Sissy Spacek – Reslayer & Threshold (Helicopter, 2022)

Sissy Spacek is the long-running sound project centred around John Wiese and Charlie Mumma, but encompassing a rotating set of other members. It is more or less a conceptual act: ostensibly a “grindcore band,” it is really a study what happens when you take the grind genre and then shoot tangents off in various directions, often groping towards the outer limits of harsh noise.

These two 2022 releases are unalike, but this is par for the course for the band. As Wiese tells me via email, “Sissy Spacek has always been a project that likes to expand the perimeter of its output—not just putting out the same release over and over, but really create a dynamic in the overall.” He cites the band’s 2016 triumvirate of releases as an example: they encompassed grindcore proper (Disfathom), short blasts of chaos in the noisecore tradition (Reversed Normalization), and a single 36-minute free improv jam performed as a sextet (Duration Groups).

2022’s release bolus extends the band’s theme of creating records that are internally coherent but radically different from one another. Of these two CDs, Reslayer is more divorced from grindcore, sonically. It takes the genre’s manic energy but reduces it to flailing noise rubble. Yet, unlike most noise releases (but like many grind records), it is a concise affair, divided into short, threeish-minute spurts. Wiese tells me this was by design. “When Sissy Spacek first started it was a mix of blur-grindcore and noise, and I had a fantasy that we would only release 7-inches. Highly compact, dense, and extreme.” (Indeed, several years ago Wiese commemorated his hundredth 7-inch!) For Reslayer, the band sought to channel this 45-rpm aesthetic into “tight 3 minute tracks that move quickly and intensely from one sound to another in an engaging way,” Wiese says. “In a sense they sound similar, but I would liken it to a Ramones album or something like that. One track after another with a continuing energy.”

Though rooted in grindcore, Reslayer retains no recognizable extreme metal instruments — guitars, bass, drums, death growl vocals are all replaced by rapidly changing bursts of inorganic noise. Wiese himself describes the methodology as “the shedding of musical instruments while retaining the same energy as grindcore,” something of a reaction against avant music’s tendency towards expansiveness. “Experimental music in general has a legacy of often bloated, long, and self indulgent material, and I think this is in a sense a counter to that.”

On Threshold, we hear a very different Sissy Spacek. Instead of short fragments of abstract noise, this record’s compositions stretch out, patiently exploring the continuum between white noise and grindcore. Jagged, tuneless, and joyfully dissonant, it’s a bit like Pig Destroyer recorded through a microphone inside a turned-on blender. Though comprising a coherent whole, the release contains three tracks from 2013-2014, and two from 2022. The holdovers include a piece previously included on cassette compilation called Stray Dog, a leftover piece performed live on radio for Damion Romero’s Psychotechnics program on L.A’s KXLU, and a track originally intended to be played as a four-channel installation. The two new 2022 recordings have a similar feel, but add the talents of Agoraphobic Nosebleed vocalist Jay Randall. I find myself dumbly puzzled when Wiese tells me what makes Threshold different from Reslayer, from his perspective: “I’d say that Reslayer is more of a singular vision of dynamics, whereas threshold is a dynamic vision of singularity.”

The cover of Threshold (generally speaking, Wiese, a design artist, handles the art for all Sissy Spacek releases) was something I was curious about. Framed in black is an image of what could be a patio at a luxury resort, a far cry from traditionally graphic grindcore imagery. Drawing a distinction between their intentions versus the prototypical noisecore/grind milieu of punky gumption, he notes that the photo helps “align the sound as something ‘high’ rather than something ‘low.'” He also points out its relationship to Merzbow/Masami Akita’s “Lowest Music and Arts” concept, and its connection to the artwork on Hijokaidan’s noise landmark, Windom:

Of these two discs, Threshold is the one I prefer, and I believe this is because it more overtly captures the fringe between grindcore and noise, two genres on the extreme which differ greatly in terms of structure. Wiese tells me that he sees Sissy Spacek as “in a sense the reverse of the mid-90s Relapse boom that got people from metal/grindcore into noise. Spacek is more like grindcore FROM noise, and [Threshold] would be a good example.”

Reslayer and Threshold are both available through Helicopter.

The Rita – Thousands of Dead Gods CD (Troniks/PACrec, 2006)

“I spent many hours down there staring into the abyss.”

Sam McKinlay likes sharks. He also likes ballet. And when Sam McKinlay — who is better known as the harsh noise artist The Rita — likes something, he gets deeply into it.

The Rita’s 2006 CD, Thousands of Dead Gods, is one of McKinlay’s most well-known records. And that’s for good reason. It combines recordings of actual cage dives, in which people submerge themselves underwater in a cage to get close to sharks, with McKinlay’s signature layers of harsh noise.

Source: Discogs

“Sharks are easily my longest life obsession,” McKinlay tells me via email. “I got a large rubber shark from my parents when I was a toddler. I still actually have the shark. I think the key manifestation of the interest was the media around me at a very young age in the mid seventies. Grocery store magazine racks had sharksploitation magazines like Killer Sharks and Jaws of Death, articles about Jaws and eventually Jaws 2 were everywhere…  As a kid, I used to repeatedly draw long comic books about shark attacks. To this day I have been collecting rare book editions about killer sharks, mostly from the sixties and seventies, as the Great White Shark was garnering more and more media attention as cage diving became more common.” 

Killer Sharks magazine. (Source)

McKinlay’s obsessive qualities often get incorporated into his art; unlike some enthusiasts, he doesn’t get off on, say, just collecting shark memorabilia. For him, it seems to be a more dynamic process. “I really like to immerse myself in the material, actually live it in most cases. I love the idea of the life obsessions being translated directly into the creative processes – the material then has a real sense of sincerity to it. So when I have life interests such as sharks, it means a lot to me personally that I can use it directly for sound.”

The genesis of Thousands can be traced back to a trip McKinlay took to go cage diving. “My girlfriend at the time and I made plans to go on a week long — never leaving the boat — trip to the Isla Guadalupe to cage dive with great white sharks. Obviously a life long dream of mine, so it was amazing that we had the opportunity to make it happen. My brother who is a videographer and nature film documentary-maker lent me one of his cameras to document everything. The footage that I managed to get from the deck of the boat had resulting audio that was perfect for processing.”

McKinlay’s description of time in the cage seems like the physical embodiment of harsh noise. “Being in the cage was surreal. We had onboard air supply with hoses going through the top door of the cages. You couldn’t see the bottom, so you were constantly anticipating something appearing out of the darkness.”

He explains that the source audio for Thousands was a combination of recordings of his own dives (taken from the surface), as well as recordings of other people’s dives. “My personal recordings with the video camera were from the deck — the shark’s approach to the cages, taking the bait, the reactions from the people on the deck, the splashing of the cage floats on the surface. There’s also documentation of myself coming in and out of the cages. I spent many hours down there staring into the abyss. 

Source: Wikipedia

“The rest of the sounds were from my personal collection of vintage late sixties and early- to mid-seventies shark cage footage gathered through the years.” These include old VHS tapes of shark documentaries from the seventies and eighties. Among those tapes is footage of great white sharks done by classic divers like Rodney Fox and Valerie and Ron Taylor. “I have a great grey market copy of the masterpiece Blue Water White Death that was transferred directly from a rough 16mm print, years before the DVD eventually came out,” he tells me.

Using those VHS tapes, McKinlay carefully selected the portions of the footage with audio he wanted, then processed it “directly to taste from the various audio sources via various analog distortions and custom fuzz effects.”

At the time this record came out, The Rita was an established name on the noise scene. His earliest releases date back to the late nineties, though most of his music came out in 2004 and after. “I had gotten back into recording harsh noise after my BFA at the University of British Columbia. One of my more significant releases post-2000 was Bodies Bare Traces of Carnal Violence for Troniks which made full use of Giallo film murder sequence samples from various rare Giallo films. For my second CD on Troniks, I wanted to dig even deeper into the idea of life long interests, hence the great white shark as source.”

Thousands has since resonated with many noise heads, and McKinlay considers this an honour. He points out that a prominent Brooklyn noise store has adopted the name of the album for their storefront. “They reached out for my approval to use the name and I was honored to say the least. They still regularly stock merch from me and I got to finally visit the store in March of this year when they put on the Brooklyn show with myself, Black Leather Jesus, Vomir and JSH.”

I ask him how he feels about this often-discussed release, fourteen years later. “I still think it makes a strong harsh sound statement in terms of my lifelong obsession with sharks,” he modestly concludes.

Cover of The Voyage Of The Decima MAS (Source: Discogs)

Since Thousands, McKinlay has explored nautical themes in other releases. One such release was The Voyage Of The Decima MAS, a 2009 CD released on Troniks that references an Italian flotilla from the 1940s, active during the Fascist regime. On this album McKinlay combines noise with recordings of him snorkeling. To capture this audio, he used a custom contact mic designed to be used underwater, which was built for him by Traumatone, a.k.a. Ryan Bloomer. “The mic had a heavy-duty plastic and resin enclosure so I could rub it against rock, coral, the deep underwater cliffs where I snorkeled for the recording. The mic was still also sensitive enough to pick up the surface splashing when I came up for air.”

McKinlay snorkeling while wearing his vintage italian full face mask — and contact mic. (Source: Sam McKinlay).

The noise artist Crank Sturgeon later designed a similar contact mic for McKinlay to use during live shows, which he adapted to simulate the Decima MAS experience. At live shows in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Dayton, he filled a large water basin and submerged the upper half of his body underwater while wearing a vintage Italian full-face diving mask. He put some rocks in the bottom of the basin and scraped the contact mic around among the rough surfaces to generate the performance’s audio.

The nautical story continued in 2017, when McKinlay released a seven-inch record called Journey Of The K-Verband (Throat Lure) — an audio document with an even more unusual premise. For this record, he rigged another Traumatone contact mic to a fishing lure, running its cable along the fishing line. “I have lots of experience fishing in the Pender Harbour area for lingcod, rock cod and dogfish, so I knew that it was inevitable one would take the lure in their mouth and catch some sort of sounds.”

His first catch was a rock cod, and he was overjoyed to discover that the microphone had caught it all: both the underwater “take” sounds and the sound of the ocean’s surface splashing as the fish was pulled up onto the deck. “I knew that when a large lingcod finally took the lure and mic I’d get even more aggressive sounds,” he says. “The plan went perfectly — large Lingcod, lines of underwater thrashing sounds, the surface splashing, and the eventual flopping on the deck before release. The mic held up beautifully.”

Original color photo of the mic being pulled out one of the lingcod’s mouths as it surfaced. (Source: Sam McKinlay)

Those sounds — the sounds of the ocean resonating from the inside of a fish’s mouth — made it onto the eventual record, mixed in with McKinlay’s noise.

Thanks to Sam McKinlay for the interview, and for sharing his photos. McKinlay’s website is His latest release is a split C30 between The Rita and fellow noise artist Bacillus, on McKinlay’s own Lake Shark HN label.