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Wharton Tiers Interview
No Wave drummer talks Branca, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Shatner and Topographic Oceans!
Wharton Tiers Interview:
Wharton Tiers was known to me primarily for his work with Glenn Branca. The two played together in a band early in both their careers. After the band broke up, Wharton would continue to record and produce many of Branca’s later works. It was one of these, Symphony No. 5, that introduced me to the sound of an electric guitar army, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
What I would soon learn about Wharton is that his explorations of loud, dense music have continued right up to this day, along the way earning him a gold record. Once again I found myself researching a producer whose fingerprints are all over my record collection, ala Giorgio Gomelsky, the man responsible for my starting The Non-Writer.
Speaking of Gomelsky, I was very excited to ask Wharton about the time he played at The Zu Manifestival, Gomelsky’s 12+ hour long avant-progressive music night in 1978 that seemed to launch a thousand noisy, improvising, and otherwise eclectic bands. Wharton’s band at that time was Theoretical Girls, founded by Jeffrey Lohn, Glenn Branca, and Margaret DeWys. The group sprung out of the fertile “No Wave” scene that blossomed, annoyed, or terrorized, depending on your taste, the downtown NYC music landscape of 1978. In late 78, the Zu Fest would include some of these No Wave bands, some free-jazzers, some poets and the creme of the Euro progressive avant-garde represented by ex-Henry Cows Chris Cutler and Fred Frith, Magma contributor Yochk’O Seffer, and the headliner Daevid Allen with his latest version of Gong featuring a young Bill Laswell. The fest also featured a “panel discussion” featuring the music editor of the Village Voice, Robert Christgau, who definitely took the side that this music was going to terrorize the general public.
I say “definitely” because even though this event happened in a time and place that I was far removed from, I HAVE heard this panel discussion. And you can too, along with many, maybe most, of the performances that night at the Zu Fest. Gomelsky had the event recorded with the intent to release it on his soon to be formed Zu Records label. And why not? He had done a label before in London called Marmalade that released some of the first recordings by people like John McLaughlin, Keith Tippett, Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll and more … it’s a long list.
This time, however, Gomelsky would not release any of the music he recorded at his Zu Manifestival. It’s not clear to me why, but the tapes would end up in a box tucked away in Gomelsky’s living space where it would remain until his death in 2016. Fortunately, some close friend’s of Gomelsky would discover these tapes, rescue them from the dumpster, and have them digitized for all of us to hear. You can find them at this Gomelsky tribute site:
Which brings me back to Wharton Tiers and Theoretical Girls. You will not find their performance among the many that are on the above tribute site. Why? Was their performance simply not recorded? That seems unlikely since almost all of the other performers were. Is the tape with their performance missing? Maybe. Perhaps one of the band members got it from Gomelsky at some point. I was hoping Wharton could shed some light on this, but like many of the performers I’ve spoken with about that night, they tell me it was a chaotic mess when it happened, and the memories have only become a more chaotic mess with the passage of so much time.
So my search goes on for the missing Theoretical Girls performance at the Zu Manifestival.
The above story may have been the excuse for me to contact and interview Wharton, but it was the next part of his story, that I was unfamiliar with, that made the interview so much fun for me.
I’m talking about Fun City. That was the name of the recording studio Wharton built in the years that followed his Theoretical Girls days.
Wharton became an expert at squeezing the most sound onto magnetic tape. Turns out he’d been doing this since he was a kid. His father sold tape recorders. While the rest of us were learning to ride a bike, Wharton was figuring out just how much sound he could “slam” onto a tape.
And slam he did. His first client at Fun City was Sonic Youth. He knew some of them from when they all played in Glenn Branca’s ensemble. Sonic Youth would have a steady rise to fame with Wharton doing recordings with them from 1983 to 2000.
The list of bands that recorded at Fun City is extensive and can be found on Wharton’s website:
If you glance at it, I’m sure you’ll find a few bands that you’d like me to have asked about. But the list is long, and I have my favorites too, along with some curiosities. So here they are.
Prong. Tommy Victor was the sound guy at CBGB’s when he assembled this band in the mid 80’s. Wharton recorded their first EP, Primitive Origins, in 1987. By 1989 they were working on a major label release, Beg to Differ. As luck would have it, I would be in NYC around this time and see Prong play at CB’s. Prong was the opening act of 3 metal bands and I’d never heard of them. I was there to see the middle band, Blind Idiot God, who were definitely on the avant end of the metal spectrum, and still are. The headliner was English band Napalm Death and this was their first show in the USA. They were well known by me and metal heads for pioneering the “grindcore” sound which was punctuated by a guttural vocalist. I left that night loving what I heard from Prong and I’ve followed Tommy Victor’s career ever since. To me he’s “the hardest working guy in metal”. Wharton could see it even in this early EP recording. “Tommy’s driven”, he would say.
Borbetomagus. I was surprised and delighted to see this band on the list. This is the loudest, noisiest band I’ve ever heard, and I had the pleasure of working with them briefly when they toured the west coast around 1990. Long story short, they blew up my amp. The band has two sax players and a guitarist, although the few times I saw them live they didn’t have the guitarist. The two sax players were not just amplified, they would drop the microphones into the bell of the sax. At some point during their wailing set they would join the two bells together and create a sonic texture that would pierce your bones. My bones were dying to know how Wharton was able to record this on their album Snuff Jazz. He told me.
Helmet. This is the band that Wharton helped to deliver a gold record. Page Hamilton formed the band in 1989 after spending some time playing in a Glenn Branca ensemble where he met Wharton. You’d think with the Branca connection that I would have known about this band, but their meteoric rise to fame blew right past me. This would be Wharton’s first experience in the studio working with a major label. Before he could take a break that year he’d have to do it again with the next band.
Biohazard. Up until this major label work in 1992, Wharton was used to doing what he liked to call his “punk rock special” … 5 days from tracking to mixing, done. Working with a major means working with a committee. Satisfying everyone, and the band, is damn near impossible. Add to that the psychiatrist that was needed to keep the band working together and Wharton found himself in the middle of a Some Kind of Monster (Metallica film) situation. They somehow made a successful record (that also bypassed my record collection).
And finally, there was one client on Wharton’s list that stood out like a … well, like a William Shatner! Wharton worked on the very first tv and radio ads that Shatner did for Priceline.com. He told me that the Priceline people came to him to fix up the live feel in the staged lounge act performed by Shatner in his patented talking/singing vocal style. Wharton was all about capturing a live sound feel in the studio. Did he succeed in fixing up their commercial? You can see it for yourself in the interview.
Recording a great sound in the studio is more than just a technical feat of slamming sound to tape. Wharton told me that one of the main reasons he has such a long list of satisfied clients is that he is able to make performers feel comfortable in that studio environment, and not freeze-up when that record button is pressed. I let Wharton know that those same words were said to me by another great music producer, Eddy Offord, in a recent interview I did with him. Eddy credited Giorgio Gomelsky for jump-starting his career as a recording engineer/producer. It was Giorgio that requested newbie tape-op Eddy to record many of the bands that ended up on Marmalade Records. Eddy observed how Giorgio relaxed his musicians in the studio, and later applied what he learned to some of the greatest recordings of classic prog rock by ELP and YES.
At this point in our interview, Wharton pipes up “I love YES”. This did not surprise me at all, because I love YES too. Even their much bashed double album Tales from Topographic Oceans turns out to be a favorite for both of us. Maybe for Wharton and myself, the music of YES was like a stepping stone leading us to our ultimate ecstasy of music … that loud, dense, overtone-saturated sound typified by Glenn Branca’s symphonies and Wharton Tiers’ own ensemble work. If you doubt me on this, I’d recommend you listen to the first 5 minutes of the epic 18+ minute masterpiece “Close to the Edge”. That swirling cacophony of sound that opens the piece is pointing directly over that edge, that horizon, to the music that both Wharton and I would eventually find and immerse ourselves in.
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