Published on 31st May 2015
Mike Judge – The Nerve Institute
Mike Judge’s 2011 album as The Nerve Institute, Architects of Flesh-Density, really impressed me when it was released. Now, four long years later, a second volume has emerged on AltrOck entitled Fictions (originally recorded under Mike’s previous working name of Sinthome and released as Ficciones in 2009) and you can read my review of the album Here. Mike graciously agreed to answer a huge bunch of questions and here are the results, with a big thank you to him for his time:-
It’s a difficult job to find out much about you. Is this by design and do you enjoy keeping a low profile?
Yeah, it’s designed that way, and I do try to keep a low profile for several reasons. Number one, I don’t want my personality informing how people hear the music; number two, I’m just secretive in general; and number three, I really hate the cultural shift toward personal “branding,” so I’ve tried to erase myself as much as possible.
Do you now work under the name Michael S. Judge to distinguish yourself from “the other” Mike Judge (of Beavis & Butt-head and King of the Hill fame)?
Partly, and partly to pay tribute to my mom, whose last name is my middle name. And I also like that the other two writers from Missouri whom I deeply admire – T.S. Eliot and William S. Burroughs – had middle names that start with S.
You’ve been in a number of different bands over the years, what drew you to record as a one man outfit?
Necessity and preference both. I didn’t know many people who were interested in doing this kind of stuff – jazz guys had the chops but not the aesthetic sense, rock guys had the feel right but couldn’t read music and didn’t really want to learn complicated 9-minute songs. And I also quite like the insularity of one-man material, the weird ways things end up getting built, the freedom from the linearity of the band scenario, where everybody does their tracks and that’s the arrangement. And the politics, good christ, it saves me so much time on politics. I’ve had to record bands with members who were flat-out, unambiguously incompetent, but because of personal relationships, they couldn’t be kicked out, and we couldn’t re-record their parts. No interest in that business.
What are the benefits and problems of recording in this way?
I guess what I’ve just written above clarifies the benefits, and there’s also the major plus that, if I spend four hours on a guitar part and then decide it doesn’t work, nobody’s going to be pissed off when I delete it. Nobody will be miffed that his or her favorite song didn’t make the record. Nobody will be angling for co-writes and longer solos. Problems: I guess there’s always the aspect of feel, that no one-man album really sounds like a full band, and it would be nice to have other people’s input now and again. That’s part of why I asked Jacob Holm-Lupo to contribute a couple things to Fictions, and there are other people I’d love to give little “assignments” like that.
The names under which you release your music have changed, does this affect the thought processes and aims in the recording?
Sometimes, sometimes not. Sinthome to The Nerve Institute was simply that I liked the second name better, and that nobody knew how to pronounce “Sinthome.” Before that, I called my solo project Jerusalem, which I still like quite a bit – turned out to be taken by a Danish Christian metal band. No profound reason. I suppose the name The Nerve Institute did have the nice side effect of letting me package the albums like dossiers from an actual mental institution. (The name comes from Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, which is a great book, and guaranteed to drive you really, clinically insane.)
What instrument did you start with and what drove you pick up the others?
I was a drummer first, at 10 or 11, and then my older brother got a guitar, so I started learning that, my younger brother got a bass, so I started learning that, and by that point I’d picked up enough theory to understand how a piano worked, so I started playing piano and writing longer, more complicated pieces of music. But I should stress that I’m really only a guitarist and a drummer – my keyboard technique is completely wrong, which has made my music hard to teach people, ‘cos a real piano player has trouble getting his hands around some of the chord shapes I use.
Your music is completely individualistic, what inspires you?
Man, everything. Other music, movies, books – novels, poetry, philosophy, history… I was thinking about this interview the other day and realized that Fictions is probably more informed by 20th century philosophy, especially Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze/Guattari, than by anything else. I try at all times to keep all my receivers open. This Heat, one of my favorite bands, used to have a motto: “All possible process. All channels open. Twenty-four hours alert”. Absolutely.
Frank Zappa’s work seems to be an influence for you. What is it about his compositions that appeal to you?
I first heard him at maybe 12 and just had no idea that you were allowed to write music like that – so much music packed into pop-song length, sometimes, and such a weird sense of humor, and such stark cuts and edits, and the combination of rock sonority with jazz improvisation, non-Western rhythms, and avant-garde classical harmony… it kind of set out the blueprint for the rest of my musical life. I spent two years, I think when I was 17 and 18, transcribing hundreds of Zappa songs, and I learned more about music in those two years than in any two before or since. He’s the master, truly. I put him up there with Joyce, Pound, Brakhage, the pantheon.
World music rhythms appear to resonate with you and feature regularly in your music, what are your favourites?
I go through phases with various traditions and backgrounds – during the time I wrote and recorded Fictions, which was late 2008 through mid 2009, I was listening to a lot of Latin and African music, especially salsa, Afrobeat, and African funk records from the ’60s and ’70s, so that all goes in. And the “banks of a troubled Tiber” part of Knives of Summer is, rhythmically, a direct crib from this guy Eliseo Parra, who’s kind of an anthropologist of Spanish folk music. The last few years, I’ve listened to a lot of ceremonial music, stuff with a very definite religious purpose – vodou and Santeria ceremonies, Greek and Arab songs for weddings and funerals a bonkers South Korean shaman named Kim Suk Chul who plays what sounds like South Asian free jazz. I like the non-dualism of musical cultures other than ours, the originary unity of religion, music, literature, really the whole realm of “culture” being just what people did. There’s a record from the last few years of truck drivers in Ghana who’ve used their hand-operated truck horns to invent an entirely new kind of music called por-por. That’s the kind of unity I’m talking about: no separation between the quotidian and sacred, the imaginal and the material.
What does the writing process entail? Do you start with some initial ideas or a blank page that allows the music to evolve as it wants?
Combination of both, really. My technique has evolved quite a bit over time, so Fictions and Architects…, for example, were two pretty different processes. Fictions was more just coming up with bits of things that interested me, developing them, figuring out what went with what, and taping them together. Architects… had some of that, too, but there was more beginning-to-end composition: Tooth & Flea Korowod, for example, is just a huge series of variations on the verse vocal melody, that stepwise thing going in cyclical fourths, F#/B/E/A/D/G/C.
Do the lyrical ideas come first with the music written to fit around them or is it the other way around?
Music is almost always first, and then I write something to work with the melody and rhythm, although City of Narrows is a notable exception: that was on paper as a set of words before I had any music at all, and it was originally this kind of monolithic chant, like something Nick Cave might’ve done on From Her to Eternity.
It doesn’t sound like it but whilst working on your musical creations do you ever lose perspective by being too close to them and would it sometimes help to have another set of ears around?
That’s certainly possible. I don’t think I was very good at mixing or post-production until a couple years ago, and I still wish certain things sounded different – the drums on Architects… are too muffled for my tastes, which is something I started doing as a teenager, because drums with a lot of tape on them are much easier to record. But for the most part, I’m pretty happy with the results.
Can music made by committee ever be satisfying for you?
Sure, just not in the same way. I love playing with other people, and even writing with some other people, I just hate all the bullshit of being in bands. I’ve been doing ad-hoc free improvisation stuff since I was a teenager, and that’s satisfying on a different level – you look more at how things evolve and echo between players and less at the “result.” And while I was writing Fictions, I was in a bar band in Texas that improvised whole songs: people would give us money and the titles for nonexistent songs, and we’d make them up on the spot. That was fun as hell, and I’d love to do it again.
I understand that you recorded The Nerve Institute releases to 8-track in a pretty primitive environment. Is this still the case and how does the process work as your pieces are incredibly layered?
Still the case, yeah. I’ve never recorded my own material with anything more sophisticated than an 8-track. To me, after years of 4-track cassette machines, a digital 8-track and some laptop editing software is still more than enough to work with. I remember realizing that The Beatles worked in 4-track until Abbey Road, and that most of Zappa’s early stuff was, I think, 8- or 16-track, and thinking, Shit, why should I need any more?
Usually, the process goes like this: I do drums first, which is four or five tracks, and then some basic structural element, like the main guitar or keyboard part, and then bass if there’s a track left. (I actually like waiting till there’s some architecture in place to record the bass parts, because then I can react to what’s going on rather than just playing chordal roots.) Then I bounce all that down to a stereo pair, tracks 7 and 8, so I’m left with four usable tracks, two taken by the stereo version of whatever I did before, and two left empty for the next bouncedown. From that point on, it’s four-tracks-and-bounce till I’m done. I’ve probably got 50% of the instrumentation in mind before I start, and the rest develops as I work. Then it all goes into a laptop, where I edit, compress, EQ, all that stuff.
To date you haven’t played any Nerve Institute material live, is this likely to happen in the future?
I’ve actually done solo versions of a couple things with just me playing guitar or piano – Hadassah Esther Cruciform and, I think, part of Prussian Blue Persuasion, The Confidence-Man, Rayuela. It would be great to get a really good live Nerve Institute together, but I’d kind of want to have work already set up, you know? I don’t really have time to spend two years gigging before anybody gives a damn. Now, if there were a band that wanted to learn my material, be my backing band, and go on tour with the two of us doing a set apiece every night, I’d be way into that. I really wanted to do that with Chance:Risiko, ‘cos they’d be a perfect Nerve Institute and I could play an extra guitar or something for them, but I don’t think they’re together anymore.
How long does it take you to assemble an album like Fictions or Architects of Flesh-Density?
Depends on what you mean by “assemble.” Those two records were both recorded in summers between years of college, so I wrote them both intermittently over the prior 7 or 8 months; the recording itself probably took a few weeks in each case. I think Architects… was actually done quicker than Fictions – I’m pretty sure I did that whole album in 2 nearly sleepless weeks.
Architects… was recorded after Fictions, did your approach to the writing and recording process change between the two albums?
Recording was pretty much the same; the writing on Architects… was more consciously thematic, more built on variations of basic cells, whereas Fictions was just banged together from a thousand little 8-bar sections.
Fictions was originally released as Ficciones under your Sinthome banner. How did it come to be re-released as a Nerve Institute album and does the new version differ in any way from the original?
That was my idea, after the kind reception Architects… got. Nobody really heard Fictions, which was originally called Ficciones, on its first release, so I thought it might be worth reissuing now that a few people know who I am. The new version has been remastered by Udi Koomran, who’s a wizard, and sounds way better.
The cover art for the two releases is very different, why the radical change?
Architects… was a long drawn-out process of finding the right plates from an original Gray’s Anatomy, getting the typefaces right, etc. For Fictions, we already had the type and everything, and I knew I wanted to use that Bosch painting, because the whole record is about the way that societies create the realities of their citizens, the drastic and dangerous foreshortening of reality that can cause, and certain ways to short-circuit the standard programming of the reality machine. Bosch’s painting is a quack doctor, and it’s called, sarcastically, The Cure of Folly. Sick man pays sick man to pretend to heal him. There’s western civilization in a nutshell.
On Fictions, does the track Knives of Winter relate to Knives of Summer in any way?
Yeah, they’re kind of parts of a diptych – I was thinking of Bosch’s famous multi-panel paintings, and of the Dutch masters in general. And thematically, they’re about two different aspects of the reality-creation problem I was just talking about: Knives of Winter is about the way that rituals, which were originally dense concentrations of meaning, gradually lose their significance but continue to be practiced. Very few Christians know or care that Christianity is a patchwork of thousands of years of paganism and Jewish theology, for example, but the pagan rites are right there in the mass. Hence the subtitle Coronation Day: royalty in countries where the royals have ceased to possess any real power is a perfect example of the hollowed-out ritual.
Knives of Summer, in turn, is about modes of unofficial, non-state-sanctioned reality which have fallen into disuse and been replaced by whatever the official epistemology of the era is – first it’s nature, then it’s religious dogmatism, then it’s Reason, then it’s empiricism, now it’s a toxic combination of scientific literalism and capitalist doctrine. We used to take things like dreams, visions, “insanity,” and art much more seriously than we do now. They’ve either been turned into impotent “entertainment” or corrected to some public standard of sanity. Hence all the verses beginning “I had a dream” – not have, but had, because nobody wants to hear about a dream anymore.
I believe that the words used on the track Into The Leprosarium came from an unusual source?
Yeah, two, actually. The deep voice in the background saying, “I believe in my own obsessions…” is a sample of J.G. Ballard, and the electronically-altered voices are reading something I found at a shut-down mental hospital in rural Missouri. This place used to be a brutal prison, basically, where patients would be borderline tortured in the name of “healing.” It’s since been closed and turned into a museum, and one of the museum exhibits was made of letters the inmates had written in the ’60s and ’70s.
Among these, there were several written by a man who stuffed all his writing in the back of an old TV, I think in the belief that it would get out to the world faster that way. This man would begin every letter with a list of who held important American political offices – president and vice president, secretary of state, etc. – to prove that he knew what was going on in his world, and then he’d explain in great, patient detail that all his knowledge had been stolen and was being kept in two abandoned Southern Pacific boxcars (the asylum’s in a railroad town). I memorized as much of the notes as I could and recorded them when I got home.
I want to make it clear, too, that I’m not mocking this man or using him for freakshow-value. I’ve struggled with mental illness for my whole adult life, and I’ve always felt that the symptoms of so-called “insanity” are really a registration of being acted upon by forces from which our routinized social life normally conspires to insulate us. Like Alfred Adler said, there are no insane people, there are only people who have had insane experiences, and they’re talking to us in the best language available to describe something we don’t normally hear about. I believe fully in Kafka’s basic theme, which he reiterates over and over again in every story he ever wrote: a single moment’s unfiltered vision of reality is enough to drive anybody insane.
That’s what “insanity” is, being open (often unwillingly) to a broader spectrum of reality than we’re trained to notice. Schizophrenics are often able to predict the weather, because in the “normal” human, the back brain provides all kinds of stimuli that the front brain never uses; it edits for importance, because there’s too much going on for us to pay attention to all of it. Schizophrenics have a much less active editing mechanism, so they’re actually sensing more of their environments. This is also demonstrably true of artists. “The antennae of the race,” Ezra Pound said.
(This didn’t make it on the record, because I wasn’t sure how to get it across sonically, but my favorite thing at the asylum/museum was a piece of needlework a woman had done as a form of therapy. It was a big canvas with words stitched all over it, mostly little mantras like “calm thoughts,” “be at peace,” “people love you” – and then, in tiny stitching, down in the lower righthand corner, the phrase “I will meet you on the mountain of ashes.” That’s reality.)
Can you tell us about any other inspirations for your lyrics?
I was just thinking: it would probably seem pompous – in fact, I’m sure it would seem pompous – but I could give a bibliography for any of my records. A lot of Fictions, as I said, came from modern philosophy, certain tracks very directly. It’s hard to generalize about this stuff, so let me just give a quick track-by-track rundown:
Knives of Summer and Knives of Winter I went into already.
The Confidence-Man is about the realization that power, on the highest political and economic levels, is basically a series of cheap bets and card tricks, and that the world’s most powerful people are con men who can’t be called on their shit because there’s too much money and influence invested in making them seem credible. Priests, politicians, fashion slaves, the culture industry. Key book: Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man.
City of Narrows came from my longtime fascination with the secret parts of cities, the districts you never go through unless you work or live there – industrial zones, riverfronts, abandoned buildings. I’ve always felt that the city is a living entity, a compressed biology of signs, and that parts of cities extracted from the normal flow of money (suburbs to entertainment district and back to suburbs) render the clearest biopsies, as it were, of the city’s life. Hence lyrics about drugs, bondsmen, “skin of a Cajun” (racial ghettoization), being shitfaced drunk and realizing you don’t really know where you are. Key book: William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch.
Whistling Wire was about a relationship I had at the time which existed primarily (though not exclusively) through email and phone calls. I had two basic ideas about this: number one, we were converting each other into iconography, and our ideas about each other were much more a function of the technological media we used than what either of us was actually like; number two, we were using much the same devices and networks that terrorists would use to plan an attack. I don’t really have a book for this one. In retrospect Ann Quin’s Passages, but I hadn’t read it at the time.
Rayuela, OK, cards on the table: I have no goddamn idea what that song is about. I drank a lot and had terrible bouts of insomnia, so there are long stretches of the 2008-2011 period that I don’t remember at all. I do recall scribbling these lyrics down during an English seminar, then looking at the paper and going, “Huh”. I named it after Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which is called Rayuela in Spanish, but then the working title was “Spinal Geography”, so who knows.
With Joy We Espy the Sarcophagus is a phrase from Herman Melville’s absolutely batshit novel Pierre, a winsome yarn of incest, imposture, and the absolute impossibility of ever knowing anything. At one point, he’s writing about the vacancies at the core of human knowledge, the fact that everything we know and believe ultimately wrests on utter bewilderment, and he’s comparing it to raiding a pyramid and realizing that the corpse is gone. As best I can remember, he says, “By terrible gropings we approach the central chamber; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; and it is – empty! As vacant as is vast the soul of man!” And that all plugged into a couple essays by Derrida, too, especially The Pit and the Pyramid and Plato’s Pharmacy.
Grimoire came from my revulsion with rich people’s sudden interest in quasi-industrial minimalism, the way that exposed pipes and stainless-steel tables are suddenly cool again, at exactly the same time as we’re destroying the lives of people who actually do shit like fix pipes and forge steel. It’s probably a cultural constant that, at any given time, the rich are appropriating the iconography of the most horribly oppressed in order to camouflage their oppression. Key book: all kinds of stuff by Walter Benjamin, and arguably some Don DeLillo, who’s a fairly bad writer but who brilliantly registers certain kinds of temperament and environment.
Abrazo y caminando is a horrible, violent song which I wish I didn’t have to write, but I think I had (and still have) a point. It’s about what I noticed my peer group doing to attract each other in the era of personal branding: they were all attempting to convert themselves into iconography, which is an extremely dangerous maneuver, because the icon is both supercharged with meaning and void of fixed meaning. It creates all kinds of significance, but nobody can say with any certainty what primary thing it’s supposed to signify. And I thought then, and still pretty much think, that the ultimate relation of iconography to knowledge is violence, because only violence gives you enough power over the icon to tell it what it’s supposed to mean. In the macrostructure, this process dictates politics, religion, popular art; in the micro-, it infests personal and especially sexual relationships. I wish none of this was true, by the way. (“Fun” fact: I planned to do a video for this song with a female friend of mine in which I’d stand still shirtless and staring into the camera for five minutes while she actually cut my torso with razors and knives, but she decided at the last minute that she couldn’t do it. I almost did it on my own, but I thought it didn’t really work without another person. I might still do it if I can find the right girl, or guy, for that matter.) Key book: anything by Alain Robbe-Grillet, especially Recollections of the Golden Triangle.
And finally, Docile Bodies, apart from the In the Leprosarium stuff, came largely from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in some cases word-for-word. The verses are descriptions of the forced physical gestures children were taught in French primary schools, and the whole thing is about controlling the mind by controlling the body.
How did it get to Udi Koomran for remastering and are you happy with the results?
Udi’s great, and I’m bummed out that he somehow got left out of the credits again – same thing happened with Architects…, though I don’t know why. I’d known his work for quite a while before he ever dealt with my music, and it was actually AltrOck’s idea to have him remaster my 8-track masters for Architects…, so after hearing what a great job he did there, we sent Fictions to him as well.
How did the collaborations with Jacob Holm-Lupo of White Willow come about? Are there likely to be any other such ventures in the future?
Jacob I’ve “known” online since maybe 2007, when I wrote him a note about White Willow and he was kind enough to listen to my music (Jerusalem, at the time) and say some nice things. He’s an utter sweetheart and a super-talented songwriter/musician/arranger/producer/beard owner. He once told me that “the world is [my] Blue Oyster Cult,” which I hope is true.
Anyway, we’d talked about showing up on each other’s records sometimes, and I didn’t quite know what to do with the middle sections of Grimoire and City of Narrows, so I sent them his way and he came up with brilliant shit – the keyboard solos and counterpoint on City…, and the post-guitar solo leads on Grimoire. That’s why I played the little guitar twiddles on Hawks Circle the Mountain, from White Willow’s Terminal Twilight.
Is there anybody else that you would be keen to work with on a collaboration or do you enjoy the one man approach?
Oh, there are tons of people to whom I’d love to hand over a piece of partially-finished music and say, “Do what you will”. Cecil Taylor! That would be brilliant. Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, Toby Driver, Mary Halvorson, Marc Ribot, John Zorn, Terrace Martin, El-P, Steven Wilson. And then there’s a whole separate list of people whom I’d love to get just to play solos on things. I really, really wanted to get a George Duke keyboard solo somewhere, cos he was just the best, but unfortunately he passed before I had the chance, and he probably couldn’t be handing out solos for free anyway. And I’d love to get either Chris Cutler or Charles Hayward to send me a drum improvisation, and then to build a piece of music from the drums upward, which I think Marco Minnemann has kind of done already, but still.
I understand that there is another volume of older material due to be released as The Nerve Institute, can you tell us about it?
It was originally the Sinthome album A Woman Has Given Birth to a Calf’s Head, recorded 2008. More consonant and songlike than either other LP. Ingmar Bergman and T.S. Eliot. My choirboy pre-cigarette voice. Possibly some fake Bulgarian music.
I recently heard your fascinating version of Kate Bush’s There Goes A Tenner, have you recorded any other covers?
I’ve done dozens, mostly for my own entertainment. Covers are hard to release, because you’ve got to pay publishing royalties, and I don’t want to make any label pay out for the “privilege” of releasing my music. I did a version of the Mars Volta’s Asilos Magdalena, retitled Detras del viejo asilo, which reimagined that piece as a 60-year old Cuban folksong; I did an all-vocals choral version of David Bowie’s Sons of the Silent Age; and maybe the dumbest, funniest thing I’ve ever done, if you’re interested, is a one-off track by a fake band called the Charlemagne Kid. The song’s called Peggy (In My Life) – you can find it on Youtube. It’s a combination of a Steely Dan parody and 10-second snippets of maybe 15 or 20 Steely Dan songs. I was drunk when I wrote it and drunk when I recorded it. It played no role in my decision to quit drinking; it was probably the least embarrassing thing I ever did drunk.
As Fictions was recorded in 2009, have you done much recording since Architects of Flesh-Density and do you have any as yet unreleased projects?
I’ve hardly recorded anything since then. It’s been a very, very long four years, and music has just gotten edged out by other stuff, primarily writing. I still play all the time, but rarely in public, and rarely on record.
Of your eight albums of original material, which are you most proud of and why?
Architects…, definitely, because it’s rare to have a record on which you’re both pushing out and doing a good job of getting down your ideas – usually it’s one or the other. Architects… may be the only one on which I’ve managed both. Fictions is good, but I don’t think I was pushing myself enough; A Woman… was pushing myself hard, for the time, but I didn’t do a great job transferring my ideas into music.
Outside music, what else have you been involved in over the past few years?
Writing, writing, writing, writing. Novels, poetry, translations, reviews, a TV script. All that, plus recurrent mental health problems, the switch from intense alcoholism to total sobriety, and traveling across the U.S. several times.
Are you still working on the novel?
I’m always working on a novel, but I’ve written more than 20 since 2011, plus about four book-length translations and several episodes of a TV show. Two have been published (…And Egypt Is The River in 2013 and Lyrics Of The Crossing in 2014), one’s been bought but not yet printed (The Scenarists of Europe, hopefully this year or early 2016), and several others are under consideration by various presses.
Is writing now your main creative release with music being less of a focus for you than it was?
Yeah, that’s fair to say, although “release” isn’t the word I’d use. More like “compulsion” or “necessity.”
Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that seems appropriate to where you are these days?
Well, at the moment, I’m on a couch that smells like spilled drinks, eating melatonin like Skittles, trying to fall asleep, so I’m running a pretty big risk of incoherence. I guess I should mention that various examples of my writing are available at michaelsjudge.wordpress.com, and I should thank you and everybody else who’s been interested in what I do. I genuinely never expected anybody to give a shit, ever, so it’s astonishing to me to read a magazine review from the Balkans or Germany of a record I made in a Midwestern basement.
Michael, thanks for taking the time to talk to TPA about Fictions and your other work, much appreciated.
Thanks to all of you, and my best.
Michael S. Judge – michaelsjudge.wordpress.com
The Nerve Institute – Facebook
Bandcamp – Architects of Flesh-Density | Fictions
AltrOck – Website | Facebook
Books Links: …And Egypt Is The River | Lyrics Of The Crossing