Chris Phinney (Interview)

by Jerry Kranitz

From Aural Innovations #13 (October 2000)

AI: How did you get into playing electronic music? Did you start doing solo electronic music or did you begin more conventionally playing in bands?

Chris Phinney: Well I listened to lots of electronic music and said, you know I would like to do that. I had taken drum lessons and guitar lessons when I was in like 6th grade, then like 9th grade I traded drums in for the guitar. I got bored with it all around like 11th grade, then several years later I got heavily into electronic music. I got my first synth and it kind of took off from there. I started out doing both solo stuff as Mental Anguish in 1982-83 and formed my first band Pungent Odor which released one cassette tape on Harsh Reality and had one track on a compilation Noisy But Chic - on the Belgian label Insane Music by Alain Neffe(SP)? We changed the name to Skoptzies right after that because we really hated the first name. This band did several tapes on Harsh Reality and one for Audiofile Tapes. We also were on several cassette compilations from all over the world. This was really a cool band but it had to end as the various members moved all over the country in search of that elusive recording contract. A few of the members moved to Los Angeles and joined up with a few other local Memphians who had already made the move. The band was The Modifiers and they got John Densmore of The Doors to play drums and Derf Scratch of Fear to play bass, produced a watered down country sounding single and later disbanded. Another ex-member of this group Skoptzies formed Human Radio. Ross Rice is the name. They signed to Columbia and released one record with one single that did fairly well on radio, then went into the studio to record their second LP and Columbia wanted too much control over the project. Ross got frustrated and split up that band.

AI: How did you get started doing all these collaborations? Was it all in the course of the 80's tape networking scene?

CP: Well after Skoptzies I wanted to do something besides just my solo stuff. I had done a few collaborations of live studio stuff with Mike Honeycutt (Mystery Hearsay) and a few others on the local scene. Plus I was networking like crazy with lots of like minded individuals trading cassettes and all that. During all of this we would talk about doing some collaborative works and of course we would do them by mail. Lots of fun too. Then some of the artists I was collaborating with by mail, well we got into it so much that we wanted to work together in person so we would travel to each others studios, towns etc. and record there. I worked back then with Nomuzic, Alien Planetscapes, If.Bwana, Jeff Central, Pat Grafik,Hal McGee, Minoy, Cephalic Index, Teen Lesbians & Animals, Mitch Rushton, Dion Trevarthen.(Sponge, Expanded Metal), Lord Litter, Dave Prescott, and several others. I also formed the band Viktimized Karcass as a vehicle for space rock exploration. Man, lots of fun back in those daze...

AI: Was Harsh Reality set up as a vehicle for releasing your own music or did you include other musicians's projects from the beginning as well?

CP: It was originnally set up as a vehicle for my own music, but I was in touch with so many cool like minded artists in all realms of music, space rock, alternative, progressive rock, cut ups, musique concrete, avantgarde, experimental, etc.etc.that I decided I wanted to release their music as well, lots of times I would release a project of theirs and they would release a project of mine on their labels if they ran a label. I guess around HR037 is when I started releasing other artists complete works, though I did lots of compilations before that of individual tracks.

AI: Looking at your various pages I see where most of the Labels are Haltapes and Harsh Reality Music, or Audiofile and Harsh Reality Music. Is this a simple matter of sharing the distribution duties?

CP: Well yes and no. While we shared our share distribution duties we both wanted to release the same project as we both had or have different contacts in order to spread the music out to a wider, larger listening audience. Some of the releases were originnally only Audiofile or Haltapes etc, but when those labels were starting to suffer due to numerous problems that I won't go into here, since I have masters of everything I have ever done I released them as well, which is a good thing as a lot of the older labels have disappeared. A lot of this was also due to the fact that for a period of like 6 years I shelved Harsh Reality due to burn out and health and financial problems. The material I recorded during that timeframe was mostly solo with the exception of Phinney/McGee and Haltapes released all of it for that timeframe and a little past, but then Haltapes kinda got burnt out so I said, ya know, I need to get back into the fracas, the meat of it all once again so here I am. Moving much slower than I used to to avoid the burn out syndrome that can come with it.

AI: You've started releasing music from your EXTENSIVE cassette catalog on CDR. Has the response to them been any better than when they were released on cassette? That is, do people seem more receptive to CDR's as a medium over cassettes?

CP: Yes the response to the CDRs seems better than the cassettes, although I like to only pick the cassettes that did pretty well, or were the most interesting to me. The cassettes during their heyday did well, but in order to get radio airplay and other stuff CDRs are the way to go these days. Of course we ventured into Vinyl before CDRs when that medium became affordable, much like the CD/CDR medium is today, although Vinyl cost more to do today than the CDRs. Nothing like the sound of vinyl though. Most people do not really want cassettes today. They either want vinyl or CD/CDR. Me, I still love cassettes, but prefer releasing product on CDR these days. Just my preferred way of working. I did do a cassette compilation called Harsh Reality Sampluh for Mick Magic's United Underground Music & Elsewhere label early on this year. Was a lot of fun putting it together and designing the cover & all.

AI: Do you plan to continue releasing the HR cassette catalog on CDR?

CP: Yes,some of them but never all of them. Presently I have plans on a Angwana & a Anguish/Kapotte Muziek re-release on CDR. Others are on the back burner but I will do it slowly. Plus I would like to do a few Mental Anguish, Cancerous Growth, Imbroglio and Viktimized Karcass re-releases like samplers of a track or two from the different cassette releases. These re-releases do go to the backburner though as new material takes precedence over the older stuff.

AI: What kind of music influenced you? I'm hearing the gamut from electronic space journeys, to freakier and more experimental music, as well as more noise-oriented music.

CP: Wow, this answer could go on forever I will try and keep it short. First off my fellow collaborators are a big influence today as well as the past. Kinds of music... Progressive rock, space rock, Industrial, musique concrete, noise, alternative rock, Experimental electronics, and more and more it like never stops. Bands like Hawkwind, Amon Düül, Can, Soft Machine, Heldon, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultze, Vangellis, Eloy, Conrad Schitzler, Pink Floyd, The Who, Gong, Ullulators, Ozrics, Osiris, Sponge, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Nurse with Wound, Cabaret Voltaire, The Stranglers, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Ministry, Portion Control, Attrition, Lustmord, Non,Curent 93, Merzbow, Ramones, Iggy Pop, T.Rex, Bowie, Zappa, Fugs, Grateful Dead. Oh hell, tons I have missed or forgotten that are very important to me. Some slightly important. I try to pick up a little something from everything. Damn Jazz, love jazz Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Stanley Clark, Lenny White, Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu, Dimeola. Tons more plus godfathers and mothers like Pauline Oliveros, Cage, Stockhausen, Reich and Subotnick to name just a few.

AI: Viktimized Karcass and Planet 0 seem to be band projects whereas the other music I see online seems to be from duo electronic projects. Do you prefer playing purely electronic music as opposed to more expanded instrumentation like guitars, drums, etc?

CP: That's a tough queston. No real preference. I love doing both. I think the availability of the musicians may have a lot to do with it. Nothing better than a cool band project or duo collaboration project. Solo stuff is fun to flesh out experiments. The loop stuff we are doing at Tapegerm is great because you can collab with up to 19 different artists at the same time via the wonderful world of the internet. No waiting on tapes and stuff. Grab some loops amd make some music. Freakin' awesome way to work.

AI: Have any these bands (Karcass, Mental Anguish, etc) played live? Do you do any live performances these days?

CP: Yes. Mental Anguish has done some live radio stuff as well as live radio stuff with collaborative projects. Cancerous Growth played a few live club gigs. Skoptzies and Viktimized Karcass did both radio and tons of live club festival gigs at the time they were together. No live performances today except for radio and that's usually rare. When Carl [Howard] was down here in July of this year we tried to set up a gig at the Cafe Apocalypse, a cyber cafe, but too many obstacles were in front of this to pull it off. I suppose if a gig arose and it could be pulled off, I (we)would do it.

AI: Regarding the Tapegerm project... There's some interesting music at the Tapegerm site. Is there a randomness to mixing up the various contributor's loops/samples? Or do the participants play over the others' loops/samples?

CP: Both. We take the loops of sounds, music we create and turn them into some exciting new pieces of music. Sometimes I just use loops provided by the Germ Members and add fx and all to them. Sometimes I play live over them and sometimes (lots) I take the loops and mangle them up with a editor like Sound Forge or something, then throw them into Tuareg, an interactive phrase sampler (software), and further add sounds to the loops and mix them together with other sounds (loops) etc. This is such a refreshing and exciting new way of making music and I am always up to a new way of working. Tapegerm to me is a very unique and wonderful way of collaborating with other like minded artists without the hassles of road trips and the dangers of sending your music through the Darkness of the Postal System. I asked fellow Germ Members to respond to this question as well as we are a collective, a whole unit. A group all working together with no leader, sharing in all aspects of what's going on. A true internet music collective. What follows are some of my fellow Germs answers.

Bryan Baker: It's quite random, as we have no rules about how mixes should be approached, and everyone comes from different backgrounds with a variety of different tastes. Sometimes loops are used as catalysts to pieces which ultimately mutilate whatever might have been called source material. Sometimes loops are combined and juxtaposed against other loops and something new results. And then sometimes we play over top of them. Often all of the above occurs within the same track, in fact.

Scott Carr: Yes it's quite random, although sometimes very well organized despite this. Each mix is a sort of microcosm that might contain various levels of processing to the source material. I've severely edited some of the loops and some I've used as is. Recently we've become more vocal with each other, requesting different kinds of material that we might want to use for a mix with a certain feel or agenda. Chris is working on a Zydeco influenced mix that other members have contributed material for at his request. We have yet to decide on a theme-of-the-month or anything like that, although a couple of people have suggested that this might be an interesting avenue to pursue. Tapegerm is really still in its infancy, so pretty much anything goes. With nearly 20 independent artists working on music things are unlikely to get boring around here anytime soon.

James P. Bergman: I can only speak for myself and my efforts on this one, and I would have to paraphrase the writer, Robert Anton Wilson, on this one by saying, "some but not all." I've done a few mixes that were mainly a few tapegerm loops that I combined, interweaved, and incorporated within either already existing loops/music, or that had new "live" instrumentation added. Then there have been quite a few mixes that consisted of nothing but loops by fellow Germs. I've also experimented with attempting to make a mix that consists of a loop from each member. This loosely based, almost anarchistic way of working is what has kept me so satisfied with this collective, and I am now only starting to see the possibilities that are inherant in what we are doing and accomplishing.

Kelli Wise: Speaking for myself, there is a certain randomness to it since I never really know what to expect when I'm downloading everyone's loops. A certain loop may catch my interest and I will build the final mix around it using both Tapegerm loops and/or my playing on top of it. Then again, I may have a pre-determined idea for an idea I am trying to express and use/modify the loops to flesh the idea out. I've built mixes using only Tapegerm loops, forcing myself to be creative with a limited amount of source material and I've built a mix around my own playing. Both methods require an expansion in my technique and the entire process has been very rewarding.

AI: Are "The Mixes" Tracks at your Mental Anguish page similar to the Tapegerm project?

CP: Well yes and no. In the fact that they are loop based and made using software yes. But they are loops of one particular artist posted at Homemade Music by Bryan Baker for mixing up, of which I added some sound loops to and such. You go in and download the particular artists' loops that you want to work on, then tell Bryan where to retrieve the final mix for posting at Homemade Music. You also can use these mixes on your own project, provided credit is given and contact and all of the particular artist you mixed up. The Homemade Music mixes are lots of fun as well. Besides the artists that are listed there, at some point some new material will be added to mix. A list of upcoming artists is there anyway. Who knows when and if new material will pop up.You really just have to check and look every once in a while..

AI: You've got a LOT of music available on the internet adding up to several albums worth. Are you at the point where you just want people to hear your music?... Trying to use the power of the internet to draw attention to the Harsh Reality label? What is your view toward this net music stuff and where is it, in your opinion, all going in terms of reaching listeners (for indie artists AND the music-industrial complex).

CP: Yes, I have always been at the point where I just want people to hear the music. That's what its all about to me. If I sell some product along the way that's way cool too. The internet is a great tool for trying to or drawing attention to Harsh Reality or any label. Everyone should use it. It's the way to go these days. I think the internet actually gives an Indie artist more of a chance to be heard than the old pack it up and drop it in the mail days. There's streaming where you can sample someones music, lots of free downloads for sampling, exchanging, etc. A much easier way of doing things, promoting, exchanging than the golden old ones. I have 3 CDs worth of music available for download. You can get Mental Anguish & Nomuzic - Flamingo Road in mp3 format for free. Planet 0 - Set The Controls For Galaxy None for free, and my new one Mental Anguish - Mile After Mile-Mix After Mix, but you have to get it from two separate mp3 hosting sites. has the safe mixes, and Zebox has the banned from mixes and remixes. Of course you don't get all the cool artwork that goes along with it but it's there if you want it without or want it to sample the music. This is the way its all going in my opinion. Of course there are still lots of people not online, but that's changing and lots of people online that don't have or refuse to get an mp3 player. I am not sure why this is but I think it may be a technology phobia of some sort. Just guessing really.

AI: Any evidence that people are listening to the music you've got online?

CP: Yes. Emails from listeners and most places you can check your statistics, plays be it HiFi or LoFi, radio station plays, downloads, etc. Page views. It's all there so that's really cool.

AI: As someone who has been distributing independent music for everal years now are you optimistic about the possibilities the internet provides for networking and making music available, be it for free or for sale?

CP: Yes, most definitely, and as stated above the internet to me provides a much easier and economical way to spread the word and get the music out there to a vast audience, some of which you would be limited to doing via the pony express way of doing things in the good old cassette networking days. Ride em cowboy!!!

AI: Last question... do you own a cell phone?

CP: No, and you know my feelings on them if you read my rant [in Improvijazzation Nation] just like I know your feelings on them from reading your interview. I think the only thing they are good for is emergency situations. Of course a beeper which I do have does the same thing but it's not as fast as a cellphone. In closing I would like to quote my good friend and comrade in arms Carl (Nomuzic) Howard.

Peace Out
Choppa Choppa
Bang Bang

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