Interview: Beau Wanzer
Aaron Gonsher chats with the Chicago synth and drum machine fanatic
Starting out as a fan of the more extreme side of noise and industrial music, Beau Wanzer developed his dark, dank electronic excursions after years of amassing synths and drum machines and firing off one-take experiments straight to tape. When Wanzer met fellow Chicagoan Traxx at Weekend, the record shop he was working at, it wasn’t long before they were collaborating as Mutant Beat Dance, and their twisted techno outings began to crop up on Rush Hour, Rong Music and L.I.E.S..
However it’s Wanzer’s solo output that has marked him as the kind of fringe sonic manipulator many suspected him of being, as illustrated by his untitled debut collection of languid tracks that wade through the darker recesses of twisted industrial soundscapes, employing his darkly occultist vocals to conjure nightmarish visions. In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview, we explored the influences and methods behind this American’s lo-fi electronic music.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the South mostly, the Bible belt. Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas. Lived in Louisiana for a bit, Ohio. I never really lived any place for more than a year. I started to go to record stores when I was 14 or 15. The first electronic record that made a big impact was Skinny Puppy’s Bites and Remission. It just blew my mind.
From Skinny Puppy, I got really obsessed with this band called Sleep Chamber, and a lot of older stuff like SPK and Throbbing Gristle. I’m actually a bigger Chris & Cosey fan. They had a pop aspect, but they were still a bit out there. When I was 17 or 18, I started getting into a lot of rhythmic industrial stuff. Stuff on Ant-Zen and Cold Meat Industry.
Growing up in smaller towns and listening to that stuff was not the norm. I think I was a bit of an outsider, especially in a place like Oklahoma or Texas. Walking around wearing a black leather jacket, knee-high combat boots and dyed black hair...
You eventually moved to Chicago, right?
Yeah. A friend’s family lived in Chicago, and she was going there on a road trip and asked if I wanted to go along with her. I was like, “Yeah, sure.” Her brother was super into techno, and he had this huge studio. It had all the 909s, 303s. Everything. I had a Juno and some pedals, and he showed me how to work everything. I was like, “Oh, this is so cool.” I decided to move to Chicago a few years later. I went there for school originally.
I’m not really a musician, I just dick around, and if something sounds okay to me, then I’ll record it.
What were you going to school for in Chicago?
I got my degree in molecular biology. That’s still the work I do now. I do research. It’s a nice balance between music and regular day-to-day life. I don’t think I could ever do music full-time. It’s hard making a living off music in the United States. It’s nice to have a balance between work and fun.
Is there any connection between your job and your music? Do the two activities feed into each other?
Working in science, you have to be pretty precise with what you’re doing. It’s a lot of repetition. I think that maybe aligns with the music as well. Science and music, it’s about repetition a lot of the time.
When did you start making music?
I played in a bunch of punk bands in high school. I played in a death metal band, too. I played guitar for about eight years. That was before I picked up the synthesizers.
What made you move over to synthesizers?
I don’t know. I’m not really that technical. I’m not really a musician, I just dick around, and if something sounds okay to me, then I’ll record it. I don’t know notes. I just plug and play basically.
If you’re not a musician, what are you?
I guess I’m just a hobbyist for the most part. It would be nice to make a living off it, but it’s not something I ever think about. It’s more for the fun of doing it. It’s relaxing. Come home from work, make dinner, put on a movie in the background and just work on something. I usually try to record a track a day if I can.
Movies have always been a big part of life, right?
Yeah, I remember I was probably three or four, and a babysitter had The Exorcist on TV. I remember getting really freaked out. When my parents came home, I jumped in bed with them. From then on, I just wanted to watch more movies like that. I don’t know what it was.
I watched a lot of movies when I was really young. My parents really didn’t moderate what I watched. Then in third grade, I got subscription to Fangoria, because I was really obsessed with special effects. One movie that made an impression on me, when I was younger, was Basket Case 2. It’s a Frank Henenlotter movie. I think I like his stuff because it’s really campy, but it’s not as campy as Troma. I like them, but there’s a weird eerie vibe about Henenlotter’s stuff that I really like. I also like his color palettes.
When do you meet Traxx?
I met Melvin, Traxx, in 2001. I was working at this record store called Weekend Records & Soap. Melvin would come into the store and listen to records and we’d geek out about stuff. We were probably the only store in Chicago that carried a lot of the Dutch stuff, like Bunker, back in 2001. Melvin and I didn’t really start working on music until a couple of years later, after the shop closed.
I had a bunch of tracks, and he had just started Nation. He was like, “Yeah, come over, bring some tracks.” I brought over a CD with, I don’t know, 20 tracks on it. He listened to it and was like, “Oh dope, I like this one. I want to put this one out.” Then, eventually, I brought over an 808 and the JX3-P and we did the first track together, which ended up on Discos Capablanca.
You seem to enjoy collaborating.
With all the projects I work on, first and foremost, they are my friends. That makes things more fluid. I would never work on music with someone I don’t really know well. It’s someone who I have a good relationship with. As far as the music goes, for the most part, it’s just jamming. We’ll sit down, hook up some stuff and see what happens. I don’t really like using computers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using computers. Personally, I can’t stare at a screen for hours. I just have to bang it out. If it’s there, it’s there, if it’s not, then it’ll just be on a tape somewhere. Maybe I’ll go back and listen to it and be like, “Okay, I guess that’s not too bad.”
What is your usual studio set-up?
When I record I like to change things out quite a bit. I’ll record maybe five or six songs with a particular set-up. I’ll pick three drum machines and a synth or two. Then I’ll just change out everything and start fresh. It’s always changing. It doesn’t get stale for me.
How extensive is your drum machine and synthesizer collection?
I don’t know. The thing is, I never really get rid of anything. I hoard a lot of my gear. I have traded pieces for other pieces, but, for the most part, I never throw anything away. If I don’t use it, it’s just in a closet somewhere. I also let friends borrow stuff. I should probably find out who has what, because I don’t remember.
Why did you choose “Groove’s No Zone” as the opener to your album?
I think I put it as the opener because it was ... It wasn’t too abrasive... It was kind of heady. You can zone out to it. I didn’t really overthink the progression of the songs on the record. I was just like, “Okay, I guess this works.” Here’s a song with no vocals. Here’s a song with vocals. Here’s a song that’s kind of noisy. Here’s a song that’s not noisy. I don’t really think a lot about that stuff.
Do you think that casual approach not only reflects your personality, but is also potentially a hedge against you becoming too emotionally involved or attached to specific tracks?
Maybe. I don’t think I’m too emotionally attached to any of my music. I don’t think about it, I just kind of do it. Do you know what I mean? It’s just a moment in time. I don’t really think about what context it’s going to be played in, or who’s going to hear it. It’s more about doing it for fun.
It’s weird to see people play my stuff. Especially in a club context, because I never really thought of it as club music. I don’t really come from a club music background. It’s more like punk and noise shows. People can play it and that’s great, but that’s not really what I’m going for.
Can you tell me how the first release on L.I.E.S. came about?
I sent Ron [Morelli] about 40 or 50 tracks around the time that he has started the label. It just so happened that “Balls of Steel” was in that group. He texted me and he just said, “Balls.” I was like, “What are you talking about?!” Then I realized, I was like, “Oh yeah, there’s a song called ‘Balls of Steel’ in there.”
Do you remember recording that one?
Not really. I think it was around the same time I recorded “Groove’s No Zone.” I’ve always said, “Oh, I should stop smoking” to my friends or whatever. I’m sure at that time I was just dicking around with my drum machine and I was just saying it over and over again, and that was the track.
When you’re listening back to your music, what do you think are the most significant changes in your style over time?
I don’t know if my style has changed over the years. I think it’s been pretty much the same. When I listen back to stuff, I don’t really like a lot of the stuff I do. I usually let other people hear it. I have them as my litmus test. I’m my own worst critic. I think that’s pretty common with most musicians. I have a hard time deciphering good from bad.
Do you think that’s why you do so many collaborations?
Definitely. I like doing collaborations because it takes a load off myself. I also tend to finish stuff easier and quicker if I’m working with somebody else. I’m more likely to put it out.
It’s mostly just weirdos and freaks who buy my records, and that’s what I want.
You seem to take a pretty casual approach to participating in the music industry. Perhaps this is because you have a day job and you don’t have to rely on music for your livelihood...
Yeah. It’d be nice to play more shows, and it would be amazing if I could make a living off music. I just don’t see that as something that could ever really happen. Most of the shows I play in the US, I just pack up all the stuff in my car and drive out there and get paid 100 bucks, which is great. That’s what I prefer doing. I like playing for smaller crowds. I like more intimate vibes. As far as my day job goes. It’s rewarding. It’s nice to have a day job and come home and work on stuff.
It’s nice not to have to rely on music for my bread and butter. It’s a nice separation. I think if I did music full time, I would probably get a little burned out. I like having this separation of my other interests, to make music exciting and also make my work exciting.
I’ve always had a weird thing with self-promotion. Putting yourself out there. I know a lot of people get an agent and push themselves. That never really appealed me. I’m still an underground musician, for a lack of a better term. It’s mostly just weirdos and freaks who buy my records, and that’s what I want. I don’t care about being in a car commercial or whatever. I just want to make music, have fun and hang out with my friends and jam.
Can you talk about the Synth-Chili Cook-Off?
We've done it for about five years now. It's with my friend Brett Naucke, who is also a Chicago musician. It's basically the sonic interpretation of the artist's chili. A performer will come, they'll make a batch of chili, and then we distribute the chili while the performer's giving you their sonic interpretation of their chili. It's totally retarded, but it's really fun. Everyone has a good time. It's really cold when we do it, so it's nice to feed our friends and have them listen to music.
Who makes the best?
We have a trophy, so whoever wins has to come back and defend their title. Rolan Vega won two years in a row. His set and his chili were very, very good. One year Jeremiah Fisher won. He's in this band called Oakeater, which is a Chicago drone industrial band. Last year, Tyson Torstensen won, he does more John Carpenter-esque movie soundtrack kind of stuff.
It's mostly friends we've known for years who say, “Hey man, I'm going to make a batch of chili this year, can I play?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, hop on!” It's such a stupid idea, but it's all in good fun.