Reclaiming Ordinary Rooms: Q&A with Insect Factory
Getting to know experimental musicians is a bit like reading a superhero comic in reverse. One first observes them performing extraordinary feats of superhuman skill, improvising and innovating beyond the realms of our imagination; then when you meet them offstage, more often than not, they’re unmasked as perfectly ordinary, law-abiding citizens who just happen to have an odd creative outlet. There is perhaps no better example than Silver Spring resident Jeff Barsky: ambient electric guitar wizard by night, 5th grade teacher in the Montgomery County Public Schools system on weekdays. His students call him Mr. Barsky, while his fans know him as Insect Factory.
A bit of background here: I became aware of the Insect Factory moniker years before ever meeting Jeff, and even though I grew up less than five miles from his home, I first heard him thousands of miles away when one of Sonic Circuits’ District Of Noise compilations reached my college radio station near San Francisco. It’s almost impossible to tell that the vast, foggy ear-narcotics under his name are in fact emanating from a single Fender Telecaster, albeit heavily looped and processed. How could a guitar sound like radio static, hurricanes, blizzards, cicada swarms, anything at all but a guitar? It was only when I witnessed him live at in a small Arlington record store that I could fully believe it myself.
Why do I — and why should anyone else, for that matter — care about this guy? Insect Factory is a source of optimism in a world with little to spare. With no small pain in my conscience, I must admit that the “DC noise scene” leaves much to be desired in the way of diversity. Deviations from the average extend further out only as the music extends, either geographically into neighboring Baltimore, or stylistically into the much more open-minded realm of punk (i.e. “noise-rock”). Other SF Bay Area transplants have corroborated my suspicion that the Oakland noise scene provides what the DC noise and Oakland punk communities both lack: a safe space for young and old, pink and brown, sweater-vest and studded leather; where intoxicants are optional, but individuality is a given. (That is: Oakland punks will write you off as yuppie scum if you don’t follow the dress code; at a DC punk or Oakland noise show, patches and pins are more decorative than dogmatic, and you might spot a suited lawyer sharing cheap wine with a septum-pierced vegan baker.) It’s a sad state of affairs when Mr. Barsky, in his mid-thirties, is one of the youngest and most energetic avant-gardists in the nation’s capital, though that is in no way intended to slander the relentless creativity of older veterans. Simply put, Jeff is punk as fuck.
But back to the matter at hand: Insect Factory began around 2005 as a home tape-loop project with a handful of self-published, quickly out-of-print releases. 2012 finally put his name back on the map with the Melodies from a Dead Radio LP on Fabrica, a split cassette with Luciernaga, and the digital album Broadcast Rain. Last year, we were blessed with a self-released split LP with Earthen Sea, and after winter equinox passed, another digital album, Lights. 2014 drew to a close with another new cassette, Mind, on Found Tapes. We met up for lunch when I was home over the winter, and after several more exchanges, you can read the condensed version below:
Hi Jeff — happy new year, and congrats on the new tape! In keeping with the spirit of the season, why don’t we start out by covering what was accomplished in 2014, and what you’re looking forward to in 2015?
Thanks — happy new year as well. 2014 was a busy year. I released Lights as a free download on Bandcamp — it was a collection of my recordings from 2013. I didn’t tour very much, but enjoyed many fun collaborations (James Wolf, Chris Videll and I played a trio that I was particularly fond of), Chris Brokaw and I played a couple of collaborative shows together (he was in Codeine, Come, and now plays in the Lemonheads, and is a prolific solo artist), and I collaborated (live and on record) with Emerald Comets, who are a psychedelic Boston band with one of my oldest college friends. I also recorded a session with Scott Verrastro, who is a percussionist that used to live and book shows in DC, and is maybe the closest collaborator of Insect Factory. Hoping this session gets released in 2015 — I’m really happy with it. I also just released a new tape on a small, new VA label called Found Tapes.
Hoping to clear a few things out of the vaults in 2015: Already Dead (a tape label from MI) will release a cassette with 2 older collaborative Insect Factory sets, including the set from the most recent Terrastock festival, which was in Louisville, 2008. I also have a new full length that’s ready for release, but the label I was going to work with (Fabrica) went on hiatus, so I’m not entirely sure how the record will come out.
Can we get a brief musical Bildungsroman of the intrepid young Jeff Barsky?
I started playing guitar in the 80’s when there were guitars on the radio — AC/DC, Def Leppard — that kinda stuff. I played in rock bands and mostly did covers — Neil Young, Hendrix — that sorta thing. My parents signed me up for classical guitar lessons and eventually I took it to college up in New England and studied classical guitar. I found the lessons and structure of what I was doing very restrictive in the way that classical music can be focused on these immutable ties to the past. There was, however, a thriving art community and even though the school was small, there were people interested in art and a great DIY community of people that challenged each other and put on basement shows in the arts complex/dorm. It reminded me of the strong DIY community of people that put on shows in DC. Many people from the music school are still making cool, interesting music. I moved to Boston shortly after college (most people went either to Boston or to NY, as the college was right in between), and played in a lot of short lived post-punk and rock bands.
Sharing sonic real estate with other guitar players in band contexts is sort of directly related to Insect Factory’s sounds. Playing in bands with multiple guitarists, it was more interesting and challenging for me to use volume and texture to try and occupy a different space, rather than have two people playing power chords or using a division of labor that, say, Aerosmith would use — you know, lead and rhythm guitar. It was around this time in Boston that I got a 4-track and was really starting to experiment on my own, composing with more of a focus on volume, EQ, stereo space, etc. I moved back down to Silver Spring in 2004, and the DC area has a very different relationship with musicians and real estate. Bands that thrive are bands that have physical spaces to practice. I ended up jamming in a few inconvenient spaces with some friends, but what was easiest was just plugging into my 4 track at home, putting on headphones, and exploring spaces in music.
At what point did the band Plums come into all of this?
Plums probably started in the early 2000’s; we’ve been playing together since 2009, I think, but I had known the members for some time just from sharing bills and seeing each other at shows. Our first show was a festival in Fairfax when I asked Plums to back up Insect Factory; we played a Public Image Limited song.
You mention the DIY spirit of community you felt in the DC punk scene, and that makes me curious about a few things. First of all, you seem to draw a distinction between the raw, unfiltered, in-your-face-ness of punk, and the meticulously textured, abstract, expertly polished pieces you circulate in a more experimental vein. Do you find it easy to navigate between the two, or occupy some comfortable middle ground?
Well, I don’t know about a distinction — I’m not sure. I feel that the music I’m making is directly, 100% related to my experiences going to punk shows and being exposed to what I was exposed to. Back in the 80’s, for me, seeing live music was about going to “concerts” or whatever — Ratt or whoever is putting on an over the top performance at the Capital Center or some arena or whatever. But punk was about taking any space — a basement, the back of a restaurant, an art gallery — and making it into a community or shared space. It was less about any performance and more about people and networks.
Punk, to me, was never about guitars having to be loud and playing 8th notes and power chords. But reclaiming (or just claiming) ordinary rooms and making them into these community spaces and having people challenging each other with ideas and pushing them forward with information, zines, networks of basements where you could play, watch, or host music — that was punk. The rest of it I’ve never had time to worry about. So Insect Factory was unquestionably born with that awareness of reclaiming spaces. I think my desire to have my music fill a room where people can share a meditation or hypnotic journey and feel or become empowered or a part of something positive is directly related to how, for me, DIY communities captured rooms and made them new and interesting places.
Secondly, there’s a significant difference in demographics that’s easy to ignore here. What would your ideal audience look like, and do you get anything close to that in reality?
I’m not sure what’s ideal for an audience — my ideal, if you can pick such a thing in this way, I supposed would be mixed gender, race, economic class, etc., but for many reasons there’s definitely a predominance of white men in so many communities. Small communities are perhaps frequently reflections of larger ones; race/gender disparity in these DIY communities is a mirror of this disparity in the world. It’s essential when booking myself and making music (or anything) to make space for diverse voices; I really don’t want to play shows with six bands that have only white men on the bill.
You speculated that you might have been open to a noise scene in high school, but would not have known how to access such a thing. Today it still seems like the kind of thing you have to be already looking for in order to find out anything. How could you see the situation being remedied? What would it take for teenagers to be able to easily access the avant-garde?
I certainly didn’t know where to go for truly “out” music when I was in high school in the early 90’s. There weren’t a lot of forums that I knew of to find out about new and super far out music. I found out about a lot of music through WHFS at the time, maybe 120 Minutes on MTV, and generally by going to Tower Records in Rockville and reading zines for hours, and while it was difficult to find new things sometimes, I still feel fortunate to have grown up at a time where you still had to copy cassettes and mail them to addresses where you never knew if you’d hear back — that sorta thing. Generally speaking, now you can just look on Facebook and everyone can easily find shows that would’ve been hard to find back in the 90’s. It’s cool; it’s a sort of democratization — which is great in so many ways. But it definitely felt awesome in a different way to feel like you had “found” something. Who knows, though — good art stands on it’s own, right?
For those of us who aren’t well-versed in the infinite possibilities of the electric guitar, could you give a brief description of the equipment you use to shape your sounds? And where do those creepy bug noises come from?
I use a few distortion boxes, a few delay pedals, and a volume pedal. I generally prefer to find ways to physically approach playing guitar to create effects — such as cutting up picks to scrape on strings to get percussive sounds, etc. I use the knobs on my guitar a lot. There are so many variables that I just try to focus in on one at a time and see how I can get that variable to respond in a way that impacts the overall sound in a meaningful way.
I get the sense that you have a very keen ear for structure in your pieces, but it’s really not apparent in the songs themselves, and that’s actually what a music conservatory composition buddy was asking me about your music. How do you create structure in a genre that seems based around the fundamental lack thereof? I’m especially thinking about your track on the Earthen Sea split LP, which sounds like almost entirely unchanging, ear-splitting static noise.
My stuff is generally very structured, just not in the same way as it would be if I was playing, say, folk songs with chords on guitar. I generally know where I could end up, and that there are a few different ways of getting there. Sometimes I’m collaborating with people who bring out more improvisational aspects, sometimes not. Maybe I’m approaching structure more loosely? I’m not sure — I think of Insect Factory as really being like slow pop music. The melodies are there, only instead of coming from vocalists singing melodies, they’re produced from intersecting guitar notes stacking up and crossing each other in the stereo field. And instead of having the same intentionality of melodic “lines” in pop, it’s coming from aspects of chance. But my music is almost always very diatonic. I use microtones, but it’s rarely at the forefront and they’re usually used as a textural element. The track on the split LP you mentioned is very, very structured — it’s actually almost all keyboard, and in the piece I was trying to have these four chords trying to break through and fight against this tone that’s present up until the sort of resolution.
I remember you played a couple of years ago at the CD Cellar with James Wolf, a.k.a. Waterglass, and you mentioned that you guys had never rehearsed together before. How often do you collaborate completely off-the-cuff like that, compared to more structured, rehearsed interactions?
It just totally depends on the situation. With James, we had seen each other play a lot, and we’ve known each other for a while, so it was real easy to fall into a situation that works. With a lot of people, it’s “easy” to play together but that doesn’t mean you should; the music can get so full of people supporting each other that nobody is taking a lead and pushing anything — it makes for sonic wallpaper full of completely consonant sounds and nothing really happening. Which I guess can be fine in some situations, if that’s what you’re looking for. I am not. So to answer your question, it totally depends on the situation and the people involved. I prefer to rehearse if possible, but sometimes it’s not and that can be fine, too.
Finally, I want to ask about your day job. You’re clearly passionate about education, and I’m curious as to what connection that may have to your musical passion. What got you started on a career in teaching, and how did that journey relate to your artistic development?
My education career really started when I worked at American University’s law school about 8 or 9 years ago. I worked for law professors, two of them were former DC public defenders who taught courses in race and the judicial system; I read everything I could as I helped prepare materials for class, or proofread, or whatever. I learned so much about sanctioned disparity through just taking in everything I could. I learned about so many cases at this time that troubled me — Genarlow Wilson serving a mandatory minimum, Troy Davis was on death row even through there was huge doubt, etc. I remember taking the metro home one day around this time from DC to Silver Spring, and several young black kids got on the train, probably 8 or 9 years old, and one pointed to an area above ground and said that “That’s where they’re building the new prison!” This, intersecting with what I was learning at the law school, just really shook me as I was beginning to understand the world beneath the world that I thought I knew. I applied to school to get my masters in teaching shortly after that. I’m not sure directly how it relates to artistic development specifically other than I don’t think it’s really possible to separate myself as an artist from who I am as a human being. The world behind the world is really what DIY communities and networks are about, right?
I am always trying to unravel and understand my privilege as a white male, talk and share and most importantly listen to the voices of others, and create a safe community for people to have conversations and expose the systems of power that we don’t all see. Some of the books that have really helped me are “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, which is an incredible exploration of racial privilege and what racism really is; “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, which talks about how our criminal justice system functions and how it constantly has adapted and changed since slavery to ensure that those with power stay dominant; “Arbitrary Justice” by Angela J. Davis (who was one of the Professors I worked for at American University) is about how the justice system is based on prosecutors getting convictions rather than justice, their discretion and abuse of this discretion, and “Other People’s Children” by Lisa Delpit, which is a series of essays about understanding power, race, and what we’re doing even when we don’t know we’re doing it.