Tom Lax on Clyma Est Mort

From Volcanic Tongue. Intro by David Keenan.

Asked to put a behind-the-scenes name to any of the key underground labels of the past couple of decades most record buyers are unlikely to get any further than Mr Tom Lax. That’s cause Lax doesn’t just run a label. Through the particular bent of his curatorial vision he’s been responsible for the articulation and the development of an ethos that predates and prefigures the New Weird America and that continues to influence the way underground music is recorded and presented. During Siltbreeze’s first golden age he signed almost everyone that mattered, The Dead C, Harry Pussy, V-3/Jim Shepard/Vertical Slit, The Shadow Ring, The A Band, Charalambides, Un, Tower Recordings... a label run that’s as historically potent and uniformly dazzling as anything you might wanna name – ESP Disk, BYG/Actuel, PSF, Xpressway – and in its reactivated incarnation Siltbreeze has once more become the focus for contemporary experiments in rock form. Lax is also a wise-ass par excellence, a critic with the kinda personality last seen in the Bangs/Meltzer/Tosches circle but with a breadth of reference that would’ve shamed all three. And even when he’s sticking a toe up your own ass, it’s hard to feel anything but a weird sense of pride. I hear he’s also a great cook, and one day I hope to sit at that table. We’re more than psyched to re-launch our contributor columns with Tom’s obsessive dissection of one of the most puzzling and endlessly allusive records ever to make it to the Siltbreeze catalogue, The Dead C’s classic Clyma Est Mort.

Cowbell Need Not Apply: The story behind the making of the Dead C’s Clyma Est Mort

For 18 years the debate as to whether or not Clyma Est Mort is a ‘real’ ‘live’ album has simmered among erstwhile Dead C hagiographers. I have maintained consistently that it is (since I was there) but that's due more to provocation than adherence to fact. True, it's not a conventional live LP, but LIVE they did play and thus the results of the REAL event were recorded. “But Mr. Narrator,” you must be saying to yourself at this juncture, “surely it can't be as simple as that?” And you would be correct, little sodbuster, so let's shed light on the back story of this thing and break down how it all transpired. The footnotes of history whimper for closure.

My first trip to New Zealand spanned six weeks. It was all very exciting, I couldn't wait to meet the people with whom I'd been corresponding for the past four years and (of course) to see all the great bands that made up the excellent Xpressway roster. Bruce Russell made a trip to the US in the summer of 1991 to press the flesh w/the assorted hegemonists chosen to license an array of X/way titles; during his all-too-brief stay in Phila, he insisted I make my way to his country (and home) as soon as possible. Done and done, sir. I arrived at Christchurch airport Sunday March 29, 1992, where I was greeted by Robbie Yeats and Michael Morley. It was a very warm welcome and they immediately felt like old friends. With me was the 50-count box of Harsh 70's Reality double-LPs I managed to lug halfway around the world (their delivery to me in Phila the day before I left was a most pleasant surprise). So everyone was riding high, and best of all, a Renderers concert was that night at a local pub. Things were getting off to a fabulous start.

Days later we made the trip to Port Chalmers, where I put faces to the names I had heard and read so much about. Outstanding, this was truly going to be the trip of a lifetime. I envisioned a Dead C concert (perhaps a record release party) or better yet, a showcase of Xpressway artists -- Dead C, Terminals, Plagal Grind, Sferic Experiment -- all playing for ME. Captain America was in town and he was putting them on the map. I figured any and all would be only too happy to perform, a small token for all the enthusiasm, hard work and money I'd surrendered.

But I figured wrong. The days turned into weeks and not a goddamn thing happened -- musically. Sure, I was still having a ball, but what the hell? What about something at Alastair Galbraith's space? Or the legendary Chippendale House? Nope. Nada. It wasn't gonna happen. Was I disappointed? Fuck, yes! But the way everyone there felt, organizing something at such a late date (by now, near the end of April) was impossible, and besides, what's the sense of playing live when only one person was interested (Xpressway love at the local level being something of an oxymoron)? I believe out of sheer guilt, Dead C agreed to hold a practice for me at Grey Street (a large ramshackle house and residence where a front room functioned as a rehearsal space) and sometime between that decision and the actual event a plan was hatched to reinvent said rehearsal into a live concert. As I recall, the gist of Clyma came from The Fall's Totale's Turns LP (I mean, just look at the front and back of the jacket). But it morphed into more than that. "Wouldn't it be great," went my posit to the band, "to make a live LP and satirize Totale's Turns in the process?" Record the upcoming Grey Street sessions, work through  songs, overdub as needed, add some clapping (I've got some large hands, but let's be serious, there are only two of 'em), make edits, clean the thing up at Fish Street Studio so I could take it home (return to which was swiftly approaching) and release it to a befuddled public. There was also the matter of cover art: same design as Totale's, with different title and ‘tour’ ‘dates’, the back reinvented from Dead C's perspective (South Island vs. North Island) by their ardent supporter, T Totale XXVIIII (I've always loved how idiotic the mucking of the Roman numeral nine looked).

Needless to say, this was all very much up everyone's alley. A Dead C practice wasn't something anyone was clamoring to do or hear (besides yours truly). If they were gonna have to make a racket, it might as well be for something more than some simpering American who felt he'd been short shrifted. I'd love to say the idea to record and release this LP was hatched to pay for my trip, but that notion was never in the mix. Harsh 70's was barely out and the rest of the band's catalog to date was still fairly available. Who was gonna care?  I'd press up 300, glue on the covers and hope they sold. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Dead C  The Dead C
photos: Michael Morley, Robbie Yeats, Bruce Russell

The session took place over the course of a weekend. Basic tracks were laid down on early Saturday afternoon. The band was going at it full stop. I gotta tell ya, if that was a fake live performance, you could've fooled me. Hearing "Sky," "Power," and "World" in the flesh made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The rest of the tracks were improvised. It was awesome, but at some point it was determined we had ‘enough.’ After a short refreshment break, overdubbing took place. On Sunday the band went about editing and sequencing.  Then there was the small matter of applause: where to lift it from? Where to graft it onto our album? Some punter appreciation was snagged off a live Renderers cassette, chosen perhaps because Maryrose mentions Bruce by name, the details now too foggy. We all laughed hysterically once it had been spliced in. At some point Sunday night, it was ‘done’. Now it had to be transferred from the Tascam tape to quarter-inch reels at Stephen Kilroy's Fish Street Studio in Dunedin. But first let's play it back and have a listen. Starts out ominously enough. No denying it's a Dead C record. It's builds, gets more intense. Hey, this is pretty fucking good! Cut to Maryrose's introduction, hilarious! "Electric" is so witchy, then "Power" kicks in, followed by the "hardcore" numbers. Wow. This is better than good, it's great! "World" just blows me away. In a way we were all impressed by how stunning it came out. They had nailed it. The crude cut to audience nonsense. We laugh. So cornball, but isn't that the point? "Das Fluten" comes lurching in, the aimless, psychedelic, Sun Ra vibe absolutely perfect for a closer. We all look at each other. You know something? This isn't great, it's AMAZING!  Something that was hatched as a self-effacing piss-take had inexplicably transformed itself into a bloody fantastic LP. We couldn't get to Fish Street fast enough.

After dinner on Monday we all piled into Bruce's car and drove the 10 miles up to Dunedin. Stephen was waiting for us and together we six (counting the bottle of McCallums whiskey) convened around the studio, where everything got threaded and spooled. The tapes began to roll. The atmosphere was giddy and jocular. This was some heavy shit. Pretty damn impressive. Is it me, or did this get better overnight? I'll always remember it as a thoroughly fun and satisfying experience. A ‘live’ Dead C LP. Ridiculous! Was there anything funnier in the world? I guess you had to be there.

Bruce Russell Robbie Yeats
photos: Bruce Russell, Robbie Yeats

Around 11pm the chicanery was finalized. The tapes were boxed, labeled and packed, ready for liftoff the following morning. A drive back to Port Chalmers, what about a nightcap? A ‘wrap party’, if you will? Bruce demurred (work in the morning) but Robbie, Michael and I headed off to Chicks Bar. I believe it's a sort of hip venue nowadays, but then it was a den for surly locals and wayward sailors. I got the distinct impression these guys (Morley, anyway) weren't tight with the publican. After a couple of nervous pints, we retired into the night. A round of congrats followed by heartfelt farewells ensued and before long I was in Auckland, then L.A. then home in Phila.

After a day of re-acclimating myself (culture shock) another mind bender presented itself: Harsh 70's was practically out of print. Even the last of the Helen/Bury LPs had become spoken for. What the fuck? Great news, for sure. With a couple of well-timed checks rolling in, I was able to get Clyma off to Hub Serval (a now-defunct record pressing plant where the majority of early Siltbreeze released were manufactured) post haste. By mid-June it was ready. I spent a morning on my sidewalk, spray-mounting the front and back covers, wearing a charcoal-filtered breathing mask (so as not to inhale fumes and airborne glue). Fun? Oh, yes, the likes of which you cannot imagine. Eight weeks prior, the original pressing (on Proletariat Idiot) of 350 copies seemed like a reasonable number. Now? Well, let's see.

The thing sold out in a day. Customers were downright ANGRY that they couldn't get copies. "You have FUCKED me," one letter read. And while it sucked to be him, I wasn't so keen to don mask and glue up a bunch more record jackets. After a quick (expensive) call down to PC, it was decided to hell with the bootleg design, let's just do it as a legit Siltbreeze release (SB-16), 1000 of which were made. This time the buying and selling was not so fanatical. It went out of print, eventually; by about 1996, it wasn't so easy to come by. By 1998 the band and I had parted company. Any plans to reissue it -- regardless of format -- were nixed. At the turn of the century, a WIRE scribe listed it as one of the top whatever crucial releases not available on compact disc. The sway remained nil. Over the past few years copies have changed hands for respectable sums. As recently as 2009 a visitor asked if I had any copies to sell. I did have one Siltbreeze edition, still sealed, that he was welcome to. Sixty dollars. I felt weird asking so much, while to him it was a bargain rate. No hard feelings, anyway.

Michael Morley, Kim Pieters, Peter Stapleton
photo: Grey Street porch, April, 1992; Michael Morley, Kim Pieters, Peter Stapleton

Since the origin of Clyma Est Mort was basically that of a lark, the ensuing artwork, titles, runoff grooves etc. were (more or less) a series of inside jokes, some of which I'm not certain even the band members really understood. It's no The Name Of The Rose and unraveling and dissecting the whatsis won't take long. Here goes:
 As stated before, the overall design was lifted from The Fall's Totale's Turns live LP. We just localized it to suit the desired aesthetic.

"THE DEAD C" was letter pressed by Michael Morley and myself during the course of the sequencing. Michael then hand wrote the rest of the text.

Clyma Est Mort is a pun on Gong's Gong Est Mort. Clyma was a cat that had belonged to MM and had recently died.

Harrington, Greystoke, Curriemeade, Koputai are various hamlets and locales on the Otago Peninsula. They are most assuredly NOT on anyone's touring circuit.

"Te Wai Pounamu" is Maori for "South Island" where Port Chalmers is.

The Careys Bay Young Drinkers Club, where Mr. T. Totale XXVIIII is an honorary member, is not a drinking club per se, but a quaint, local pub in the village of Carey's Bay, a mere five minute drive from Port Chalmers. It was the main watering hole while I was visiting; it was civilized and had a dartboard (I was an avid dartist at the time). I won't bore you w/the darting abilities of the Dead C and their cohorts, but I will tell you I never found winning to be an intrusion. For all the fun that we'd had there, it seemed fitting it should be mythologized in the liners.

Now for the titles. I can't remember exactly where "Sunshine" came from. Most likely it was a series of lyrics in MM's songbook or, for all I know, they could have come about spontaneously. I could never imagine connecting lines about "Heavy Metal Guitar Shows", "Tom Hanks & His Dog" and body shaving into a single narrative, but then I never claimed to be an artist.

"Sunshine" staggers into "Dirt For Harry," intended to take the piss out of one of the Grey Street residents who'd come home one day talking about this new Sun City Girls LP she'd heard called Dirt For Harry. Whuuut? "You Mean Dawn Of The Devi?" someone asked her. "Oh," she said. "Is that what it's called?" Keeper!

"Sky" is one of the band's greatest rockers and is found on Harsh 70's Reality.

"Electric," with more Michael's recited lyrics and all-improvised music, I think is a gnarly motherfucker.

"Power" can be found on Trapdoor Fucking Exit, still cassette-only at the time, of which maybe about 100 copies existed. Back then, the crickets were louder than the fans.

"Highway" is the one Dead C track that most aptly exemplifies the description of the Dead C's sound as "a garbage truck backing over the abyss."

"Ein Kampf, Ein Seig" is like a goddamn blitzkrieg -- again. Literally translated, the title means "One Struggle, One Victory" but I like to think of it as "Propaganda's just another word for nothing left to lose."

"World" is, to date and forever, my favorite Dead C track. Another version later surfaced on the Shock CD World, Peace, Hope et al. but to my ears, it doesn't get any better than on here. The whole trip and effort in making this blasted thing was worth it just for this song alone.

"Das Fluten, Das Fluten (Oh Mama I Can't Go)" has flutes on it, so there you go. This was a Bruce Russell knee-slapper. It has something to do with Captain Beefheart shouting "The Blimp, the blimp!" and then muttering “Oh mama, I can't go." Pull your copy of Trout Mask Replica, spin the track and you'll hear what I mean.  Blimp was changed to Flute, then Fluten, then Das Fluten, as the German language title ‘theme’ was now so quixotically amusing. Get it? Or are those tears streaming down your cheeks belying another interpretation?

The run off grooves on Side One read "Beautiful Single Pulse Hell." Has to be MM; what it means, I can no longer recall. But I still dig the sentiment. Side Two reads "Clay Carroll -- The Hawk / Where's Porky Now?" Clay Carroll was a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team in the '70s. His nickname was The Hawk. At work here is a bit of faux Cockney banter. Remember, it's a Fall theme; Clay Carroll came out of Kay Carroll, who was the Fall's manager for many years. I know, fascinating. The Clay Carroll thing was all me. Those guys had no idea what the fuck I was on about. But at that point, it was all a big hoot. Let it ride.

“Where's Porky Now?” is a reference to Porky Prime, the legendary lacquer cutter / audio engineer who used to inscribe in the runoff grooves he worked on "Another Porky Prime Cut." It's a tribute to Porky, Rough Trade, The Fall, Pere Ubu, all of those who sailed before who had made a band like Dead C possible and a piker like me to believe in them.

The Dead C The Dead C
photos: Clyma Est Mort master tapes

I have yet to answer the question of the legitimacy of Clyma Est Mort as a live album. Upon its release, it fooled no one. And I doubt it's going to fool anyone now in its (technically) third life. But who cares? It's a cool record, a document of the band at a crossroad. Embedded here are germs that later turned up on the Vs Sebadoh seven-inch EP, Whitehouse and Tusk.

One other thing to lay on you before I sign off: had these guys played an ACTUAL live show, this record never would have existed. Weird, but true. A presumed lack of motivation (we'll never know for sure) on their part (to please me) led to the production of an elaborate practical joke which in turn became a highly ferocious and much sought-after album. Ya can't make this shit up! But it never hurts to try.
Tom Lax
Philadelphia, Pa 2010

all photos by Tom Lax