Interview, Music

Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts: 1992-1999

Mike Apichella Fondly Remembers Maryland's Utopian Art Scene

by

“The Preschoolers (1994 or 1995)” photo courtesy of Sarah Kershaw

Imagine it is the early 1990’s: you’re 14, maybe 15 years old. You and all of your friends have gathered inexplicably, through birth, in a rural part of Maryland. Like most your age, you’re dissatisfied with the sorry prospects of a life toiling in the work week and of your stifling social circumstances. Your dreams of a life filled with color and adventure seem far off. All of a sudden, an unlikely thing happens: you and your buddies pick up instruments and start writing music, throwing parties and playing live for people. You even manage to make recordings with whatever tools you have lying around. Over the course of a few years, a huge variety of musicians, poets, and visual artists flock to this happening and find a center in its dedication to creative energy and free expression. All of you haven’t even graduated high school yet.

Maybe you think that such a scene is not uncommon, not important, not interesting. You might even think it is impossible. But it’s been the mission of Mike Apichella (who makes music under the moniker Human Host) to convince you otherwise. It did actually happen, it really was incredible, and he’s compiled an extensive catalog of recordings and writing from the period to show you just what it was like. Even Animal Collective recognizes the importance of this moment. As a member of the scene himself, Apichella has intimate knowledge and a first-hand take on the history and goings-on of that particular place in time.

The Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts is a two-tape set complete with booklet, poster and digital downloads of all the music. Apichella does it, at once, to preserve the memories and work of those who made the scene special (even a class clown appears in the catalog as playing an incipient role in Apichella and his buddies “tearing of the social fabric”) as well as illuminate what is possible when people are dedicated to a certain kind of “polyphonic” arts movement, one which welcomes experimentation in a wide variety of song, noise and ideas.

TGAF also comes with a special (and what will most likely end up being a quite rare) booklet that documents some specific and interpersonal happenings in the Towson-Glen Arm area. He visits, in memory, the abandoned pool party which featured a full keg and the Lesbian Chicken Maggot Blasters one and only live performances. The doomed event turned out to be not much more than an early chance for pre-teens to get drunk in the moonlight, but it’s a jumping off point into the wonderful story of The Blasters’ leader, Eli Jones, how he hunted for destroyed music equipment in the dumpsters behind the local music shops and turned them into new sonic tools, and how his important contributions to the music scene still live in Apichella’s mind and indeed on this tape. Eli’s story and ones like it are lovingly retold and thus preserved in this text.

It reads practically like a Dostoevsky, its unfolding events, persons and dramas are almost bewildering…young kids leading political protests, extreme DIY recording measures and amateurish but still colorful and dynamic music, poetry and visual art. To think Towson-Glen Arm was just some bored kids fooling around in their parent’s basements is too limited a view. In listening and learning about this moment, we find that the story goes much deeper. We learn about a special group of young people dedicated to positive social upheaval who actually did something about it and we discover what makes this specific moment in place and time, as Apichella says, “so dynamic and unusual”.

I had the privelage of sitting down with Mike (and brief TGA member Devon Till) for a conversation about the concepts behind some of TGA’s creative output and its lasting legacy.

Boston Hassle: Maybe you can tell me a little bit about what initially made you want to do this project

Mike Apichella: All the music on it, all the songs, all the recordings, everything that was republished or reprinted, everything that’s involved with the TGA project is something that’s influenced me as an artist now. Sort of giving back to a lot of people that did a lot of really great work and really inspired me. People who otherwise didn’t have the means or the time to promote their older work. Cause the vast majority of these artists are either no longer involved with music or doing very different music, different art then they were doing in the 90s or just in different places in their lives that kept them away from making any work or even promoting any new or old work. All of the stuff you hear on there is stuff I’ve been listening to non-stop since it was originally recorded. Its been some of my favorite music. I elevate that stuff on the same level as Sun Ra or 13th Floor Elevators or Beatles or Joni Mitchell or anything. I listen to the TGA stuff just as much as any mainstream or better-known artist you can think of. No one else is stepping up to really try and immortalize that. At the same time I knew everyone who was involved and everyone who actually experienced it in the old days, the people, the audiences, the people that actually got to see bands like The Preschoolers, 6 o’clock Alarms, Eli Jone’s projects, people who actually got to see that stuff always talk about it and were thinking about it. Nobody else had the time to put something together to memorialize all that and I really wanted to cause I knew it would be fun and I felt like I needed to because it was just a really amazing experience being part of all of that. I felt like I had to. I felt it was an obligation in the best way possible. I wasn’t doing something against my will. It was totally my choice to do this. My favorite thing about doing it is the fact that so much of the music not only sounds contemporary but is still just as crazy and unusual as it was twenty-five years ago. It’s an exciting thing to have been a part of and it’s an exciting thing to talk about and share with people. Its an exciting way of illuminating the connection between the past and present.

BH: It was exciting for me. I had met you in Allston a little while back and you had some records for sale and I was drawn to this one for some reason. I didn’t exactly know why but felt there was something really unique. There’s a feeling of mystery and surprise.

MA: Totally. When I started writing and gathering a lot of information and the conversation I was having with old friends, and even people who are not super close to me who remember all this stuff, one of the comments that came up over and over again is “I can’t believe this is actually real, I can’t believe this actually happened” It all just seems like a dream now.

BH: Maybe you guys can share some of your fond memories from that time and what it was like. For me, there was nothing like this when I was growing up. This is sort of a magical moment. It’s a dream to be young and creative and working like that.

Devon Till: It’s good to be talking to you man. I guess I can start off on a personal note. I really met Mike in late ’92 and I had always felt like a bit of a square peg in school. I was not a social kid. And all the sudden he and a couple of others invited me to this practice.

MA: Band practice for the band “Retarded Dogs”. Very unfortunate name there by today’s standards.

DT: I remember there being a reel-to-reel recorder and the thing I remember about it and why I liked it so much was that I was allowed to be as weird as I could possibly be inclined to be. I really enjoyed myself. I felt really right at home among the main three which were Mike Apichella and Cory Davolos and Jon Woodstock. There were some other people from our school that got involved. It’s something that for a long time I hadn’t thought a whole lot about because I was gone shortly after the summer of 93 but I  remember about four years ago I would never have reconnected with mike had I not accidentally run into the TGAF on google. I can’t even remember what I was looking for. I guess I wanted an old picture of myself from a yearbook and I found my name in the writing and I got into this site and I’m involved in this article. I started to picture the times and the article mentions me running around while the music’s playing just acting crazy. I was kind of a big kid so I always picking people up and wrestling with kids and acting a fool. This other young boy named Scott bit me and then flew off into… what was it he crashed into?

MA: Ceiling tiles hahah!

DT: I’m thinking about all this, I’m reading it and I’m remembering it. As I’m reading. And I’m reading names and I’m putting faces with the names. Im like ‘oh my god, Mike wrote this. this is Mike.’ The reason why it was such a special time in my existence. Remember, I had not been a social butterfly. But here were all these weird kids that seemed to think that I was acceptable. even in my strange form. I remember just really letting it all out.

MA: I was thinking the whole time and trying to remember my own memories of why this was so special. I think the biggest thing was why that really happened was because every single person who was involved, the vast majority, all had this epiphany at the same time. That we could make art that was completely our own style. You gotta understand the 90s was…  There was a big thread of people discussing the 90s on facebook. And somebody described the 90s as the beginning of the ‘curatorial era’ of independent DIY music. And I kinda agree with him because if you think about it, the major bands… this is not a diss to anybody just a statement of fact..  you had on the very popular side Nirvana and all the grunge bands… Hole… this really popular music… Weezer. Even Beck, as original as Beck was, he was sampling other artist’s music and all of his music borrowed heavily from country-blues and other music that was completely synonymous music with the 20th century. So many of those artists were really looking back and trying to revisit old ideas and put a new sheen on these old ideas which were about to become more passe then they had ever been before. And that was really common. I can tell you tons of 90s bands I love, Stereolab, Beck, Eric’s Trip, totally love them. There’s tons of great stuff but for us… no one was really trying too hard to look forward. Nobody was trying to do something that was simply new. Something that was immediate. So many artists back in the ’90s saw their era as being the end of something. Whereas so many people that I was working with, we had this political consciousness and we did a lot of activism. It was all one. It all had to relate to each other. All those things had to connect. The best way to do that would be to not look back. It was the idea that if you are going to change things and be a revolutionary you’ve got to use your work to create a whole new context for perceiving the world around you. A bunch of people all in the suburbs of Baltimore managed to come to this conclusion at roughly the same time.

We were all freaks one way or another. We were looking to have a new community where we could all come together and share all the great things in life through art and creativity and we actually did it. And it lasted. A lot of scenes crash and burn pretty hard but we dragged it out. We were going on all cylinders for about 5 years and circumstances happened and it had to end. It ended very organically for the most part. That so many people could have such an interesting ideal at the same time and develop that ideal at the same time is the thing that makes me remember why TGA is special.

BH: That is the distinction… that you guys did do it. There’s a record of it.

MA: I’ve tried to do a discography. There are so many tapes. It seemed like there was a tape recorder going all the time back then.

BH: Where are the tapes now? I mean do you have a large collection of them.

MA: Yes. There’s also a video game music artist Shawn Phase and he has an incredibly large collection. Most of his are mainly unreleased. Things that he just made himself. For a while he had a record label and a lot of what he released was TGA music. There’s probably a couple of other people who have large collections. This is all stuff that’s just gonna collect dust otherwise.

BH: I wanted to ask about Eli Jones. You mention him in the booklet. He’s such an interesting character.

MA: His story is certainly interesting because so much of what he recorded that was interesting was never performed live ever. A lot of that just lives on recordings. Even back then there were tremendous amounts of recordings that Eli made and he never played them at shows.  His main project…brace yourself…his main project was called ‘Lesbian Chicken Maggot Blasters’.  haha! A name that just always inspires laughter. I gotta say one of the very few things that involved any kind of competition was people making up completely ridiculous band names. And the reason for that was because people kept changing their band names constantly… and it was a little bit of an aesthetic thing like kind of the idea of breaking the mold…having the political philosophy of constant change and constant revolution and progress being intertwined with how we were making art… but it was also a little bit utilitarian because we were so young… we were all teenagers back then.  You gotta understand playing the kind of music that we were playing… music that could not be compared to other music was…a little bit unnerving even for the people actually making the music. We were really scared of what people would think. It wasn’t like punk or something where you go around and spit in somebody’s face in the audience and you know you’re gonna get punched. It was more like we had no idea how anyone would react. No idea at all. Other than our friends.

BH: Well how did they react?

MA: Well usually people were just very very confused. Devon, would you agree?

DT: I think I would agree. But I think among those 50 people we were performing in front of…. I saw a lot of raised eyebrows. Some of the styles of singing…i can remember seeing the faces of the people sitting on that basement floor and actually having some vague memories of thinking ‘yea, this was what we were shooting for.’

MA: Yeah it was like we did want to confuse people. I think that was actually part of it but the thing is when you do confuse people, if you’re an artist, sometimes that creates a lot of negative reactions. I think maybe even more negative now but back then we weren’t that far removed from the 80s and other kinds of eras of music and art. Nirvana was still pretty new. They had changed music and culture pretty quickly. Green Day also and Rancid kind of made the whole idea that stereotypical punk rock, Iggy Pop theatrics, were normal. We were doing something that had some elements of that but we weren’t necessarily trying to confront. We were trying to entertain. We wanted people to be paying attention to this. We didn’t want to clear a room. Maybe we weren’t Michael Jackson or Celine Dion but we also were not trying to be GG Allin either. So by changing the band name every time then people wouldn’t know it was the weirdos coming back for another round. ‘oh okay here’s another random strange band name again! but it’s a different band. We’ll give them another chance!!’ haha!

BH: What was it like running into these people at school and seeing them in the hallway? Was it surprising for your peers seeing you being so outlandish?

MA: I think for some of the other kids, yeah. But I can say for Devon and Scott Makowske who was a very tenuous part of this scene, Scott didn’t stick around, he was just in one of the bands but he made a big impact. and me, I was like those guys. We actually were kind of class clowns. Like not putting any fancy arty language on it. We were just goof-offs! We just hated school! We were just bored. Scott and Devon were straight up class clowns but for me, I identified myself as a political activist. I worked with Food not Bombs and I went to pro-choice rallies and gay rights rallies and protested all sort of things. I was very active like that back in the high school days and for a couple of years after that. So for me, disrupting a class was like disrupting the capitalist system. I took it very seriously and I did it as much as I could. For some of the people at Dulaney High School, they knew what was coming. They knew what we were up to. I think they were pretty surprised that we had music and had our own songs and really put an effort into to create a stylized version of goofing off in this extremely strange subversive way all together into a full on program. Some things were just very subtle. Some of the artists were outrageous but in more subtle ways through how they interacted with school administrators. Some of the things they did when they wrote zines. In one of the inserts in the TGAF writing, I made a little pastiche and one of the ones that always stick out whenever I think about TG is an excerpt from the Daily School Buss, one of the very first zines from the TGA scene. It really has this one little quote that I think puts a finer point on everything. It’s almost a manifesto. It says “Let the school be covered with everyone’s thoughts; subversive, conformist, or even absurd.” So the idea was don’t hold back, say whatever you feel is right. The idea of holding back and censoring yourself and not being open to thinking and considering the value of everything surrounding you is really the ultimate kind of tunnel vision that could lead you down the wrong path.

BH: It’s interesting the fact that you guys were so politically motivated because I think… certainly now its a little more common for kids to be active but I think in general it’s when kids start going to college that they begin going to rallies and organizing. I mean what was in the air? Was it truly just so boring that something had to happen?

MA: No, I would actually disagree.  It definitely wasn’t boring. It’s never just one thing. It’s always a conglomeration. For some reason, this group of people had an ability to perceive the 90s not as an ending of the twentieth century but as a beginning. I think a lot of us all agreed about that. we saw all kinds of hints of what the future was gonna be like. Midway through the existence of TGA as a community around ’95, a pretty large amount of the kids started using the internet heavily in their social behavior. That’s how people were promoting shows and having discussions. Even dating and making new friends if you can believe that. Everybody was always trying to be a step ahead because it seemed like so many people weren’t doing that and that was scary. That everyone was just obsessing over nostalgia for the 20th century. By focusing on how to make the world a better place… that’s one of the most immediate things you can do to recognize the importance of anything in the future.

BH: Can you tell me a little bit about the equipment that you guys were using. Were you using computers or was it still on tape?

MA: There were one or two friends who did electronic music on computers. Maybe a few more than that. Definitely on everything you hear on the reissue what you’re hearing is analog recording mainly done on single track tape players or 4 track tape players. Once in a while someone might have access to a reel-to-reel. Somebody might have some oddball thing like a dictaphone or a 2 track cassette recorder. I remember one time The Superstation actually recorded in the home studio which was run by Josh Dibb, Deakin from Animal Collective, he actually used videotapes to record us. Still to this day I don’t understand how. It was digital though. I remember that it was hooked to his computer. He was one of the first people that we met that had a digital setup for home recording. Back then the totally digital setups would only be in fancy recording studios. I would say for the most part it was analog. Whatever we could afford to buy with an allowance or crappy part-time job money or stuff that was lying around in someone’s parent’s basement that you just inherited that was collecting dust and wasn’t being used. Whatever we could get our hands on and a lot of people didn’t have access to multitrack recording so sometimes people would even do stuff like make fake multitrack systems where they’d record on one 1 track tape player, find another one track player then take the tape they just recorded and play along with the other recording with two tape players setup to speakers. Haha! And that actually happened on several people’s recordings. This was a common trope. Numerous times people did that. We couldn’t afford to buy a four-track. A four track back in 1994 probably would have cost hundreds of dollars no matter what quality or brand it was.

BH: Your current musical project is called “Human Host”. Can you tell us what you’re working on these days and if it’s still related to the TGA scene?

MA: I’m mainly gigging now supporting a record I made last year called “Special Moments with Muckle Flugga and the Cronk”. We still got the weird names! That music and the art made at that time has somehow informed Human Host. The big difference I think between HH and TGA is I’m not quite as focused on making political statements with HH. That being said, I’m not trying to hide anything either. It’s not like I think it’s bad for anybody to make art that has overt political statements. I think it’s good when people do that. I guess I just wanna talk about a lot of different things now and I want to express my feelings about a lot of things that I didn’t talk about in the 90s. It’s a big mix with HH. There’s kind of a spiritual component to it, acknowledging spirituality and unknown mysterious things. There’s also a lot of stuff that simply involves me trying to talk about politics, personal things in my own life, experiences that are just kind of hard to explain with words. It’s all instrumental mainly, HH music. I do really want the work to be relatable still. I still have that same attitude that I don’t want to be super confrontational but I don’t wanna hide parts of myself either… including parts that might make people feel confused. It’s an ongoing project. I have no idea when HH will end. I could be talking to somebody 50 years from now having the same conversation and probably giving the same answer about HH’s relationship to anything.

Special thanks to Mike and Devon for talking with me. Below, you can hear some sounds from the Towson-Glen Arm era as well as some of Mike and Devon’s recent creative output.

The official freakouts.

T.E.AM. (Together Everyone Achieves More) is a band from the Towson-Glen Arm scene that features Mike Apichella, Cory Davolos and Devon Till. Their newest album was released in December 2018.

And finally, Mike Apichella’s musical project “Human Host” released this great record last year.

More information and media from the scene can be found at the Towson-Glen Arm blog. https://towsonglenarmfreakouts.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/political-roots-of-the-preschoolers-and-towson-glen-arm/

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Charles Perrone is a contributing writer at Boston Hassle discussing new releases, shows and cultural curiosities. He currently resides in Somerville, MA.

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