On the Attack
"I've never really tried to piss people off," says Andy Ortmann, front man for the local experimental noise duo Panicsville. "It just happens." So says a guy known for stinking up the Empty Bottle by microwaving shark meat onstage, whipping out his cock during a performance with the Chicago Sound and convincing an onlooker to stroke it, using a Taser gun in a laptop-jockey competition, and punching Kathleen Hanna in the face at a Bikini Kill concert.
And people dig it: Panicsville's split LP with Detroit's Wolf Eyes, Stabbed in the Face (issued in July by six labels collaboratively), sold out of local record stores in two days; the entire run of 666 copies was gone within a month. In March Ortmann was awarded a Community Arts Assistance Program grant, which he's used to produce Sterile, a forthcoming multimedia CD on his own label featuring live footage of Panicsville shot by local filmmaker Usama Alshaibi.
Ortmann had a normal childhood growing up outside Saint Louis, he says: he went to Catholic school, played in the woods with his friends (one of whom was Mark Fisher, later the head honcho at Skin Graft), rode bikes, collected comics. In high school he started buying metal and punk records, listening to songs about killing Christians on the bus, and wearing his shirt untucked in the halls. "It was pretty standard teen rebellion," he says.
But by the time he went to nearby Webster University in 1990 to study drawing and sculpture he'd become "really reactionary, always trying to one-up everybody." One day a classmate presented a door spattered with paint and said, "This is what life's like under a microscope, under glass." Ortmann decided to show them what life is really like under glass. So he pressed some roadkill--a whole dead fox, complete with maggots--between two pieces of Plexiglas and sealed it with resin. One girl vomited, he says; an older student left and came back a week later to complain that she hadn't paid good money to see such filth.
Throughout college he continued to make installations using animals and Plexiglas, including a tower of dead mice and a maze containing newts, scorpions, and a tarantula. In his spare time he made cassettes of his own experimental music using "consumer electronics"--Yamahas and Casios recorded on tape decks. After graduating in '95 with a BFA in multimedia, he decided to start a record label, Nihilist, to pursue his aggressive music and art.
His first release appeared in 1996: a seven-inch on clear vinyl, packaged in Plexiglas and accompanied by drawings on acetate, by Pound of Flesh, a noise quartet with free-jazz and electronic elements. (Besides Ortmann its members included Ben Vida, now of Town and Country.) Next came Four Notes in Search of a Tune, a set of 100 "anti-records" he and some friends made by meticulously hot-gluing together shards of thrift-store LPs. "Some played for hours, some for just a couple minutes," he says, "but they all played."
After moving to Austin later in '96, he started putting out Panicsville CDs. The first two were collaborations with members of math-rock band Laddio Bolocko; one came in textured Plexiglas, the other between sharp-edged sheets of galvanized steel. Ortmann says Panicsville recordings are like diaries that capture what's going on in his life: on early tracks he's groaning and crying, on Sterile the door of his warehouse apartment slams again and again. But nothing's identifiable as such--it's all coated in a film of distortion or echo, sometimes arranged in a minimalist soundscape, often exploding into a holocaust of high-pitched squeals and rumbling oscillations.
Meanwhile Ortmann was developing his confrontational performance style. While in Austin he and his then girlfriend, Diane Nelson (now of the local group Winter Carousel), began to play out as Panicsville. At one show, she dressed in a plushie bunny suit and tossed Easter eggs filled with rotten food and live insects into the crowd; at another Ortmann pelted spectators with dry ice.
The Nihilist releases kept on coming, even as Ortmann headed back up to Saint Louis and finally to Chicago in late 1998: split singles and LPs with like-minded musicians (including San Francisco cardboard-and-electronics group Rubber O Cement), a CD by stage-shy nuisances the Strangulated Beatoffs, and a B-52's tribute album featuring Harvey Sid Fisher and Cheer-Accident, Metalux, and Government Alpha.
In 2001 Ortmann moved in with fellow noisemaker and Saint Louis refugee Jeremy Fisher (no relation to Mark). A few years before, Fisher had sought Ortmann's opinion of the "teenage freak-rock" band he was playing in. "This is fine," Ortmann e-mailed back. "Keep it up." The two started working together as Panicsville after Ortmann and Nelson broke up, releasing recordings--some on Nihilist, some on other labels--that combined screeches and thunder from fancy analog gear with processed environmental noises: the asthmatic breathing sound on one track from the Imperfection of the Organism LP (released today on up-and-coming Kalamazoo label Scratch and Sniff) was made using mashed potatoes and a syringe.
Panicsville's stage presence has become more sinister as elaborate handmade costumes have become a bigger part of the show. Dressed in, say, a tentacled black-pleather outfit and a furry purple-and-black Grimace-like rig, Ortmann and Fisher give their assorted equipment a vigorous beating; when they decide they're done with the onstage portion of the program, they're likely to leap over their instruments, into the audience, and onto someone's head. "Violence surrounds us," says Ortmann. "I'm not about promoting it--I'm just bringing it to awareness."
Panicsville play a release party for Imperfection of the Organism at the Empty Bottle this Saturday, with Wolf Eyes headlining. Some of Ortmann's drawings will be on display at Heaven Gallery on Saturday, August 23; and he and his girlfriend Camilla Ha (of Foamula) did the sound track for Alshaibi's feature film Muhammad and Jane, which debuts at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on August 30.
Also playing Saturday at the Bottle are Hair Police, Viki, and Mammal, the last two of whom are from Detroit and have albums forthcoming on Scratch and Sniff. Mammal's recordings can be hazy and tedious, but live his knob tweaking seems focused by a craving for more and more black noise. Since her last release Viki's headed for the dark side, trading jokey, jerky minimalist melodies for bloody-murder screaming over analog stabs and rolling waves of blistering static. Her latest record (the CD version's out now on Load) is an untitled split with Lexington's zero-patience, all-turbulence Hair Police; this show doubles (or triples) as a wedding party for their guitarist-vocalist Mike Connelly. Local hairy dudes the Chicago Sound were supposed to make this their comeback gig, but concerns for the safety of the PA system led to their being dropped.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.