Something Mystical Going On: An Interview with Headboggle

Posted by on August 6, 2014

My previous effort to get into the head of Derek “Headboggle” Gedalecia gave me a close look at the turbulent politics of the San Francisco Bay Area noise scene. After Derek had to cancel our meeting at the last minute, a resulting lengthy interview with Greg Garbage netted facetious death threats within hours of publication—and naturally, since the Internet gives us no access to vocal cadence or body language, Greg had no choice but to take them seriously. I learned some important lessons from that experience: (1) always double-, triple-, quadruple-check abso-fucking-lutely every statement of fact before sending a piece in for final editing and publication; (2) if you want someone to trust you, never assume they are okay with having every word out of their mouth printed for all the world to see; (3) smartphones are a great tool for making revisions while you’re running late to a class in which no laptops are allowed. If this was some sort of serendipitous hazing ritual, I eventually felt the relief of having passed the test. Welcome to the club, the scene seemed to say; but you better watch your mouth, buddy.

By the time the next opportunity presented itself, I was able to ask Gedalecia with much less trepidation than before. We’d seen each other around, sometimes at shows, at KZSU’s Day Of Noise, and even at a dinner party where he allegedly considered recording the sounds of my snoring after I had defeated insomnia somewhat earlier than expected. (No word on whether he went through with his plan, but I’d prefer to be surprised if something did happen to materialize from the effort.) He hails from Wooster, OH, a tiny college town in the middle of nowhere which I visited once, many years ago, on a booze-blurred visit to a friend who was studying there. I shared that story with him for laughs, but I remained incredulous that someone raised there could have turned out so cosmopolitan. His reply to that: “Well, thank god we had Sonic Youth.”

The last time we ran into each other had been a couple of weeks earlier at one of the Bay Area’s staple DIY venues, Life Changing Ministry, where he played with Nathan Bowers in their new duo The Fathers. Since neither of us were terribly eager to brave West Oakland alone at midnight, we walked back to the train station together after the show. We found a giant plastic box of chocolate samples on a street corner (80% cacao, gross!), and shared stories of feeling unsafe in our personal experiences of the current locale; I had always felt a bit nervous but never had any trouble, while Derek, on the other hand, had been robbed at gunpoint while opening a store where he worked at the time. “It was like a horror movie,” he recalled. “I almost had the door pushed closed and was trying to lock it, when suddenly—bam!—there’s a second guy pushing in, and I go flying back. They demanded all the money from the register, and I complied.” His tale was set to an eerie score of the echoing hums of traffic on the overpass above us. Before boarding our separate trains, we agreed to meet up later somewhere in “the city” (don’t call it Frisco unless you want to be ridiculed) to discuss his new record.

Headboggle decided on the Mission District, San Francisco’s famously, um, “cultured” neighborhood. He strode into one of our favorite record stores wearing thick sunglasses and a white t-shirt, featuring an orange screenprinted logo of a band that had faded many years ago. His face had clearly foregone the razor for a few days, which I never thought could be visible on him given his Apollonian, ageless visage. Having woken up too late for coffee before our meeting, I had a splitting headache and still felt a bit nauseous from the fragrant bits of fecal matter on the floor of the Muni bus I’d just ridden. So his demeanor on this day came off as refreshing, a dose of solidarity in an increasingly tense, divided city.

The Mission has been the site of several protests blocking Google buses, demonstrating just how successful the city government’s tactic has been for pitting displaced residents against the gentrifiers, who are largely employed by the latest tech boom. Yet as more astute journalists have pointed out, the situation is more complex, a product of NIMBYism and incompetent legislation. The only thing the tech industry is guilty of (with a few horrific exceptions) is mollycoddling its employees, whose self-absorbed cultural aloofness seems less an intentional malice against the working class as it is just an isolated personality trait often contributing to the productivity of successful software engineers. In short, the area has become a battleground in a fictional war, tortilla-maker vs. code-monkey, $15 brunch vs. $5 burrito, in which the real culprits are invisible and abstract.

Derek was not silent on the issue, but gave me little more than a glimpse into the nostalgia coating the city like an impenetrable fog. “This neighborhood has changed a lot,” was the stock phrase he offered. “See that bar, Amnesia? The college-rock band I was in played its last gig there.” Though small record stores, book shops, and vivid murals still give the Mission the appearance of a thriving artistic community, San Francisco is no longer the Shangri-La of mind-expanding creativity and free love it once was. Many musicians have openly decried the city’s housing crisis in a mass exodus to the East Bay. Oakland has emerged from the shadows as the art scene where SanFran ex-pats congregate, scoffing at the Bay Bridge as they ride their fixed-gear bikes to apartments with relatively cheap rent—for now. Greg Garbage and I received considerable backlash when we printed his statement that “there aren’t many people left” in the San Francisco noise scene. The snobs may complain all they want, but he was obviously alluding to this exodus, and when I asked Derek when he expected to join the wave of emigrants, he gave me a worried look and shrugged. “They haven’t raised my rent yet, but I don’t know how long that’s going to last,” Derek began. “I was lucky enough to move in when I could still afford a deposit. People who move into my building now are paying twice as much.”

When I asked if he intended on going to the Life Changing Ministry show in West Oakland later that night, he shook his head, saying he had to wait for his next paycheck before going to more shows. As the dark cloud of unemployment still lingered over my head, that statement made the hole in my pocket burn all the more harshly.

We settled on pizza and iced tea before walking to a nearby park, where we engaged in the conversation below.

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•••

Diego Aguilar: I hear you’ve got exciting news for us! And you just released this new “Serge Modular in Hi-Fi” LP. Let’s start by going over all the new projects you’ve been working on.
Derek Gedalecia: It’s been over two years since I was working on the record. Basically, I generated this material right around the same time that I was finishing the [self-titled] Spectrum Spools record. So I’ve been working on what I considered to be a grand follow-up to the first record, as well as playing live on the average of maybe twice a month, and chipping off works in progress for the live shows (which I always like to use), just to air new material.

I’m doing some festivals in a couple months, and that’s kind of the big news, since I hardly ever play outside the Bay Area. One of the festivals is going to be in the Bay Area, but the one I can talk about right now is this really unique festival in West Virginia, The Voice of the Valley. The guys from Tusco Terror came up with it a few years ago—it’s basically a camp-out, outdoor festival for weird noise and experimental music. They’ve had some really amazing acts like Drew from Matmos, Mark McGuire… They usually have a couple dozen underground, really exciting acts. I played with my dad as a duo last year, and I’ll do that again this year.

There’s a lot of Ohio acts—it’s that whole sort of Cleveland noise axis. Most of the guys from Tusco Terror are still out there, so they’re helping arrange it.

Nathan [Bowers] lives out here now. I’ve been working with him on a new project called The Fathers, for lack of a better name. That’s our new duo, an improv-ish project. We spend most of the time making backing tracks, and then we get together to improv[ise] over that, so a little bit of a different twist than how I normally work. I’ve been trying to do more collaborative things, so mainly this, and, let’s see… Greg Garbage and I keep talking about working on this techno project, which has one release but hasn’t really gotten off the ground.

That would be Headboggle & Vibrating Garbage?
Yeah, we just called it that. There’s the Beer On The Rug tape, and we did a show. That would be exciting to do—Greg knows a lot about the original hardware that people used to do real roots techno, so I was excited about that stuff. I dunno, we talked about it, it’ll happen at some point. We’re actually talking about something we were joking about calling, uh, Threadboggle? Like Black Thread and Headboggle, Black Thread remixes of Headboggle piano stuff, a more ambient thing.

Caitlin [Denny] and I made a video last year; I did the sound, she did the video, and it’s really cool video feedback. She does all kinds of video processing with feedback stuff, so that’s a part of [SOMArts] festival here in a couple of weeks. She got it screened at the End Tymes festival in New York, another regional noise festival that happened last month. Yeah, so I should be doing something live with her in the fall.

I have plans to do performances with my father, at Voice in the Valley and in Ohio. So I’ve been sending him ideas and backing tracks for this—it’s going to be three shows, two in Ohio and Voice in the Valley. We used to call that Hillboggle, with my dad playing five-string banjo, sometimes bluegrass style, mixed with my stuff.

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You’ve been describing this record as the sort of follow-up opus to the last LP, but you’ve released plenty of tapes in the interim. Are those, along with live shows, sort of practice baby-steps toward bigger goals? How do you make that progression?
It’s a little confusing, and I don’t know how interesting it is, just because of how long it takes for these tapes to come out. A lot of the material you’re talking about was recorded before the Spectrum Spools LP, and was probably supposed to come out before 2012. I’m trying to think of these tapes that have come out recently—this [Quicksails split] tape on Hausu Mountain, that was recorded around the same time as this LP. So yeah, in a way maybe they do show some progression, an early peek into what I wanted to drop after the Spectrum Spools LP. But basically, just like that record, I want to do a fairly baroque affair with a lot of instruments and multi-tracking.

Even for this Serge Modular LP, I had essentially a hundred working sessions to pick and choose from to sequence the LP. And for the Spectrum Spools one I was working on at the time, about two hundred works in progress. Some of them are multi-tracks, some of them are single-track recordings, some of them are twenty minutes long, a minute long… so I’ve got all this material generated, I feel that at a certain point I’ll just say, ‘Okay, now it’s time to pick the best of all this stuff,’ and I think it’ll be a pretty solid [release].

That’s been the working method: just work as much as possible, know that some stuff will be left behind or used for live shows. And that also explains the way the tracks are titled on this record—I just kept the working track number, so track 1 here was the fifth recording, track 2 was the sixty-eighth thing, up to a hundred that these are pulled from.

I kind of just assumed they referred to years.
Yeah, and that was the idea, that it could be either.

So how did you pick from a hundred and narrow them down to ten?
Some of them are just too long, I have these twenty-minute pieces that I feel are fully formed but would take up half the album. I went and I rated them—I mean, putting together the Spectrum Spools LP, too, I went through all the sessions and came up with a way to rate them, sorted them, then looked at the five-star tracks, narrowed it down. Real methodical.

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For the cover art, you went from a really vivid, trippy one for the last record, to a very minimal piece by Greg Garbage in the style of his own releases. What went into these selections?
For the last album art, we were scrambling around, and there were some ideas floated that seemed really trendy at the time. I told John Elliott that I would just rather have him do the art, so it looks like a total John Elliott/Emeralds thing, like one of his solo albums, which I’m okay with—I’m a huge fan of his, and I’m happy to be on his label. I couldn’t tell you any of the significance behind the art, although I think the back cover references some of my tape designs.

For this record, Jeremy at Experimedia was really psyched to find out about Greg and Turmeric Magnitudes, so I think he’s going to be doing more designs for Experimedia. Greg gave me a bunch of designs to choose from, and the cover was one that the three of us all agreed on, so… yeah, I like it.

Tell me a bit about the technology you used for this record. Is this Serge Modular the synth you had mentioned getting stolen?
Well, I’ve had some issues with equipment, and I’ve been doing more field recordings. A lot of my stuff has broken down, so I’m almost back to where I started, equipment-wise. I had a new issue Buchla synth stolen, I dunno if that’s even worth mentioning…

The technology used on this record is a big synth console that’s at the San Francisco City College, at their Electronic Music Lab. It’s one of those big old-fashioned synths with all those cables. It’s technically what you’d call a four-panel Serge Modular, because each panel has several functions, oscillators, filters, etc. I don’t think it has any on-board reverb or echo. So you have a lot of modular components to this system, it takes up a whole table there in the lab, and you know, City College is what it is. No one particularly cares about that synth, and I’m probably the first person to use it in a year or two, and I always had access to it. It’s basically the only piece of gear left in a fledgling part of the music department.

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How do you have access to it?
I had a lot of time off work, when I was unemployed… I wanted to figure out how to get access to a Buchla synth at Mills, or at the [San Francisco] Conservatory, and then I heard about this Serge Modular at City College. City College classes are super affordable, and it turns out the Intro to Electronic Music is an amazing class. I ended up just jumping in, taking the Intro and Advanced class at the same time; it wasn’t that hard to pick up on it, because I’d learned bits and pieces of this stuff over the years.

There’s a lot of late 70s “high-energy” disco music that got its start there. Patrick Cowley recorded there—he actually remixed Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” that really famous track that influenced a whole generation of electro. So they have this claim at City College that the roots of electro started there, and they’re right, but over time, now that people can do this on their laptop, now the lab has a digital synth, some broken old tape decks… and this Serge Modular, it’s probably just 90-percent working, it has one module that doesn’t work at all, and a very interesting sequencer. So a very powerful Modular synth, self-contained, but I would have to go to that lab to record with it. I’d block out time, and spend a good part of a day there. The only effects I used were analog delay and I stored them there. I’d go over to the Ocean Avenue campus—which is kind of a trek—record there, then go back home and edit it.

“There are certain people in DIY indie rock who opened the door for non-musicians, and then it seemed like noise kicked the door open even further for people who just wanted to have some self-expression, who just want to, you know, go get ‘em and you’re in business. You don’t even need an instrument, or one that stays in tune, you can put a mic in your mouth and be ready to go.”

Another thing I was learning in the course was that I was learning about how the dub-reggae guys were doing their production, which basically consisted of analog delay, analog echo, often mixed in rhythm with the tracks. That was something I’d never tried before, especially with five delays, mixing live and applying echo in a more rhythmic fashion. So that was the whole thing I was trying to do with this record, just using this synth. You’ll find all these old records saying “this was recorded on a university campus using this one synth”—I wanted to do a very austere record like that. I also got this kind of legendary guy Kramer to remaster it to give a little more color to the sound, since it’s only one instrument, although it’s overdubbed.

It’s hard to remember though, it was two and a half years ago and it’s really psychedelic material. It was a strange opportunity I got to record in that room and be out of my usual routine of recording at home. There was very limited time, people could come in the room at any time, and often did. I got so deep into recording this thing and wanting to finish it, at one point I thought that modular synth was organic. It’s kind of hard to explain… I thought it was an organic entity, and it was breathing, generating some of the sounds on its own. I mean, a lot of modular synth patching is chaotic and randomized, so you don’t know what you’re going to get. There were certain moments when I felt like there was something mystical going on, because of the history of the lab and all the people who have used it. When I was looking for information just on how to use this Serge Modular, there were pretty big local techno acts… the guy from Eats Tapes was asking people on the internet how to use it, because he was in the same class that I took ten years earlier.

There’s definitely a certain mystical side to the recording process for just this record, kind of hard to explain, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Especially with this track “[‘53] Raga” where it sounds like there’s acoustic tabla drums or a drum machine. For whatever reason there were some weird rhythmic and melodic things going on that I could never recreate.

You mentioned you’re almost back to where you started. Can you explain that?
Unfortunately, sometimes people get their gear stolen on their way to or from a gig, so I had that happen with my Buchla synth. I’m pretty rough with my gear, so there was a gig in Davis where I flipped my table and broke my Micromoog, which was on so many other early recordings, so… I dunno. I’ve got a lot of equipment I’ve used along the way that needs repair—I need to find a Moog technician for two of my synths, and half of my other gear is about 75-percent functional.

A lot of what I used to do more, up to and including the Spectrum Spools record, was a lot of field recording collage, so I’ve been trying to get back into that as much as possible.

What kind of field recordings do you find the most versatile for what you do?
I’m finding it impossible—I bring this recorder everywhere, and every time I bring it out, the less and less things I find to record. I think it’s fun to try to find stuff, but so much has been done before, I don’t want to repeat myself. There are only so many unique sounds you can find walking around in downtown San Francisco! [laughs] I try to always keep it handy whenever there’s a piano around, and sometimes at the art center I’m working at, if they leave one of their pianos unlocked, I have access. And I wanted to stop by there today—I was telling you about the Mission Community Music Center just a block away. They have like ten practice rooms with great upright [pianos] that end up on recordings. A lot of what ended up on the Spectrum Spools LP was recorded on the sly, since you’re not really supposed to be doing anything but playing scales.

I remember at a Hillboggle show, you just left your setup to play the piano on the other side of the room. You seem to always gravitate back to “analog” piano. Could you tell us a bit more about your background in music—specifically pianos, since that seems to be your main thing?
The short story is that my sister and I grew up playing piano from age five onwards. I was only serious about piano for a few years, but I did learn ragtime and Classical piano, and how to read and write music. But I basically did a failed music major thing first, failed creative writing major thing second, [and] I’m just now getting the interest in going back to classes, like when I went to get access to the Serge, I couldn’t have done better in those classes, since of course there was material I was interested in. Anyway, yeah piano from age five to sixteen I was supposed to take lessons. Some of those were faked, I’d just show up and try to sight-read.

I think the cutoff was at sixteen, when I started hearing punk rock like the Sex Pistols, or more “normal” stuff like REM or Velvet Underground, I wanted to play guitar. So I pretty much didn’t see how piano fit into weird, college-rock, rock ‘n’ roll, so I switched to guitar, then electric guitar, and one of the reasons I ended up on the West Coast was my weird sorta Beat Happening-ish high school band moved out here, and we played some San Francisco gigs in the late ‘90s, like at the Cocoderie, the Chameleon, and… Well, some of these places don’t even exist anymore—the Chameleon is now Amnesia. That was really, I would say, typical college-rock, indie-rock, guitar-based stuff. I had been in a couple bands where I was singing, playing guitar, kind of in the style of Velvet Underground, Unrest… we were into Galaxie 500 and stuff, so that’s how I met that producer Kramer. He was really big in that ‘90s indie rock scene, and we recorded in his studio, and had all these high hopes that we would be the next Pavement or something.

That was on the verge of what they are now calling the first dot-com boom, and we were all having a hard time finding work. I actually went into IT and tech at that point, and my friends moved away. I think it was during the big burgeoning of the internet, the early days of Napster and mp3s, and because I had an IT job and was on the internet so much, that was one of the ways I got into noise, like Merzbow, Wolf Eyes, Aphex Twin. Those three acts were traded so widely in Napster and mp3 circles, I probably had a hundred Wolf Eyes albums before they came to the west coast in 2004 or ‘5. And that was really huge too—I was still kinda doing a lot of guitar noise-rock, krautrock, instrumental rock, not quite like Tortoise but something like that. After seeing Wolf Eyes with an Ohio act that ended up moving out here, 16 Bitch Pile-Up… the show was so viscerally exciting, the music was so weird and loud, there was a lot of fist-pumping, a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, it was really exciting. That was kind of it; after seeing Wolf Eyes live, I think it kind of changed a lot of people in the early 2000s, got them more fully into the underground. Two years later, in 2006, I was doing Headboggle.

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Was it almost like, you realized your earlier piano work could be rock & roll, after seeing Wolf Eyes?
I don’t know about that, I mean there’s a lot of crossover later but… There are certain people in DIY indie rock who opened the door for non-musicians, and then it seemed like noise kicked the door open even further for people who just wanted to have some self-expression, who just want to, you know, go get ‘em and you’re in business. You don’t even need an instrument, or one that stays in tune, you can put a mic in your mouth and be ready to go.

It was both frightening and exciting seeing long-haired Aaron Dilloway headbanging with a contact mic in his mouth, just hearing mouth-noises through distortion. So absurd and different, especially at that time, because they were coming through and playing the same bars that indie-rock bands played, so it was a weird clash happening for the first time, at least it seemed that way to us.

In 2006, I think I’d just gotten a Micromoog, and, I mean most of the synths and keyboards I use are just one note at a time, to this day I don’t own a polysynth. So bringing in organ and piano definitely brought out the sound of Headboggle. Sometimes I think, ‘why haven’t I gotten a poly-synth?’ People are always surprised to hear that. Everything I do is always stacked and layered, so there’s definitely more avenues left to explore. That’ll probably be my next purchase, God forbid it doesn’t get stolen, some synth that can play more than one note at a time.

But yeah, the Micromoog, rest in peace, and then I have the Moog Little Phatty which is an updated Micromoog. And then the Buchla synth that got stolen, plus I have another suitcase synth or two. They all have their different flavors.

You’ve been back to Ohio to play and to collaborate with your dad. Has there been any significant change in the music scene there? Do your high school friends check out your music now and say, ‘What the hell?’
For sure, it’s way, way too weird for most of my high school friends. Some of my bandmates, it took them a long time to warm up to what I’m doing, or understand it. I think culture in general is more open to… definitely ambient, but experimental electronic stuff. My mother would say, ‘it sounds like a soundtrack,’ so there are more ways to relate to it than there were before. So, yeah, when I go back now it’s completely different. When I left Ohio I was still doing rock ‘n’ roll, krautrock sort of stuff. Now when I go back and connect with the noise scene, it’s people I know pretty much through the internet; I didn’t know them when I lived there.

The whole Cleveland/Emeralds axis, I’m a little bit older than those guys are. A lot of them are still there, and there’s a small scene in Kent which was notable, I hope it’s still going on. There’s a really interesting band out of Kent called Moth Cock, and my friend Nathan released a record of theirs on his label [Tusco/Embassy]. Kind of a singular, weird, only-in-Ohio messed up noise thing.

You’ve done some performance-arty sort of stuff recently. Like at the Fathers show, purposely tripping over before the set started. Is there a concept you guys are working with, or is it just goofing around?
Depending on the Headboggle show, all [of that is] stuff I’ve been incorporating, and I hope that Nathan doesn’t mind the slapstick stuff. Yeah, I think he has a very measured approach and a very interesting take on things. I forget how he criticized me—I was being pretty goofy at the first Fathers show, I dunno, he had a very fair way of putting it: ‘It was a lot of acting. I don’t know if I was ready for a lot of acting.’

I think that’s been the biggest thing for me moving out here: I feel like the Bay Area would be a very different scene if it weren’t for all the performance art that gets mixed in with the music, from Caroliner to Crash Worship to Matmos, even. You know, people think about… Well, take the Residents—you’ve got costumes, weird instruments, a performance take on everything. I was trying to think about what maybe sets the Bay Area scene apart from some of the other big city scenes, and I think that might be it. Not just costume-rock, but there’s a performance art thing, and it’s infectious. I mean, the first Headboggle show, I’d be scared to do anything, really. And that’s evolved into, you know, me being very interested in incorporating performance art, stand-up comedy, all these things I discovered when I moved out here.

What’s the ideal obituary you’d want to see for Headboggle? What’s the sort of end goal you’d imagine, in an ideal world?
Hah, obituary! You know, there’s this band Felt, and they have a lyric in a song which references one of their other songs, which is like, ‘My epitaph is the second line in Black Ship In The Harbor,’ and I always thought that was amazing. An epitaph might be what you’re asking about, but I don’t know how to answer that. Anyway, the second line from ‘Black Ship in the Harbor’ is I was a moment that quickly passed, which is a very poetic, whatever, very romantic phrase, but it’s kind of cool. I don’t think it should be mine, though.

So can noise bring us world peace or anything?
Okay: Noise. It’s not going to create world peace, but let’s say more people accept noise as an art form, which it certainly is more now than it has been in the past. Maybe that also means people are more accepting of modern art, conceptual art… because noise is all those things, right? —Or it pushes against all those boundaries we’ve held on to for all those years. As people become more accepting of quote-unquote “noise,” new ideas, openness, that would put us in the right direction toward a greater understanding of each other, you know? So there is something to that.