Destined: John W. Fail
John W. Fail’s Intro to Pterodactyl – “Eyes Above Bundles in Corners”
“Perhaps the most special sounds are those which seem completely singular, absolutely without influence or peers,” writes John W. Fail in an email from his adopted home of Glasgow. It’s a fitting statement from an artist who has spent a solid part of the past decade promoting both the US and UK experimental scenes, all while releasing only a smattering of long-scarce documents of his own sounds.
As head of the Cenotaph label, Fail is responsible for unleashing some of the finest records to sneak out of the underground during the past few years. Burning Star Core, Eyes and Arms of Smoke, Scatter, Microwaves and Arco Flute Foundation all released albums on the imprint that shook the skulls of those that heard them.
Guignol’s Angela, David and the Great Neopolitan Road Issue, a collaboration between Volcano the Bear’s Aaron Moore and Laurence Coleman, and A Hawk and A Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes, was a particular gem, blending free-clatter and blissful melody to stunning effect, long before progressive-rock and outsider folk became the genres de jour of underground experimentalists.
“Due to financial constraints,” writes Fail, “Cenotaph is essentially bankrupt for now.” Fortunately, then, the label is but one of the many masks worn by Fail. The 26 year old boasts membership in a swarm of projects of the type whispered about by the few fortunate enough to catch a rare, one-off show or snag one of the impossibly limited cassette or 7” releases that have snuck out over the past few years. 2007 may be the year this all changes, as Fail is planning the hopeful release of a bevy of archival recordings, as well as a few choice solo and collaborative efforts.
Fail’s first ‘proper’ group was Pennsylvania’s oft spoken of but rarely heard Land. The group, Fail writes, “originally began as a solo project by Luke Ferdinand when he spent a year in central Pennsylvania with cancer. I joined in 1998.” Together, the two began experimenting with the hazy textures of British drone-psych and modern composition. “We were based in Pittsburgh and very fascinated by the droney, dreamy soundscapes of Flying Saucer Attack, Labradford, minimalist composers, Eno, Pelt, Harry Bertoia sound sculptures, etc,” Fail continues. “Being based in Pittsburgh there weren't really any other bands that sounded like us, which was frustrating at times but also meant we got to open up whenever drone/psychedelic based artists came to town.”
While this period was, in Fail’s words, “a time of total immersion in music,” Land managed to release only a single 7”, one self-released cassette and a split CD-R with fellow instrumental droners Meisha. Shortly before heading their separate ways, the group recorded their as-yet-unreleased masterpiece, Anthracite. With four tracks spanning almost an hour and a half of music, the album is a monster of deep, droning abstraction that threatens to, but never breaks from the grip of gravity.
“After Land faded away,” continues Fail “I began to work with Caleb Waldorf – who relocated to Providence in the middle of the project – and also Robert Dingman who used to play in the Arco Flute Foundation.” The new group, Intro to Pterodactyl, expanded upon Land’s soft psychedelia, adding loops of atonal guitar, primal vocal abstraction and mind-melt sonics, stretching their sound into previously alien terrains.
“The – also unreleased – Intro to Pterodactyl album contains just about every instrument we could get our hands on,” comments Fail, “guitars, keyboards, toy zither, ethnic percussion, a shenhai, a beautiful Chinese reed instrument I forget the name of… I think there's a sitar on there somewhere too. My interests by that point had expanded to include a lot of jazz, 'world' music, surrealist collage and weird folk forms. Where Land had worked under one sort of vision, ItP relished eclecticism – no instrument, idea or approach was ruled out.” At times the album sounds like This Heat unshackled from their rain grey town and thrust into a world of mysticism and magik. “The Intro to Pterodactyl album is probably my favorite work of music that I have ever created,” claims Fail.
In 2004, Fail departed Pittsburgh for some international travel, eventually settling in Glasgow where he hooked up with experimental filmmaker Luke Fowler. “We spent two months recording frequently in his studio, utilizing the weird grab bag of instruments I had brought back from India with his electronics, home-made instruments, and most importantly reel-to-reel machines,” Fail states. “Luke and I shared an interest in post-punk and DIY music, but also loved field recordings and musique concrete. [He] introduced me to the wonder of reel-to-reel tape recorders as an instrument/tool for improvisation,” Fail writes. “I've been playing around with old broken ones since he left.”
In May 2006, Fowler left Glasgow for Bavaria. The duo, recording as Lied Music, was set to release The Lucky Black-Cat System on Cenotaph, but like Fail’s other projects, it has been put on hold for now (though, as Fail notes, it has been listed on the Surefire Distribution “upcoming releases” page for a year and a half). With his black-cat luck run out, Fail turned his attention to Sharks and Pfennigs, a new CD-R and cassette label run in collaboration with UK sound sculptor Ben Reynolds. Fail’s debut on the label – his first release under his birth name – is a set of moody, rough-edged israj improvisations. “It's a raw recording (you can hear my upstairs neighbors walking) and not the best I have ever played the israj,” writes Fail, “but it shows some of my approaches to the instrument that I have now been playing for two and a half years.”
Fail’s other current focus is Oakwhistle, his latest foray into the world of fragmented folk and disembodied drone. His most minimal, uncompromising work yet, Oakwhistle is at times jarring and uncomfortable and at others bravely beautiful.
Regarding his involvement in any current ‘scene’ of fellow psych/drone musicians, Fail is pensive. “Any current interest in experimental music is only a good thing if it opens the ears of a wider audience to strange sounds,” he writes. “I've been lucky to have some really great friends who make brilliant music, and our friendships have continually encouraged and inspired me. Seven years ago when I was playing in Land I could have only wished for the type of community that now exists.”
Scene or no scene, Fail is dedicated to continuing his own one-man sonic assault on conventional, static modern music by keeping innovation alive. “As I've grown older,” Fail continues, “listening to music and creating music have followed similar routes – maybe it's best to say the processes complement each other. I never want to feel pinned down by any one approach so I hope I always have the enthusiasm and ability for continual reinvention. That may come from new collaborators, new equipment or just a change in approach. The best music I have made feels like ‘me’; maybe I feel my personality in it, or maybe I just really like it – and I'm open to anything, and feel like I can go anywhere.”
2007 will see the release of Fail’s collaborative album with Mike Gangloff’s Spiral Joy Band, a collaborative LP recorded with Kris Abplanalp from Sapat/Virgin Eye Blood Bros/Valley of Ashes, and a backlog of unreleased material from Land, Intro to Pterodactyl and Lied Music. Sharks and Pfennigs will continue to release documents from the deepest underground, and Fail hopes to tour again with Ben Reynolds. Also, for the first time in three years, Fail will be collaborating with Caleb Waldorf on a new Intro to Pterodactyl album.
By Ethan Covey