Touch labelhead Mike Harding discusses cultural cross-currents and happenings across the sea with Ken Montgomery. Paralleling the life of Touch for 30 years, Montgomery's work and performance has used sound as the primary source material. Montgomery finds novel ways to work with sound and the experience of listening.
Both will perform this September as part of Touch.30 Live in NYC.
Mike Harding: As you know, we're coming to see you in September for some events at ISSUE Project Room, which I'm looking forward to immensely.
Ken Montgomery: And, Phill Niblock's...
MH: Yes we’ll come to that later. Ken is holding up a Touch.30 sticker, because, of course, Touch is 30 years old now. You know, we've been going for about 30 years – our first release was in December 1982. About the same time in New York, you were starting some activities. So we were starting to kind of run parallel.
KM: Very much so. 1980, 1981 I released my first cassette.
MH: OK, well you beat us to it, because we were 1982. Tell us a bit about that time in New York. Because it was a very different city than it is now.
KM: Yes, absolutely.
MH: Can you describe that, briefly?
KM: I mean, I think it wasn’t just New York City, but the world. I came to New York in 1978, and between that period in 1978 and 1980-81 there was a tremendous amount of activity in creative music, happening not only locally but we were also buying 7”s coming in from your town. For me, it was the convergence of experimental, classical music and noise, you know, Throbbing Gristle, Industrial music, mixed with this punk attitude of like Do-It-Yourself and rebelliousness. New York was still coming out of a rough period, so it was really battered up. It was still dangerous. There were still people who didn't want to come there because they were afraid – it definitely had its rough parts. The East Village, where I lived, was an old immigrant neighborhood that people didn't really want to live in. When I moved there in '78, it was affordable, it was rundown and it was cheap, so it attracted a lot of people who were looking to be in New York and not wanting to spend a lot of money.
MH: Almost at an exact parallel time, I moved to London and found a very vibrant mixed scene, where it seemed to me that all the tribes came together, meshed and merged. And out of it was this very, very creative time. Of course, you had a good system to support it – record stores and distribution were all in place, so a lot of labels started up around this time. A lot of bands started up, influenced heavily by, as you say, what had gone on just before: Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, that sort of thing. London was pre-gentrification in a lot of areas. Notting Hill was a very mixed bag, and you had a big West Indian community, a lot of reggae influences crossing over into the London working class areas around there. So, very mixed, unlike today, which is a bit more ghettoized and tribalized.
KM: Right. Now, it’s more of a Wall Street culture in New York. Then, there certainly was a – well, the East Village was a Polish neighborhood. But there was an influx of musicians and artists, little galleries picking up. So there would be people making sound and bands playing in galleries. There was a lot of overlap between the different venues and types of art. Same with film – you could go to see films by early filmmakers, Lydia Lunch and them. There was just tons of stuff happening every night without the need to spend much money. You could take a metro or just walk and go to one of these clubs where there’d be three bands playing, you know, Max’s Kansas City or CBGB’s, later the Mud Club or all that. But there were just so many places where you could go see and hear art and music. You didn’t really have to try very hard, it was just all around. Also you had little record stores which were selling interesting music. And you actually met people at the record stores; it was a place where you met just by going through the records and looking at them. Cassettes were becoming something you would find on the counter, a small section of cassettes.
MH: And also the people who ran the record stores actively aided…
KM: Were interested in the music.
MH: …Introduced you to other people and showed you and played you other things.
MH: So there was generally a sort of helpful, supportive…
KM: You could talk to them about what was going on.
MH: Let’s not over-romanticize this period. There were a lot of problems. We had a lot of racial problems, certainly. There was, you know, we were on the back end of a recession. A lot less money around for sure.
KM: You didn’t take taxis, you always had to keep track of when you left the house, you just kept a few dollars in your pocket. You didn’t show your camera if you had a camera. You were very wary of being robbed. There are lots of stories about that kind of thing. It was a little dangerous.
MH: Well, also there was a feeling that I think is definitely lacking now, that there was a very strong alternative culture. And you just don’t get that now. When I look around at people who are half my age or less, it seems that they don’t have the sense of a viable alternative to the political-economic-cultural system that we have now. Was it the same, is it the same in New York and America, do you think?
KM: Well, I think people today think that they're part of alternative culture, but it’s a bit of an illusion. You can say, I’m into alternative things ‘cause I like things a little bit different, I watch different YouTube videos than you do. Back then I was young, not as politically aware, but just kind of searching for something new. You know, we ate in Polish restaurants. Right before I moved to New York, I lived in San Francisco, and there was a Chinese restaurant called Mabuhay Gardens where punk bands played. Actually, I saw Z’EV there, and Nico. It was a Chinese restaurant that had bands playing there at night. So it wasn’t like there were necessarily an “alternative culture” place that you could read about in Time Out and go to hear. It was more like just word on the street. You heard, oh, these bands are playing over here, in a fire hall, or this place. Once there was a curiosity and need for people who were really seeking it out, who were tired of what was happening in the regular cultural world and really wanted to find something different. Their antennae were really up and looking for it, whereas now, I’m not sure if there’s such a need for that because people have the feeling that anything they’re interested in is already out there and they can find it very easily. You don’t have to dig that hard.
You know, going into the record store and going into the back, into the section of miscellaneous imports and digging to try to find something that you never heard of before that might be really interesting. You didn’t know what you were looking for is what I’m saying, whereas today, you can’t go, like, I’m just looking for something interesting. You really have to know what you’re looking for, in order to put it into a search engine and find it. I think it’s the same thing with shops and alternative culture. It was a more unknown kind of searching. The desire to find the alternative may have been stronger than it is now.
MH: When you released your first cassette, just a couple years before we actually released something, were you aware that you were plugging into a culture that was offering this alternative?
KM: Well, I had already been buying cassettes through the mail, in the local shop, and listening to music and exchanging with people, back and forth. So for me it was the idea that I was experimenting with sounds and doing stuff and I thought this would be a way to meet more people, to put it in the shops so somebody could hear it. I would always have my address on the cassette, so if somebody liked it they would write to me, and I’d had correspondences with people already by just trading things. This gave me someone definite to trade with, to open an exchange and communication with other people.
MH: That’s interesting – [cassettes were] a social tool as well.
KM: Very much so. I was already into correspondence and staying in touch with people. I wasn't really hearing a lot of what I personally found interesting, so I was adding to that pool by putting out something that I liked and was interested in that was different from everything else out there. I knew the pleasure of going into a shop and trying to find some music that was really fun and new and different, and I wanted to give that to other people, hoping that what I do would be interesting to someone else as well.
MH: Were the inlays handmade? How did you physically get it made?
KM: I did it very officially in the beginning, more officially than I would do now. At the time, I had a reel-to-reel master made and I went to a shop in Times Square that did mass production. I had 50 cassettes made professionally, and then I actually designed the cover and printed it. It was a semi-professional production, which I re-printed a second time and, I believe, a third time. After the first cassette, I made a second cassette as well. When both of those ran out, I started jumping in on my own and xeroxing and making my own hand covers, personalizing it more. In the beginning it was really the idea to make a certain amount of cassettes that I could then bring to the record shop and give ten copies to and have them all be uniform. The first labels I did, I actually put the letters in on one side and out on the other with letter stickers.
MH: Did you have a concept of a label name for the production and releases?
KM: My first cassette didn’t have a label name. It was just self-released, had my name on it and my address. I didn’t even conceive of it as a label; it was a one-off. It was just, this is the music I’d been working on for the last year or two and I wanted to give people a chance to have it. It was just Ken Montgomery.
MH: When did this evolve into an idea of something much more cohesive, something much more? When did you start the live aspect of it, performances?
KM: It was right around the same time. In my recordings I used a PortaStudio, so it was definitely over-tracking and composing for cassette, which was very different from my live performances, which had to be more improvised.
MH: What sort of equipment were you using to create sound or sound pieces?
KM: I recently came across an old cassette where I found practically the first thing that I ever did. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I recorded snippets off the radio- I think I snatched some violin sounds. I had friends say things in different languages, cut them and made loops. It was more like a sound collage.
I was in film school, I don’t know if you knew that. I dropped out of film school because I was obsessed with the soundtracks. I bought a synthesizer, a Korg MS20 synthesizer, and that in the beginning was my main instrument. I bought a book on how to make little noise-generating devices. I actually soldered and made little kits, made little noises on the side from that. But it was mostly this solid-state synthesizer that I spent hours and hours and hours with which I used to perform. Now that I remember, there was also a cheap kiddie keyboard, and eventually a toy drum box. So, I would slowly bring other instruments into the mix of it. But my main thing was the synthesizer.
Ken Montgomery: So that was the early 80s. Now, I'm not sure when Touch came into my mind. Was Touch available at local record stores in New York that early? I don’t think so.
Mike Harding: Well, our first release was December 1982. I remember driving around stores in London, including Virgin, which was a chain, and selling them direct to the stores. Of course, Rough Trade were doing the distribution and they did export to the US. But I wouldn’t know which stores or whether they got there.
KM: Speaking of Rough Trade, I remember being really excited when I got a personal letter back from Rough Trade, and they bought five copies of my cassette. Actually, the guy wrote about the cassette and said he really liked it. He told me which tracks he liked and that he thought it really was interesting and had some potential. I don't remember if I ever wrote back. When I found that letter in my archives, I was like, wow. I certainly didn't follow up and send another cassette or anything like that. My mind was, at that time, I was doing my thing and happy to send out a few cassettes, very excited that he wanted to buy my five copies.
MH: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
KM: I can't remember sending them to him. In fact, I started wondering, did I actually send him one. It might have been like, oh my god, expensive overseas postage, forget it. The local stores here, stores that I sold my cassettes to, they bought them directly from me. They actually paid me cash back then. It was a little bit later when they started doing the consignment thing. But at the beginning they would say, look, give me two copies. If I sold the two, I would just stop by again, because I shopped there and stuff, and they’d say, “oh yeah, give me five more” or something like that. 99 Records was my biggest one- they bought ten copies. That was the biggest amount. I got the impression that these shops got their cassettes the same way, from people who came in and sold them their cassettes. I don’t know if there were distributors that they were getting their cassettes from, because they had really small little sections of cassettes. I mean, it was really just a handful.
MH: I remember getting one letter from a guy somewhere, I can’t remember where but certainly not in a major urban area, complaining. He said, “jeez, Mike, these cassettes just do not sell.”
KM: Uh huh. (laughs)
MH: You know, “what can you do to help me shift this stuff? ‘Cuz I can't sell any of this kind of thing.” What could I do?
KM: What could you do? Put little stickers on them that say ‘buy me?’
MH: Well, exactly. That’s a whole big thing, why people buy things. That’s enough for a whole sermon or an entire conference to get into the psychology of that.
KM: It was an attraction to handmade-looking cassettes for me. As the stores began to close, and as they began to not carry cassettes, the focus became more on correspondence and buying the magazines that would describe a cassette, and then you'd write to them and send them a couple dollars. You know, you were writing mostly to individuals. Sometimes there were small labels that would have five or six different offerings. So that opened up into more possibilities than the local stores. And the cassettes that were in the local stores became ones that were more produced by labels. I guess the Touch ones were a bit more like that.
MH: We were kind of in between. We wanted to do professional printing and professional cassette copying and all of that. But the issue for us was that we invested much more in the printing than we did in the copying. What I did was, I bought copying machines, so we didn’t get the cassettes actually factory-made. We bought them hundreds at a time direct from Maxell, and we got a favorite rate from them. Then I copied them all. So every single early Touch cassette in the 80s, I physically copied.
KM: Like General Strike. That’s one of the earliest cassettes I had.
MH: That was 84, or a bit later? So the money went to the printing. This is something that really has fundamentally changed now. Then, you could go to a printer and they would be very interested in what you were doing.
KM: Oh yeah.
MH: And you would discuss paper types, paper stock, what sorts of finishing, that kind of thing.
KM: If you’re doing 100,000 copies, they’re still interested in all of that.
MH: Exactly. But for an independent organization, you could have a dialogue with a printer which you can’t have now. They’re not interested. They just want to churn out high quality, low quality glossy rubbish.
KM: How many were you printing?
MH: 5000 for the first run.
KM: Wow, that’s a lot. I’m surprised. In the early days, I remember wanting to print things. You’d hear the minimums – if it was 1000, that already seemed like too much, you know. A lot of times it was even higher than that for just a matte. That made people who wanted to Xerox, wanted to make a couple hundred...
MH: We were kind of in between the two, totally professional setup and doing it ourselves. Of course, something else has changed fundamentally, and that’s that we got a bank loan. I went to the bank and said, here's an idea, here's some figures which I'd got out of my head, and they said, sure, have a bank loan. Now, there's this whole thing about the credit crunch and that just wouldn’t happen now, you wouldn't get past the door.
KM: The first record that I made, I actually got a bank loan for a thousand dollars. I thought, OK, I’m going to make five hundred records. I’m going to sell them all for $3 a piece and I’m going to get the money. I was really naïve, of course, because I didn’t realize how hard it would be to sell those 500 records. Back when I started producing records, I had a hard time selecting 500 records of the various things I produced. The first Conrad Schnitzler record I produced sold 250 copies, and that was super successful.
MH: When do you start releasing work of other artists?
KM: I guess it would have been the Conrad Schnitzler LP in '86. Again, it was a personal thing, because it was just of Conrad Schnitzler's music. Then I ended up producing other things, because then I created a label and produced a lot of other people.
MH: We were not seeing ourselves as artists who were promoting our own work. We were initially releasing compilations of other artists. Another big difference is that we could approach these artists directly. We rang up New Order's office and got access to New Order, Simple Minds, these guys by direct contact. Now it would be extremely difficult to do that.
KM: Well, for people who already have a known name in the world, that’s difficult to produce. Now, with Generations Unlimited, I was already very fluent with what was out there. I was buying records, I was a big music fan, going to performances. I was really scouring what was out there. And that was actually my first interest in producing Conrad Schnitzler, when I discovered some bootleg tapes of some of his early records that I could not find. Those tapes were so amazing that I was on a search for more music by Conrad Schnitzler, and it was impossible to find. Then I realized that there was nothing released in the United States by him. My first motivation to write to him, cause his address was on the back of the records, was ‘I love your music, I wish it were available, I wish I could get it,’ you know.
The first album I produced was a compilation record of other artists that I felt were exceptional, but that you didn't know about, you didn't hear about. My focus was on really obscure artists [whose records] were not available. Those people were very easy to approach because nobody was approaching them. They were like, wow, that’s great, you want to release something from me. Whereas, it sounds like your interest was in some of these people who at that time were not super big but were known enough, out there performing enough. There was already some interest and name recognition in those people.
MH: Absolutely, and we could get to them, we could approach them. There wasn’t the wall of publicists, PR people and marketing guys all blocking your way.
KM: For instance, Tuxedomoon. I was a big fan of Tuxedomoon from the early days. I never would have thought to approach them to make a record [now]. At that time, if I had, it would have been possible to have a conversation with, at least the dialogue could have been there. Likewise with a lot of bands and people that I chanced to meet while going to clubs back then, it was not on my mind. I was never thinking about producing or even having a label or producing other people. It really was just my love of music that got me into it. My experiences of running a label were pretty short lived as well. I didn’t continue it, obviously, although I did pass the torch to Al Margolis who continues to run Pogus, which we started together.
MH: Just for information, the General Strike cassette did come out in 1984, if my memory hasn’t completely hacked up yet. So you were on board quite early, aware of what we were doing relatively early.
KM: But it wasn’t until Generator that I really became more aware of the scope of what you were doing. First of all, I think it was not easy to find, in my awareness of seeing it in record shops or whatever during that period. Also, from around ‘83 to ‘84 I began spending a lot of time in Berlin and living off of very little money. During the middle 80s years I was in Berlin a lot of the time. However, I didn’t have the budget to buy music anymore. I mean earlier, not that I had a budget much before, but before I started making music and travelling, at least there was some pocket money for buying records, things like that. During this other period during my younger life when I became more focused on my work and traveling and I was in Europe a lot, my goal was to spend the least amount of money so I could not work at a job. I spent a lot of the time doing that during that period. So I in a way I cut myself off from what might have been out there with Touch.
MH: What years were you in Berlin?
KM: The first time I went was in ’82. In ‘83, ‘84 I started making trips there and staying for a month or two, here and there. Then I think for a year. In between ‘86-’87, I started going often and staying for 2-3 months. At this time I was also traveling in Europe, going to Amsterdam, discovering Staalplaat and being fascinated by that, the Gelbe Musik in Berlin, starting to become aware that there were these places where very interesting alternative music was being collected. In those places you could find all this wonderful sort of music that I was not finding in New York.
MH: Staalplaat were hugely important, weren’t they, in mainland Europe. They were absolutely essential.
KM: They actually got some of that stuff to the states. I got Staalplaat cassettes in the states, enough that I had their address. When I was in Amsterdam I had to look them up, find them. They were just unlabeled cassettes, mass produced and they’d have printed inserts in plastic bags. They also minimized their costs of producing things by dubbing their own cassettes as well.
MH: You mentioned Generator. Let’s go back into your foray into putting on live shows. How did that come about? When are we, in ‘88 New York?
KM: I started performing live right around in the early ‘80s. I started doing abstract electronic soundscape kind of music, just sitting in a corner on a table with all of my equipment. It was called Gen. Ken and Equipment. I had wanted to be in a band, and I tried. I answered ads in the paper and I met people and I went to rehearsals. I even joined a couple bands, but they never lasted for more than a rehearsal or two because I basically was not a musician. Even though I would explain to people, it would come down to them wanting me to repeat what we had done, and I couldn’t repeat it, because I didn’t know the notes to repeat it. They would say, this is an E, and I would say, no, I don’t know notes. I was just kind of making sounds. I liked synthesizer playing in Tuxedomoon and Joy Division. That’s what I wanted, I just wanted to add into a rock band electronic sounds. But the bands that I met here, or the musicians that I met, they just couldn’t believe I didn’t know what an E chord was, or whatever it was. I painted all my keys on my keyboard to show them, this is not a keyboard. These are just triggers that turn on electronic sounds. Punk musicians that I met couldn’t understand that that was not a keyboard. So that’s when I started doing Gen. Ken and Equipment – it just was my band. I couldn’t find musicians to play with, because I wasn’t a musician. Eventually, after just a few performances, I started meeting other artists who understood what I was doing.
The first person that I really started collaborating with was Mike Zodorozny from the band Crash Course in Science. We immediately connected. Crash Course played at a show that I played at, and then we formed a band called KMZ. Suddenly I became into performing. I was still doing electronics but I also started playing screechy violin, and we were very theatrical so I wore makeup, and I started screaming and making noise. It was very much a performance piece kind of band. And that’s what really got me to Berlin – the first time I went was with KMZ.
So that was ‘82, ‘83, and we were regularly in New York for a short period of time. It was a very short-lived thing. It’d be like a year, maybe, or a little more than a year with KMZ. Then when I went to Berlin again I was alone. I started performing more or less like a performance artist, because I started making little sets for myself and wearing costumes. And I used more pre-recorded sounds, because I didn’t have band members to play with. So I would make sounds, and it would just change from show to show. That was my middle 80’s period. I kind of put all that to rest after I met Conrad Schnitzler and started getting really involved in his way of composing and working with sound, and I became really into composing soundscapes that fulfilled my interest in visuals and performance. Suddenly just listening was so powerful. I didn’t feel the need to be present anymore and to perform them. That’s when I started doing concerts, multi-channel concerts in the dark, and stepping out as a performer. But since then I still, as you know, I still perform in different ways with different people and I like theatrics and changing all the time and collaborating with other people and playing with other people. Performance is more a part of my life now. I perform more often than I compose, I would say.
MH: I actually asked you about Generator (laughs).
KM: Yeah, Generator.
MH: How did that start?
KM: Yeah, I ask myself this all the time, it’s so mysterious. After I produced the record by Conrad in ‘85, ’86, which was a financial disaster, I decided to create my own label. I was in conversation with Conrad Schnitzler, we were going to create our label together, and then I met David Prescott who was a DJ in Boston and who was very involved in the network exchange of electronic music at that time. He was really into promoting electronic music. So we ended up, three of us, joining together. David was producing his first LP, and we each said, well, you’re already making an LP, we could just put it out under this label. So we worked together as Generations Unlimited and began producing obscure and fairly unknown composers, although Iancu Dumitrescu from Romania was one of the people that David had contacted, and we produced a couple of records by him. Our first record was called No Borders. it was very much about international collaboration. We had Jörg Thomasius from East Berlin – he had to smuggle tapes out for the record. We were trying to reach out and have it be an international label. We produced cassettes and then records, 5 or 6 records together during that period. I was going back and forth between New York and Berlin. I was trying to sell the records.
New Music Distribution took them on consignment but didn’t sell any. I would go to their warehouse here in New York, where they had taken 50 records on consignment. Months later I went to the warehouse and saw the 50 records sitting there. I thought, how are they ever going to sell if they’re still in the warehouse? Then I sold them at Tower Records, and of course they were way in the back, nowhere where anybody could find them or hear them. I began realizing that this music was not going to sell unless somebody played it, and they weren’t going to play it in Tower Records. They weren’t going to play it anywhere that I’d gotten it into. So, that was one of many things converging to start Generator. I didn’t want to have a record label. I didn’t like the job of trying to sell music that I thought was great and trying to convince people it was great. I was going around New York City going to venues talking about Conrad Schnitzler and nobody was interested. I went to The Kitchen, I went to all these places. Nobody was interested in Conrad Schnitzler then.
So, I really didn’t want to have the record label anymore. But before I got rid of the record label, I thought, if people could hear the music they might be interested in it. I began thinking, if I had a place where people could hear the music... At the same time, Conrad was making these multi-channel concerts in the dark, and was looking for a venue to hear his music and/or to have his music play without him leaving Berlin, so it was a combination of several desires. At the same time, I'd recently gotten married, and I was living in a tiny apartment. I wanted to work on my sounds and my noise at any hour, whenever I wanted. I had a little basement studio where I used to go to and do my stuff. I started to think maybe I could combine all my interests in one space. I was also exchanging so many cassettes with people that my apartment was filled with cassettes and records for all my collecting over the years. I suddenly thought, if I had a storefront and could use it to practice, to play in, to work in, I could also have all my cassettes there, so that people could see them. Then if people were interested in them, I could write to my friend who sent me the cassette and say, hey, send me another copy.
At the same time, I could have a place where I could have an 8-channel speaker system and perform concerts, like Conrad. By that time I was doing multichannel concerts as well. Then I could have the records there, and people could hear the records. I was sure that if people actually heard the records they’d be much more interested in coughing up four dollars and buying them. So there were all these kind of thoughts going on at the same time. I was in Italy for the summer, and I was had all this free time and I was bored and I was aching to do something, because I was just hanging out doing nothing in Italy for the summer. There was no music scene that I could find in Italy at that time, even though I tried. Though there was a record store, Dysfunctionale Musicali I think it was called, that was great. Anyway, when I came to New York, I was suddenly ready to do something. I opened up the paper and I saw a storefront on Avenue B and 3rd Street and I rented it. I didn’t know what it was in the beginning. I wrote a letter to all my friends saying, I got this storefront, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.
I thought about calling it Gentrification, because at that time the East Village was going through gentrification. This was still on a bad block; there were a lot of drugs. It was not a place that people wanted to go. But rents were already going up, people wanted to live there. I was east from that, but it was heading that direction. So, I actually didn’t know what the name was going to be. So, it really was an experiment, and it sort of evolved as I opened it up, unsure totally what it was going to be - eclectic fanzines and magazines about music, I had my records there... Then I started approaching my artist friends and saying, send me a couple extra copies of your record or your cassette.
Then I had a basement. I was in correspondence with Scott Konzelmann of Chop Shop. I said, what about putting together a speaker installation in the basement for people to listen. It started out really just as an open call for what would happen. I spent a lot of time just sitting there by myself, doing my own things with maybe just one person walking in and being confused by what the place was. Then I started inviting people to perform, I said, OK, do you want to come and perform on Saturday night. I’ll perform Con’s music every Wednesday night. And on Friday I thought I’d play radio pieces. I was in correspondence with Willem de Ridder, and he would send me cassettes of his radio programs. I started playing Willem de Ridder Friday nights. And I just kept filling up the space with things to do, to get people to come.
MH: What were you playing back on? Did you get a P.A. system?
KM: It was so jerry-rigged it was unbelievable. I had my home stereo that I brought from home, of course. David Meyers of Arcane Device helped me with this. We built, I think it was car speakers into the walls of the place. I had the cassettes up with Velcro on the back wall in a grid, with a little Walkman and headphones so you could pull them off the wall and listen to them. Even in the toilet room I had two speakers built on either side of the toilet. And I had everything wired to my desk, which was just a conglomeration of different thrown-together thrift store amps, and a record player and 4 cassette players. Then I had a mixer so I could control where it was going to.
Then there was the speaker constructions and the record success and answering mail. Every day going to the post office, picking up the mail. I was constantly writing people, saying hey, I got this place in New York, if you have some cassettes send me a couple copies and tell me how much you want for them. In the beginning, it snowballed into an intense amount of activity. Everybody will remember this that came to Generator – there were two speakers that somebody made for me out of paint cans. So, you know it was really a jerry-rigged sound system, but it was a very small space so it sounded good. Over a couple of months there was also a group of improvising musicians that used to perform under the name of Amica Bunker who would come on one night, Sunday nights. So I started having things happening regularly. People from different scenes started coming. People walking down the street thought I installed car systems or something would come in and talk to me, and I would start playing them music. Of course, the concerts were free; I just wanted people to come. Eventually, I started really getting an audience. People were jamming in and it was getting crowded. At the same time, I was going through Factsheet Five and offshoot magazine, writing to new people as well as people I already knew. Next thing you know I was going to the post office and bringing back ten packages every day, and then keeping up with all of this correspondence. Because when I would sell a cassette for four dollars, I would be like, oh, I owe two dollars to this guy. In the beginning, believe it or not, it was completely one-on-one, all the stuff that I sold. I knew who each was from and I had to write by mail to them – “oh, they love your cassette, send me two more.”
MH: Right. Were you able to cover the rent in this way? How were rents then?
KM: My rent was $600 a month.
MH: So I guess you had to do something else.
KM: The first month I think I made $50. The second month I made like 150. The third month it was a couple hundred. I think it was the fourth or fifth month, maybe it was the sixth month that I actually made $600, I actually made the rent back, which was amazing. That’s when it started to spiral out of control…
End of Gen
Mike Harding: OK, so your last words were "spiraling out of control” (laughs).
Ken Montgomery: You know, I was working around the clock. I was there ‘til midnight. I would spend four hours with one customer to sell them like one record or one cassette, on the quiet days. Then on the busy days when I had performances the place was packed with people. I couldn’t keep track of stuff. People took stuff off the walls. I’m sure I lost things... the room was full of people, they were going to the deli next door and buying beer, they were hanging out there. It became a real social scene. I was never much of a businessman, so I wasn’t really paying attention. I finally started passing a hat to give money to the musicians. Somebody approached me and encouraged me to apply to get money to pay the artists. Believe it, this is incredible to think about it now, but I remember I just wrote an application to like Meet the Composer and suddenly I was paying $200 to the artists for performing there, for a bunch of the concerts. So I didn’t have to charge admission. I wasn’t bringing in any money for myself, all the money was going to the artists. But there were some people who actually got paid like that, nicely. And as people around the world came to know about it, they started contacting me and saying, I’m going to be in New York, can I perform? And I’d be like, yes, of course.
Even people who had gigs somewhere else - San Francisco, you know, when they were traveling through America, they would always pass through New York. If they couldn’t get a gig in New York, which was often the case, they would have gone somewhere else. [After hearing about Generator], they’d be like, oh well, you can do something there. That’s where Merzbow and some of the people who were bigger names came to Generator. But it was a lot of people who were just unknown and people who’d made cassettes and started performing. What was going out of control was that I couldn’t keep up with all the stuff. There was music that was, I would say, selling better than other music, and it would be weeks before I’d get new stock in. So I began looking to distributors. Dutch East – I think it was Dutch East, right?
KM: Somebody put me in touch with Dutch East. It might have even been you. I’m sure I would have written directly to you, because I wrote directly to everybody. I didn’t want to do distributors for a while, so I didn’t. But eventually.... It was very hard to get an appointment to actually go there and look at their stuff. Whoever it was that I spoke with was always busy, and I guess he knew I was just a small label. He asked me how much I wanted to buy and I told him. It was so small, you know. Can I buy 2, 5 copies of things, like that. I remember having to be persistent to get myself into the guy’s shop. He was really busy with other stuff and didn’t have time to talk to me, so he said he’d let me wander in the hallways. I wandered in the back and in the warehouse and I found stuff that I thought I could sell. I think that’s when I first found Touch things. I remember I had Whitehouse records, the Come Organization.
I searched through and found all this stuff, and when I pulled the pile back and showed it to him, he was like, oh my god, this is great. He didn’t want to sell the stuff to me because it was sellable stuff. I guess he was too busy to go through his own warehouse and find this stuff. But he was telling me, oh, I can sell this. So he sold me some stuff, the nicely packaged things that were handmade cassettes but they didn’t sell. I sold more quantities of them. So, I started selling more and people started thinking of it as a record store, even though I was doing sound installations at that point, and performances. People started knowing that this was a place to come. I started having people show up from Japan, who had read about it in a magazine, and talked to Japanese TV stations. A quiet guy came in and said, “can I film in here?” And then he said, “can I come tomorrow?” and I said sure. The next day the whole TV crew suddenly came into Generator which was like, you should have seen how small Generator was, it was a joke. They had a fisheye camera, and they made this whole special about Generator for Japanese TV. That’s what I mean by snowballing.
It became more than I could handle really. As sales were increasing (it was around December that they peaked), I left and I took a trip and I went to Europe, I went to Spain, I went to Berlin, I traveled around. I took a few weeks off. I don’t know what happened to Generator while I was gone, I can’t remember. I don’t know if I closed it, or if somebody else watched it. But I remember coming back and it was January and I think I quit my job, because I was still working a part time job at a photo lab. All of a sudden it was after Christmas and sales just dropped. Suddenly, January, it was dead. It was winter, it was cold, people weren’t buying things. It had just completely dropped out. That began the financial struggle I then had with it. It also began a period where I started asking other people well, what should I do here? Because people were still coming to the concerts, there was still a lot of interest in Generator. I was getting more and more mail, people started sending me not only one cassette, but sending me five cassettes, or ten cassettes. I’d get a package from Australia, from Extreme Records, with a box of like ten each of five different artists. I’d have this big box and I’d be like oh my god, now what do I do with it. I’m not that big, you know. So this was all starting to snowball...
MH: What year, where are we now? 1990?
MH: Were people selling you CDs?
KM: The first CDs started to come in then, yes.
Mike Harding: Can you talk a little bit about the event itself in September, which is partly why I am talking to you. Do you have any notion of what you might be doing or of what you'll be using?
Ken Montgomery: Yes, I do. I’ll be performing a live version of Eight Track Magic. In 1994 or 1995 is When I started ATMOTW, Artists Throwing Money Out The Window, the first projects was, the Sound of Lamination 7', and following that was the eight-track release, of Eight Track Magic. Eight Track Magic was created from an eight track cartridge that was caked in mud and dirt that I found at a yard sale. It was on a table, and had a sticker on it for 25 cents. Led Zeppelin 4, 25 cents. Underneath the table was a box of cassettes and they were 10 cents each. This was right when CDs were coming out; and in my mind, I suddenly was thinking of the value of things, because CDs were 10 dollars and here was an eight-track for 25 cents that probably didn't even play, and there were cassettes under the table for 10 cents. So I noticed that there was mud caked into the cartridge, it was basically a piece of trash they were selling for 25 cents. I bought it! Well, I took it home and I played it, and luckily I had a little professional walkman near me, and what came out of that eight track was pure magic. It was so messed up that the sound was crunching, just an abstract soundscape, but occasionally Led Zeppelin would come through a sound that we all know and love. I recorded that and made a release of that called Eight Track Magic. And I was never able to played the eight track again, that's important to know, it never played again. It just died after that so I was just lucky enough to capture it. People here in New York know it, it's been played many, many times on WFMU. It was very popular. One of my greatest moments of my life was taking a taxi and hearing it in the taxi. The taxi was listening to WFMU. One of the finest moments of my life.
MH: You must've gone through the roof!
KM: I was just like.. How did you-- Oh sir! Where did you--, This taxi driver's listening to Eight Track Magic!
So I live my life with this kind of big, big hope that I would experience this kind of magic again. And over the years I have bought these messed up eight tracks, I just have a box in my closet filled of these old eight tracks. So, I decided for the performance since you suggested that it would be an analog night at ISSUE Project Room, that I'm gonna pull out my old eight track player, I'm gonna maybe hook it up to a little something where I can sample from it or whatever, but I'm going to try to try to to find that kind of magic with some old eight tracks. I probably will fail to find the state that I got with Led Zeppelin IV, but I have done it once before but I have come up with some nice stuff by chance. So, It's gonna be an improvisation of eight tracks.