A Not So Brief History Of Stained Rug Theory
I’ve Got a Theory… It’s a Stained, Stained, Stained Rug Theory
SRT began in the “City of Hills and Mills – Fall River Massachusetts – as art boy became Arthur Mann – a musician and techno geek living close to Providence and Boston, and not that far from NYC. Art started taking his music to venues in all three cities as soon as he could drive, making the haul in his VW microbus down to the Lower East Side to play Tuesday night CBGB’s while still in high school. Providence was close by and Brown University would become a continuous host and a valuable resource for young Arthur’s musical explorations for the next ten years.
The first performance of what would become SRT happened at the Brown Underground probably around 1973 -74. A duo – Arthur teamed up with the vampy Velva Rae. The music was pure electronic mayhem – Karlheinz Stockhausen meets the Ronettes – with much of the music emanating from a four-track reel-to-reel tape machine. But it was what was ON those tracks – live mixed by Mann, that was cool/weird: there was a wild mashup of every musique concrete technique in the history books of electronic music – long passages of tape looped drum tracks – the “sound of any washing machine, anywhere in the world” – and a free plundering of any source of sound he could lay his hands on – from sound toys to the now-classic Casio VL Tone (a super primitive digital beatbox/synthesizer/pocket calculator.) It all seemed to emanate from an endless reservoir of despair:
good night – sleep tight – half smile – on the suicide
sweet dreams – tonight – what is it like – to die?
good night – sleep tight – half smile – on the suicide
twilight – tonight – don’t fight – let it lie
Proto-SRT performances were strange indications of weird things on the horizon, with Velva Rae dressed to kill straight out of Vegas and mad scientist Mann “sweating and tripping over my machines” conjuring swirling electronic voodoo. This was the combination that would form the core of the future “collective” as Mann envisioned it.
Mann and Rae split, making space for a new collaborator who would bring sharp political and social awareness, new vocal presence and even deeper depths of despair – Giselle Catholic. For the next seven years, Mann and Catholic – the “perfect post-apocalyptic couple” would form the core of SRT.
For a brief time during the 1980’s computers were like a kind of new LSD. People believed that networks of computers would form a collective consciousness – a hive mind of a sort – and electronic music was a part of a shifting of human consciousness into the digital matrix. The process of music production was transformed in the 1980’s as the digital age progressed. MIDI – adopted in 1979 is still a standard used today. Without MIDI there would be no Flock of Seagulls sound.
Mann is a geek for music – he lives and breathes it, and he took in all the technology and embraced at a cultural moment at the beginning of the digital / cybernetic age. He envisioned SRT as a collection of musical resources he could draw from which could take on different names and musical identities and styles, like an orchestra of modules both human and machine.
For everyone else, Stained Rug Theory was an oddly-named two person band that used a lot of odd devices onstage and had no human drummer. The basic setup was Arthur Mann bent over boxes and wires loading sounds and sequences while playing guitar and yelling. Giselle Catholic had an air of aloof detachment – triggering samples and synth sounds and singing in a voice that could coax the buzzards down from the trees.
They demonstrated utter disdain for the posturing of rock, understanding the deep strangeness of the big hair metal vs. punk moment, and without irony mining ABBA as a significant musical influence – a platonic ideal of SRT’s perhaps deepest aspirations. Maybe they just read too much. It was easy to hate SRT for their refusal of convention, but it was hard to remain ambivalent. They began to develop a fan base of people who related to the outsider status.
With Giselle Catholic, SRT took on new political directions – I Am a Communist, I Am No Artist, and Statue of Liberty were pure Beach Boys/Marxist/Fluxus mash-ups. As the music grew more complex in the studio, the logistics of bringing it out for live performance became increasingly intricate. Comparisons to groups like Alan Vega’s Suicide, the Talking Heads, the Flying Lizards, Kraftwerk, and Public Image Limited were indications of the tangled concepts that threaded through the work – but Mann’s love of roots and folk music, his devotion to Marvin Gaye and R&B, and unapologetic embrace of disco combined with Catholic’s stark poetic imagery made SRT an exceedingly difficult band to categorize. Indeed, at one point when music promoter Ken Goes took over the business management of the band with a plan to shop them to the progressive British label 4AD, he had to choose between SRT and some other band. He went with a band from Newport – SRT was simply far too strange, far too ahead of its time.
The rent was due and the credit cards were maxed-out, so Arthur found himself a job at Brown as a shelver in the Rockefeller Library – “the best job ever.” He was always “interested in everything” – now he had everything literally at his fingertips. He dove in. He started taking classes at Brown during this period, studying art, music, and film, and developing collaborations with filmmaker and future MTV producer Ivano Leoncavallo who shot early music videos for the group, live-mixed onstage visuals at the Underground, and added live percussion to a few stage performance in NYC.
As full-time library staff and part-time student, Mann became involved with the University’s Department of Music. Through the support of the library and the advocacy of Brown Music Professor Gerald “Shep” Shapiro, Mann’s involvement with Brown exploded into a thousand directions – from satellite communications to early internet development.
The history of Mann’s work with Brown is an epic long strange trip. He ended up an Adjunct Lecturer at the University with a Masters Degree in Composition. He and Catholic were performing constantly, and Mann managed to release a series of solo projects – it was all SRT as far as he understood it. There was the funky “Chia Pet” and the quasi death hair metal “DOOM.”
By now Art Mann had been designated the resident master and keeper of the keys to Brown’s $30,000 Synclavier system. He was the manager of the University’s MacColl Studio for Electronic Music. Among many other things, this meant that SRT had ongoing 24 hour a day access to professional music production studios and equipment – it was his JOB to know about music technologies and go about purchasing, installing, using, and instructing in the use of new music and MIDI hardware and software.
For this pair of budding young electronic media artists this was all like the quintessential kids in a candy shop situation. Mann and Catholic moved the musical development project from a one-room boarding house / four track setup (issuing the indescribable excursions of “Fuck and Scream” and “Jesus of the Ghetto” along the way), and finally rented a live rehearsal space in a mill in the Olneyville section of Providence, planting themselves in the MacColl studio for virtually nonstop musical experimentation.
With Arthur Mann set up a lecturer/student/director and Giselle as an undergraduate the pair found living arrangements near the studio in the Brown campus landmark known as The Vault. This period saw musical interactions of all kinds in working collaborations with vocalist/drummer Nancy and electric violinist Michael. SRT played everywhere that would have them. They performed at the closing cast party for Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave – a big deal for them at the time – and continued to gig at CBGB’s and performed continuously in Boston at the Rat, in Providence at the Cage, the Brown Underground, and at AS220. Mann and Catholic put together a particularly revved-up Chamber Folk set to open for Sonic Youth at the Living Room in Providence. Mann’s white noise was cataclysmic as he stomped the analog monosynth at the end of the slo-mo trip hop cover of Pete Seeger’s Who Killed Norma Jean. “For two people you sure make a lot of noise” said Sonic Youth.
SRT released an album in 1985 – Innocence – invoking a cycle of promotion which held little appeal for the pair. They were reactionary and strange, and like good little Italian futurists, SRT were more interested in making subversive music than in gaining popularity. Their favorite trick was to perform an abrupt 360 degree stylistic reversal whenever they felt they had been figured out – no two sets were ever alike, and stylistically they were all over the map. The music was pearls before swine.
But a glowing review in Spin and a cover write-up in CMJ, along with gigs at the Knitting Factory, CBGB’s, the Rat in Boston, and at AS220 and the Cage in Providence found SRT seemingly on the verge of some sort of commercial breakthrough in spite of themselves.
For some, SRT was a goth band, for others an industrial noise project – but Mann and Catholic saw themselves as electronic folk musicians and experimenters in all media. The sets and styles lurched radically from performance to performance through musical gardens of sampling, tape loops and turntables, appropriation, voice processing, electronic drumming, and spoken text.
As early as 1987 they had performed entire live sets remixed from backing tracks of appropriated and utterly familiar pop songs. With drum machines providing a machine-precision pulse, SRT was profoundly electronic – a cybernetic music treating texts of all kinds – spoken, written, original, seemingly original, and found – all were fair game. Early handheld synths and samplers like the Casio SK-1 and the legendary Remco Sound Machine, the onstage use of a Commodore SX64 computer, and a Roland MC202 sequencer all were modules in the shifting technological landscape of Mann and Catholic’s indulgence.
They explored synthesis, synaesthesia, algorithmic control, text, color, narrative, sampling, while Catholic’s voice and writing took on new layers of depth and deeper insights into the psychology of adolescence and alienation. Their work became like a library / laboratory for all forms of digital and analog media. It was like math rock meets Marvin Gaye, sort of.
Now identifying as media artists, Mann and Catholic hopped a train to the prestigious Banff Centre for Fine Arts in the Canadian Rockies to play with expensive devices and indulge their creative caprice under the support of an arts fellowship Mann had landed. While at Banff SRT handmade a number of films including the Morrisey-meets-Timothy Leary Alberta Mountain Trip and Night of the Living Trucks. They met and worked with wonderful artists and collaborated with wonderful musicians from all over the world, and used the swimming pool too. Once and fortunately ONLY once, flaming shit came out of the faucet.
They travelled to New Mexico and took part in more multimedia work collaborating with electronica artist Dwight Loop, and shot a documentary on low rider car culture in Espanola NM.
When SRT returned to Providence they used these films, and other crash-edited projects to provide a visual backdrops for extreme performances that could “scare the crap out of you.” They briefly renamed the group “Meet the DeathHellPissShit” and starting singing songs about disembodied penises and other twisted Freudian/Jungian nightmares. SRT always had a dark comic side, but for some of their emergent “fans” the death-obsession and angst seemed all-too-real. Mann recalls answering machine death threats from truly deranged people because of some hidden electro-cosmic frequency only they could hear in the music.
Maybe there WAS something hidden in the music – Mann had long ago understood the alchemy of sound. He and Catholic played at backwards-masking of sound, subliminal modulations, beat frequencies and entrainment (if you listen carefully to “Happy” you can hear the message “Satan is your buddy” playing backwards on the track). SRT was into PSYCHO-acoustics – they were able to manipulate sound in ways not possible with the ol’ bass, drums, guitar.
As the 1980’s morphed into the 90’s, SRT went through two further permutations. They collaborated with R&B/Jazz vocalist ‘cilla and took on a new identity – the Shangriz – and a new, slicker pop sensibility. It was as if they were growing up, changing, and shedding once and for all the gloom and doom of disaffected youth. They took on a funkier vibe, as Mann, Catholic, and ‘cilla sought out funked up electronic grooves of postmodern pastiche. This version was immediately well received, alienating the goth crowd, but finding new listeners among fans of progressive soul and R&B. Mann decided the best way to achieve a good groove was to appropriate one directly from the source – and the Shangriz era of SRT was filled with direct quotation and beat collage.
SRT’s last waltz was at AS220 in Providence, an evening of just Catholic and Mann, presenting a stripped-down music of familiar songs recast in a minimalist electronic folk settings orchestrated as string quintets. By then SRT had sampled so many textures and technological settings that this new minimalist identity of a single multi-timbral synth and sequencer, acoustic guitar, and voice seemed closer to the essence of electronic chamber folk/pop than they had ever achieved.
By the time the collective had imploded, SRT had excavated emerging trends in pop music for the next twenty years. They left boxes and boxes of music still unpacked. These songs are just a small sampling.