Did the Station Just Break?
The Almost-Pure Noise of Michael Martinez’s Smoooothe Beatzzz
Michael Martinez once spent two hours on the studio phone with one caller. The listener, an inquisitive fellow down in Ventura, had a seemingly endless salvo of questions about Martinez’s music: “Do you actually listen to this stuff in your free time?” “How drunk or stoned would I have to be to get this?” “Seriously, do you really listen to this stuff in your free time?” “He just kept going,” Martinez told me when I sat in on his show one Friday afternoon, “and it all boiled down to ‘What’s the deal?’”
Until recently, Smoooothe Beatzzz appeared under the “jazz” category on the KCSB schedule. It still runs with this description: “Smoothe [sic] Jazz! Kenny G, Spyro Gyra, Acoustic Alchemy, Luther Vandross, Larry Carlton and David Benoit.” On a station like KCSB, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to get an extended angry phone call for playing that sort of thing. When I myself started here, I’m sure my playing of at least one or two of those smooth artists—a rebellion against rebellion itself, if you like—raised hackles. Several are the times I’ve had to answer for the crime of Spyro Gyra album ownership, and for the even greater one of occasionally listening to them in my free time.
The calls don’t stop Martinez: “Get ready for another long set of smooth jazz,” he’ll intone as slowly and croakily as possible before spinning a few more tracks of choice. “Here’s some fresh new age for you,” he’ll announce before another stretch of his favorites.
Yet though they’re almost identical in form to complaints about smooth jazz, the objections Martinez hears come from precisely the opposite direction. The label on his can, you see, doesn’t match its contents. Smoooothe Beatzzz serves up two hours of almost wall-to-wall noise: distortion, destruction, explosion, and sonic abstraction.
Try as he might to explain the appeal of this, Martinez seems to accept that you can’t convince anybody to learn to stop worrying and love the noise. He especially can’t convince his girlfriend Stephanie, who often joins him in the control room, though not on the air. “She limits me playing this stuff at home to about two hours a day,” he admitted when I asked if he’d brought her over to his sonic aesthetic. “The aim of my show is more to expose people to this stuff, not necessarily to have them ‘get it.’” Being a noise enthusiast myself, my experience has led me to similar conclusions. As Louis Armstrong said, “If they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.”
As both a UCSB art student and a die-hard prankster, Martinez can rarely resist the opportunity to catch others off guard. “Startling people is funny,” he told me. “I like messing with people and seeing what they’ll do.” I then turned to Stephanie, who immediately confirmed this. “I try to create as many awkward moments as possible. I go for what’s jarring. In other art forms, it’s like Hans Bellmer, it’s like cheap horror films. I love really awful films, like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Reefer Madness.” How would he define this flavor of jarring, awkward discontinuity he so enjoys? “I know it when I see it—or when I hear it.”
And Smoooothe Beatzzz listeners will hear plenty of it. Since starting what he describes as his “ugly music show” in the spring of 2008, Martinez has accrued a remarkably consistent fan base. He suspects one repeat caller must be a UCSB music professor, and KCSB super-listener Dave from the Grave has deemed the program his “eighth favorite KCSB show of all time.” For every enthusiastic caller, the music draws at least one who’s genuinely concerned that the station’s equipment is malfunctioning. “I was so happy at the first ‘Is there something wrong with the station?’ call,” Martinez remembered. “I still get them now.”
It’s worth noting that Martinez, who’s credited on the schedule as “Dee Jay Dubbel Em,” isn’t just trying to get a rise out of unsuspecting tuners-in. Every time that persistent Ventura caller asked if he really listens to this stuff in his free time, his answer was an unqualified yes. Of the 100 straight days of music in his collection, he estimates 20 of them are pure noise. “I really enjoy it,” he told me. “It’s fun for me to listen to something weird. To like my show, you’ve got to be really weird, or really curious.” The corners of the unexpectedly vast noise music world he features on the show include Japanese noise (“like a punk sort of noise, almost”), harsh noise (“it’s more about Americans making static”), and cerebral noise (“really hardcore, complicated compositions”). His favorite tracks tend to come from U.S. artists, who, in his words, are into “throwing things and destroying stuff.”
Noise isn’t exactly the marginal style it must seem like to the uninitiated. Even the New Yorker recently ran an article on the growing genre in which Sasha Frere-Jones wrote, “To many people now, noise isn’t necessarily an aggressive or alienating element; it sounds more like nature than nature does.” Nor is the enjoyment or creation of noise limited to any one technology, musical background, or region of the world. Martinez’s playlist for the show I sat in on included a range of pieces, all completely different in mood and texture: from Germany’s Carsten Nicolai, also known as Alva Noto; to Michigan’s Aaron Dilloway; Japan’s Keiji Haino and Tatsuya Yoshida; and England’s Throbbing Gristle.
Smoooothe Beatzzz, as a good art stunt should, prompts a major shift in perspective. Martinez manages to expose two equal and opposite musical prejudices, one against the smooth and one against the noisy. As a great art stunt should, it makes everyone feel a little less certain about their opinions. Both those who believe noise music is unlistenably worthless and those who believe smooth jazz is are surely convinced of their absolute correctness. A few minutes listening to KCSB, where someone like Michael Martinez can go straight from playing a wall of sound from Norway’s Brighter Death Now to talking over a Kenny G cut, could knock them healthily off balance.
Smoooothe Beatzzz airs Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.