Live music has always elicited an array of responses: clapping, moshing, a sea of cigarette lighters raised aloft. The sounds of Noise Nomads—the current vehicle for revered Western Mass noise peddler Jeff Hartford—have provoked reactions on the extreme end of the spectrum.
"Once I caused a woman to start her period," Hartford says. "Another woman got really sad and puked. I guess the sounds I create would have this effect on someone. In the past, performances have been very physical on my part, throwing myself around the room. Rarely do I attack people, though, or do anything really outrageous or grotesque visually."
In fact, on a recent Monday night in Northampton, Hartford—a hulking, bearded, long-haired force of nature—spent the entire span of his performance with his back to the sizeable crowd.
"I don't usually want to look anyone in the face," he says. "For me it's not about getting up in front of people and saying, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a goofball' or whatever. My focus is always on the sounds I'm creating. I don't want to distract myself from that."
Monday night's performance found Hartford blasting a series of deafening, gut-rattling notes from a monolithic homemade amp of metal and wood. The pulsating tones varied in length and frequency and their effect was otherworldly: the soundtrack to an alien video game or the death throes of an evil robot; the music prehistoric man might have made were he handed guitars and a series of effects pedals.
All of the noise this particular evening emanated from a plastic toy guitar.
"All the equipment I use is given to me by friends," Hartford explains. "I rarely buy my own stuff. Therefore I end up with lots of different things that may be in working order or not. This greatly affects the sounds that I may produce at any given time."
"Noise Nomads, though plural, is a singular curiosity," says Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, when asked to comment on Hartford's music. Moore spent that particular Monday—the eve of the release of his band's 16th album, The Eternal—mere feet away from the gesticulating performer. "He's a somber yet potentially imposing gentleman who fully embodies the sobriquet 'noise artist' as he blurs the distinction between sound and vision in his work. Whatever he shows, wherever he plays, he makes living in the pleasant Valley that much more incredible."
Hartford began making music in 1994. "It started out as Defecation, and I would make recordings in my bedroom with multiple boom boxes, creating a very lo-fi four-track technique," he recalls. "Around 2000, I decided that I needed a new direction and I had a sense of where I wanted to go, so I thought Noise Nomads would be for that purpose."
His philosophy is simple: "Music is all around us. I try to recognize that and add to it with my performances." Hartford claims that less than half of any given performance is pre-planned, and those elements usually only coalesce at the last minute. His music exists in the present.
While Noise Nomads has always been a one-man show, Hartford often collaborates with others in the form of different bands. He currently drums for Grey Skull, an improvised "doom/sludge outfit"; sings in Buddyship, an improvised metal band; and performs with Jerk Curtain, a "harsh noise ensemble." He has also played on a few recent occasions with legendary Connecticut sax player Paul Flaherty. "This is a new direction for me," Hartford says. "Playing with Paul has been a rewarding challenge."
Hartford is currently working on a live Noise Nomads LP entitled To Live as Jackals, comprising recordings culled from his performances last year throughout New England. The album is due in July, and will be available at Mystery Train Records in Amherst.