A Conversation with Walter Thomas Beck III and Bryan Herkless (aka Neon Signs)

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Although Neon Signs is a musical group, its roots are in the
poetry of Walter Thomas Beck III, who has been mentioned many times before at
Out in Print. Their initial release, No Stone Left Unspoken, is an
interesting combination of Beck’s Lou Reed-ish spoken vocals and Bryan
Herkless’ bubbling, roiling synth lines. Out in Print got a chance to talk to
Neon Signs regarding their collaboration.

 

Out in Print: How did the project come about?

Walter
Thomas Beck:
For me, this project is a long time coming. I’ve had the
idea of mixing my poetry with noise music for several years. The first time I
did anything like it was last year with the Terre Haute compilation album 2012:
47807: “Serving the Community.” It was put together by a guy named Myke, a
local artist, and he wanted to include a poem of mine, so we recorded my poem
“City Life Through Neon Lights” at this local bar, the Speak Easy. I thought it
would just be a standard recording, but after he recorded the raw audio, he put
a lot of noise and industrial behind my voice and I thought “I want to do a
whole album like this.” Bryan and I have known each other for a long time; we
went to high school together and I knew his work as Miearth, I reviewed his
debut album Moments After Moments for The Front Row Report when it came out, so
I knew what he did musically. I asked him if he’d be interested in doing a
collaborative project and he jumped on it. We talked one night, I sent him the
pieces later that night, he started writing the music and then we went to the
studio. It went from conception to release in five days.

Bryan Herkless: The
project arose from Walter. He approached me with the idea of combining some of
his favorite works with an industrial/ambient soundscape. I’m all for exploring
the edges of music and seeing what lies outside of them, so this project struck
a chord so to speak with me. Being a fan of his work and free form experimental
music, saying yes was one of those “bound to happen” instances in the
universe.

 

OiP:
Were there pieces you didn’t use?

WTB:
There are no b-sides or outtakes with No Stone Left Unspoken. The pieces
I brought to the studio were the ones that we recorded.

BH:
Walter had picked his pieces nearly off the bat. As far as composition went,
his work was finished before we even began the project. I had a few songs that
I started for this that just didn’t meet the cut. We were really trying to
match all the poetry to a good emotional groove in the music. So realistically,
some songs just didn’t jive, so they got thrown in the what I call “tons
of poop” folder (a place for rejected material to live out its unfinished
days).

 

OiP:
Who are your musical influences and how do you think those artists and
their visions show up in your work?

WTB:
My three biggest musical influences with this record were early Throbbing
Gristle, the blues of Son House and experimental-era Tom Waits. The dirty blues
influence comes out the strongest in “Plastic Neon Signs” and “The Wise Old
Man,” and the industrial influence sings out the loudest in “Revolution Summer”
and particularly in the closer “Life Loop #1.” As far as the Tom Waits
influence goes, I think that’s strung throughout the whole album as there was
no sound off limits. If it fit the piece, we used it.

BH:
Wow, that is a huge question for me. almost entirely focusing my spare time on
music, the list of influences could go on for days. For this project though, my
biggest influences would have to be Four Tet, The Books, Lacunae, Nine Inch
Nails, and cornelious. While none of the tracks really resemble any of these
artists styles, they certainly contributed to the muse I summoned for them. I
really would have to pay respects to every single song that I have ever heard if
I was going to be honest. As a multi-genre musician, I am always taking away
something from what I hear. There is always a moment in a song where I think,
wow I could do something like that this way or wow that would fit in there just
right. I am the summed value of all my favorite musicians either through
inspiration or dedication.

 

OiP:
Was this a true collaboration? That is, were you both in the same studio at the
same time or was it a trading of tapes?

WTB:
No, this was a true collaboration, I went over to Bryan’s home studio and we
did the record together. I think we’d still do it that way on future records.
It enabled us to bounce ideas right off each other and see what worked. I don’t
think the album would have gone as smoothly if we had traded tapes.

BH:
I would say this was more of a fifty fifty true collaboration. After the idea
was proposed, I began working on material on my own almost immediately. The
idea was to finish up as much of the music as possible so Walter could just
come over and do his vocal takes, and we could spend the rest of the time
mixing and mastering. So I finished them up and he came out to do his takes.
Keep in mind that at this point in time, my “studio” was less than
subpar. It was more like a cluttered bedroom with gear spread all over, hooked
up like a jungle of cords. We nailed his vocals in a few hours and began the
mixing process. We approached this project with the idea of doing it gonzo
style—quickly and roughly. It took five days from start to finish, ending in a
great record. I think we nailed it.

 

OiP:
How did you select the pieces you performed?

WTB:
The pieces were selected based on their strength; some pieces just had to be
recorded. For example, I knew we had to do “Hopes of a Young American Poet”
because it’s been published twice this year, in my debut chapbook Life
Through Broken Pens
and it was also in Issue 8 of Assaracus, plus it
was the piece that was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Being one of my most
celebrated pieces of the year, it had to be on the record. Another piece that
had to be on the album was “The Wise Old Man.” It’s the most celebrated and
widely known of my camp poetry. If you asked the staff at Krietenstein to pick
just one poem of mine that would probably be the one. One piece “Life Loop #1”
was just made for a record like this. If you listen to the track, in the early
part of it, there’s a weird, warbling sound. That was Bryan taking the second
stanza and flipping the vocals so they would be backwards; it sort of fit with
the idea of fast forwarding and rewinding the tape. It was also about balance,
I wanted to have the heavy pieces like “Revolution Summer,” “Plastic Neon
Signs,” and “Suicide Option,” but I didn’t want to do just an album of angry
poetry. There needed to be some spots of beauty on there, hence pieces like
“The Wise Old Man.”

BH:
Walter was in charge of picking the pieces for all the songs. I’m not sure what
criteria he used for it, but I think he picked a great handful of poems.

 

OiP:
Have you thought about performing these live? What problems would a live
performance present, and how would it be different from your work in the
studio?

WTB:
I would love to take Neon Signs on the stage, we were actually talking about
how to do it live when we were recording the album. The big problem I see would
be Bryan fitting his gear on stage, but he’s got enough equipment that maybe we
could pull it off. The biggest difference would be the absence of voice
distortion on my end, although I’m sure Bryan has a way to do that live, plus we
couldn’t do multiple takes, we’d just have to roll with it. I think a live set
would be a lot rowdier than what the studio session was. Bryan and I are both
serious artists, so the sessions were pretty controlled, but you know, get us
on a stage in front of an audience and things could get pretty crazy. I already
have a rep for being an animal on stage, with the stage blood, the braids and
dye, the outrageous clothing—you add music to that and it’s a volatile mix. I
don’t think any poet alive could follow our set.

BH:
A live performance would not be out of the question. It would probably be
easier than the recording process. A little tweaking here and there, and the
songs would be ready to go. I think the hardest part of playing live would
honestly be just setting up and tearing down. The performance would be a
breeze.

 

OiP:
What’s the reaction been? Have you had a lot of downloads?

WTB:
I haven’t heard any bad feedback yet. Everyone who’s gotten the album from me
has loved it. It’s been pretty cool to see how quickly this album has caught on
with people, and it’s been out less than a month. When we were mastering the
album, I was sending individual tracks to some friends of mine, just to see
what they thought, see if we had anything with this record and their reaction
was immediate. They wanted to know when the album would be finished. As far as
the downloads go, I don’t know how many have downloaded it through the Miearth
Bandcamp page, but with the link I’ve been sending, it’s the biggest download
I’ve had, beating out my solo live record Mental Cage Menstruation: Life
Cycles & Blood Loss at the Sycamore Lounge
by a mile.

BH:
The reaction so far has been great. Smaller than what I am used to, but all
positive. Quality over quantity! I think our reach is around one hundred copies
at this point. Freshman releases are always a little slow though. The biggest
response seems to be that people love how deep the tracks take them. The words
are deep, the music is deep, and the adventure it allows you to make for yourself
just takes the cake.

 

OiP:
Are there more projects in the works for Neon Signs?

WTB:
I think we got at least another album up our sleeve. I’d like to do another
studio album and a live record.

BH:
Most definitely. I couldn’t say when, but a follow up album is sure to happen.
We are both artists at a buffet of projects; plates always full of something. I
would say that 2013 definitely holds another album for Neon Signs though.

 

No
Stone Left Unspoken
can be downloaded at: http://3sdmusic.bandcamp.com/album/no-stone-left-unspoken


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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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