25 Years of Idea Fire Company: An Interview with Scott Foust

Posted by on November 11, 2013

As a writer, theorist, filmmaker, musician, label and mail order proprietor, Scott Foust has been a mainstay of the US Northeast’s fringe music community for well over three decades now. His music and writing convey an uncompromising, yet highly personalized vision, forging a singular body of work that cuts straight through any established “underground” or “avant” trends. Through a revolving membership and a back catalog that has explored cold electronic utterances to pristine minimalist compositions, Idea Fire Company (IFCO), Foust’s main musical outlet with his partner Karla Borecky, is now celebrating its 25th year of existence. With this, there has been a flurry of IFCO activity over the past several months, from reworked reissues (Postcards and Rags to Riches) to previously unreleased collaborations (The Terrible Salt Comet) to new tapes and albums looming on the immediate horizon — all of which indicates that IFCO has no plans of slowing down any time soon. I recently had a chance to catch up with Foust to discuss this recent activity and to look back on his decades of making music.

1415727_741870682496971_975934668_n-2David Perron: Could you provide some background information on the making of The Terrible Comet Salt short film and the music contained therein? Not only did IFCO contribute to this musically, but your black and white photography, if I’m not mistaken, is also featured prominently throughout.
Scott Foust: In the late 90s, Tim Shortell and I both made a couple of short films as we both had video cameras and Tim had some editing software. We were both pretty excited as we both love films. I was also taking a lot of black and white photographs at the time with my fixed focus camera, Mr. Snappy. Tim loved a lot of the photos and decided to make a film with them along with narration of a story and musical accompaniment. I do not remember the original story that was going to be used, but I dug up the Paul Scheerbart story, which I thought would be perfect for the photos. I got Darren Harris to read the story (he is the best!) and Mike Popovich to take some extra photos. Tim sent some loops for us to work with and Karla and I picked one and worked out the music. Tim edited in Darren’s voice and organized the photographs. Voila! Comet Salt was a truly collaborative project and I think the resulting film is superb. I should also mention that Paul Scheerbart is a fascinating author from the early 20th century. Over the past few years, a few of his books have been translated and published in English. Fabulous stuff.

What compelled you to revisit the material found on Postcards for a Swill Radio LP release? For our readers, could you explain the basic conceptual framework for Postcards that you outline in the booklet that comes with the LP?
I quite enjoyed the material we recorded for the Postcards cassette and I felt that with a little re-ordering and a long experimental piece, Postcards would make a great LP. Karla and I recorded “Oslo” and worked out a new order and the Postcards LP was born.

One of the many things that bothers me about current avant garde practice in relation to music is that, in certain circles, music is to be viewed as a completely hermetic event, totally removed from the outside world and referring only to the sound itself—hence the use of “untitled” for recorded pieces. My feeling is the best non-song music creates cinematic atmospheres, and titles can be a way of pointing the listener in certain directions. “Untitled” seems to me to be the lazy coward’s way out. To further go against this grain, I wrote short scenarios depicting my vision of situations these pieces could represent, each representing an imaginary view of a place we have never been to. I find it interesting to locate music in very specific literary settings.

2013 marks the 25th anniversary of IFCO and the 30th anniversary of your Swill Radio imprint. Looking back, how do you feel your music and perhaps your motivations for being involved in music have evolved over the years?
I do not believe my motivations have changed much over all of these years. My first band, Y Front, started in 1979 and we wanted to make great music that did not sound like anyone else. Of course, I like to think I have improved over all of these years, but that is still my main motivation. I think making great art is the hardest and most interesting thing in the world. I suppose I once harbored illusions about being able to make a living doing art and being able to be a positive force in the world of ideas, but now I would be happy just to break even with my work so that I could realize more before I am dead.

“The important thing to realize as an artist is that everything you experience affects your Art Object. The secret is to learn to choose wisely.”

My music has changed a bit over the years. Although I have, for the most part, recorded my music with multi-track cassette machines, my music has become less studio-oriented in the sense of using overdubs or tape collage than it was up until the mid-90s. I still use these techniques, obviously, but I have become much more interested in mic placement and live situational recordings and less reliant on the studio and post-production. IFCO does not record music that often: a typical IFCO record involves Karla and me recording together on weekends for a month or two. Then during the week, I obsessively listen to the music and fit it into a pre-conceived concept or work out a new one. But Karla and I have played together for so long that we have developed a rapport that is very rare. I have also worked very hard over my career to develop an exquisite sense of taste, which is the most important base for any artist’s work.

The recent Rags to Riches reissue revisits the expanded IFCO line-up from the mid-2000’s, the period when you recorded Stranded. Do you and Karla have any interest in exploring a more expanded group sound again?
My dream IFCO would be a three- or four-piece that would rehearse and record every couple of weeks and do some live shows with the idea to do a studio record of the live material. Of course, this requires a little bit of money and some places willing to pay us to play, neither of which we have. The Stranded Quartet with Jessi Swenson and Meara O’Reilly was that on a limited scale. We met them via Matt Krefting; the three of them were Hampshire College students at the time. (Students have a lot more flexible schedules than people with jobs.) The Stranded Quartet did not convene every few weeks, but we rehearsed and worked on the material quite a bit as well as playing a fair amount of shows. Of course, IFCO is not a commercial concern and Jessi and Meara moved on to lead their lives. Matt still lives in the area and most of our live shows since 2007 have been with him. We recorded the LP Beauty School with Matt after playing three-fourths of the material live with him a few times. I certainly enjoy studio-based work (The Island Of Taste), but I prefer working with people playing together in the same room. I think playing music with people is a sort of interaction that is not present in other parts of life. I have been thinking for a while that perhaps a violinist would be a good addition to our present course. IFCO functions just fine as a duo, but I always keep our options for different situations open.

You mention the importance for an artist to develop a clear sense of taste. When it comes to music and the arrangement of sounds, what are some of the key elements that inform (to borrow from one of your album titles) your “Island of Taste?”
I think one of the most important steps towards developing a superb and unique sense of taste is to treat your life as though it were an Art Object. I have done a lecture on this topic, as well as a fair amount of writing, and I would love to turn it into a class, which I think would be very beneficial to young artists. As for IFCO in particular, there are a number of qualities that are fairly consistent in our music, particularly from Anti-Natural onwards. Most of the pieces are fairly static and minimal in the sense that once sonic elements are introduced, they tend to remain throughout the piece. IFCO plays a lot with the tension between musical and non-musical elements, but all of our work has a tonal backbone of some sort. These two elements allow the pieces to create certain atmospheres in which to contemplate new beauty and new pleasures, something denied to us all by the sorry state of the world. Obviously, I love a lot of music that does not address any of these concerns, but my inspiration, or taste, for IFCO comes from all of the art forms I am interested in. My taste is informed just as much by literature, visual arts, and film as it is by music; it is informed by my Art Object as a whole. I get ideas for or solutions to IFCO pieces from sources as disparate as a Guy Debord text, a de Chirico painting, a Kay Francis film, or a Fall song. The important thing to realize as an artist is that everything you experience affects your Art Object. The secret is to learn to choose wisely.

“I’m sure I have made some enemies over the years because I am honest, but it isn’t like many people care what I say. Unfortunately, I am not a tastemaker … some things I say do not sit well with some people, but I have a lot of opinions that I have worked on over the years that I believe are worthwhile.”

1384732_741870539163652_939240528_n-2One thing I’ve always appreciated about your Swill Radio mail order updates is the reviews you write for each of the releases and the fact that you don’t shy away from being critical of them either, despite the fact that you’re trying to sell them. As opposed to just posting label-provided blurbs for each release, why is it important for you to continue to review every release you carry?
Even though I spend way too much time writing reviews, I wouldn’t do a catalog without them. If you just use record label promo, that means it is a purely money-making enterprise. I have always done the catalog to champion music I think is important. If I put the same amount of time in at McDonalds, I would make five times the money. I always try to be honest as well. I think if you read my catalog, you get a pretty good idea of what I like and don’t like and why, so you can act accordingly. Something I do not care for might be just what you need. I’m sure I have made some enemies over the years because I am honest, but it isn’t like many people care what I say. Unfortunately, I am not a tastemaker. A lot of reviews from places that write their own are so full of hype and shit that it just makes me laugh. (Angela of Weirdo Records is a beautiful exception. She knows more about more kinds of music than anyone and writes great short reviews. I read them every day when I wake up with my cigarette and iced tea.) Some places would have you believe there are ten or more “indispensible” releases every week. That is more than 500 a year! I have lived through some pretty interesting musical times and there has never been 500 great records in a year. Hardly ever even 50. I also find a lot of catalog reviews to be very lazy writing. Name three obscure bands, add drug or alcohol reference, mix well, serve. Anyway, I like to think my catalogs are informative and somewhat entertaining. I’m sure some things I say do not sit well with some people, but I have a lot of opinions that I have worked on over the years that I believe are worthwhile.

What do you and Karla have in store for the year ahead? Have you begun working on the next IFCO release?
There are quite a few things brewing at the moment. Karla and I have a new IFCO LP, Lost At Sea, finished. We recorded it in the Spring. Lost At Sea should come out in early 2014 as a co-release between Swill Radio and Luke Younger’s Alter label in the UK. The music is more piano-based than Postcards, sort of like Music From The Impossible Salon, but not as stark and a bit more lush. IFCO also has a live tape, E.1027, which consists of two live shows of material we have been working on with Matt Krefting over the last few years. It will be released soon on the Greek ORL label. We plan on recording studio versions of this material with Matt at some point. Karla and I have started work on a new LP, but the material is just in the sketch stage at this time. I am hoping to get IFCO to Europe in 2014. I love playing there and being there and I am starting to get a little old (I’m 56) for low-budget touring. Also, an LP re-issue of The XX Committee Network LP is due to appear shortly on Harbinger Sound. The XX Committee was a band I had with Chris Scarpino in the early 80s and Network was released on Thermidor Records in 1984. I have always felt this LP was a classic and it will be interesting to see if people appreciate it a bit more now 30 years later. I hope I don’t have to wait that long for people to “get” IFCO.