Fischkopf Sinfoniker at the 21st Olympia Experimental Music Festival

by J. Daugherty

Twenty-one years is a long time in music, especially local and underground music. Bands appear and disappear, venues open and close, entire genres are born and die. The experimental music scene in the Pacific Northwest is chaotic and mercurial, but there are a few constants amid the bedlam. The Olympia Experimental Music Festival is one of them. Founded in 1995 by Jim McAdams (AKA Ricardo Wang), original member of the Dead Air Fresheners and host of What’s This Called? on KPSU, OEMF has long been a beacon for musical oddballs and noisemaking weirdos. It has hosted internationally known artists including Mark Hosler (of Negativland fame), The Evolution Control Committee, and Steve Fisk, among many others. In short, for someone like me it’s a big damn deal. This year’s lineup didn’t fail to impress; noise, drone, free jazz, industrial, and experimental rock were all well represented here. Olympia, like Portland to the south, is known for its innovative DIY music scene and I was looking forward to getting a chance to observe it and participate in. I had been interested in taking a crack at OEMF for a few years at this point when Jim and Fred finally offered me the opportunity, so I was very grateful to them and eager to take them up on it.

Not wanting to disappoint the audience or the other more seasoned performers at OEMF, I’d been working on my set for weeks but somehow the festival still managed to sneak up on me. I didn’t fully realize that it was really happening until I got up Friday morning and saw the date (June 26th) on my clock. My work day was filled with anticipation. I clocked out of work at precisely 6 p.m. (not a minute later) and ran to meet my girlfriend/roadie/collaborator/tech and get right the hell out of town. Alas, traffic on I-5 was not friendly to us. We reached Olympia too late to catch any of the Friday night acts, so after we got dinner and took stock of the nightlife, we checked into the hotel and called it a night. Most of Saturday was spent getting our bearings, patronizing some local businesses,  and sitting in the hotel preparing for my set on Sunday.

That evening, we made our way to Le Voyeur to see what was going on with Day Two of the festival. Long Division opened the night’s performance, featuring Fred Kellogg (this year’s festival organizer and host of Free Jazz with Fred on KAOS) and his co-conspirators from Eugene, Oregon. Their set was reminiscent of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and a little Eric Clapton thrown in for good measure. Mr. Kellogg and friends quickly demonstrated why their particular brand of free jazz holds such sway in the experimental scene of this region.

Next up was Ffej, a 20-year veteran of Seattle’s experimental music scene. His set encompassed multiple genres of underground electronic music, moving fluidly between them. He was a AC-powered sorcerer, working his spells upon the transfixed crowd. After Ffej’s incantations faded from the stage, New Art Trio brought a more old-school sound to the fore. Their performance drew influence from John Cage, Thelonious Monk, Art Ensemble, and more. They were followed up by two more Seattle acts, The WA Trio, and Bad Luck.

On Sunday morning we were unceremoniously ousted from our Tumwater hotel room by the piercing cry of a fire alarm. Luckily for us, it was sounded not in response to an actual fire but to the actions of a mischievous child who pulled the alarm against his parents’ instructions. Though the alarm was false, it set the stage for the excitement to come during the festival’s finale. We showed up early to Le Voyeur to load in and speak with the festival organizers. Jim told us a bit about the history of OEMF and Fred gave us the lowdown on the free jazz scene in the Pacific Northwest. From our conversation, we also learned that Sunday’s show was to be perhaps the most diverse of the three. Everything from experimental dance music to noise rock and outsider classical-influenced piano was featured here. I was set to open the evening’s festivities, followed by Big Tom the Lithuanian (an OEMF veteran), Clifford Kimbrel-Dunn, Knot Pine Box, Dave Luxton, and The Hand of Reason.  After getting everything set up and some general milling around, the lights went down and Fred came up on the stage to give me a brief intro. When he was finished, I positioned both of my hands on the control panel of my Moog synthesizer, took a deep breath, and let loose.

When the lights came up and the applause died down I thanked the audience and the OEMF organizers and got my rig packed, and after staying for a bit more of the show, we headed home. As we left Olympia, I felt that the experience was everything I expected it to be. I had the honor of meeting some great musicians and great audience members, seeing some fantastic sets, and learning more about the wide variety of weird music Cascadia has to offer. Performing on the same stage graced by experimental music legends of years past was an immensely humbling and powerful experience and I hope more Bellingham acts can share in the festival’s impressive legacy in years to come.

For more details about Fischkopf Sinfoniker, see www.fischkopfsinfoniker.com.

Published in the August 2015 issue of What’s Up!