Erik Hoffman

hoffman “There’s a lot of great music out there that people don’t know about and should know about”

You may know Erik Hoffman as one half of Spastic Colon, whose latest album should be out soon, perhaps by the time you read this. You may know Erik Hoffman as the founder of Ground Fault Recordings, which has put out consistently high quality music covering a wide range of styles. You may have used the distinctive cover art of the Ground Fault albums to make your trollings for good music almost completely risk free. You may also enjoy gourmet coffee and tables being unexpectedly turned.

If any or all of these are true, here’s an interview you may want to read, an interview that took place at Polly’s Coffee in Long Beach, an excellent place, by the way, to satisfy your cravings for a perfect brew.

Hoffman: So I noticed the magazine is focused more on 20th century classical and avant garde, I guess, not so much the noise, the true noise noise.

Asymmetry: I’m not sure that focused is quite…. Maybe to start with, but it’s early days yet. I want to cover everything from Satie to the present, with a few exceptions. We’ll never do Bax, I’m sure. Or Howard Hanson or Grofé. There would be no point in it.

Hoffman: What is your background?

Asymmetry: My background is… Well, hmmm… Maybe we should turn this recorder off!

Hoffman: Yeah, who’s interviewing who?

Asymmetry: Well, Erik, my background…

Hoffman: I’m just kind of curious if you’re more on the …

Asymmetry: Well, I started out, as a little kid, listening to Haydn and Rachmaninoff, stuff like that, and it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college, I was in Germany and ran across a recording of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. And that just changed everything.

Hoffman: Yeah.

Asymmetry: I’d listened to a lot of twentieth century music, but it hadn’t really clicked. I listened to everything, some stuff I liked, some I didn’t. But for some reason, with the Bartók, I realized that there’s this thing called twentieth century music.

Hoffman: Bartók’s good stuff.

Asymmetry: A couple of months after that, I saw Stravinsky’s Les Noces in Sweden. After intermission, I walked into the auditorium and there’s this battery of percussion instruments and all these pianos, and then the singers come out and the dancers.

Hoffman: It’s like “What the hell?”

Asymmetry: Exactly. And then just a couple months after that, I was back in California and checked out some Elliott Carter from the library. So I went pretty fast after the Bartók.

Hoffman: So you went through the classical world from that angle?

Asymmetry: Yeah. And then I met Cage and we met up several times over the next couple of years, so that was good fun. And then living in Redlands, of course, which was where Barney Childs taught. So a lot of his colleagues from there are also friends of mine. The noise stuff came later, through one of those colleagues, Dave Tohir. That’s where I first heard Merzbow. And the first Merzbow album…

Hoffman: That’s the end.

Asymmetry: Yeah, you’re hooked. It was kind of like the Bartók was for the 20th century stuff. We saw Merzbow in L.A. at All Tomorrow’s Parties. It was so great; he just walks out on stage, sits down, opens his laptop….

Hoffman: I saw him in his pre-laptop days in a small club in L.A. He had his botuh dancer, Bara, with him. Fantastic. It was quite an eye-opening event.

Asymmetry: So what about you?

Hoffman: The background? Well, I came from the classical world, as well. Performing and majoring in music. I kept looking for something stranger and stranger. I played an Alban Berg clarinet piece; I don’t remember which one. It’s really complex and unlike anything I’d ever heard. You know, they teach you the same old crap, Mozart and whatever. So when you’re exposed to something like that for the first time, you’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it. I absolutely loved it. And, you know, then I’m always searching for other stuff, like finding weird clarinet pieces that have tape accompaniment, things like that. And then, of course, I figured out what the music industry was really all about, realized it was a bunch of horseshit and… quit school. It didn’t matter how good you were, it mattered who you knew. The politics of it just really turned me off. I was already three years into it—could have easily finished—but just said, “I’m going to pass.”

So my musical tastes continued to grow, to expand on that theme of finding something a little more extreme. I was a huge fan of punk in the early eighties and then, I don’t know where it happened or how it happened, but some friends and I bought a Throbbing Gristle cassette, Nothing Short of A Total War, I think it was. We had no idea what it was, and we didn’t know what to make of it at first, but after repeated listenings we thought “Wow, this is really out there.” So we just started researching a little more and listening for other stuff.

I think Masonna was the first real noise artist that we ran into, and from then on I was totally hooked. Another major influence was the Butthole Surfers. I was hugely into the Butthole Surfers in the eighties. The live events were especially mind-blowing. So from there it just kept going—and there’s so much of this noise music—just absorbing all we can. So I never sank entirely into 20th century classical. Once I got to the noise stuff… That’s so overwhelming. There’s so much of it.

Asymmetry: That’s something I faced when starting this magazine; that I don’t know very much. I feel sometimes as if I don’t know anything, there’s so much. And I really feel like I have to do everything. I should probably do Howard Hanson, too.

Hoffman: You swore not to.

Asymmetry: I swore not to; that’s right!

Hoffman: And you know what? I was aware that there was so much of it when I started Ground Fault. That’s why I did the whole series I, II, III thing. To give a super simple, basic category.

Asymmetry: The first review I read of Ground Fault, of the label, just slammed that idea. I thought it was a perfectly sensible idea, though.

Hoffman: People criticize it, and I knew I was going get criticism for it, and it is probably, now that I look at it, at the entire Ground Fault project, that was probably the biggest mistake I made. I found, maybe halfway through, I’m trying to think of which one, it started with the Crawl Unit CD. Is it series one or series two? I don’t know. And if you look at it, the disc itself is marked series one, the case, the art work, is marked series two. That was an error, but looking back at it, I’m perfectly fine with that. Several others could be the same. Some could be all three. So, that was probably the thing I regret most.

Asymmetry: Well, I found it worked really well.

Hoffman: I’m glad that you did. Because the idea behind it was really meant to give people who don’t know these artists a rough idea of where each one falls on the spectrum. And I don’t know if the artists I’m working with now are doing it to fuck with me intentionally, but it’s like they’re saying, “You try to classify me as one, two, or three; just try it, I’m going to throw everything at you.” And that’s fine if they want to do that; it’s all good fun.

Asymmetry: How did you get started? In the business, that is.

Hoffman: Well, being that my circle of friends were all music people, I guess we had it in us to make our own, which I guess is a natural progression for a lot of people. I see it all the time, people who have been customers of mine for a long time, then they have a record label and start releasing their own material. The tables turn and all of a sudden they’re trying to sell stuff to me. That’s the progression I took. Eventually we started recording our own material, and I started my first label in ’96.

Asymmetry: Was that PAL; was that the first one?

Hoffman: Yeah, Pinch A Loaf. Then I stopped it in ’99 and Ground Fault came along.

Asymmetry: I recently read an interview with you, one you did via email in 2005 with moron of industrial that covers a lot of material about those two labels, and I thought, “Oh, God damn it, that’s all the stuff I was going to ask him.”

Hoffman: Oops!

Asymmetry: Yeah. But we’ll be fine.

Hoffman: Different audience…

Asymmetry: I don’t think he ever used the word clarinet in the whole interview.

Hoffman: No, I never go back that far. People want to know how the label started.

Asymmetry: I was planning to start this interview with what the newest project is.

Hoffman: The newest project…. I just completed the newest project, actually, a week or so ago. Lately, I’ve been collaborating with other labels, for releases. For a couple of reasons. Ground Fault, the series, is going to end. It’s officially ended, but there’s one more I haven’t put out yet, which is my own. I’ve been doing collaborative releases with other labels, big projects; it’s what I’m prefering now. The most recent one was with Hospital Productions; we put out the latest Sutcliffe Jugend CD. Sutcliffe Jugend has been around since ’82 or something and hasn’t released anything in eight years. So I’ve been in discussion with Kevin Tomkins via email for a little bit. And last year we met at No Fun Fest, where they played, and ran the idea by him of a project that I wanted to work on. We’d already been discussing a new album, so the face-to-face meeting kind of solidified the deal. We put out a vinyl, a double lp version of the record and a cd version. The double lp was limited, and with presales, it was available for one day, and it was gone.

Asymmetry: Well, you know, if it’s something like that, and they haven’t done anything for eight years, what else?

Hoffman: Plus they had a huge cult following, a lot of people… It’s amazing, when I put out a release like that, because all of a sudden, all these people who have never ever been customers of mine are coming out of the woodwork and ordering this thing. I thought I had a big customer base, and all of a sudden there’s all these other people. So it’s good. And the CD is selling steadily. And there’s another Sutcliffe project I’m working on, a big, big project. A box set type of thing. That’s the latest thing. The Spastic Colon CD, the music is done, just waiting on art work.

Asymmetry: And this will be the first, the first full-length…

Hoffman: Yes, the first full-length CD of only us. So that’s coming eventually. There’s another book. I collaborate with Errant Bodies, that’s Brandon LaBelle’s label. He does a book series with a CD. I handle the CD part of it; Brandon does all the book editing.

Asymmetry: I know you get a lot of submissions for things. Do you have time to listen to those?

Hoffman: I get submissions daily. There’s no way I can listen to everything. It’s impossible. Even just the amount of stuff I get in in trade and samples of stuff that people want me to sell.

Asymmetry: Probably just the stuff that you already know about and that you want is…

Hoffman: …is too much. I feel bad about these people that take this time to draft up this big letter and go to all the trouble to send stuff to me. I just can’t get to it all. And, you know, sometimes you have to just do it yourself.

Asymmetry: That’s true. And a lot of people do. Jim Fox and Cold Blue. Jerôme Noetinger.

Hoffman: Jerôme’s got a massive distribution over there. Metamkine is fantastic. I don’t think he performs much. I don’t know how much time he has for performing.

Asymmetry: I saw him in Bourges last year. He and Lionel Marchetti were down the street [from the IMEB venues] at Emmetrop doing an evening.

Hoffman: They both came out here, and they were two of the most talented people. Absolute tremendous control those guys have with all that stuff on the table. Amazing.

Asymmetry: My oldest son said once after we’d been to a concert that he’d not yet seen any improv that really grabbed him. I said well, you haven’t seen Jerôme and Lionel. Just wait.

Hoffman: I was really, really impressed. I’ve worked them with both, via mail and email. I put out Lionel’s CD, Portrait d’un Glacier.

Asymmetry: There are a lot of French artists on Ground Fault.

Hoffman: There are and they really know how to do that whole musique concrète thing, electroacoustic, whatever you want to call it. They are very good at that.

Asymmetry: Well, they did start it. Not that that necessarily means anything. But they also never lost it. And going from straight concrete stuff to live improv, they’re just very good at all of that stuff. Like the Japanese, who dominate the noise scene.

Hoffman: Well, they do. But I’ll tell you, the Americans are really kickin’ ass in the harsh noise world. They’re doing some fantastic stuff. There are currently a lot of really great American acts. The root of it is Japanese, definitely. Hijokaidan, Incapacitants, Masonna, Merzbow.

Asymmetry: Yeah. And who cares where it comes from anyway. It’s just good stuff.

Hoffman: You going to go to No Fun this year?

Asymmetry: Yes. I’m planning to.

Hoffman: Well, I’ll tell you this is going to be the Japanese year. Incapacitants is playing. Merzbow is playing. It’s going to be huge. I haven’t seen Incapacitants, myself, but everyone I know who’s seen them says they’re the number one live noise act, ever. They’ve been doing it for so long, now, and they are the best….

Asymmetry: Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Ground Fault is this incredible range. It seems to be all about the experimental noise stuff, but you look at individual CDs, and they’re all wildly different from each other.

Hoffman: That’s a problem with the terms. Experimental can be applied to so many different kinds of music. The label reflects my personal tastes, as it should. And my tastes vary widely, from super minimal to extreme noise, that’s why it’s such a broad range.

Asymmetry: The first Ground Fault I found, in the Hollywood Amoeba, was Guionnet’s Axene, and I was immediately back in the store, looking for those pictures. I would troll through the bins and as soon as I found a Ground Fault, pop it into my basket.

Hoffman: That was the idea. Make an instantly recognizable CD at a really affordable price. And while the idea to have a similar design was my idea, the actual look that we came out with was Randy Yau’s. Randy does all the art work for the releases. I went back and forth with him in the early days on how to do it. I threw out my ideas, and I totally suck at graphic arts, so he’s like, nah, how about this? He’s a fantastic performing artist, too. Goes by the name R.H.Y. Yau. There’s a Ground Fault CD of his, too.

Asymmetry: Well I was hooked, immediately.

Hoffman: Do you have them all?

Asymmetry: I don’t have them all yet. I have about twenty. I might have more. [It was twenty-seven. Ed.] Ground Fault started up around 2000 or ‘99?

Hoffman: ’99. October of ’99.

Asymmetry: So you probably had about ten or fifteen albums out when I discovered the label.

Hoffman: In 2001, maybe?

Asymmetry: Yeah. Probably around then.

Hoffman: I think by the first two years, I was fifteen/eighteen titles into it.

Asymmetry: Because I had about fifteen almost immediately. But it looks like I have to fill out the collection pretty soon, because I notice that some are already sold out.

Hoffman: A lot of the earlier titles are disappearing. A few of them are sold out; a few of them are really, really low. Some of the newer ones have gone really fast, a couple of titles that really sold quickly, like the Nels Cline/Devin Sarno one, was a pretty fast seller, and that’s a relatively new one. It’s just because Nels has a big following. And that was another one I put out, and all of a sudden all of these people came out of the woodwork, new customers. The Prurient CD sold really well. Dominick’s really hot in the scene right now.

I want to focus on the big projects now. The first one was the California boxed set with Troniks and RRR. That was a biggy. Ten LPs…massive! That and the next Sutcliffe thing coming up and there are other things in mind. I just want to do something a little more spectacular than single CDs in the same package. I’ve got the desire to do the old packaging, again, even though it’s going kill me. Even running the label now has gotten to be too much. I do so much CD manufacturing for other labels, that’s a big part of what I’m doing nowadays, that running the label, too, is too much. The manufacturing alone is taking up all my time.

Asymmetry: Well, there was great sorrow in my circle.

Hoffman: Sorry!

Asymmetry: But you know, like you said, it’s a series….

Hoffman: It was meant to be a series, so you have to end it. The Spastic Colon one will be the last Ground Fault.

Asymmetry: Will there be more Spastic Colon?

Hoffman: The other guy in Spastic Colon is even busier than me. So it’s really impossible for us to get together and record. A lot of the stuff we’ve released is either live, good live recordings, or there’s been like two or three times we have actually gotten together and put all our equipment in a room and run the recorder and recorded for two days. That’s where most of it comes from, so…. It’s just so hard for us to get together and do that.

Asymmetry: My hope is that Asymmetry will grow enough, that enough people will read it, so that sales of all this stuff will spike.

Hoffman: I wouldn’t complain!

Asymmetry: It’s not a goal of mine to promote record labels; it is a goal of mine to promote the music.

Hoffman: Nothing wrong with that goal. There’s a lot of great music out there that people don’t know about and should know about; I think they’d really enjoy it. This was also a goal of mine when I started Ground Fault. There were so many artists I was dealing with that just were not really known, but I really liked their work, so I wanted to take a chance on them and do it in a way that wasn’t going to break my back. I guess it worked, because a lot of those artists are now doing really well. I’m not going to say it’s because of me. They had the talent, and it was just a matter of time before they were able to do something with it. But someone’s got to take a chance on them—release a CD—and then people are going say “Well, they must have something going on. Someone put up the money to release it.” At least they take notice, and then it goes on from there.

Asymmetry: Well, I certainly hope things go on from here for all of your projects—and all of mine, too, for that matter.

Hoffman: That sounds good to me.

Asymmetry: And thank you very much for taking the time from those projects to spend time on this one of mine.

Hoffman: No problem. It was my pleasure.

Note: The photo of Erik is from this interview, and the wall is the wall of Polly’s Café

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