Sounds sorcerer queers up his act
By SUSAN G. COLE
Don Pyle, drummer, digital manipulator and popular purveyor of all things punk, stands in front of his mammoth wall of records. He's got his hands on the one he wants in an instant.
"Here," he says, holding up the liner notes. It's got a drawing of a woman fully dressed, but bent over with her ass toward the viewer, glancing back.
"The New York Dolls debut disc," he explains.
Pyle heads over to the near ceiling-high stack of sound and computer gear set up in the middle of the same room.
An image emerges on screen. It's a Rob Clarke drawing of a man in the same pose, except that he's naked and his sphincter winks explicitly out from between his cheeks.
"This is what we're using," he says with a grin.
The we in this case is Pyle and co-conspirator Andrew Zealley, who together make up sound designers Barely Pink. They're using the image for the sleeve of their upcoming single Your Butt Is Love.
"This kind of thing, it's less about being out visibly," says Pyle. "It's about being bratty."
As usual. Still, the popular pan-collaborator -- ex-drummer for Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Fifth Column, former remix artist for King Cobb Steelie -- is obviously in a gay-positive mood.
For one thing, his current team of instrumental janglers, Phono-Comb, with Reid Diamond, Dallas Good, Beverly Breckenridge and Pyle on drums, plays the Lesbian and Gay Pride Stage prime time on Sunday.
For another, in Barely Pink -- just launching the box-edition set Gallerie Largeness #10, the latest in the multiple art series, containing four pulsating soundscapes -- he's engaged with Zealley in work that makes his gayness a given.
"This is the first project I've been involved in that's been 100-per-cent homosexual," says the voluble Pyle, more teddy bear than Ted, as he settles into his living room, which is also his bedroom, his recording studio and the stash for his gazillion records.
"With Andrew and me it winds up being about being queer because it's so much about who we are," he explains.
"We like to push each other to extremes and go further out both musically and personally."
They share tastes, too, for avant-garde, punk and natural rhythms. But for Pyle, any sound has musical potential. If he records a band in his bedroom, you might catch the buzz of a plane going by or the meow of his cat on the tapes, all in the service of the track.
His ears were opened wide early on.
"When we were 10, my best friend and I would go down to Sam the Record Man at 9 o'clock in the morning to buy records. Then we'd stay at each other's places and watch Don Kirschner's Rock Concert and Midnight Special. We'd see the New York Dolls on TV and then run out to buy their records the next day."
Pyle was born at the right time and place. At other points in rock history there would have been no one for a 15-year-old, just-forming faggot to turn to for musical inspiration. The 60s rock explosion, especially in North America, was a het haven and, except for queercore way off in its corner, the alterna-scene in the 90s gives nearly no visibility to gay sensibilities.
But Pyle was 15 in the 70s, and the 70s had punk.
"In the punk scene early on in 1976 in this city, Rough Trade were playing, he remembers. "So were the Dishes and all the OCA bands -- the Diodes at the Crash and Burn. The events were put on by people who were involved in OCA, which was very gay, and the art scene was attached to the music scene in a way that it isn't now.
"I was 12 when I bought the Ziggy Stardust record. Liking Bowie and the New York Dolls, later you realize what about those things was really attracting you. Besides the fact that it was a great record, it was so ultra-faggoty and glamorous."
In the mid-80s, he connected with Diamond and Brian Connelly, old friends from his teen years when they were in a band together.
"I was the singer, " he says.
"Oh, can you sing?"
Stupid question. But Pyle is kind.
"No way. It was punk, you know."
This time around, though, Diamond and Connelly were looking for a drummer while hooking up with writer and performer Bruce McCulloch.
Pyle couldn't play drums, either, but so what? He'd learn. He did. And the surf-abilly instrumentals of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet went into orbit. McCulloch broke out as one of the Kids in the Hall, and the Men became the Kids' companion band, putting together over 100 pieces a year for the TV show.
During the band's 11-year life, there were opportunities to spin off -- Pyle did a brief stint thrashing with grrrl-illas Fifth Column -- but as Pyle puts it, "If you haven't started growing in different directions after 11 years, then there's something wrong with the relationship."
"Since Shadowy Men split, I'm freed up. Everything has exploded at once -- keyboards, sampling, electronic stuff, recording, writing."
But the Kids experience definitely took him to the next step of his artistic development. There was a lot more to the TV gig than tossing off a few stings. They were scoring scenes in a way that fed Pyle's growing fascination with electronic instruments and other genres.
With digital recording technologies rising fast and Pyle's punk sensibilities leading the way, Pyle transformed himself yet again into a one-man recording crew, joining King Cobb Steelie as remix artist and working independently on other sound design projects.
"When I think about punk, I don't think of a type of music. I think of an ideology of 'anything goes' and doing things for yourselves, and making things happen the way you want them to happen and not relying on something larger to manifest your life or your career for you."
That includes anything like identity politics. With a vision as elastic as Pyle's, he doesn't want to get caught up in a single agenda.
Ask him outright and he'd say that a band like Pansy Division, the notoriously out punk outfit from San Francisco, was great and important but limited by its focus. He'd rather gayness were a non-issue and that he could go about his work making soundscapes rock.
But visibility has its value, and he knows it. The number of people who cross over communities the way he does is very small -- he's pretty sure he can name all the people in Toronto who might be seen at a gay club and a straight rock club on the same night.
Touring with Phono-Comb, he stays acutely aware that there aren't many kindred spirits out there.
"Visibility allows you to find the people who share experiences with you," says Pyle. "You find the one person in Philadelphia, the one person in Olympia. You put yourself out and it becomes a network, almost like a fanzine kind of thing. I know I gravitated toward Fifth Column because of their sense of forming some kind of community bonds out of something where they saw no place for themselves.
"I want to be more visible for selfish reasons, too -- to be able to play music and have friendships where you can talk about anything as a full experience, where nothing has to be censored, or decoded."
And though he's quick to deny any motivation to be a role model, he suddenly pulls off a puckish grin.
"Of course, if a 17-year-old writes to me and asks me questions about being queer, and six months later declares himself a queen, I'd be completely excited.
"Let's keep hold of the idea of recruitment so that we can keep the right wing upset."
NOW JUNE 26-JULY 2, 1997