by Zoe Gould
“We had a popcorn and pizza party here last night,” Aaron Dilloway apologizes as he picks up stray kernels and straightens up the shop before his day begins. The owner and founder of Hanson Records, Dilloway is not your stereotypical noise rocker. The pizza and popcorn party was for his kids, a six-year-old boy and two-year-old girl. His open face and unassuming, relaxed demeanor clashes with the mysterious and eccentric image that noise music evokes. But aside from his incredible success in the world of noise and experimental music, Aaron runs and operates his record store and label from the second floor of a commercial building on College Street—the main drag of Oberlin, Ohio.
[blocktext align=”left”]Where the mountains of classic rock and Joan Baez LPs would be in your average record store, Hanson is stocked with experimental, noise, and old school punk.[/blocktext]Hanson Records, much like Dilloway himself, is simple at first glance. The walls are lined with neat rows of records and Lou Reed posters, books on John Cage scatter the shelves, and Hanson Records t-shirts are tacked to the wall behind the counter. A potted plant sits on the floor next to a speaker playing atmospheric music that compels the shoppers to browse and, hopefully, to buy. But the charm of Hanson lies in the details. Where the mountains of classic rock and Joan Baez LPs would be in your average record store, Hanson is stocked with experimental, noise, and old school punk. And the memorabilia is books of Bryan Lewis Saunders self-portraits, all drawn while under some drug, from valium-induced frizz to swooping and painful lines inspired by two squirts of computer duster. The music may be ambient, but Aaron handpicks it rather than let his computer self-generate an amiable playlist.
The store’s niche starts to become clear.
Even so, Aaron swivels his head effortlessly to take a look at whoever walks in the door, giving them a smiling and practiced, “Let me know if I can help you find anything.” He has a patient and effortless brand of friendliness. Donning muted, casual button-downs and cardigans, he could be any age between twenty-eight and forty. Even his light brown hair with a small thinning patch doesn’t seem to age his young spirit. By his wrist lies a small thunderbolt tattoo, thick and sharp like the ones you’d find in a Flash comic book. As a sign of both reticence and revelry, as we talk he is always willing to drop a needle on any album in the store to let the music speak for itself.
Noise and experimental music are recent genres—born out of radical punk movements and the underbelly of glam rock fame. Born in 1976, Aaron Dilloway entered the world at the right time to witness the growth of the experimental.
He grew up in South Lyon, Michigan, the youngest of three kids, with his siblings nearly ten years ahead of him. His older brother played hockey and rode BMX bikes, a vision of Midwestern athleticism, and tortured the records he had ceased to enjoy. “He hung a tire from the ceiling in the basement and put records he didn’t like inside in it and shot slapshots at them,” until they were satisfactorily smashed. “One day,” Aaron chuckled, “I came home and my Kiss record was shattered. I was so upset and my mom felt really bad so she took me to the mall to buy new ones.”
By 1984, the family had moved to Brighton, Michigan, a small suburb outside of Ann Arbor. Aaron came across punk music in the same way that most kids find the new underground trend—someone’s sister. “She was the coolest person I’d ever seen” Aaron describes, measuring his hands above his head to illustrate the approximate height of her hair. She showed them the Butthole Surfers—“we were all crackin’ up cause of the name”—and his fascination with punk was planted. As he grew up, Dilloway dragged himself across Ann Arbor record shops, sopping up new music and looking for live shows. What he found was The Lab, a house of punk rock enthusiasts who held rowdy shows in the basement; Aaron would later move into a similar house in the mid-90s to start Hanson Records.
[blocktext align=”left”]He had already been finding tapes and recording over them for years when his friend Nate Young presented a tape called Wolf Eyes by Paul Winter and another of Robert Redford reading Peter and the Wolf, with a B-side of howling realistic wolf cries.[/blocktext]The Lab was the hub of the Ann Arbor punk scene and, in many ways, the seed of the noise movement—at least for Aaron Dilloway. When the store is empty, Aaron leans back in his office chair and recounts what he still considers to be “the funnest day” of his life. It reads like a Midwestern version of an Alice Cooper song: “We skateboarded all day, got chased by the cops and had to split up. When we all eventually found each other again, we went to Ann Arbor.” They had heard that The Laughing Hyenas were playing at The Lab, and that Couch, unknown to them, would be opening. Couch, Aaron recalls, was “straight noise, hit you like a wall of sound.” In his mimicked reaction, his eyes bulge as he puts his shaking hands out to stop the onslaught. Perusing a record store in the following weeks, he came across a Couch album and immediately bought it, thinking, “How could this band have a record?” He was shocked that he recognized some of their songs from the live show. Mesmerized by the idea that Couch’s chaotic barrage of noise was a composed and replicable song, Aaron went back to the store and demanded more music just like it.
The albums that followed would be Aaron’s entryway into the experimental. In his store, he still keeps copies of many of the albums that he found in his teenage years. Aaron has three albums by Caroliner, a band who adds to their name, and their roster, with every album that they release. For one album, they were Caroliner Rainbow Splinter Mind Deserves, and for another, Caroliner Rainbow Hernia Milk Queen. Chuckling and eager to share the off-brand humor, Aaron brings over two of their records to show me. Each one is wrapped in a different form of makeshift sleeve, “this one is made out of an adult diaper wrapper,” he says, and it’s closed with a Caroliner sticker. The first Caroliner record he bought came in a box filled with moldy newspaper and other junk. Galvanized by the band’s humor and sound, Aaron reveled in the mysterious and unapologetic quality of bands like Caroliner. “It was music, but it was indescribable,” he remembers. “What rubbed me the wrong way about academic experimental music is that the mystery is gone.”
In the early 1990s, Aaron and his friends abandoned their grunge band chords in pursuit of that inexplicable sound. They teamed up with a girl from their high school—“oh, you play the oboe? How weird! Wanna be in our band?”—and Galen was born. Aaron, by now an exposed sentimentalist, still has the Toxic Shock catalog that he used to order random albums from by name alone, consequently getting turned on to bands from Japan and Switzerland. For all the angst and subversion of punk and experimental music, there is a real camaraderie between members of the underground; the randomness of their band names celebrates a commitment to shattering the predictable. They were soldiers of confusion, and they were armed with a new brand of noise.
Aaron and the rest of Galen saved up the money to self-press a record when Bulb Records (Couch’s label) offered to distribute if Galen could cover the cost of pressing the LPs. After putting an ad in Bananafish, another music index, he started getting letters and orders from around the world. “I had all these new pen pals,” he says and smiles. Galen was the first band to release an LP with Hanson Records in 1994, and by ’96 Hanson had released the albums of three other artists, friends of Galen and travelling artists in the Ann Arbor underground.
After a few years touring with Galen, two of the members moved to New York City for college, and the band dissolved into smaller, more transient projects. Aaron “got tired of playing strange guitar. I wanted to play chords again.” He had already been finding tapes and recording over them for years when his friend Nate Young presented a tape called Wolf Eyes by Paul Winter and another of Robert Redford reading Peter and the Wolf, with a B-side of howling realistic wolf cries. Nate taped over Wolf Eyes with a mixture of organ sounds and wolf howling from the Redford tape and named the new project, fittingly, Wolf Eyes. Aaron started playing guitar on Nate’s recordings and quickly became a lasting member of the group, his last band affiliation before his solo career.
For seven years, Dilloway helped Wolf Eyes gain critical acclaim— something that most, if not all, noise bands never achieve. Written up in publications like Spin and The Wire, Wolf Eyes saw an unprecedented amount of daylight for a predominantly underground band. Pitchfork, another widely read site for popular and new music, wrote that in the early aughts, Wolf Eyes was “the most visible band in the international noise scene.” They were “the face of noise for a generation,” shaping public perception of what had previously been an unknown and deeply misunderstood genre.
[blocktext align=”left”]Burroughs’ deep, surprisingly nerdy, voice details the collaging of language and sound: cutting into things with the intention of rearranging them. What emerges, he says, can sometimes predict the future, “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”[/blocktext]Touring with bands like Sonic Youth and Andrew W.K. boosted Wolf Eyes’ listenership while simultaneously (and nearly singlehandedly) dragging noise music into the limelight. But they did not submit to the hype. Wolf Eyes churned out hundreds of unabashedly eclectic songs that incorporated heavy industrial beats, loose noise, and messily ominous undertones. But because of their infectious energy and authentically experimental spirit, Wolf Eyes became one of “the most important experimental bands in the world.” Aaron Dilloway had reached the top.
In 2005, he left for Nepal to accompany his wife during her field research. By the time he returned, Wolf Eyes was gearing up to tour again, and he bowed out in an almost romantic gesture, letting the band go on without him. Mike Connelly had joined in his absence and Dilloway was admittedly reluctant to pick up and travel again. Instead, he left the band, which would go on to reap the benefits of fame for another seven years.
Modest to the point of full on erasure, Aaron told me nothing about Wolf Eyes’ staggering success. He appears to have escaped the spotlight unscathed, devoid of any distasteful grasping for his glory days. Which is not to say that Wolf Eyes was the peak of Aaron’s career. In fact, his most prized work was still six years away.
The last album we listen to together is at my request, a spoken word collection of William Burroughs recordings. One of which, “Origin and Theory of Tape Cut-ups” happens to be part of the manifesto of noise music; Dilloway himself covered its importance in a music-related Podcast. Burroughs’ deep, surprisingly nerdy, voice details the collaging of language and sound: cutting into things with the intention of rearranging them. What emerges, he says, can sometimes predict the future, “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” The ultimate trick has been played when your randomness reinvents itself. This notion is central to the experimental nature of noise music. Aaron also describes his songwriting process as a study in deviation: “I have a skeleton of what I’ll do … within that skeleton there’s a lot of improv, and it depends on the vibe, where it will go.” Trusting the artist to pull the music where it needs to go is the progressive and empowering side of noise. “How random is random?” Burroughs philosophizes; when is your unconscious mind pulling a fast one on your reasoning, letting you believe you have the power to surprise yourself? Modern Jester, Aaron’s biggest musical accomplishment to date, toys with these central ideas.
[blocktext align=”left”]Each field recording has been peeled from reality and shaken, stretched, and scratched into original sounds.[/blocktext]Released in 2011, Modern Jester took roughly five years from concept to finish. Beginning before the birth of his son, and ending just after the birth of his daughter, Modern Jester is the culmination of Aaron’s recent work. It is a feat of trickery, at once mysterious and personal, dark and funny. Aaron’s wife, a Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College, and his son and daughter, can all be found on the inside cover wearing masks or holding live snakes. The album is comprised of seven songs, two of which are eighteen minutes long. Each track buzzes and grates with static, while balancing the deep valleys of gulping subwoofers and melodic, frenzied beeps. He pointed me to track four, Body Chaos, an eighteen-minute epic of loops interrupted by and interrupting scattered explosions of organic tape recordings. Each field recording has been peeled from reality and shaken, stretched, and scratched into original sounds. While I am timid to suggest anything about the overarching meaning of the tones (taking Aaron’s advice about the value of explanation), Body Chaos embraces the notion of a perpetually impending, tumbling, and improvised future.
Now, Aaron travels to weekend gigs almost once a month. Recently, his music has been featuring whistling and “tap dancing” (Aaron tapping his feet against his chair and other objects). Far from a stubbornly reflective musician, Dilloway keeps up to date with current noise and experimental music happening on campus. Hanson Records even becomes a venue every now and again, hosting students and travelling bands in its lobby at the top of the stairs. Dilloway has been talking with Tom Lopez, the Associate Professor of Computer and Digital Arts at Oberlin’s Conservatory about collaborating to produce LPs featuring compilations of student and faculty work.
Now that his wife’s tenure has secured Oberlin as their long-term home, and Hanson Records has been well-received by students and locals, Aaron is enjoying his Dadly responsibilities and continues to seek new inspiration. Invisible to the untrained eye, Dilloway’s presence has drawn noise and experimental talent from far and wide to the sleepy college town in search of collaboration.
To those who don’t know Aaron’s noise music prowess, Hanson is a run-of-the-mill record store. But a wall of complex and chaotic noise will blow back anybody willing to peer into Hanson Records’ roots. And they just might come back for more.
Zoe Gould is a writer based in Oberlin, Ohio.
“Aaron Dilloway’s Walls Of Noise: Hanson Records” by Zoe Gould appears in Best of Belt, our first-year print anthology. Order the book here: http://bit.ly/BestOfBelt
Great writing. Great story.
To echo above, this is superb writing. Had I not already been interested in the subject, I’d have been drawn in immediately. Thank you…
Great article. Can’t wait to visit!
Wonderful; really a joy to read!