Beyond Ones and Zeroes:
An Interview with Jay Sullivan
Turntablist Jay Sullivan has been a mainstay of the New England noise and experimental music scene for the past five years or so. Working with distressed vinyl, vintage record players, and a variety of electronic ephemera, he creates his richly crackling music out of dense fields of hiss and hum. In addition to his solo work, he has a longstanding duo project with cassette tape maestro, Howard Stelzer, called Skeletons Out and a newer trio called Ouest with Stelzer and sound artist Brendan Murray. Jay will be performing on RF on Thursday, March 22 (listen to a podcast of Jay’s set here) and at the Axiom Gallery in Boston on Friday, March 23. This interview was conducted by email during the third week of March 2007.
When and how did you first start making music and how did you become interested in noise and more abstract music?
Growing up in Lowell, RRRecords was my local record store. I actually started shopping there when I was maybe 12, and was convinced Ron [Lessard, a.k.a. Emil Beaulieau] was a lunatic. Later on, while in high school, I ended up spending quite a bit of time looking through all the records at his store, and started buying weird comps, and things that were on the turntable while I was shopping. Eventually that turned me on to things Ron had released. Around that time, it must’ve been about 1993, Ron and I started to become friends. I would complain to him about how I wanted to make music, but was too broke to afford equipment. He quickly put an end to that by saying, “That’s bullshit, you should make music with whatever you have.” Not long after, I bought a microcassette recorder and started recording sounds I found interesting. I then set up camp in the basement of my house, gathered up half broken cassette decks and turntables, some wires from Radio Shack and got to work.
Are there any artists, musicians, etc. who have strongly influenced what you do and how you do it?
I came upon Jeph Jerman’s Hands To project early on, and have been inspired for many years by his different approaches — from the rough ‘wall of sound’ type cassettes from the early days, to his more measured and quiet improvisations, to process based, or document type records. From him I’ve learned that there is no ‘right’ way, just to keep on working. RRRon has also influenced me quite a bit, not so much musically, as we both feature turntables in our work, but sound very different. It’s more his attitude, the fact that it’s obvious that he’s having as much or more fun than anyone at the show. I might not always look like I’m having fun, but there is no feeling like performing for an appreciative audience, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to do it.
The sounds of Small Cruel Party and Voice Crack also have special significance for me. Both make very well constructed sounds, with very different approaches. There is such a wealth of talented musicians in the Boston area. The scene all around me is my biggest influence right now.
How did you become interested in working with vinyl and vintage record players? What interests you about them as instruments?
I could say something about vinyl being an actual representation of the sound wave, as opposed to an approximation based on ones and zeros, but that would miss some of the point. It is true, but I think my attraction goes deeper than that. Growing up, at least early on, music came to me in no other form. The warmth is part of it, but so is the vulnerability. Changing the sound is a simple process, with infinite potential.
Having used turntables for so long, and explored them intimately, I dont see much difference instrumentally between a turntable and, say, a guitar; both have a palette of sounds, extended techniques, etc. I’ve just chosen one as opposed to the other.
What is your typical set up like? Do you maintain a fairly stable group of equipment?
It all depends on my goal. Practicing at home, the set up can be sprawling and changes often. Live, I try to keep what works and discard what doesn’t. I remember my first performance took 3 trips to the car and help from friends to get all the gear inside. Since then, I’ve taken real care to figure out where the bulk could be cut down, while still leaving me with a set of instruments I can use in many different ways. These days I play a Califone turntable with 4 speeds (16 to 78), micro recorders, alligator clips, telephone mics, a reel to reel, tea kettle whistles, various pieces of glass, stone and steel, and my collection of records. I have a harmonium, and figuring that out has been a challenge in the last year or so.
You’re just about to release the third record (or am I missing one?) on your label We Break More records, which is a 10” by Jason Lescalleet, could you talk a bit about that release and your plans for the label?
I’m very excited about this, as I’m expecting test pressings any day now. This 10” is another of Jason reconstructing his work with RRRon as Due Process. Sonically it is both more beautiful and more brutal than the last record and full of surprises. As with the last LP, I’ve spent a lot of time with the presentation, which will be even nicer than the last. Plans for the label include a 10” record by climax golden twins, a Ouest LP, a solo 10”, and something involving New Zealander Richard Francis. There are other dream records, but I’d rather wait until they are confirmed to discuss them.
Recently, you’ve been performing a lot with your trio, Ouest, with Brendan Murray and Intransitive Recordings’ Howard Stelzer, including a great set at the Intransitive First Night show. Are there any plans to release any Ouest records in the near future?
These are actually two different projects, Skeletons Out is a duo with Howie, and Ouest is the trio. The First Night performance was Skeletons Out w/ Richard Francis, and was very fun. The three of us had never played together, but it came together really well. I’m glad you enjoyed the set, the recording is quite nice and may find its way to the public at some point. Ouest have only played live twice, at the Axiom Gallery last summer and earlier this year at Third Life. Both of those shows went extremely well and there are plans to release an LP later this year. Skeletons Out has been the more active of the two bands. Our debut cd is just about finished, and should be going out to labels for consideration soon.
What projects, recordings, live shows do you currently have in the works
Other than the work I’ve already mentioned, I’m working on something for Chris Wolf’s Little Enjoyer label, that I’m very excited about. Also I recently submitted a cd of pure field recording called Fort St. for Greg Davis’ ‘leaves’ series. Also there is a split 7” Skeletons Out/nmperign on the Absurd label in Greece. As far as performances, the solo show at Axiom has been my recent focus. Also there are plans for Skeletons Out to play in late May at AS220 as part of an electro-acoustic festival.
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