Public Humiliation and Flagellation Is Far More Interesting: An Interview with Dominick Fernow of Prurient

We talked to the artist about his return to New York, looking back when we should be looking forward, and the moment when things started to get a little too good.

Jun 12 2015, 2:19pm

Photo Courtesy of Nikki Sneakers

Noise is important. Or it isn’t, it can be taken of an absolute refusal of such designations, and that’s what makes it useful. Or maybe, if you’re inclined towards abstractions like “total freedom,” it’s absolutely useless and that’s why it’s important. Noise (by “noise” I mean the genre of music, or “music”-see, it gets confusing/annoying fast) is a blank slate. It takes you to the river but you can drink, spit, or be baptized; up to you depending on your predilections. Fans claim they can tell it all apart and who am I to tell them they can’t. It is most fun when taken very seriously while admitting how absurd it is. This can be taken as an admittance of nuance or as self-delusional poserdom. Isn’t it neat to be complicated? Or isn’t it neat to be willfully primitive? Krrrrrzzzzzzzzkkkkkkkkzkzkkzkzkzkzkzkzk

Dominick Fernow makes “good” Noise, though Fernow himself seems to struggle with the notions of art being of any quality besides “this exists” and “this does not exist.” He used to take pains to qualify that what he did was not music, even as the songs themselves become more melodic and thematically rich. In his newest album under the Prurient moniker, acoustic guitars and keyboards are weaved in and out of the coarse distortion and anguished screaming. It’s a work that comes with the following suggestion in its liner notes: LISTEN AT NIGHT WHILE SNOW FALLS SILENTLY UNDER STREET LIGHTS.

My interview with Fernow, taking course over a number of phone and in person chats, was, like his new double album Frozen Niagara Falls, really fucking long. But like the record, it didn’t feel long (you may disagree but that’s why God gave you listicles and grindcore). Fernow is alternately angry, self-contemptuous, funny, and given to long digressions (often, because of his craft and who he is, sparked by even the sound of a word) touching on the nature of art, the artist’s responsibility to others, and why repetition is wonderful-often in the course of answering one question. Again like his record, I hope you’ll find the following as worthwhile and illuminating as I did.

You just did the Red Bull Academy Nothing Changes show (where Fernow performed his 2006 album Pleasure Ground in it’s entirety) – I knew you were a little nervous about it beforehand.
Yeah, it initially felt pointless. It was a day after the release of Frozen Niagara Falls and I had this ‘Why the hell am I doing a record that’s ten years old?’ crisis. It made sense at some point while I was doing it and afterwards more so afterwards. It connected getting away from nostalgia idea I’d explore in Frozen Niagara Falls. Having to face your own history and actually doing that in public was pretty intense, but in a good way.

You had Merzbow playing at the same time as Ron Morelli all to completely engaged, packed rooms – I think it was really important moment for the city, and as an individual, I had this special feeling that the audience was going to interact with the music on the terms that it was created rather than projecting on to it.

Because you’re dealing in a medium that’s so open to interpretation, you know, just noise music. Or Noise. Period.
Or just, crappy music?

Well you know, it’s interesting, after the show I was talking to a friend and he was saying how much he loved the set because of how brutal it was. But for me I was just thinking that it was really lovely and losing myself in the show.
Yeah, I felt there was an openness in terms of the way the audience was putting their own experience to it. It didn’t feel negative. In a way it was their record. It wasn’t my record anymore.

So you found once you were doing it, it was easy to stay engaged?
Yeah, I felt oddly relaxed, which was very strange because I’ve always associated performance with tension. My friend, Matt Simmons, who I started the label with always said performance is about tension - if you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but in that moment I felt oddly at peace. People were willing to see it as a performance rather than analyzing in a musical way.

We talk about nostalgia a lot – obviously LA didn’t work out. Does Hospital still have a place in New York City? There’s so much about it in the new record, and you talk about New York…
Tough question. I think there is. I sometimes miss the store. I don’t miss the way the store was defined as a record “store”. We were doing the flea market the other day and this guy was like, “Why did you call it a hospital?” The better question would have been why isn’t it called “records” rather than “Productions”? That was the main signifier to me – we did change the name at some point.

The idea was that it was supposed to represent something else, something multimedia driven. I do miss having an open door and I miss having the space. That’s the keyword is space. I didn’t realize it until I left and came back – the very thing that makes New York so terrible: the congestion, the dysfunction, the claustrophobia and suffocation and the lack of space mixed with the mathematical equation of how many people are crammed into it - it’s almost by default something is going to happen. Whereas somewhere like LA is so much more cavernous and sprawling. Living in LA didn’t work out - there’s plenty of space but there was a lack of forced interaction. That’s what makes it work – you need space and claustrophobia.

When I look back on the artists on the label or the many collaborators and close friends, most of them are people I was introduced to or met at the store.

How do you deal with bringing loved ones into the psychic maelstrom of what you do? You’re not writing ditties about how you like holding hands.
It’s an act of necessity. I feel this is the responsibility of art. Even though it does come from a place of personal reflection, for it to have some sort of meaning you have to let yourself be vulnerable. It’s the only way people can enter into it.

The work is not cathartic. Catharsis implies letting go – getting rid of something. It’s transformative. It’s taking something and changing it, but it’s not letting go. I’m just not the kind of person that can let go. There’s going to be some phone calls I have to answer to on a personal level whether I talk about them in interviews or not.

James Elroy has this great quote of (something like) “Fuck closure – I think about my dead mother every day and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Yeah. I mean, if letting go is connected to survival maybe this obsession with possession is some kind of internal process to reject the ultimate separation, which is death. Maybe it’s an immature way of dealing with our consciousness.

The art that you do and the art I love – to people that don’t appreciate it, it’s easy to call it self-indulgent because it’s noise. But then you see a room full of people and it’s clearly not purely self indulgent because they showed up.
It’s also another way to tell a story. If you’re too direct with people you’re entering a world of self-indulgence. If you put yourself in a situation that is defined by somebody else, it automatically becomes inclusive rather that exclusive. Maybe that’s why even though I hate playing shows and I hate touring, I still do it. Because by definition it is inclusive.

I don’t like that thing that happens to people when they’re making a record. They stop listening or stop participating. It’s really important to stay active and hungry – and keep buying music. It’s like sitting down at a family dinner. There are some people there you don’t want to see, but they say family is an opportunity for you to be around people you wouldn’t have a relationship with otherwise. I think about the personalities in my own family and maybe there is a strange dysfunctional family archetype at any rock n roll show.

Hell, at that Red Bull show there were definitely some motherfuckers I didn’t like.
It’s a crazy thing. The more you take yourself out of automatic, and see things as they are; they just become stranger and more alien.

I think that’s the safest bet going. I read an interview with the rapper Billy Woods. He talks about his greatest fear isn’t that he’s going to have writer’s block or just start putting out garbage, it’s just that he’s going to lose the magic and just start putting out stuff that’s “pretty good”.
I was having a conversation with someone else who was asking me how I felt about the positive reception of this record and I was like, “I don’t know. Isn’t that the end?” I should just throw myself down Niagara Falls if that’s the case. That’s the worst thing that could happen.

How do you mean?
It’s like Rothko shooting himself after his retrospective. It makes perfect sense. I’m not saying that this record is that…. Noise is just about hating and being hated – I start to feel really uncomfortable when there’s any kind of consensus. Maybe that’s the contrarian in me.

It’s healthy to distrust the consensus.
I think what people don’t realize is that we are our own worst critics. Kris Lapke and I are merciless. We welcome the criticism. It’s nothing we haven’t thought of already. I’ve never been surprised by anything negative that people would have to say. The entire impetus here is trying to deal with the fact that you hate yourself. How could you not be your own worst critic in that way? That’s the part I don’t get.

You’re never Best New Music in front of the mirror at 4AM.
Public humiliation and flagellation is far more interesting.

Photo Courtesy of Becka Diamond.

Well, of course, I’m not expecting you to give a shit about good reviews. It’s weird because I know you think a lot about consumer society but you make this vinyl product –
That’s a good word for it: it’s a product. I was just having a discussion about the word prolific. In reference to drawing and painting, that’s not a bad thing. If you look at someone like Bacon, nobody’s like, fuck that guy he’s too prolific. When you think about a musician, I’ve come to realize it’s the product element of that that makes it so egregious. The product and the implication again that there is an audience; it does effect what you do. The fact that the label, Profound Lore, was like “just fucking do the thing.” I did have a nervous conversation with him, like, “you know that record? Well you’re getting three of them.” I was expecting him to pull the plug, and he was like, “keep going.”

I’ve been confronted with the whole, “Did you plan to make this big long record?” It’s like – no! The plan was not to make this self-congratulatory overblown unlistenable record.

I had no plan. I needed to keep throwing fuel on the fire until the smoke cleared out of the room and you got to the flames.

The point is I didn’t see it as this big statement and in reality the only reason it was like that is that we were completely and totally lost.

But you chose not to cut it down.
That’s true, I fought for it. The more improvisational, hand-played elements– if you start snipping away at that, It just starts to sound like jamming. Because it’s so repetitive it needed space and time to be absorbed. The details are what give it strength. Without that repetitive structure you can’t get into the inconsistencies or idiosyncrasies that give it character, even though by definition repetition is the lack of character.

In retrospect, the need for longer duration was a reaction to a geographical implications. It came from a feeling of a need for space after coming back to the city and feeling completely smothered and destroyed by the weather and confinement.

The initial plan was to record in a gigantic barn in rural Pennsylvania on an estate. That didn’t work out. If we had gone to Pennsylvania, it obviously would have been a different record, and I guarantee it wouldn’t have been a two – three LP.

The lack of resources and being forced into something, that was the product of necessity rather than intention, and that was totally alien to me as a person who has always gone into things with a thesis and having to prove that thesis.

(Fernow and I circle back to previous conversation expounding on the artist’s responsibility to speak truth even if it hurts loved ones around them.)
Yeah, like there are going to be some moments. You know? But as an artist, it’s like, “What the fuck are we doing here?” Do I not have the right to talk about the experiences on other side of drug addiction? Do I not have the right to respond to the world that I’ve been given?

There’s a fine line between that and being exploitive. I never I never want to be like that. But also, I can’t deny that those are the things that interest me.

Yes, of course, that’s the tough thing…
Yes, there’s balance. That’s why I think drama and fantasy are so important.

There's a lot of times where you hear about things where it's like, "Man, I wonder what the ex’s point of view is?" But then if you're always concerned about privacy…
Yeah, and it's weird because it's not cool to talk about certain things, but it's like, fuck, it's real. It's not extreme. It’s common. The commonality of it is what makes it brutal in a sense.

I have to find a balance between making it have some kind of authenticity and integrity on a personal level and then, you know, paying rent. For lack of a better word, it is a career - it’s my day to day. It’s like, fuck, I’m so burned out. I’m so fucked up and tired and frustrated…

Are you saying emotionally or artistically?
I hate the whole thing. Just completely burned out. I hate touring. I’m not on the Internet for a reason. I don’t need to be. I know what it says. I just don’t want to participate in that.

I am exhausted, and people don’t want to fucking hear it. They just want to hear about analog synthesizers.

I’m an old fucking soul, you know. I don’t like things the way they are going.

Yeah, music just isn’t as important to people.
Because of social media.

Well, because of social media, but there are just other things that are interesting to people…
The way people form identity through experience – through involvement in some kind of literal media, whether it’s music, or online games or movies - we do fucking need that. That’s why it bothers me when people say they don’t care about art. It’s like, “Fuck you, art is everywhere.”

There is some violence in these lyrics. And of course they are not to be taken literally, your mother’s a poet, there are poetic aspect to it.
There’s also a side of it that like, that’s the only way to talk about real violence is through poetry. Because otherwise you’re just an asshole.

Yeah, like a bully.
And I hate bullies. To deny this aspect – it’s a really complex issue. How do you expose yourself without being an egomaniac? It’s really hard and the only answer for me is that – I wrestle with this all the time because I’m like, “Fuck it this is what I care about. This is what I’m drawn to.”

Sure. There has to be a certain level of ego – you’re a performer. It goes back to what we said about whether this is music or just a musical medium for what you’re saying.
The point where I would step away from the idea that all art is ego driven is in the fact that I art is what defines our humanness that speaks to our situation of our mortality and the only way we can deal with that is through art is because it expresses the futility of that awareness.

I think religion provided an outlet, maybe not an answer, but an outlet for our need within our psyche to face our reality and deal with this abstract construct.

You know, yeah, there’s ego behind art but at the same time it’s so fucking universal - the desire to create something is universal. Yes, it’s ego driven, but there’s also the desire to connect and share it. As uncool as that may be, at the end of the day, that’s real.

Yeah, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive by any stretch.
No matter how big of an ego you have or don’t have, or how much self-loathing is inside of your ego, it’s essentially defined by other people and we need to face that. I think this condemnation of anything that involves any kind of a necessity of another person is so fucking unhealthy and so divorced from our psyche.

It’s hard because you’re seeing things from the context of the scenes you’ve been in, and because I’m in this world of writing about music I see this entire world of just purely diary writers and they do well for themselves. There’s this embrace of raw feelings and strumming. I think it just goes back to whether you’re good at things or not. It’s impossible to qualify charisma. Again, why is Prurient one of the most popular noise bands when again, when you play Prurient and some garbage noise band to my mom, she won’t know the difference.

No, she knows. But that’s absurd; it’s like saying, “What city bus line is the most popular?”

Photo Courtesy of Becka Diamond.

It’s frustrating because people claim they don’t care about art, or they talk about as a separate thing. It’s the same with politics - these are just the integral parts of your every day existence. Politics is the road getting built. Art is the graffiti, the building that’s being built, and the radio well, maybe the radio. Yeah, and some people think of it as this secondary thing to be ignored.
Yeah, and that really bothers me. I feel like that’s why people beat up on religion. I think what’s valuable about religion in a modern, contemporary society for young people who are living in a secular society is that in some ways it still deals with mythology. Mythology is essentially the language of symbols and symbols by default are abstractions of something other than themselves. I think if science really wants to take a foothold within the psyche, it needs to start incorporating the language of mythology. Every time we’re reading we are participating in symbols. Reading in itself, like, letterforms have no fucking value. It’s all about abstract thinking, and abstract thinking is problem solving.

You had talked about in other interviews that you didn’t like that in very contemporary society everything was taken literally.

And there was no room for characters in song…

… And if you talked about violence, then you were a violent person.

No! You’re successful. It’s not absurd! Maybe it’s absurd that you’re successful….

… but it’s not absurd.
You know it’s funny, when I was running the store, when we first opened there was this Village Voice article that talked about that we had a CD package in human shit. That we actually had multiple copies of it. They really latched on to that, even though in terms of the noise scene it was actually pretty standard.

I used to have a telephone and this guy was like, “Hey, I was just wondering if you had any human shit for sale?” Before I could even respond the guy just cracked up and said, “Sorry man, I just couldn’t help it!” and hung up. Now in a way that sums up the absurdity of even attempting to have a store in the first place. It’s so arrogant in the sense of thinking someone’s going to care, and that there’s a need for this and that there’s a demand or need for this service. At the same time, I think there is.

Well, yeah, clearly there is!
I mean, there is this kind of hypocrisy and paradox and double standard built in. That’s essentially why any of us are bothering to take the time.

It’s meaningful to people whether you think it’s absurd or not. You play at the Wick, you charge $18 dollars to get in, and they weren’t off at the bar chit-chatting. There was a room full of people watching you…
Making a fool of myself.

Yes, making an utter fool of yourself. It’s one of those things that drives me crazy when people talk about “poseurs” in terms of noise, or punk, or black metal – it’s like, “Dude, nobody that doesn’t want to fucking be there is going to stand there and watch it.” Maybe they’ll be at the bar but nobody is going to a Prurient show who doesn’t want to be there and actually watch it.
Yeah, there’s a limit.

Photo Courtesy of Nikki Sneakers.

That leads to the next question of why you’re up there or even why you’re making the music. Live, it’s a visceral, intuitive thing – is it okay to step outside of it, and think of it in terms of, “I need to be doing this right now, or I need to make this sound right now, or I need to move around a bit” or are you constantly just in the moment?
Well… usually I’m just trying not to puke. Literally. I’m just too old for this shit. It’s more and more demanding every year. I look at Converge and I’m just blown away that dudes like that can survive twenty-one years of screaming.

What I had to face with this record is the more I tried to force it to be something the more difficult it became. This was the opposite of everything I’ve done in the past because being forced to do it – the process of being forced to complete this record in itself became the meaning. Whereas I always went in with an agenda in the past – this was, “what the fuck am I doing?” the whole time.

What do you mean forced to do it? Who was forcing you?
Well when Hydra Head shut its doors, Profound Lore opened up a discussion of what was going to happen next. We actually talked for a very long time before anything was agreed on.

Because you were unsure you wanted to do a Prurient album?
Yeah, I thought maybe it was done. Then I thought, ‘What’s the fucking point?’ To be frank, things were going a little too well.

Things are or were going too well?
Well in the sense it was the opposite of a break up album – in a way that forced something else out of me. I was always relying on my life to fall apart in order to have a reason to make a record. That’s the only time when it feels like there’s any purpose.

I wonder if that’s a very little boy thing. I feel the same way but what kind of adolescents are we that we need some kind of trauma as the impetus to create. Zohra can write great stuff from just deep love or something like that and I’m like, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to express contentment!”
Yeah, it’s like, “No, I really don’t want to give up my aisle seat.”

… I really need this son of a bitch and I’m sorry.

This record dealt with commitment rather than destruction and coming back to New York City. I was faced with, “what the hell is home?” It is just familiarity, it has nothing to do with comfort or security. It’s getting over nostalgia. It’s accepting that this is who you are and you can’t deny your past and you have to deal with it. It’s about having to live with the mess you created.

Nostalgia is emotional revisionism. It’s all lost space – the whole, “remember this, remember that?” The opposite of nostalgia is acceptance.