Weird Americans: Johan Kugelberg’s Enjoy the Experience
Get ready to see America’s forgotten musical past. It’s really weird.
In the time before YouTube, you had to be a little crazy to put out your own record. It cost thousands of dollars and almost nobody would buy it. But gather thousands of albums together like Johan Kugelberg did in his new book, Enjoy the Experience, which comes to Milk Gallery as an exhibit July 9-23, 2013, and the collection becomes a weird and wonderful vision of America’s forgotten musical past–where folk singers dressed as werewolves and lounge lizards billed themselves as “The Original Dirty Old Man.” Milk Made caught up with Johan at his SoHo art gallery, Boo-Hooray, to talk about why we should be grateful that so many Americans are really weird.
Milk Made: How did you choose the cover art to include in the book?
Johan Kugelberg: We had access to about 2,500 different homemade American records from a variety of crazed and interesting collectors, who had been documenting this for a long time. The thing that becomes so interesting when you start seeing 50 of them or 200 of them or 1,000 of them, is that it’s actually an American vernacular, like quilts or regional styles of fingerpicking guitar or regional styles of folk painting. Even though this is done with a basic sort of crass commerce as the foundation, it’s American ingenuity, it’s do-it-yourself. It’s fascinating! It’s romantic! It’s weird and it’s nuts! Because these people aren’t airbrushed by commercialism.
We did a compilation of these records that coincide with the book, so at Milk, there’s going to be a soundtrack playing some of the strangest music and most fun music you’ll ever get to hear. We’re also setting up a listening station with turntables, so people who come visit the gallery can sample hundreds of these records.
MM: I listened to the mix tape you put together for Milk Made and I was surprised at how polished a lot of the music sounds. For some of it, the quality is actually pretty good.
JK: In some instances, people are spending their life savings on putting together an album. Then when the thousand copies they had manufactured show up in their home, they have the added horror of figuring out how to distribute the records. So a lot of these records are unbelievably rare. They’re not really worth a lot of money or anything. Some of them are. Some of them are celebrated by people who collect psychedelic music, funk, soul, go-go, hard rock or whatever it is. A lot of the records are sort of like this wonderful, weird everyday life sound of a guy who was a janitor, who wanted to be the next Tom Jones. Or some gal who worked at a supermarket, who wanted to be Loretta Lynn.
MM: Do you think something like this is going away?
JK: No, now it’s called YouTube. It’s called file-sharing sites, downloads and all of that. One thing that was so cool (and William Gibson said about the book) was that the cumbersome process of manufacturing your own record actually filtered out most people, except for the most obsessed, monomaniacal or driven. It is part of the reason why so many of these records are interesting, the people who put their own record out really wanted to put their own record out. Of course this isn’t punk or DIY because there is no political or aesthetic aspect of the choice for putting a record out. It’s something you did because you had that drive to communicate.
MM: Were there any of these that you were particularly excited about?
JK: You can’t really mess with “Ladies Love Outlaws” by Gypsy. Part of the reason we were so diligent at the reproduction was that all of these record covers were just crazy. Look at Cleo McNett.
MM: [laughs] He’s slightly cross-eyed.
JK: Look at Randy Mayfield. If you put a magnifying glass over this, you’ll actually get to see the real detail because we were that diligent about the print quality of it. What I like the best is looking at more and more of them. We’re not even getting into how super eccentric these people were. Michael Daley was the main researcher for the life stories of a ton of these people who are in the book. It’s hair-raising David Lynch stuff, over and over again. A lot of the life stories are as fun and idiosyncratic as the actual music itself.
MM: It’s funny how you said that it’s hair-raising as we’re looking through a cover with a werewolf. How do you think it all translates into being an exhibit?
JK: I think it translates wonderfully because what will happen when you walk into Milk is that you will walk into this strange sort of cultural immersion, and you will experience it first-hand as a vernacular. You’re getting sounds and getting bombarded with all these images that are arranged in sections, roughly thematically. There are also wall texts describing them, what these things mean and what these things are. The great Dutch entertainer, Bud Benderbe, will be performing his private press record of Velvet Underground covers in the space as well. We decided he was going to do a proper homage to New York City, so he pressed up a private press vinyl record that will only be available at Milk.
MM: What themes are you dividing the records into at the show?
JK: I did it visually. There will be records that will be more formal portraits.
There will be sections of album covers that were hand drawn, sections where photography is used as a collage component and sections of records where the artist pretty much had no input into the record cover art whatsoever, using generic designs that were furbished by the custom pressing plants that manufactured the records.
MM: Did that happen a lot?
JK: Yeah, quite a lot. We did a few big sections on that in the book. What makes it so killer is that they become a Duchampian ready-made, or sort of an Oldenburg multiple without the fine art intent. I, of course, love that.
MM: It almost reminds me of an art assignment where everyone is given the same things and you do whatever you want with it.
JK: Very much so, but this is also supposed to be fun and total eye-candy. It’s supposed to be fun for record collectors, but it’s also supposed to be fun for people who are interested in graphic design, folk art or the great weirdness of the United States of America. One of the things I return to in the book is that there is evidence that all Americans are weird.
MM: I certainly believe that. Where do you go to find these records?
JK: My close friend Gregg Turkington, who contributes to the book (you know him as the comedian Neil Hamburger), tours constantly throughout the US. He hits record stores, thrift stores and flea markets, and comes home with the most hair-raising stuff. A lot of people who are vinyl collectors say now with the Internet and online shopping that it’s completely played out and nothing can be found. That’s so not true. There is so much great stuff out there for the people who are willing to dig for it.
Photos by Jessie Adler