If you're being made to feel like an outsider, you're going to be able to make good outsider music. Queer ideology and queer theory goes hand in hand with noise for me.
Feedback, photocopiers, and Leonard Cohen. My midwinter chat with Dean Lloyd Robinson (the main man behind Knifedoutofexistence and the experimental noise label – Outsider Art) is finally seeing the light of day. Fortunately, Dean is no stranger to time’s tricks. The ticking hand of father time has appeared as a motif recurrently throughout his musical career. He has distorted it, manipulated it and fought it. Let’s rewind the tape back to December 2022 when this conversation took place.
“Knifedoutofexistence is very circular. It reflects on things, bringing them back from the past and into the present. And when you look back, things feel different to how they did at the time. That’s also why I use the Ouroboros symbol because so much of life is an endless cycle and the distortion is how the memories change and how the feeling has changed, dependent on what’s happened since then. That’s why I like using loops so much. Everything feeds into everything. This is very much now but everything that’s making it already exists.”
For those unfamiliar with Dean’s work, for the past decade he’s been dishing out emotionally valiant records of experimental harsh noise with guttural vocals swept up in a mire of cranked feedback. And when he’s not crafting brutally affecting sounds, he’s championing the output of like-minded individuals via his primarily cassette-based label. Belying his claims that he gets “more nervous walking around a busy town than playing shows”, Dean’s a warm and easy conversationalist and, despite the deadly serious sonic landscape that he stomps around in, prone to a good chuckle.
Considering that musical territory, it might surprise people to know that he’s a big Tears for Fears fan. “The Hurting is one of my absolute all time favourite records. Some people might be like ‘oh, you make horrible noise music and that’s an 80s pop record.’ But then I’m like ‘no, it’s a melancholic album of synth music’. To me that’s very much the other end of the same scale that I’m on. It’s melancholic music made with synths, which is essentially a lot of what I do as well.”
Whilst that maybe true, it’s also a reductive description of his music. “Sonically, I love the sound of buried vocals. Take a nice synth line or some kind of rumbling texture and then hearing vocals underneath it? I love that in noise, experimental pieces, whatever you want to call this thing.” Knifedoutofexistence records tend to be constructed from howling sheets of distortion, tape loops, scraped metal, and warped field recordings. The latter of which helps to explain Dean’s geographical positioning – “there’s something very emotionally resonant about the sea, and the ocean, isn’t there? If you’ve grown up by it, there’s something that links it to childhood and nostalgia. With the sea being a big emotionally resonant object that seems infinite. I think most people would find it hard not to be emotionally affected or feel some kind of connection to that. I can move up and down the South Coast, but I need to stay near the sea otherwise there’ll be the travel expense of recording field recordings.”
Dean cuts a striking figure, clad in black with long flowing hair and a fearsome moustache. His t-shirt features the multi-legged monochrome logo for the White Centipede Noise label & podcast and he sips a dark coffee that could not possibly have lasted the two and a half hour duration of our chat. He spent his formative years in Poole, a town along the south coast approximately 120 miles due south of Birmingham, where he read biographies of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana which led him to Black Flag, Minor Threat, and then into power violence and noise. “It’s hard now to imagine a band that has worked with the Melvins and listens to Void, being as big a mainstream band as they were. I think that’s why they serve as such a good gateway for so many people because it is genuinely from that world. When you read Kurt’s top albums lists, it’s a jumping off point that puts you legitimately into the underground.”
And it’s not just the scribblings of grunge gods that inspire him – he’s been heavily influenced by Leonard Cohen’s written output too: “I was aware of Leonard Cohen because he’s a huge pop culture figure but then I came across a copy of Beautiful Losers and read it and was like “whoah.” It’s a very very intense book about a guy who loses his lover and then has a homoerotic relationship with his best friend and there’s an obsession with a Native American saint. It’s an intense experimental novel that’s got all these layers and, certainly at that point, was definitely one of the wildest books I’d read. So I was like, OK, if that’s what his book’s like, I really need to give more time to his records. So I started listening to him and I was definitely in the right mental place to start listening to lots of Leonard Cohen which if anybody knows Cohen knows exactly what mental state that is. Being in a bad place mentally is obviously horrible, but there’s definitely something to be said about the way that you connect with art when you’re feeling like that. If there is any blessing out of it, which most of the time there isn’t, sometimes the way that you feel and connect with art definitely intensifies that feeling.”
He adds, with tongue planted firmly in his cheek, “I wish the kids got into music by reading books. Back when I was your age, I was reading about my music.”
From reading books and releasing albums on tape – “I think noise stuff on tape makes so much sense because tape is so often an instrument in noise as well. It’s nice to have the finished product on something that is involved in the creation.” – it’s clear that Dean has a preference for tangible media. “Everything I do is analogue. Everything is cut and paste and the only time it’s digitised is when I scan the finished thing to put it on Bandcamp. I like the idea that, if my laptop broke, I’d still be able to do a run of tapes because I’ve got my duplicators, I’ve got my Xerox machine and everything is being made by hand. It’s as much a visual choice as a way that works better for me and I have more control of it.”
If you’ve ever picked up a release from Dean’s label you’ll notice that there is an overarching aesthetic. Not a uniformity as much as form meeting raw function in a way that succinctly prepares the listener for the sonic content.
“Part of the reason I love photocopying so much is that a Xerox machine is the visual equivalent of a distortion pedal. Running something through a photocopier has the same visual effect as running a field recording through a death metal pedal. It’s music that’s been distorted and warped, so the artwork should represent that.”
He owns his own Xerox machine now but, previously, he used “one that was on its last legs by Hove train station. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who ever used it because I left an original on the screen once and didn’t realise until 3 days later and when I went back it was still there.”
He nods at this as a method of earning your stripes, paying your dues. “I remember when I did that first Fleshlicker tape – Exquisite Things – there were all these really normal people sending emails to their family in the library and I’ve covered these white tables in pictures of infected eyeballs. And people are just like “what are you doing?” But, you know, you’ve gotta gotta do your time. I think it’s a rite of passage to be putting your weird thing out in public”
And, whilst admitting that “in noise, the lesser known people can sell 30 tapes and the big dogs are the people who can sell 100 tapes”, Dean has still amassed a sizeable and committed following. This was best exemplified at his recent 10 year anniversary all day event in Bristol, featuring performances from Cremation Lily, Fleshlicker, Slow Murder, Svartvit, and a coup in the shape of Plague Mother’s first show outside of North America. Bringing together friends, contemporaries, and fans for a night (and day) of cathartic noise, seems to be Dean’s bread and butter. You can tell that this is a subject particularly close to his heart as he excitedly rubs his hands together whilst speaking.
“Touring is, no exaggeration, my favourite thing to do in the world. You have such a sense of purpose because you wake up each day and it’s like – right. We’re driving to Manchester today and then when we get there we’re seeing X,Y, and Z – and you do something you love. You’ve got a sense of purpose. You get feedback on something you do and care about and you see people you don’t get to see normally. It just ticks the boxes for things that I find satisfying to do in life.”
But it’s not all fun and games – even this cathartic release brings its worries. “Before I played the three shows I did in America, I was super nervous and had anxiety dreams building up to it for a week. I had one dream where I was trying to play tape loops and do microphone feedback over it but the PA had broken so I was just having to play through this guy’s tiny hi-fi in his house and it didn’t go loud enough for mic feedback. In my world, that’s a horrible nightmare to be in.”
Fortunately, those concerns didn’t play out as feared. Instead the States trip proved to be very successful and resulted in an unexpected photo opportunity with ex-Wolf Eyes man and all round experimental music royalty, Aaron Dilloway. “Dilloway was super lovely. He was convinced that I looked exactly like Robert Turman, who works at Handsome with him, as a teenager and made me pose for a picture because he thought it was past and present colliding. It’s funny that Aaron Dilloway has a picture of me on his phone because he thinks I’m like a young Robert.”
It would have been remiss of me not to mention the elephant in a lot of rooms where noise is being played. That is the overwhelming tendency for the scene to be populated by straight white men. Dean had a lot of important and interesting things to say on this subject so I’ve included his full response here to avoid any chance of misrepresentation:
“Diversity is super important, especially as this is music that is for outsiders. If you’re somebody who is experiencing prejudice on the basis of your sexuality or your gender identity or race or whatever, that is probably going to mean that you can make something in this area that holds a lot of value. Because your life experiences are going to inform that. If you’re being made to feel like an outsider, you’re going to be able to make good outsider music. Queer ideology and queer theory goes hand in hand with noise for me. The idea of people existing outside of gender goes hand in hand with the idea of existing outside of musical theory. So if you’re existing outside of how society thinks you should be as a person, it makes sense that you would make music that exists outside of how music should be made. I don’t want to speak for trans women but there seems to be a really huge presence of trans women in noise right now which, whilst I don’t know anybody’s motivations for their projects, always made sense for me. That’s something that if you’ve got views or you fall outside of society’s expectations then making music and art that falls outside of those expectations would line up with that. I think noise is inherently queer as fuck. The two go hand in hand. You could easily say that noise is punk as fuck. It’s queer as fuck. It’s a manifestation of that outsider mentality. And in terms of representation I want to make sure that I work with all people. I’ve worked with queer people. I’ve worked with women. I’ve worked with people of colour, but I always try to make sure that I only bring attention to that fact when it’s something that the artist wants. On all the Slow Murder tapes, it says “Queer Noise Forever”, but there’s so many people where it’s so transparent that they’re shouting loud to divert attention for themselves. Like, for the Plagues tape, I wasn’t going to be like “Black Noise” because Brandon is a black man. That is never mentioned in his work. I think about this so much because I never wanna be that person who is tokenising my black friends or queer friends or whatever. I don’t want their identity to be something that’s just being used to make me look good. Making noise like Slow Murder does, and they’re like this is fucking Queer Noise then, you know, scream that from the houses if that’s what you’re about. I didn’t only put the Polexia tape out cause it’s going to make me look good to work with women. It’s great and it’s really interesting how that project’s evolved. They’re lovely people and in terms of different people having a different outlook and their own stamp so that their identity shines through, that tape is very much made by two women from Liverpool and that comes through as their personalities show through so much of that tape. That’s why it’s so valuable to have different people doing stuff that has their own stamp on it because it delivers results like that. Long story short, I want to push people from different backgrounds because their views are so important and you can make stuff of such value out of those experiences. You’ve got to think, when you have mixed, diverse bills, are you putting that person on the bill because they’re making great art and they’ve got a great insight and you want to expose that. Or are you putting them on the bill so your show looks good? Because that’s insulting as fuck to be like “I don’t give a shit about your art, it’s just because of the colour of your skin that you can play the show.” The idea of putting somebody on a show purely based on them being queer and not any relation to their art well, you’re just looking at them as an identity and ignoring them as a person. If you’re against homophobia and racism, isn’t that because you’re viewing these people as people, not because of their identity? Obviously I want Outsider Art to work with people from all different backgrounds and there are probably more straight male artists in the back catalogue, but it’s not exclusively that and, as you can tell, it’s a point of interest for me as well. Coming from punk, equality is always a big topic and I’ve seen a lot of people do it in what I would say is the wrong way. There’s a lot of cases where you see people get called out that were the ones who were shouting the loudest. So they were just using this as a tool so as not to be under suspicion. If I’m representing somebody I want to make sure it’s on their terms and it’s beneficial for them, their art and their identity. I don’t ever want to be using somebody else’s identity to make myself look good. Issues like that are social issues and they’re much beyond me so if people look at Outsider Art and say “there’s lots of straight males” then that’s a valid criticism but I’d rather people thought that than trying to crowbar people of a particular identity into what I do in order to make myself look good. It would have more of an impact on the people of those identities because you’d be directly exploiting somebody and their art. I’d rather it looks like I didn’t care but was actually being more sensitive to the people in real life than from the outside it looking like I was doing wrong.”
He also spoke about his experiences with the straight edge community. “When I was younger I certainly called myself straight edge. I wouldn’t now but I’m very consciously sober. I think straight edge culture can be really good as a movement and to offer young people getting into punk a different ideal. But when you’re like “I’m better than you, addict” that’s not cool because very few people become a drug addict out of choice. It’s usually something born out of trauma or mental illness. So, when Knifed and a lot of the artists I work with are inherently linked to an exploration of mental health, if you’re using as a tool to help cope with that? Then maybe that’s fair enough. If you’re trying to make yourself look superior to somebody who’s suffering an illness born out of trauma, that stuff doesn’t sit well with me. Offering an alternative to booze culture, though – especially when there’s so much social pressure to be part of it – that’s really cool.”
So, what’s next for Dean, Knifedoutofexistence and Outsider Art? There’s a compilation in the works to celebrate the 100th Outsider Art release and, having dropped 3 Knifed records in as many months (including the excellent Nothing Moves You But The Tides), there’s no sign that he’ll be hanging up his tape loops anytime soon. “I still feel the need to do it. I’m still in a place where I feel the need for this catharsis. Things haven’t gotten better and in the past year or so I’ve had some very big personal things happen and they’re going to need to be worked out for a couple of years. So there’s enough coming from me personally to keep doing it, and the world is sort of, you know, grim. It’s always a shame that there’s subject matter to write another record about but, you know, at least there is an outlet. Also, I feel that, even if there wasn’t any new personal events, it is about my mind and the way I relate to the world and I guess I’m always going to inhabit this brain. Knifed has been so valuable and such a big part of my life, the past ten years, and only increasing. It’s not drifting into the background, it’s only become more prominent.”
Photo credit: Emma Falconer