Joe Bloggs – CT Sketches anti-record (Fresnl, 1997)

Photo credit: fhwrdh

Years ago, I came across a peculiar CD called Music For Multiples which was attributed to a mysterious artist named Bloggs. It was an intriguing collection of sound textures, reportedly created using “metal bowls, clarinet, contact microphones, saxophone, trumpet, PVC pipe, harmonium, piano, etc…” According to the catalog number (lensone), it was the inaugural release on an obscure record label called Fresnl.

Years later, while putting together a book chapter about anti-records, the Bloggs name came up again in the form of CT Sketches, a clear record with irregular hand-etched grooves — that is, if you can call them grooves, since many of them were perpendicular to the path of a turntable stylus. Even more perplexing, the catalogue number was lensezero, suggesting that it may have preceded Music For Multiples.

Photo credit: Arthur Crawshay

I dug around for an answer, hunting for an email address for the man behind Joe Bloggs. As it turns out, the term Joe Bloggs is a British placeholder name, something like the “John Smith” of the UK. But through some digging around, I was able to learn that the Joe Bloggs of this record’s fame has recorded under a number of different pseudonyms, among them Ralph Haxton and Damon Cleckler. After reaching out to a completely different Ralph Haxton who runs a YouTube channel about cooking, I found the man responsible for all this, and Damon Cleckler seems to be his real name.

Despite the layers of obfuscation that had to be pulled back to find him, Cleckler generously provided me a wealth of background about CT Sketches and his broader experimental music exploits, which represent an interesting tangent of the American avant-garde music scene.

Prehistory

Cleckler first became interested in the mechanics of music in third grade — 1975 — when he disassembled an old stereo in an effort to figure out how it worked. “Mostly it was the speakers that obsessed me,” he tells me via email. “I would take apart old speakers I found at the dump, or from trashed-out junk-yard cars, and would daisy-chain them together in my room to try and make a bigger sound from my old portable stereo. I had no clue about impedance or power. I just knew that the shapes and sizes of the speakers (without enclosures any longer) had different frequencies and really seemed to sound better all together versus just the two that came attached to the portable. I used to lie on my bedroom floor surrounded by these speakers, listening to the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ over and over again. It was amazing!”

Growing up in a rural area of Northern California, not far from Oregon, he was sheltered from the “cool” record stores of big cities, but did experience punk rock vicariously by reading about it in Creem and Circus magazine. But a couple of things changed in sixth and seventh grade. For one, he bought an 8-track copy of Never Mind the Bollocks from the local record store. Then, a UK exchange student stayed with his family and introduced Cleckler to a world of punk rock and new wave records.

Photo credit: Damon Cleckler

Experimental music came later. “As we traveled every summer down to the Sacramento valley to visit relatives, I’d had started a ritual of combing through the radio dial when we got to my grandmother’s house trying to find more underground new wave or punk rock,” he remembers. “She had a shortwave, and it was incredible the things you could pick up. Even just the sound of tuning between stations was fascinating to me. I had a portable cassette deck (the kind that looks like a brick with a handle), and I used to record with that held up next to the portable shortwave radio. I only had a couple of tapes of this, but I can remember recording some of the weirdest noise/art/sound stuff I’d ever heard with no back announcing that made it to the tape.”

In the early eighties, he found himself recording radio broadcasts from UC Davis’ college station, KDVS, while staying with his aunt. “The best shows were at night, and usually involved some form of punk and hardcore, or at least just pretty odd stuff that really sounded like nothing else. I still remember the song segues to this day from all of those tapes.”

He ended up applying to only two schools after high school, then choosing UC Davis solely in hopes of deejaying at KDVS. “I was really a big fan of a weekly hardcore show that I’d been recording for some time. It was a show that had a few hosts over the years, but when I got to school it was this team of Mike (Trouchon) and Kristina. I listened religiously, Wednesday nights at 10 to midnight. I wound up meeting the two of them when they invited me down to do a show with them one night, and that led to me taking over the show the next fall quarter after both had decided to take a break for a while. I’d not had a proper training in the 3-6am ‘newbie’ time slots, and wound up with a primetime show through a side door connection.”

Though he initially selected geology as his major — to which he now simply reflects “who knows” — he switched into music that fall, specifically composition and theory, but was stumped when they required him to perform a musical instrument as a compulsory part of his degree. “Although I’d played the trumpet between 4th grade and senior year of high school, I quit playing when I went to college and never wanted to pick it up again. I just wanted to be surrounded by music while I was in school, and for whatever crazy reason, my parents were okay with it. And the music department was willing to work with me creatively allowing me to include electronic music studio, work at the radio station and performing in the choir as ways to satisfy basic performance requirements.”

Early Recordings

He also started playing bass in a Big Black-inspired band called Nest of Saws, powered by a Roland drum machine. “It later evolved into something more of a noise/punk/funk-ish power trio with a real drummer, but that’s because it was the late 80s and that’s just what happened.” He also performed in a lost-to-the-annals “free jazz/situationist/noise ensemble” named Tuba Mirum.

Photo credit: Arthur Crawshay

Cleckler teamed up with Mike Touchon, who had ushered him into KDVS, along with another friend, Pete Gomez, to record some improvisations in the studio KDVS used to record live performances. “Mike had wanted to call a band ‘Ralph Haxton’ and this was to be that band,” he tells. “We never got past a few jams, and some poor attempts at writing songs. Alas, school came first, Pete had to relocate back to Santa Cruz to finish his degree, and we had no time to make it happen.”

“As I recall, Haxton was a character that Mike told us would frequently appear on botany tests and other materials whenever some kind of crackpot science or buffoonery were being used in the examples. I may not have that exactly right, but it’s effectively what we carried forward with years later.”

After losing touch for awhile, Touchon and Cleckler regrouped in San Francisco, where Cleckler had been doing some solo composing. They decided to revive the Ralph Haxton name and set about performing noise music, sometimes with their other friend, Simon Whickham-Smith. “That eventually turned into the gyttja label we co-founded,” he explains. “We put out five or so Ralph Haxton releases, some work by other artists (Roy Montgomery, Loren Conners, Crawling with Tarts) and the first rhBand recording. Probably worth mentioning rhBand had originally been called The Ralph Haxton Large Ensemble, as we’d brought in a couple of our friends to add to the explorations.”

The Bloggs Years

Gyttja’s logo (Discogs)

One day, Cleckler was describing the origin of the name Ralph Haxton — a generic name used as a placeholder in geometry word problems. Accoring to Cleckler, that friend replied, “Oh, you mean like Joe Bloggs?”

“I had no idea who that was, and he went on to explain the commonplace everyman concept of Joe Bloggs in English culture. I’d been looking for a way to do my own solo stuff, and in an instant Joe Bloggs was born. The modern day everyman.”

Whereas the gyttja label had been “a bit of a pisstake on noise artists,” after recording a seven-inch single under the Joe Bloggs name for the label, he decided he wanted to get more serious about recording. As a result, he started up his new label, Fresnl. A “pure vanity label” by Cleckler’s description, it was designed to release his solo work, since he wanted to keep gyttja as the primary outpost for his and Mike’s collaborations.

An old, mysterious ad for the Fresnl label, from the fourth issue of the Halana zine.

The CT Sketches single was, indeed, the first release to come out on Fresnl. Interestingly, this anti-record actually came about as a result of the materials being used for a different record altogether. He had ordered 50 clear blanks from a local pressing plant called the Bill Smith Pressing Plant, which were to be used for the packaging of a 1995 Ralph Haxton single put out on gyttja. “The intent was to use two of them as a protective cover sandwich for the actual record, which was mounted on a post with a screw in a fold over package, complete with a unique polaroid cover photo. It was just a special edition thing we’d done for friends, and solely intended as a hand-made giveaway thingy.”

“[The pressing plant owner] Bill thought I was crazy and assured me he was going to charge me as if it were a regular pressing anyway, but he happily obliged. He’d never done something like that as far as I recall, and he thought it was kind of cool.”

Ralph Haxton’s single, which came sandwiched between two clear blank records. (Discogs)

The idea of creating a record with irregular sounds went way back. “Mike and I had long toyed with producing a ‘home loop kit’ that would include various sized circular (or not circular) things with a spindle hole in the middle, as well as other things that could be used to restrict or manipulate the tone arm to keep it in a position of stasis or lock on a track,” he explains. “I’d made a few of these for myself out of heavy paper and used them with a portable turntable as some of the background noise on the Ralph Haxton track ‘Bogota is Cold in Winter.’ It was just an easy hack way to get a certain sound without a sampler, and it was kinda Dada in its randomness. We were more serious than not about producing the ‘kit,’ but never actually made it happen. I think in some ways the blanks were sort of an experiment with that idea, but we never made it known in the packaging that you could use these as a looping tool for a larger record underneath. We figured we get to that as an actual project later.

He only used about 34 of the blank records for the Ralph Haxton single, so he decided to do something with the rest of them. “One day I took an X-Acto blade and cut some grooves into one side, perpendicular to a normal playback groove, just to see what would happen if I were to play it on the turntable. Seeing the stylus bounce around violently but also sometimes gently in the glassy portion inspired me to play around with it a bit more. I tried different patterns and angles on a few more sides, and then came up with the idea that I could actually make an anti-record that was interesting to look at, and no two would be the same. I only had 13 blanks left, so the edition of 13 was born. 

“I did the cutting over the course of a couple of days, designed a simple label, and christened the record with a matrix of “lensezero” with the goal of making other non-records following that same pattern.”

CT Sketches review from Oppobrium issue #4. (Source: Damon Cleckler)

I asked Cleckler if he had been inspired by other anti-records when putting CT Sketches together, and he responded by pointing to a number of sources of influence. “Seeing a Christian Marclay show at the Hirschhorn in Washington DC in 1990 was most definitely an influence. The piece (or pieces) where two records had been pieced together was very cool, as you could just imagine listening to it. Also the vinyl flooring that you could walk on really seemed like a cool idea, but I thought he got it wrong; it would have been better if the records didn’t have any pre-existing sound on them. That always stuck with me.”

He also mentions the seminal art catalogue Broken Music, which collected works of art that incorporated repurposed vinyl records, as well as various other conceptual pieces. He checked it out of the UCLA Music Library in the early 90s, right after he moved to L.A. “I recall photocopying several pages of records I had hoped to track down some day,” he remembers, singling out a number of memorable items covered in the book. In particularly, he mentions sculptor Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient record series and Marcel Duchamp’s visually stunning Rotoreliefs. “The Duchamp pieces in particular have always been at the core of everything I do, but I don’t know that I’ve ever said that. I tried to make an homage to one with the Fresnl label ‘logo’ which I’m sure is super obvious. Broken Music was just so astounding for the sheer mass of creative ideas in it.” 

“There was always a running theme of not really being able to play a lot of anti-records, so it’s just an idea or an implication of sound. Those that can be or are intended to be played, are ultimately just a variation of Cage’s ‘Cartridge Music’ sonically, and are often designed to do damage to some part of your system.” In that seminal Cage composition, the performers were instructed to insert small objects into a record player’s cartridge, then “play” the turntable at their discretion.

“I didn’t set out to make something special or unique, but I wanted an anti-record that could be played and would not necessarily damage a stylus,” Cleckler expands. “So accidental cartridge bumps, occasional grooves, and some patterns at play with the spiral of the disc kind of naturally fell into place. There’s an element of chance, like the Johnny Moped ‘Mystery Track’ or the K-Tel ‘Chance a Tune’ single, as well as some structure that may allow for occasional repetition. I find few things as comforting as the sound of run out groove playing endlessly, so it’s all intertwined I suspect.”

At just thirteen copies, most copies were given to friends. Cleckler doesn’t know how many have survived to this day, but he does know four people who still have theirs, and figures the fifth is in the hands of whoever created the Discogs entry for the release. “But the rest of them? I’m just not sure. I may have written it down somewhere, but I don’t think so. It was just sent off as a ‘here you go’ regular record package, and probably not much else. What I do know is that the folks who got one were people who had helped or participated in the gyttja releases somehow.”

Anti-Records After CT Sketches

After 1997’s CT Sketches, the Music For Multiples CD followed in 1999. It was produced in an edition of 1000 and given proper distribution. Tantalizingly, Cleckler tells me there were two other anti-records, both even more limited in production quantity than CT Sketches — which is remarkable, given that CT was an edition of thirteen. “Though I possess one of each of these still (or parts at least),” he says, “I don’t know that anyone else actually does.”

From an article in Halana #4: A discography including several Bloggs anti-records (Source: Damon Cleckler)

“One was called Vinyl 12 Inch (lensezed), and was a 12-inch linoleum floor tile with a center spindle hole. Those turned out to be very hard to stamp and dremmel into, so I abandoned finishing the edition, but some folks got one. It fit very well next to any other regular LP in ones collection, and it was kind of the other extreme to [Christian Marclay’s Footsteps, in which records tiled the floor of an art gallery.]

“There were two others, neither of which were distributed at all. One was Stylus for Anti-Record (lensenaught), which was never completed beyond the prototype, and Sleep Never Rusts (lensenull), which was an edition of one. Stylus was based on a stack of about 20 identical, unused seven-inch circular saw blades, all very old and very rusty. The intent was to metal stamp the title, edition and matrix, and then use a very heavy paper contraption as it’s container. Unfortunately it remains incomplete to this day. Rust was a single, 12-inch square, quarter-inch thick piece of steel that somehow had a hole in the middle just about the size of a spindle. It had great patinated patterns, and looked very nice on the shelf.”

Today

Today, Cleckler works in tech, “primarily user-experience and requirements.” Following the release of Music for Multiples, he focused his energy on work and his work with his group, rhBand. “Somewhere in there a marriage fell apart, rhBand folks started having kids, I started focusing more on architecture and design as interests, and before you know it, I am remarried and have a kid of my own,” he tells.

Today, he primarily finds himself listening to music. “There continue to be amazing releases of both new and reissued material getting issued on vinyl all the time. It’s fantastic. I find much of it inspiring, and often think about making work again. But I have not. Yet.”

Photo credit: Damon Cleckler

He still does play music, mostly long-form drone stuff in a “bloggsian” (his term) mould, and also plays with rhBand now and then. Despite his day job being fully computerized, he loves analog recording, and is lukewarm on digital production. “Our latest thing is setting up drones that just go on for several hours in a particular room in a house. We’ll change our experience with the sound by moving to different rooms (indoor, outdoor) and may occasionally change some dimensions to the overall sound. We carry on conversations, move in an out of the sound. It’s impossible to capture, but fantastic to experience. Kind of like [La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s] Dream House, but without purple neon and no rules about conduct.”

I finished our interview off by asking whether Cleckler owns many other anti-records, apart from those he released as Bloggs. He does own a copy of Marc Behren’s clean-clear, which was a cardboard record originally done as centrefold for an art magazine called Rogue. He used to own copies of the RRRecords locked groove records, RRR-100 and RRR-500, and was also apparently asked by RRRon Lessard to contribute to one of them, but declined.

“Most of what I have is experimental music or non-music oddball things, but none are really so much about the object or the art of it,” he tells me. “If it didn’t bring me pleasure to hold on to, or more importantly, to listen to, I have generally thinned my collection over the years. I no doubt must have had some anti-records from others but no idea what they would be now. Again, I was inspired by these external ideas, but it wasn’t so much what I had set out to do or was seeking. They were just ideas I had.”

Update: Cleckler found an old prototype of Ct Sketches in his archives. Take a look:

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