Children of the moon: Time Stereo gets back to nature
Davin Brainard had just gotten on a roll when his summer -- along with his leg -- was shattered. See, he was mid-way through the creation of a limited edition of woodcut, raccoon head-shaped CD boxes for the latest release, "Raccoons," from Time Stereo, the collective in which he is a founding member.
But then a simple stunt went awry and brought the project to a screeching halt. Brainard -- one of Detroit's most prolific visual artists and one-third of the core trio powering the enterprising and longstanding Detroit art-music collective -- went out for a quick June bike ride, jumped a tire in a downtown street, caught his leg in his bike's pedal, and ended up laid-up in-hospital with a truly gruesome injury (seriously, look online for the pictures if you have the stomach for it) that left him surgically-enhanced, couch-bound and drugged-up.
The worst part, perhaps, was that he was unable to work. The best part, maybe, was that the collective of friends and artists that comprise Time Stereo (including Brainard's longtime collaborators Warren Defever -- leader of His Name is Alive -- and musician, artist and doer, Dion Fischer) nursed their pal back to health, often going above-and-beyond the call of duty to keep him on the rails.
The accident sidelined one of the city's most prolific visual and sonic artists with a long and painful rehab. But on another level, it made art-aware folks all around the city worry whether summer camp was going to be canceled. Noise Camp, that is. For 17 years, the urban-outdoors event has been Time Stereo's signature summertime happening in the moonlight.
But this week, Time Stereo is indeed presenting not just Noise Camp, but also a show of solo works by Brainard called Sleeping Frogs (the latter at Motor City Brewing on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 7-11 p.m.).
Quite simply, they do the work, have done it for nearly 20-odd years and -- the BMX gods willing -- will likely do it for an other 20.
From self-released cassettes to conceptual interactive installations/performances like the Haunted Tube, site-specific work like their "Cloud Bridge" in Southwest Detroit to hit-and-run sets by the mysterious, noisy and hirsute Wolfman Band or flagship harsh noise merchants Princess Dragonmom, Time Stereo has created a template for DIY success in Detroit by proving that you can make a lot of art from cardboard, spray paint, glue guns and silly-fun ideas cooked up in a sort of never-ending brainstorm session amongst the core trio and their pals. That, and having no expectations or plan.
"We never tried to make a Fort Thunder," says Brainard, referring to the Providence, Rhode Island 1990s-2000s underground art safehouse/hothouse. "It was never contrived like that. The genesis was making our own cassettes and we needed a name. Originally, the first cassette that said Time Stereo on it, it was meant as a description of the sound. Like all those records that say 'stereo' on them with a descriptive word like 'living stereo.'"
Since their early 1990s beginnings, when the core crew gathered either as employees or pals at Livonia's Record Collector shop, Time Stereo's projects have ranged from prankish to quietly sublime. These were the dudes, after all, who started the "John Tesh is an alien" meme in the mid-'90s as an extension of then-member MOG Stunt Team and Princess Dragonmom's "Alien Autopsy" series of performances. The former trading in heavy rock with a decidedly anti-alien, apocalyptic bent, the latter of which dissected an alien ostensibly fished from the Detroit River onstage while cranking out harsh electronic noise. The crew extended the UFO fascination when they opened the now-defunct art and music venue UFO Factory in Eastern Market.
Equally-playful, but at the non-prankish end of the spectrum is the Cloud Bridge in Southwest Detroit. Last summer, the Time Stereo gang joined with Southwest Solutions' Neighborhood Beautification Project to paint a series of Brainard's simple, iconic clouds on a field of blue across the span of a trestle overpass.
And the three -- who have continued at Time Stereo's heart since a fourth original member Kenny MOG moved to Florida in the late 1990s -- are clear about playing to and with their strengths, says Brainard.
"Warren has really good ideas. Dion and I are good at making stuff," he says simply, before adding with a smile, "Warren sucks at making stuff. He tried to make a raccoon shirt yesterday and it was a huge mess. It looks cool, but it was a huge mess."
When your only business is giving life to idiosyncratic ideas with a bunch of friends, the metric for success is pretty straightforward.
"I've considered it a huge success from the very beginning because it's still interesting and fun for us," says Brainard.
Nothing illustrates the Time Stereo spirit better than the annual event/happening called "Noise Camp." Over its 17 years it has become an art and music scene holiday, an annual affirmation of fun, chaos and noise.
Noise Camp, for the unitiated, is (to borrow a phrase from a successful ad campaign and retail store) Pure Detroit. Every year, the crew and dozens of friends set up camp in the city. But it's no ordinary camp (as you may have guessed from the name). Rather, Noise Camp is a transformative homage to the idea of camp, an exercise in loving artifice.
From cardboard and spray paint and cloth, the Time Stereo crew builds a camp experience, complete with folk songs around a campfire, an arts and crafts table, a "hollow log" from which revelers may or may not obtain liquid courage, games like "Penguin Toss" and -- at midnight every year -- a performance by Princess Dragonmom, the harsh noise group comprised of Brainard, Fischer and Defever. "Injured" campers even get tended to by designated camp nurses.
The genesis and spirit of Noise Camp reflect Brainard's experiences as a camp counselor in the early 1990s.
"Being interested in music and sound, I brought my tape recorder. It was a reel to reel with a microphone. I didn't know what was going to happen," he recalls. "I just brought it to record field recordings, or whatever. And I had tons of fun.
"I realized right away that when the kids saw me with the microphone, they would just scream. And it was total noise, screaming chaos on the recording. I got back and said, 'I'm going to make a tape of this.' And before that, I had told a friend that I was a counselor at camp and he was like 'what is it, noise camp?' so that's where the name came from."
And it was never meant to be any more than a tape. But as often happened in the 1990s, Greg Baise interceded. The promoter/musical gadfly asked the Time Stereo crew to bring Noise Camp to the stage at Alvin's in 1994. Since taking the leap from the stage to interactive event, Noise Camp has been held at Detroit institutions Zoot's, CPop Gallery, CAID and, this year, at the Destroy Compound. But no matter the location, the template stays the same.
The new spot was chosen, says Brainard, to get back to part of Noise Camp's point -- creating a camp from scratch where one couldn't possibly otherwise exist. "CAID was a good spot," says Brainard, "but even though it's in the city, it's still pretty rural around there. So, doing it at the Destroy Compound this year, we want to bring it back to like when we did it at CPop where we were right on the street. I just wanna have some buildings around, not just trees." The Destroy Compound is owned by the guys behind the radical industrial design robot collective Apetechnology. And, thus, they have been invited to participate how they see fit in Noise Camp this year as well.
"They're going to be participating with their flamethrowing, smelly, loud, dangerous machines. Their stuff is so real!" says Brainard. "I've been terrified around their stuff before, in a really fun way. And it sounds good!"
Time Stereo has even set up camps overseas, often in unnatural and synthetic indoor environments. But that's OK with Brainard. "The cardboard nature is what it's all about. We don't want real trees. We want cardboard trees. That's just the way things have evolved. There might be a better product out there for what we need to make, but we like cardboard," he says. "That's the thing about noise camp. It's like a holiday. You don't try to reinvent it every year. It's the SAME every year!"
There was a time a few years ago when you could order pretty much anything Time Stereo had produced and one of the fulfillment elves would set to work making one -- coloring books, t-shirts, tapes. These days, because of the investment of time required and the mandate to keep everything handmade, Time Stereo products are made in limited edition runs and once they're gone, they're gone.
"This has never been a money-making thing for us," says Brainard. "We used to work a lot harder on the retail end of things. We've dialed that back."
Nevertheless, over the years the collective's retail reach, and the cachet that their members' works garnered, earned them an international reputation such that they were invited to take Noise Camp to Japan in 2005 and the Netherlands for club-based shows, as well as a collective retrospective in Berlin. Defever recently returned from playing a His Name is Alive DJ set at NYC's PS1 summer series as well as the live gallery debut of Time Stereo's "Raccoons" performance at the Cleopatra's art space (specific details of the performance withheld out of respect for the group's interest in surprising their hometown audience). Not too shabby. At about the same time Brainard was being interviewed for this story, Defever was hiking through ancient ruins on jungle trails in Peru. These guys get around to some interesting places.
"In Japan we did a show called the Devil's Robot's Birthday," says Brainard. "That was the big show in Tokyo and we toured around Japan doing Noise Camp. We did five shows. We had to deal with the environment we were in. The crowd plays such a huge role," he says of the difference between Noise Camp abroad and at home.
And though he's cagy about saying so, Time Stereo's spirit and persistence have certainly provided a DIY template for some of the city's more visible visual/audio punk art scenesters. As youngsters, current Kresge Fellow Tim Lampinen (aka Tim Punk, of Human Eye and Timmy's Organism) and insanely-prolific art-music provocateur Jamie Easter (Druid Perfume, Monster Island) found their first support in the aisles of Record Collector as crusty young west side punks. Other local sonic youth influenced by these guys include Chris Pottinger (Cotton Museum, Slither) and Heath Moerland (Slither, Tyvek).
"We're a little bit older than those guys. We had our driver's licenses earlier, so we could go garbage picking better and earlier," he says. "I'm sure they were already on that path. We love working with those guys!
"Let's be honest," says Brainard, summing up the appeal and simplicity and longevity at the core of Time Stereo. "There's a lot of what we do that's really dumb and ridiculous. But we don't care. We think it's fun and cool and special. So that's fine."
The 17th annual Noise Camp is Saturday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m. - midnight at the Destroy Compound, 5984 Lincoln St., Detroit. It's free.
Chris Handyside is a former Model D editor and once toiled as music editor for downtown-based weekly the Metro Times. He fell in love with a band called the White Stripes and dared to write a book about it.