Los Angeles Free Music Society: the west coast’s own Radiophonic Workshop

Nestled away in untrendy Pasadena, an avant-garde group lay the foundation for noise music, and influenced everyone from Sonic Youth to Throbbing Gristle

We were artists using sound as our medium, trying to find a different approach by letting go of the musician part, wrote Rick Potts in his first-person history of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. Formed in the early 70s in the un-hip enclaves around Pasadena, the LAFMS was a loose collective of individuals who banded together to push the boundaries of sound, noise, music and art. To accomplish these goals, they used an unorthodox array of electronic and analog tools: tape loops, kids musical toys, homemade instruments and industrial objects. As founding member Tom Recchion notes: I always felt like Evel Knievel. I could jump off any building and try to test something out.

Over the past four decades, the society has swelled from its original 12 or so core members to include dozens of bands, collaborators and associates, all the while eluding mainstream popularity, even awareness. A new 13 LP box set release by Box Editions eschews a comprehensive approach, instead endeavoring to capture a snapshot of the collective, in a sense memorializing an unwieldy phenomenon that was never meant to be static.

There was a paradigm shift of some sort where there was all this experimental activity happening around the planet, recalled founding member Fredrik Nilsen when asked about the origins of the LAFMS. But in LA, we were so isolated. It wasnt like there was a support system like in Europe or London, or NY. We were kind of off on our own. Although a few sonic innovators spent time in LA, like John Cage in his youth or Harry Partch in his last decade, it had nothing like New Yorks avant-garde legacy, which boasted such seminal figures as Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Philip Glass and La Monte Young.This isolation would prove liberating, allowing the young musicians and artists who formed the core of the group the freedom to explore without preconceived boundaries.

Potts was still in his teens when he met Chip Chapman, another founding member. The first day of high school, we were in this instruments class, and he said he wanted to play the electronic music synthesizer, Potts recalled. Everybody laughed, but by the end of the year, he had figured out how to get the school to buy an Arp Odyssey, and an Echoplex. Meanwhile, hed borrowed gear, made some tapes and got into Cal Arts.

Using the electronic music studios at Cal Arts, Chapman, Potts and his brothers Joe and Tom, would experiment using a wide variety of what could generously be called instruments, including a three-string Japanese guitar with custom, scraped-off failed epoxy resin finish, his dads duck call and a toy violin.

Although other music students at the art school were also pushing into new sonic territories, they werent terribly receptive to Chapmans and Pottss abrasive experiments. The serious electronic music majors hated it because they were sort of inventing ambient music at the time. Our stuff was way too bombastic, Potts says. In the middle of a school concert, a fellow student got up and turned off their tape.

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Some of the LA Free Music Collectives instruments. Photograph: courtesy The Box LA and Fredrik Nilsen Studio

The international avant-garde music community was not much more welcoming. The group, which was now calling themselves Le Forte Four, sent a submission to an electronic music festival in Norway, which was rejected, however the experience would eventually give the collective its name. They didnt think they would take the name Le Forte Four seriously, so they submitted it as the East Los Angeles Free Music Society, recalls Nilsen. It got accepted basically based on the name, and then the director of the festival heard it and sent it back with a rejection letter that read, Free minds and ears are one thing, but what about aesthetics?

Recchion was also experimenting with sound with his own group, The Doo-Dooettes, having arrived at it from the perspective of a frustrated artist. I rejected doing paintings and sculpture and visual work because I didnt like the economics of the art world, he recalled. I wanted to work with something that I could get out to more people in a more affordable form. Making records seemed like the best solution.

When Recchion heard the story about the rejection from the Norwegian festival, he says, Thats a great name, why dont we name our collective the Los Angeles Free Music Society? recalls Nilsen. We got a big laugh out of that. And the collective was born.

Other groups would soon come to form the core of the collective: Smegma, AIRWAY, Ace and Deuce. Although they were all committed to fearless experimentation, the results were quite diverse. AIRWAY was notorious for shutting down clubs because they were so loud. That was deliberately part of their act, says Mara McCarthy, founder of the Box and Box Editions. Then you have someone like Tom, who also just makes music by himself that is really quite internally quiet. A poster accompanying the boxset lists the myriad groups and performers that became associated with the collective, including perhaps more well-known underground music figures like Jad Fair, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Christian Marclay.

Never tightly structured (For years it functioned as a real disorganization, Recchion jokes), the collective began to dissolve in the early 80s. We all went around and did other things. At the tail end of the 70s, a lot of us started playing rock music, getting real jobs, says Recchion, who moved to New York and was briefly the drummer for Sonic Youth. Still, throughout it all, new groups formed Dinosaurs with Horns, Solid Eye, Points of Friction, Extended Organ records were released, shows booked. Various events such as a 10-CD boxset put out in 1995 and a 2010 three-day music festival in London, reinvigorated the collective.

Then in 2012, McCarthy decided to organize a retrospective exhibition, Beneath the Valley of the Lowest Form of Music, that focused not only on their sonic output, but on the visual art contributions of its members as well. In addition to a stage set up for performances, large tables were lined with an assortment of DIY music-making objects designed for use in performances.

Four years later, the newly released LAFMS Box Box is a record of that exhibition, capturing each of the 25 performances on 13 LPs (the opening nights group improvisation takes up the first two sides). Groups involved range from those featuring core members as well as newer additions, like Dolphin Explosion, made up of the teenage daughters of artists Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber. Designed by Recchion, an accompanying book and set of posters conveys the visual art component, and includes numerous period photographs by Nilsen, who has since established himself as a successful photographic documentarian of gallery and museum shows in LA. Rather than focus on the seemingly impossible task of tracking all the collectives loose threads over time, it freezes an important milestone in its history.

The project also has a bittersweet significance, as it captures the last musical performance and visual artwork produced by Mike Kelley before his death. The legendary Los Angeles artist committed suicide during the exhibitions run, and the remaining shows turned into a kind of tribute to him, according to Recchion. His last artwork, an installation of fabric and musical toy parts included in the show, conveyed the sense of scrappy, child-like wonder that permeated so much of his work. The boxset is dedicated to his memory.

Its shocking to think that theres an international fanbase for what we do now, because it was just something we were doing for each other and for friends, Potts says. I think thats part of the spirit that people got from those records. You could tell that we werent trying to sell ourselves as a band that was going to be signed to a label, that we were doing just whatever we wanted to do.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/30/los-angeles-free-music-society-experimental-noise-music