Issue #181
Flux Capacitors Are So 1985 January 13, 2012

Dark Horse Candidate

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Agriculture And Sound

Listening Session as Interview

Dark Horse Candidate
by Roger White and Mary Walling Blackburn

Roger White, painter and co-editor of Paper Monument, was raised in California’s Salinas Valley and is currently based in New York City. Walling Blackburn and White listen together to the music of an early 90’s punk band from the adjacent San Joaquin Valley. Dark Horse Candidate, an extinct regional post-punk psychedelic band serves as a departure point for a conversation regarding localized cultural production and its environs (the soil underneath the site or makers, the built structures in their surroundings). The conversation does not directly address, but is informed by, the possible extinction of regionalism in the face of globalization and conversely, the possible reign of localism as empire re-organizes itself. White’s father was a farmer in this agricultural zone; Walling Blackburn’s great grandparents and grandmother, sharecroppers from Arkansas, migrated to this same region to pick cotton.

Roger White [RW]: The Dark Horse Candidate stuff is different than I expected, based on your introduction of them as a punk band. I was anticipating something thrashier—if that’s a word. This is pretty psychedelic. It does remind me of its time and place, surprisingly. I think about weather: driving through the San Joaquin Valley on a clear night and suddenly encountering the tule fog, which creates an opaque, luminous, and terrifying curtain across the road. (I went back to double-check my memory and found that “tule” comes from tulare, the grassy wetlands for which the town, Tulare, is also named. It’s a regional speciality, this fog.)

It also reminds me of a guy I knew from Salinas who had inherited his mother's house, in the 50s-ish subdivision where I grew up, and who slept in a coffin and made a lot of demo tapes. I wish I had them now.

Mary Walling Blackburn [MWB]: My aural memory did not serve me well. In 2012, old recordings felt sweeter and softer than what I recalled of the live sessions in Santa Cruz; in 1993, a cacophonous dimension coarsened the live melody and I was left unsettled. Months later, we drove north; we were lost in an interior valley where the music we had listened to on the coast had originated. Our windows were rolled down. A mix-tape was in our deck: by chance, the stereo system amplified Dark Horse Candidate through the car at the exact moment the identical houses of half-built sub divisions abruptly gave way to yellow fields. These disjunctive tunes finally made sense. Simple and sunny and violent. I think some of your paintings are also this way–suburban objects that exist because a violent empire exists; a surface made simple through violence.

My reception of D.H.C’s sound was informed by the Arkie and Okie sharecropper exodus to the valley. The accumulated rage of Arkansas social structures could have dissipated over land and light and I decided that this music was evidence of this transmigration. Do you think agricultural labor issues and entrenched class hierarchies emerge abstracted--in music? In paint? Can it slop over those who are heir apparent to the psyche of men and women whose families wade in a gentler wake of history?

RW: There are a few elements in the music that I relate to the abstraction of class and affect you’re talking about—particularly in the guitar. First, the heavy use of the delay pedal: the decay of each riff, the sense that this sound has traveled a long way from its point of origin. Second, I heard only three instances of a flat 5th in the guitarist’s entire, extensive repertoire of solos. Country and the blues are distant memories for this form of angular California punk. The anger seems fresh though.

I was also thinking about the band’s name and its civic overtones: it’s a different kind of self-identification than, for example, that of The Germs or The Vandals.

MWB: You did not say a coffin made of demo tapes, yet locally made work sometimes withers that way. Belloq’s glass negatives of the New Orleans’ opium dens have been permanently lost; I have imagined them under water. On the other hand, attention rapidly flared only to as rapidly subside in New York City, when, say, the American Folk Museum featured New Orleans’ Sister Gertrude Morgan’s recordings–specific and ecstatic. Is the urban capable of sustained attention to the margin? The regional is treated like an astronomical event; it streaks like a comet and then it is out of view. There are those who think this relation and subsequent neglect speaks to where power is organized and there are others who sanctify the margin solely because it feels like theirs alone. Dark Horse Candidate is not on any Forgotten California Punk rosters but it is part of a regional cultural movement, sonic and, we might argue, geophysical.

RW: I wonder if we could listen to the Dark Horse Candidate stuff and make distinctions between, say, the Hanford sound and the Visalia sound. I tried, based on the two lengthy live excerpts, and couldn’t. The singer’s voice is buried in the mix in Visalia, compared to Hanford. In the Hanford recording, applause between songs is more subdued than in Visalia, and at one point some women are talking in wonderfully bright voices. But the two performances themselves are similar.

Perhaps we just don’t have the proper instruments for detecting the crucial differences, from a geophysical perspective. But it’s clearly something about the dirt: the effect on magnetic tape of the different mineral compositions of the soil in Visalia and Hanford. Growing up, one of my summer jobs was taking soil samples from the lettuce fields. I walked around with a hollow metal tube, and every 20 yards stuck it down into a furrow and removed a chunk of dirt the size of a roll of quarters. I put this in a Ziploc bag, labeled it with the location, and put the bag into a backpack. When I was done collecting, the samples were sent out to a lab and analyzed for mineral content. Based on this, one could adjust the soil very precisely for growing different things. This was agri-business, not farming; the soil was produced.

MWB: I too want to make distinctions as if we were vinters and scrap punk mix-tapes were wines. Will we travel to the Valley collecting and listening? Will it be made into a film by the producers of Sideways? The cultural force of ‘creative consumption’ fosters the stupidity and disconnectedness of connoisseurship in me; but the love of the specific overrides this remonstrance. Soil ecology as it relates to environmental apocalypse is not beyond Punk concern. Many soils in California are endangered due to unchecked housing construction and industrial agriculture. Large-scale development foments a subterranean devastation. Moreover, the San Joaquin Soil, officially documented by the government in 1900, is the official State Soil of California (Bill SB-389). In 1983 a preserved 5-foot profile section of the San Joaquin soil was donated to the Netherlands World Soil Museum in Wageningen, Holland. Dislocated, this soil monolith is as good as art–isolated, displayed, and observed. Another end for the soil, once it is removed from the land, is in the belly; geophagy is the condition where one craves and consumes earth because clay content can allow for dangerous pathogens to pass through you. Could curation learn from this entanglement with place instead of personalities? Can artists derail creative consumption in lieu of something better?

RW: I’ve been thinking lately about Duchamp and the infra-mince, his least influential idea. To his short, exquisite catalogue imperceptible differences (the air displacement of a freshly-pressed shirt versus that of a soiled one, the extent to which exhaled tobacco smoke tastes like the smoker’s mouth) we could add: the tape hiss on 8-track recordings of punk shows in two different agricultural towns in California. Does that level of connoisseurship, taken to the point of mania, actually lead us toward the truth of a thing—or is this just the worst possible delusion? “The regional” as an infinitely subdivisable territory for cultural exploitation; the horror of the collectible demo tape.

But; additives and pesticides in the ground and the water, hormones and drugs in the bloodstream, all of it ends up in the recording, right? In the mid-90s, many of the musicians I knew in California switched from playing in bands to DJ’ing. At that point, I think, you have the ascendance of the seismic over the mineralogical. The record needle versus the amp and the 8-track.

MWB: The earthquakes are heard when the infrasound wave is refracted by rock. A geological needle. Were tremors perceivable through the noise and hormones and narcotics of the concert? But this question directs us towards an emotional history of sound and not a history of sound as impacted by the ecological, by a landscape simplified by industrial agriculture…reductive to the point where I once thought the valley was land "without the ghost of another person in it”1 . Local teenage musicians returned the ghost to the land. I mean, they reminded us that the fields were haunted by what had been done to them. Punk made the apparition audible. Visibility follows… for a little while. Some other cultural form, overtly or inverted, is collecting present additives and pesticides you speak of.

RW: When I was about 14, two guys who worked at the music shop in Salinas asked me to be in a music video for their band. Like many of the artifacts we’re discussing here, it hasn’t yet been reprocessed for appreciation outside of its regional context. But in this case I doubt it ever will: their band never really got off the ground. Anyway, in the video, I played the part of an “alienated suburban kid.” The guys lived in a run-down house next to a machine shop outside of town, and had built a little studio there. We went there and listened to the song, and then filmed some footage on the railroad tracks separating a housing development from the fields. I was directed to walk along the tracks and look dazed—they had an impeccable sense of psychic geography. For another scene, I was supposed to pretend to shoot myself in the head, and there was going to be fake blood and gore. But the project petered out before that part ever got filmed.

Roger White is an artist living in New York and co-editor of Paper Monument.

Mary Walling Blackburn, artist, lives in Brooklyn. She is a Visiting Artist at Cooper-Union School of Art. Other works were recently published within E-flux Journal, Paper Monument and Triple Canopy.


1. Phrase borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s poem about Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. In 1972, Adrienne Rich explains that Beethoven's 9th symphony, completed in 1824, is "music without the ghost of another person in it". She titles the poem: "The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last As a Sexual Message" and details Beethoven's work as compositional articulation of being marble head alone, of ego untouched. Beethoven serves as vehicle to this ode to multiplicity.

+ 1 Comment
A Maxwell
Jan 15, 2012 | 7:53pm

This article passed through a few hands and got passed to me. I was the guitarist in this band—about 16 or 17 at the time of this recording. Sweet that it could bump along the valley floor and eventually knock about in these philosophical improvisations. There’s much that’s apt in what you impute from this music—we certainly deeply identified with the San Joaquin, more than simply intuitively, and were fighting what was dying there, if we weren’t also a bit spooked by it. I think we registered the Valley in much the same way as, say, Wallace Berman registered Topanga—with a certain gnostic disposition. The creative crest of this band really was really in Santa Cruz in about 1991/2, most of it typically unrecorded, but for several of us, there are deep physical memories of that time.

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