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[boston blackout] Controlled Bleeding's Paul Lemos on 30 years of experimental noise

Industrial forbears CONTROLLED BLEEDING play their first Boston show in years this Saturday at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston. The group formed in the late ‘70s, and most consider them the first ever power electronics project from Boston despite relocating to New York a few years later. Saturday’s inspired lineup also features Xiphoid Dementia, Sharpwaist, Shame Michael Broderick, and Ghost Grass (Max Lord), four of the most important figures on the local scene and veterans in their own right. Though each opener expounds upon Controlled Bleeding’s early noise and power electronics, the newly-reconfigured headliners will perform a set of experimental, guitar-based music inspired by the likes of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Faust.

The Phoenix talked to Controlled Bleeding’s frontman and de-facto leader Paul Lemos about the group’s rejuvenated sound and new lineup, and I couldn’t resist interrogating him about the band’s history and early days in the power electronics vanguard.

Lemos is his own worst critic and almost pathologically unwilling to take credit for his band’s impressive, genre-spanning LPs, but his blunt, wry, and always humorous responses offer a history lesson on these chameleonic, constantly-overlooked stalwarts.

Boston Phoenix: Paul, you’ve recently reactivated Controlled Bleeding and recorded a new album for release later this year. I understand that you worked with famed producer Martin Bisi. Could you tell me a little bit about your new lineup and musical direction?

Paul Lemos: It was great working with Martin Bisi since I’ve enjoyed so many projects he’s been affiliated with through the years. He invited us to his compound in Brooklyn, where we spent a grueling day in August laying down live tracks. We are still in the process of enhancing the music for a proper full-length release, but some rough mixes and outtakes will appear on a new disc due in June, Odes to Bubbler. The CD opens with six tracks from the new lineup and then moves into more experimental territory with a selection of fairly recent pieces that originally appeared on two limited-edition box sets released in Germany and Hong Kong.

The new lineup takes me back to where I began 30 years ago, when the group was a live trio of guitar, drums and keyboards and we played NYC clubs like CBGB’s and opened for Suicide and Bloodless Pharaohs. My old drummer Tony Meola, keyboardist and sound sculptor Mike Bazini and I began playing for fun in a local rehearsal studio after my former band-mates passed on. It was good therapy. Before long, the music took on a life of its own, becoming increasingly intense. We soon realized that this should be the new group.

As you mentioned, your two longtime collaborators, Chris Moriarty and Joe Papa, passed away in 2008 and 2009. Tell me some of your fondest memories of recording and touring with Chris and Joe. How did their passing affect your new material?

You know, I’m not sure how Chris and Joe’s deaths affected the new music. I suppose I needed some sort of catharsis, and the visceral, physical nature of the new band provided that outlet. It’s liberating for me to return to guitar and play direct and emotionally-gripping music – the stuff Chris, Joe and I recorded was very studio-oriented and not really suited for playing live. We had always been a pretty poor live band because we relied on backing tapes for the parts we couldn’t recreate on stage. We would play live occasionally, but it was always a major project and we never felt comfortable on stage. I suppose we were a bunch of misfits better suited to the confines of the studio.

The funniest memory I have of the old band on tour was one night in Rostock, Germany. We performed on a huge steel boat and ended up blind-drunk. By the end of the set, the entire audience and band were playing the ship itself, hammering out crazy rhythms on the metal walls. Later, in the wee hours of the night, as we slept in bunk beds in the galley, Joey rolled out of the top bunk and smashed through a table, startling everyone out of sleep with a massive crash. He weighed in at 310 pounds, and it was quite a landing.

Take me back to Controlled Bleeding’s infancy. As a lifelong music fan, what was it like to receive copies of your first 7-inch, Wall of China/Love Letters? Do you think you could have continued in this progressive, guitar-based direction given different circumstances?

It was really a dream come true to actually record a 7-inch back in 1979 or 1980, since I was such an obsessive collector. But the feeling of achievement was a lot more powerful when I held a copy of my first full-length, Knees and Bones.

I’m sure I would have continued with the semi-progressive, guitar-based music of the early days if the group hadn’t imploded shortly after the arrival of our new vocalist, Joe Papa. He was such an oddity that my band gave me an ultimatum: either he would have to leave or they were out. The choice was obvious and I’m thankful every day that things went down as they did.

Let’s talk about Controlled Bleeding’s power electronics work in the mid-‘80s. How did you first discover the burgeoning network of noise and industrial tape distros, and when did you start corresponding with labels like Broken Flag? Were you making noise before you discovered that others were as well?

After the aforementioned group broke up, I gave it another try with an expanded lineup including my young neighbor, Chris Moriarty, on drums, but that didn’t work out, leaving me in musical limbo: frustrated, somewhat bitter, and directionless. One day I picked up a copy of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Kollaps LP, which was being tossed out with the garbage at a local record store. At this point, the band hadn’t surfaced in the U.S. at all. I was completely blown away by Kollaps and it redefined everything I wanted to do. I realized then that I didn’t need the constraints of structure and technical musicianship to express the rage that was boiling within me. I started recording myself live to cassette smashing shit up, screaming my fucking lungs out, and creating the sort of sonic pandemonium documented on those early tapes.

I don’t recall how I ended up discovering likeminded individuals, but a guy in Boston, Jon Small, heard what I was doing, loved it, and invited me to contribute a track to his double tape compilation, Swallowing Scrap Metal. Jon gave me confidence that I was on the right track, so I continued and got in touch with John Zewizz, who actually had a shop in Allston and was releasing wild shit. He took me on as part of his XXX roster, and it developed from there. Then, Gary Mundy from Broken Flag and I started to communicate since he was doing similar stuff with Ramleh. I am deeply indebted to these guys for their early support! Had I not met them, I probably would have done nothing at all.

What do you think of the term “power electronics” and genre tags in general? Are they useful descriptors or meaningless epithets? Are you proud of these early releases, which are often said to define American power electronics?

You know, it seems as though these old tapes were made in another lifetime. I don’t relate to most of the early noise work at all. So much of it was done without much thought. We were excited about recording and releasing everything, so there was little quality control. I still really enjoy Knees and Bones and some sections of Body Samples, the first two albums that documented the early noise. Those LPs brought together the best material from the many tapes we issued. I am not proud of the cassette stuff, since there was so much filler and sonic drivel on them. It was a fuck-of-a-lot harder to fill a 60 minute tape than a 35 minute LP!

I have never really cared about the tags that people use to label music, though I suppose they are necessary when one is trying to describe the sound and feel of a piece. Actually, “power electronics” seems to describe the essence of that early noise work, but the term “industrial” has been more difficult to overcome through the years. Today, we are referred to as “that has-been industrial band that used to be on Wax Trax”!

Controlled Bleeding have always had an isolationist streak. Did you feel kinship with any of your labelmates at the time? Do you still keep in contact with people like Gary Mundy and others from the ‘80s scene?

It’s true that the group became isolated over time, since we left the “experimental” ghetto in search of a wider audience. Doing noise had no purpose for me past a certain point and I needed to once again delve into more conventionally-structured music. So, of course, a lot of purists hated our later output and dismissed the group as sellouts, which may have been true at certain times. But yes, early on I was friends with Gary Mundy at Broken Flag, who I’m still good friends with today, as well as people like John Balance (Coil), William Bennett (Whitehouse), Graeme Revell (SPK), Steve Stapleton (Nurse With Wound), Masami Akita (Merzbow), and many more. I’d documented some of their music on a series of compilation LPs called Dry Lungs, but gradually, I left all that behind.

You’ve often used abstract paintings for your record sleeves. How important is Controlled Bleeding’s visual aesthetic? What were some records where you felt that the label did a truly amazing job with the packaging? Were you disappointed by the artwork or layout on any releases?

I was never deeply into the idea of using abstract paintings to represent our music, but I became close friends with a local painter who badly wanted to work with us, so he became our visual artist. I didn’t care much for the covers of the Curd and Core LPs, but because the guy worked hard on the drawings, I used them. However, I loved the paintings used for the Songs From The Drain LP, The Drowning CD, as well as Trial, the Second Skin Chamber CD. When our friendship went down the drain, I was liberated in some respects and could use images that I felt better represented the music. The packages that blew me away were recent releases: The five CD box, Gibbering Canker-Opera Slaves, and the quadruple LP, Songs From a Sewer of Dreams, released by Vinyl on Demand, which came wrapped in a beautiful handmade flag.

If you had to narrow it down, what are your top Controlled Bleeding albums? What release would you delete from your catalogue forever?

My favorite album is The Poisoner, and next is Breast Fed Yak’s Get Your Greasy Head off the Sham, a release that seems to be widely disliked! Then I’d rank Gilded Shadows, Music From the Scourging Ground, Knees and Bones, the recent reissue of In Blind Embrace, and maybe the first Skin Chamber album, Wound. I would ditch sections of Headcrack, half of Curd, half of Between Tides, a few songs on Core, and a few tracks on Trudge. At times we were too prolific and pretty careless.

You have an interesting approach to reissues – you often thoroughly remix the material, add unreleased numbers, and even cut some of the original tracks. From an artistic standpoint, why do you like to “tamper” with the old releases? Are you presenting the album as you wanted it to sound back then, or revising according to your current sensibilities?

Purists probably hate this, but yes, I try to create the recording I wished I had initially made, dumping songs I no longer like, improving the sound where needed, and fixing the flaws, as I perceived them. The one CD that I really ruined was Between Tides. The original LP was so much better.

Many of your greatest supporters come from the noise scene. The Hospital compilation, Shanked and Slithering, was my introduction to Controlled Bleeding, and you’re playing with four noise artists at your upcoming Boston show. However, metalheads often cite Skin Chamber and industrial fans remember the commercial albums on Wax Trax. Which subset of fans do you usually encounter?

Ironically enough, I most often hear from goth fans these days! This is a genre I have never liked and have never consciously been part of, but it seems that a lot of the music Joe and I made slipped into that genre somehow. I do hear from metal fans who enjoyed Skin Chamber, since those albums were released on Roadrunner, probably the most visible label we worked with. Rarely do I hear from the noise community. I think that we might seem a bit too commercially compromised and ultimately irrelevant to a lot of fans of that music.

Your many changes in tack have excited some listeners and alienated others. In the past, you’ve released two vastly different albums in the same year, but you’ve also reused and re-contextualized source material years after the original recordings. Is there continuity within Controlled Bleeding? Have you come full-circle with your forthcoming album?

You know, I’ve always worked as a schoolteacher because I never wanted to have to compromise myself and sell records in order to survive. I’ve been reckless and haven’t really cared when the drastic changes in our musical approach have alienated our audience – we’ve always just done what we wanted at any given time. And yes, we have recycled music for European and American releases and reused songs in different contexts when it seems to make artistic sense, sometimes in an attempt to give songs new life in a very different marketplace.

The forthcoming album marks the end of one era and the beginning of what might be the last stage of my musical career, but it will be the following release that fully represents the new band. I have definitely gone full-circle with the new lineup, but the recent music is a lot more challenging than the stuff we used to play as a live trio 30 years ago!

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