A Conversation with Owen Davis

Owen Davis is a percussionist, artist and performer based in Flagstaff, Ariz. He has spearheaded the Interference Series, which brings experimental artists through northern Arizona. We sat down at Kickstand Coffee, where he also works, to discuss the noise genre, modern art and feeling uncomfortable. 

Bunny Mag: I kind of start with you personally – what’s your background and how did you get involved with the Interference Series?

Owen Davis: Ok… Cool. So my background I’m a composer and I’m a percussionist. I did my undergrad at NAU, and then I did my Master’s in Chicago at DePaul University in composition. Halfway through my undergraduate, there was kind of this, you could call it, a tipping point, where I discovered experimental music or the avant-garde or modern music – whatever you want to call it. From that point, I’ve basically been immersed in this world, generating original works, performing and premiering new works and improvisation, noise music and then the Interference Series is an expression of curating. It’s an expression of ‘I want to build a community around this type of art.’ So giving artists that are doing this a platform, that normally don’t. There’s also this side of the Series that is kind of — I don’t want to call it educational because that can come off as demeaning — but teaching people about this type of art and challenging artists to do something that is outside of their own personal practice.

BM: So, where did you get the name Interference?

OD: Yeah, so for the past 2 years, I’ve been working and studying Noise music. Just a quick background – it’s kind of a post-punk thing, it got started in the ‘60s and early ’70s mainly in Japan.  You can imagine rock 'n' roll evolving and getting harsher and harsher and noisier and noisier and more distorted to the point where it breaks free from punk music. What’s left is what I like to call noise music. But then within this genre or practice there is embedded a deep metaphor and that is one of noise — noise as an idea. Noise as an idea is a disruption of any sort: a political protest, art that challenges the mainstream, radical ideas of any sort. All of this we can put under the umbrella of noise. So the Series I wanted to almost think about as, if you’re listening to the radio and you’re between the stations — the stations are the pillars of the mainstream and popular music — and this Series is everything that is in between the stations. And so in a way, it’s trying to put in front of you everything that you don’t normally look at. So that’s Interference.

BM: I don’t know if you have the answer for this, but I’m curious what the impetus behind Noise music – is your impetus specifically political or is it more abstract than that?

OD: For me personally, why I make noise, it’s an aesthetic thing, it’s an artistic phenomenon, but it’s also social and it’s also political. To give you my answer, I will borrow from a composer named George Lewis. What he says about noise and those who make noise — noisemakers — is that what they’re doing is presenting is an expression of the other, of something else. The greatest and most romantic hope of noise music is that someone who is listening to it will engage with it, see something that they have never seen before, say ‘I didn’t know that was possible… What else is possible?” This is obviously very political for people who are marginalized — It’s bringing to the forefront otherness. If we think about sonic noise, it’s all of the things that aren’t considered music. Music has this territory and these boundaries that are reinforced by institutions and cultural paradigm and history, but there’s so much sound that falls outside of that. So, noise to me, is that. And that’s why I make noise.

BM: Ok, I get that. I noticed on your website, you state that the Interference Series is giving a home to underprivileged art — what do you mean by that?

OD: It kind of is wrapped into that last statement. Basically if we think of the art canon in music and also in visual art, we have Monet, all of these big renowned artists and we begin to ask ourselves: ‘why these artists?’ Why not the thousands of other artists that are making equal quality, sometimes even better work? It’s because of all these things we talked about, because Beethoven was subsidized by the city of Vienna. For some reason his art survived. This to me, is a position of power and as a curator, in particular, I view myself as a gatekeeper — an unwanted gatekeeper — because I have to acknowledge and accept that when I present something, I’m putting it in a frame for people and my mission is to put things here in front of you that are overlooked by the large scale institution and those in power.

BM: What is an example of privileged art?

OD: The Symphony Orchestra.

BM: So basically groups of musicians who have financial backing?

OD: If we look at the Symphony Orchestra as a financial institution, we see that they are backed by private donors and if we look at the makeup of private donors, they’re usually in their 50s to the 80s who are supporting this cultural institution they grew up with, so they’re kind of sustaining this status quo, so to speak. People who create art and make art under those positions of financial backing, sure, that’s privilege.

BM: Do you charge an entry fee to your shows?

OD: So for the first season, I tried not to. I was like “F it, it’s all free.” But as the series has grown, we have gotten more outside artists coming in. In March there are three performances coming up from Seattle, Chicago and Boston. It’s amazing that they’re coming through – but the fact is these people are artists that need to be paid. I tried to make a model that was sustainable for the series. So for the first season, I funded it all out of my own pocket. And then I started to fund the second series out of my pocket, but it came down to pay this bill or pay this rental fee for a venue. So I did an Indie-Go-Go fundraiser – kind of the democratically as possible way funding platform to get support — and all the money goes to paying artists and paying for venues.

You can learn more about the Interference Series here. 

You can learn more about Owen's personal music project, Mocrep, here.