many shows as possible, I saw Suicide and it was beautiful” he says. After the punk experience in New York didn’t work out, he moved back to Athens, Georgia in 1978 which is where his music career truly began.

Working at a local radio station, he became sophisticated at turntable dubbing – he claims to have been doing these kinds of recordings before Christian Marclay got famous for it – and often made what can best be described as proto “chopped and screwed” dubs of various punk songs, from The Ramones to Television: “My opinion was that I was the greatest producer in history, albeit one with no experience and little equipment,” he says. “I was able to make that dreadful second Television album stirring.”

In 78, he founded a “proto noise” unit of ghastly incomprehensible sound called Boat Of – informed equally by Throbbing Gristle and Smith’s hero Lee “Scratch” Perry – which lasted through the mid-1980s. After moving to Washington DC, he founded a trio called Peach Of Immortality – the band shared a space with Pussy Galore which resulted in Smith also briefly playing with those infamous scuzz rockers – featuring demented cello, psychotic tabletop guitar and Smith’s spasmodic tape abuse. The band recorded two now incredibly hard to find albums, 1985’s Talking Heads ‘77 and 1986’s Jehovah! My Black Ass-R.E.M. Is Air Supply!, and would continue through the early 1990s. Notably absent from POI’s assault though were Smith’s vocals. Though POI was a devastating unit in both sound and look – in one video you can see the POI bandmates adorned in Neubauten goth with jet black Flock of Seagulls haircuts looking strung out on morphine and Artaud while Smith appears in front clean cut and wearing a polo shirt like a liquored up country club golf pro who fucks all the club members’ wives – there would be little indication of the formidable frontman and obtusely poetic lyricist that Smith would emerge as in TLASILA.

To Live And Shave In LA is the longest running of Smith’s projects and greatest evidence of his mythical talents as a producer, writer, and performer. In a contentious review I wrote about a recent Royal Trux compilation, I mentioned TLASILA and Smith’s body of work more broadly as part of a lineage of transgressive American music that I call “avant-americana.” In avant-americana, American (and British)  musical innovations – rock & roll, soul, funk, punk, hip hop – are celebrated, exploited, torn to shreds, and rebuilt as something more visceral and stranger. Under the leadership of Smith, TLASILA inhabits this aesthetic perhaps better than any similarly categorised band.

Smith – who often jokes that he was “pomo before pomo was a thing” – has long adhered to the mantra that “genre is obsolete.” In a brilliant essay by the contemporary philosopher Ray Brassier, Genre Is Obsolete, the thinker ponders on Smith’s dictum and emphasises that TLASILA (as well as Swiss noise artist Rudolph Eb.Er’s Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck project) is most emblematic of noise music’s “genrelessness.” “Where orthodox noise compresses information, obliterating detail in a torrential deluge,” he says. “Shave construct songs over an overwhelming plethora of sonic data, counterweighting noise’s form destroying entropy through a negentropic overload that destroys noise-as-genre and challenges the listener to engage with a surfeit of information.”

Glam, dub, noise, musiqué concrete, no wave, and good old fashioned American rock sleaze disrupt and reorganize meaning in TLASILA, devolving into a sickening abyss of perverse pleasures. TLASILA is made up of an endless network of collaborative components: Rat’s bass, Orcutt’s guitar, Wolcott’s oscillators, etc. But it is through Smith – informed by Duchamp’s concept of the readymade and the Burroughs cut-up – and his hyper-focused production that the band’s sound takes form. As Smith channels his collaborators through his production, they transmogrify into musical bodies without organs; Smith’s vision allows his collaborators to speak a “language without articulation” that has more to do with the primal act of making sound than it does making specific meaning, to paraphrase Deleuze.

And yet, Smith diligently composes the isolated chaotic components of sound into an organised whole. TLASILA functions as a bricolage of sound. Smith’s post-production obsessiveness has been compared to that of Kenneth Anger’s cinematic post-production; the edit arranges the calamity into a beautiful monster. If, as theorist Dick Hebdige has noted, punks presented themselves as “degenerates” to emphasise the signs of decay “which perfectly represented the atrophied condition of Great Britain,” then one could interpret TLASILA as transcendents who have already seen the world collapse and have magically arisen as something more than human.

And always soaring above the cataclysm is Smith’s idiosyncratic croon. Unlike so much noise performance – a genre full of guys twiddling knobs in front of laptops – TLASILA is a thrilling live prospect. Glam and no wave signifiers collide as Smith acts as an avant vaudevillian grand maestro to a postmodern Grand Guignol; while his collaborators engage in orgiastic excess he appears relatively clean-cut and poised, directing the chaos while bellowing out his signature vocals. His voice sounds like Bryan Ferry’s traumatised and murdered spirit howling for attention from the nether-realm he’s trapped in, or latter period Scott Walker taken to its logical extreme. A lifelong devotee of Henry Miller, Smith’s lyrics share Miller’s texts’ rebellion against moral and aesthetic censorship. Nick Land said the “jagged and meandering character” of  Miller’s text “attest to its torrential emancipatory energy.” A similar description could apply to Smith’s lyrics. On TLASILA’s Noon And Eternity’s song ‘This Home And Fear,’ Smith moans: “Cannot foretell with a cancer whose premises are to be found, two large vessels were found, photograph which was novel.” There is a directness and opacity to the text that liquidates meaning.

Lurch X by Tom Smith

Smith is as active in music as ever. He regularly posts both TLASILA and solo tracks on his Soundcloud page, keeps up with contemporary music (he particularly enjoys Earl Sweatshirt and JPEG Mafia), and released a new TLASILA album last year. Living in Hannover, TLASILA currently tours as a trio with Smith, Rat, and Tipula Confusa, (TLASILA alias: Lurch X) from none other than tQ favorites Guttersnipe. So impressed by the onslaught of Aury’s musical destruction, Smith has started a new band with her under a new alias, Vy, and Paige Flash from COCK Esp and Cult of Youth called NH Meth. The new band will start touring Europe on May 30 and has a new record in the works, a sample of which you can hear below.

Smith and I spent hours on Skype discussing his lengthy and complex artistic history, from the earliest days of his career through the more known era of TLASILA.

Boat of – ‘Bore the Entreaty’ from Forbidden Mourning Practice

Tom Smith: When I moved back to Athens my pal Mike Green, who was in a band called The Fans – he initially befriended me because he liked the red sweater I was wearing backwards – and I started Boat Of. Carol Leavy was our Viv Albertine-style guitar player. And Michael Stipe, who I assumed was cool because he had green hair and a copy of the DNA single ‘Little Ants’, also joined the group. My friend Don Fleming sent tapes for us to play. Hip hop had just flowered with ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ I loved the manipulated breaks. We were improvising and singing lyrics I had written over hip hop singles.

People freaked out when we played. By 1983, we began to splinter. This track was recorded at the Cobb Institute in 1981 with Carol, who played with us for the last time a couple months before she died in a car accident in 83. The last time she and I recorded we used tape and a bulk eraser to erase parts of the tape and re-record it getting some cool drop-outs. But after she died, we decided Boat Of had to end.

Peach Of Immortality – ‘Untitled’ Live At The 930 Club

TS: The reason I moved to DC in 84 was to join my friend Don Fleming’s band The Velvet Monkeys to do keyboards and turntables, but I was quickly kicked out of the band for sleeping with the drummer’s ex-girlfriend. So I started Peach Of Immortality. Don introduced me to Jared, who was doing tabletop guitar. We added cello. It was all improv’d. No vocals. Jared and I were promoters for this club called DC Space which was the hub for experimental music, black music and all that tedious Dischord shit. And we had a home there, even though people really hated us. It was just a ferocious racket and most people didn’t get it, but some did!

Peach Of Immortality

During the Peach Of Immortality days, you ended up sharing a DC space with Pussy Galore and briefly became a member in the band. How did that transpire?

TS: I found some cassettes in a trash can at an apartment. One was Pussy Galore, which sounded like Jesus And Mary Chain meets Test Department. Amazing. Good sleeve. Jon Spencer wrote everything in this horror font. He was a good illustrator. There was a number on the tape, I called,  and they invited me over to their space. They needed a drummer, which I wasn’t but I could count to four. I went to visit them at their massive house in Georgetown. I went down the stairs into the basement, and there was Jon and Julia Cafritz. That’s how I got in Pussy Galore. I contributed a few ideas, but Jon pretty much wrote everything. And then we toured with both Pussy Galore and Peach Of Immortality, which was bizarre. After the tour I got kicked out of Pussy Galore because Jon and Julia thought I was trying to be their own Malcolm McLaren. Which was probably true to an extent.

To Live And Shave In LA 30​-​minuten männercreme

TS: Peach Of Immortality held on until I moved to Miami following a girl who’d later become my wife in 1991. I met Rat Bastard right away, he had a record store next to his studio called Sync. I started recording there. The original engineer was rather inept, he couldn’t even get me a headphone signal. So I had Rat save me. Rat said, "Ok, I’ll fuckin’ take care of you." I got the name To Live And Shave In LA from a Ron Jeremy porn film that took its name from the Friedkin film To Live And Die In LA.  I thought it was a brilliant name. It fit into my aesthetics. High and low, stupid but immediate. I knew [TLASILA] had to be something that put all these ideas together. 

And how did the recording of the first album 30​-​minuten männercreme come together?

TS: What really influenced me then was the Bomb Squad. I had the first Public Enemy 12" and album. The production on that album was insane. I learned how to mix myself because my girlfriend got me a job as an audio engineer at Telemundo. Off the clock, I recorded and edited the first Harry Pussy album for Siltbreeze In an Emergency You can Shit on a Puerto Rican Whore (Rat recorded their first two singles) and männercreme. I worked fast to get the fuck out because I didn’t know when my supervisor would show up.

And Bill Orcutt played guitar on that first album, correct?

Tom Smith: Yeah. Bill is so good. It’s wonderful that he’s entering that rarified pantheon. He has a singular approach. There was a rivalry between us and Harry Pussy, even though our approaches were different. But Adris Hoyos and Bill ended up on that first album. It was amazing. Bill on guitar and Rat on bass, Adris on drums, and me singing and producing. 

To Live And Shave In LA – Vedder Vedder Bedwetter

TS: I wish I’d done Vedder Vedder Bedwetter differently. There were no programs for editing and I had to get tricky sequencing tracks. We had two different DAT machines, so the bridging tracks sometimes got lost or the timing wasn’t right. We couldn’t cut it accurately like you can with software. It’s a little messy. There’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know how to bring to the fore as a technician. My girlfriend and I were listening to the re-release of Abbey Road  recently; you can hear it as it was recorded, but clearer. That’s something I’d like to do with Vedder Vedder Bedwetter. Make it audible. We lost Rat’s bass sound because he was playing so fucking loud in the studio and there was no way to govern that sound and make it legible with the other sounds. Apart from that, the energy is there. It’s like every track is viewed from three angles. The second and third albums were obtuse in the extreme. I like that album a lot but it’s  hard to listen to. It’s just so piercing in the brain that it hurts.

To Live And Shave In LA – The Wigmaker In 18th Century Williamsburg 

The Wigmaker took five years to make, which is alarming, but as Chris Sienko noted in his review of the album for Blastitude, it actually sounds like an album worthy of five years of labour. How did this album take so long?

TS: We originally finished The Wigmaker in 95; it was about 29 songs [in length]. It didn’t feel particularly premonitory of the divorce I’d soon experience. But I thought we could do the album better. Then my wife – the woman who I moved to Miami for – and I broke up. It was so painful. We kept trying to make it work. Because when you’re hurt and you try to make it work, the wound deepens. Somehow the divorce – which began in 1996 and was only finalised in 2005 because we vacillated between reconnecting and breaking up for a while – was considerably more perverse than most divorces and I wanted all the louche and disfigured tangents of it represented. I was working at WFMU and used their studios to obsessively rework each track. I realised I had to tell this [break-up] story from both sides, not just mine. We had a long email correspondence where I saw how she felt. I wanted to use our story and frame it in a weird historical way that took the onus off of us. Once I developed this conceptual conceit it became easier to edit. There were so many tracks that got cut, even one with John Morton from the Electric Eels on it. I finally finished the work in 2001. I needed to exorcise the relationship.  It was too painful and meaningful, like a knife that could never be removed. It was two years of feeling awful and therapy. I was gratified that the album had an impact because  it was art born of misery. I don’t know if the sound was affected by my pain, but people read that into it. I never have a clear concept before I work. For me, it’s Corman and Allied Artists. You make a poster and the rest comes later. You make something that’s scintillating that touches a nerve. That grief was kryptonite. The only way to deal with this loss was to work.

The amount of guests you have on The Wigmaker is dizzying, you have Ben Wolcott on the oscillators, Emil from COCK Esp, Weasel, Rat of course, and many others. How did the recording process work?

TS:  They couldn’t send files back then, so they me sent cassettes and I would transfer them in the studio and then punch them in and then work those samples and layer them in. I haven’t listened to that album in so many years. When you create something you tend to let it go.

To Live And Shave In LA 2 – ‘Flarn, Filth, Flarn (And Sampl’d)’ from The 300 Dollar Silk Shirt

I am genuinely curious about the rumoured creative differences between you and Rat around the beginning of the 21st Century were real and if you were upset about the TLASILA off-shoot band he started with Weasel Walter, Nándór Nevai and Misty Martinez, To Live And Shave in LA 2?

TS:  So in 1999, TLASILA was on the Free Glam tour. Me, Rat, Nándór and Misty. I was in a bad state because I was still unresolved in light of the crisis of my marriage. I probably seemed distant, and a bit incapable of dealing with things as the “band leader”. At one show, which we were paid huge money for, Nándór never made it to the stage because he was looking for heroin, and Andrew WK filled in. Something about the show felt off, like it was a pastiche of TLASILA, so I walked off the stage. That created some animus.

Rat and Weasel announced To Live And Shave In LA 2 shortly thereafter. And then there was Born in East LA, TLASILA1975 and I Love LA. Suddenly there were dozens of To Live And Shave In LA clone acts. It was madness. At first I was hurt, but then it became so strangely amusing that it was cool. I eventually met Rat and this guy named Gerard Klauder, who became a huge influence on me before tragically committing suicide, and he started several other TLASILA off-shoots. Gerard actually started his own TLASILA 2 before Weasel did his version. Rat told me everyone was just fucking with me, so to him it was no big deal.

So how did you and Rat work it out?

TS: Rat and I didn’t feud about the off-shoot bands so much as we feuded over the production of Cortége in 2007 and it blew out into this horrible and bloody feud that made no sense. It lasted years. But when my mother died in 2014, Rat was at the airport waiting for me. He was there and he hugged me and I said, "Dude what are we doing? Let’s move on." And he rasped, "I’ve been waiting for this and you to stop all this shit you asshole." And he was my brother again.

Ohne – ‘Untitled’ live in Minsk, Belarus

TS: I met Dave Phillips (Swiss noise artist and once member of grindcore band Fear of God and aktionist noise collective Schimpfluch-Gruppe Dave Phillips) at Le Garage in Paris during 1996. We started a band, Ohne, along with (Swiss Schimpfluch-Gruppe member) Daniel Löwenbrück and Reto Maeder, both who were from Zurich. TLASILA was on hiatus due to TLASILA2 and the band not speaking. Ohne was life changing music. Dave and I were trading tracks back and forth because by then the internet had advanced to the point where we could download tracks within a day.  There was no real intersection of intention. Daniel’s music was in the Schimpfluch vein. Dave had his own thing. And then I came in with my own perspective and I didn’t want to dictate anything. When I hear the Ohne 1 album,  it sounds out of time. It’s totally alien and untethered. I have the strongest aesthetic bond with the Schimpfluch crew. Though geographically separated, we shared total commitment. Dave is raw. And the way he edits is similar to how Joke Lanz  or Rudolph Eb.Er edits. He uses massive silences and then works in gut wrenching drops. He’s so good.

To Live And Shave In LA – Noon And Eternity

TS: We tracked the album in 2004 at Sonic Youth’s studio in New York. Andrew WK played electronic drums. Thurston played guitar. Rat and Don Fleming played. Ben was there. I had to write the material in two days.  My son came back from Iraq. I didn’t want my son to go, but he volunteered. He’s fairly left leaning but he wanted a Hemingway adventure. I have a lot of love for my son, so a lot of those songs stemmed from revulsion to the Bush war machine. But tying something to a political moment can be suicidal for an artwork’s longevity. So rather than making those political connotations overt, I made them universal. I made it about the love of my son, who had been changed by his experience.

TLASILA live in Montreal, 2006

Compared with other TLASILA albums, Noon And Eternity has more of a rock sound. It’s sludgy, and heavy, but clear. How was that achieved?

TS: The production was done mostly by Don and Andrew. Andrew was so fast on ProTools that he tracked and mixed the whole record in two days with a little bit of input from me. While I’m geared towards calamity, Andrew is geared towards clarity.  So when you have a really good producer working with challenging material it can go one of two ways: awful or really cool. I was very happy with that record. I spent so much time in Andrew’s huge loft on 55th street. He had about 200 pairs of sneakers that he had gotten for free. I remember one night listening to Scott Walker’s  Tilt and taking huge hits off Andrew’s bong.

Miss High Heel – ‘‘View of Delfi’ As Weepcore Emetic’
 from The Family’s Hot Daughter

TS: I was in Chicago recording the Scissor Girls’ final EP and stayed at the loft that they shared with Jim Magas. I was separated from my wife and was really going wild. I was insanely prolific. I also recorded the Electric Eels’ Brian McMahon’s solo album. And I did another album with Duotron called Duotron Meets Tom Smith. But with Miss High Heel, Weasel, Jim Magas, and I decided to put together a Chicago no wave supergroup which was me, Azita from the Scissor Girls, the Flying Luttenbachers, Nándór, Jodie M’Kahn from Duotron, and some members of Lake Of Dracula. All the backing tracks are black metal and other cut-ups from Chicago radio. It’s a demented record. That winter was so cold that our nose hairs would freeze when we went outside. All we did was stay inside. There weren’t even drugs. It was just coffee and blankets and hitting record on the madness. I recorded four albums over four months, and probably overstayed my welcome in Chicago. 

Lurch X and Rat Bastard by Tom Smith

To Live And Shave In LA – ‘Two Form A Clique’ from As Gods Are Skinned

Like The Wigmaker, this new album also took five years to make. Was there anything in your life – like the divorce – going on that sharpened your focus to such an obsessive degree?

TS: This whole album owes its nascence to an exceedingly foul hangover I suffered after a 2015 performance in Europe. Our hosts had plied us with French moonshine. That morning I choked down 1200 mg of Ibuprofen and wrote two of the songs. ‘Two Form A Clique’ gushed out of me the following evening at Instant Chavires in Paris. I could sense loathsome perfidy in the wind. It’s obviously political and I wanted to get it right. The studio performances [by Lucas Abela, Rat Bastard, Balazas Pandi, and Graham Moore] were terrific. But I’d tracked no vocals. I wasn’t ready to commit to the words that I’d written. Thus, a half-decade slog of gravidity. My motivation was to be true to the text [with my vocals]. I grew up besotted by Jack Bruce, Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Kevin Coyne, and Chris Bailey. No shrinking violets in that mob. What fed As Gods Are Skinned was the absolute calamity that befell humanity in 2016 and the fetid hell we sank into. Why not channel that into music?

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