text by Adam Lehrer
“I can’t say why I’ve always been drawn more to the lo-fi stuff,” said Philadelphia-based avant-rock record label head Tom Lax in an interview with VICE from 2008. “You could blame it on The Fall and Pere Ubu. As much as I dug The Buzzcocks and The Ramones, those bands helped set a course of no return for my head.”
Such is the philosophy of Siltbreeze, that since its inception in 1992 (started by Lax so that he could release the first 7” by Minneapolis noise rock band Halo of Flies) has released music from a plethora of bottom-dwelling underground rock bands from a spectrum of little-heard genres: the guitar and drums blistering punk noise of Miami-based Harry Pussy, the abstract guitar rumblings of Alan Licht, the lo-fi sound art of Graham Lambkin and his ‘90s project The Shadow Ring, the feedback-drenched ‘00s garage rock of Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit, and a whole lot of music from New Zealand that Americans would have never heard without Mr. Lax’s extra-developed ear for sound.
Siltbreeze was at first a zine published from 1987 (my birth year!) to 1992 and featured as many photos of ‘70s porn (particularly black women) as it did reviews of avant psych, noise, punk, and rock bands, according to Magnet Magazine. The Halo of Flies release came with a copy of the magazine, but Siltbreeze really started taking off when Lax started learning about the music that was coming out of New Zealand, which was amazing but utterly obscure in the United States.
Much of these bands were being released in New Zealand on seminal Christchurch-based label that gained fame for pioneering the “Dunedin sound.” Bands like The Clean, The Renderers, The Verlaines, and The Chills started playing in shimmery power pop with a twist of avant sound experimentation. Lax started releasing much of this music in the U.S. on Siltbreeze, most notably with musician Alastair Galbraith who balanced his sound between jangly melodies and atonal skree.
Perhaps the most notable New Zealand discovery of Lax was experimental rock trio The Dead C (Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yeats). The Dead C used a rock approach to free improvisation and noise, proving massively influential on U.S. bands like Harry Pussy, Mouthus, and even Sonic Youth. The band’s 1992 Siltbreeze double album, Harsh 70s Reality, is a noise rock landmark and one of the best albums of the ‘90s.
Siltbreeze went through its most prosperous years in the mid-‘90s, when they were able to attract the attention of popular indie rock bands drawn to Lax’s unique taste and approach to releasing music: Lou Barlow’s Sebadoh project, Guided by Voices, and psych rock band Bardo Pond among them. At the same time, the label was releasing super obscure avant punk and rock bands like Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, The Strapping Fieldhands, and Charalambides.
Around 2000, a Siltbreeze partnership with indie titan Matadaoe didn’t work to plan, and the release schedule slowed. But, Lax took the opportunity to reissue bands from the fringes of punk rock of yesteryears and introducing them to whole new audiences. Due to Lax’s taste, ‘80s Aussie avant punks Venom P. Stinger (due yourself a favor and stream the band’s amazing Tearbucketer album now), late ‘70s British DIY art unit Desperate Bicycles, and ‘70s Aussie proto-punks Slugfuckers all have music out in the United States.
But a renewed interest in weird rock music (maybe due to The Strokes, probably not) brought attention back to the underground rock (and noise) scenes in the mid ‘00s. In 2005, producer and musician Mike Rep (of The Quotas) introduced Lax to an Ohio-based lo-fi garage rock trio called Times New Viking (Jared Phillips, Beth Murphy, and Adam Elliot). Times New Viking had a serious energy, but also potential for Pitchfork-approved popularity, Lax released the band’s debut Dig Yourself in 2005 to acclaim and popularity.
Though Times New Viking quickly blew up and moved onto Matador, the media took note of this lo-fi noisy pop punk sound and quickly dubbed it “shitgaze.” Though the name left much to be desired, Siltbreeze experienced a resurgence as the premier home of this movement. Lax released music by psych pop unit Psychedelic Horseshit, garage punk band Sic Alps, no-wave revivalists Naked on the Vague, and so much more.
In my opinion, the one record that best exemplified Lax’s uncanny knack for hearing something special is the 2007 release by Aussie one-man-band Pink Reason entitled Cleaning the Mirror. Using guitars, banjos, feedback, droning, and a deep gravelly baritone, Kevin Debroux took the post-punk of Bauhaus and the slowest songs of Joy Division and stripped them down to a beautiful skronk of despair. Pink Reason used the medium of punk rock to express the deepest of feeling and create capital A Art, as Lax seems to admire in most of his bands. But Cleaning the Mirror was the most important record to me that I owned when I was a softmore in college (when I was discovering this whole dearth of underground rock) and struggling with some substance abuse issues and homesickness. It was one of those records that seemed to sound how I felt. Sadly, Debroux has never followed Cleaning the Mirror with another full-length. I should know. I’ve been longing for one ever since.
The influence of Siltbreeze is still felt throughout the indie rock world. It’s hard to imagine the success of garage rock superstars like Ty Segall and The Oh Sees had Lax not been able to prove that this type of music could be popular in the first place. Record labels like Burger, Goner, and SS all recall the spirit of artistic freedom and sonic palette that Lax set forth. But garage rock was never his sole vocation. The only common theme that runs through the Siltbreeze catalog is that all of its releases have a 100 percent commitment to never compromising their sounds. These bands make music because no one else is making the music they want to hear.