Calculated Chaos

The Nautical Almanac calls for a noisy growing season

It's always tough to write about music as "noise." There is noise the ear can tolerate, and then there is noise that is legitimately terrible. There are endless combinations of words to describe the way noise invades the auditory canal and makes you either cringe or become slightly aroused or both. In the current arena of tidy, digitally polished music, Baltimore's Nautical Almanac is whipping out its old-school TI-30 calculators to concoct... noise. Intentional noise. Noise to romance the ear. Homemade equipment plus corrupted gear plus broken children's toys plus a giant suitcase, Nautical Almanac says, equals: good noise.

Confused? Good. There's really no easy way to describe this noise-afflicted duo. The group started out in 1994 in Ann Arbor as an "open membership freakout noise collective" called Scheme. The members then evolved into Nautical Almanac, which was composed of Nate Young (now with New York City-based noisemongers Wolf Eyes) and James "Twig" Harper. Young left, Carly Ptak soon joined, and she and Harper began playing around Chicago. In 1997, Ptak and Harper opened a junk store called Mystery Spot, full of old amps and other assorted garbage. "Basically, we treated antiques like garbage and garbage like antiques," Harper says of the cluttered treasure-trove. "Art imitates life" is the operative phrase here, as Nautical Almanac's live shows, featuring equipment plucked from an open suitcase, captures some of the grit and texture of reality. "I do mostly guitar and vocals, while Carly uses a lot of modified equipment," Harper explains. "We'll open up anything from toys to drum machines and rebuild the circuits to get a more organic sound. We started doing this because we couldn't afford any good equipment. I compare it to street-based art and music. Didn't hip-hop culture start because of lack of funds and two turntables?"

The two then hightailed it to Baltimore to escape the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood. They again set up shop, but this time in the confines of an abandoned attic they lovingly dubbed Tarantula Hill. They host local experimental artists and also run their label, HereSee, from this space. "The building really relates to our style of music," Harper says. "It's decrepit but functional. It looks a little weird at first, but you soon realize the range of possibilities with the space and the music."

Still confused? Well, one could always try to sum up Nautical Almanac by saying it sounds like a game of Pac Man soldered into a glitch spazzout, infested with cannibalistic poetry, splashed with Day-Glo, and wired into a broken Speak-N-Spell. But why don't we just let Harper explain: "The music industry has watered down so many subcultures with bad imitations of bad imitations. Experimental music is one of the purest forms of expression because it breaks down cultural boundaries. It is the sound of being alive, humanity's ultimate folk music. We are preparing for the apocalypse, and the future will be a rewired garbage existence." And if that leaves you even more perplexed, you'll have a blast seeing them live. -- Audra Schroeder

 
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