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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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 bakurita.blogspot.com. His latest release is a split C30 between The Rita and fellow noise artist Bacillus, on McKinlay’s own Lake Shark HN label.