Saturday, August 08, 2009

Surface Noise

Surface Noise

Surface Noise put out "Copycat Suicide" in 1993, as an 8-Track tape. For those of you my age and younger, 8-Track tapes were a form of media which went the way of the dinosaur (making way for cassette tapes, then compact discs and MP3), a long time before 1993. So, this was something of a novelty to be sure, quite apart from the content of the recording, which was a mix of rock, sound collage and a variety of other influences.

Their novel approach didn't stop there. The band, consisting of Phil Emery and Gary Roscoe Johnson, marketed themselves as an "Exclusive Franchise Opportunity," which meant forming your own band, taking the name Surface Noise, programming your sampler with the same raw sounds (included at the end of their CD) and recreating the songs in your own neighborhood. I think The Tape-beatles had a similar idea at some point in their development, and The Evolution Control Committee invited the reinterpretation of their track "Rocked by Rape," by including all of the spoken words, acapella, on the B side of that release, as well.

Johnson also put together a sort of anti-tribute album, titled "FU2", around the same time. The compilation was an angry shoutout against the current state of copyright law, largely leveled at the band U2, whose label had just sued Negativland for copyright infringment.

They've both continued on in the creative field. Emery is in advertising and design, in Toronto, while Johnson is a practicing tattoo artist in Detroit. Check out his website HERE. Without further ado, here's the SAR Q&A with Surface Noise...

*Name: Surface Noise

*Are there any additional names used to describe this project: Well, we sometimes used the obvious abbreviation "SN" and made a logo out of the two letters that resembled a dollar sign. We considered ourselves a "Sonic Franchise" though, not really a band.

*Do you use a pseudonym?
I have many pseudos, but went by "235" or "Sir Face" in SN. Collaborator Phil Emery went by "The Noise". So, basically between the two of us, we were "Sir Face, Noise" or "Surface Noise". Aren't we clever?


Technically, there were 2 members, but if we ever got the "franchising" idea going, there would have been a cast of thousands.

Noise: We did have a bass player for a bit, but I don’t think we did much with him - but apart from that it was just 235 & me.

*Founding Members: Phil Emery (Noise): Guitar, Bass, Feedback, rhythm programming, concept. Gary Roscoe Johnson (235): Vocals, lyrics, sampling, rhythm programming, concept.

*Tape manipulations, digital deconstructions or turntable creations:
It would be digital deconstruction, although at the time that meant doing everything with 235’s Ensoniq EPS16. There were no real affordable digital audio workstation systems for computers at that time.

*Another genre descriptor: "Post-Media" would be the category we'd use to describe our music.

*Why you use this descriptor:

As mentioned above, we categorized ourselves as a "Sonic Franchise". The idea was that folks worldwide could use the name "Surface Noise" to make their own music; We hoped that other musicians would sample and/or cover our songs and even provided isolated samples at the end of our record "CopyCat Suicide" for this purpose.

Noise: Yeah, it would work just like a real Franchise – you’d pay some kind of paltry fee and get disks of samples, midi-files of the songs, lyrics, standard graphics – then you take all that stuff, put your own spin on it and perform as Surface Noise in your local area – kind of a post-media version of the “Bozo the Clown” business – with less make up and no floppy shoes, of course.


Phil and I met while working at Kinkos Copies on Bloor in Toronto in the late '80's back when the company was fun and funky. He was born and raised in Toronto. I am an American citizen who had achieved Landed Immigrant status to work in Canada. I was born and raised in the Detroit area, where I returned to work at our family business, Johnson Tattoo.

*What is your creative/artistic background:

We both had graphics backgrounds and training. I'd also served a stint in the U.S. Army as a Heavy Wheeled Vehicle Operator and attended art school for 2 years before having to drop out for lack of funding.

Noise: I was in the Canadian Militia for a bit but left once I realized I didn’t really want to kill anyone and that I never looked good in green. 235 was always working with his sampler and putting out great tapes – I was doing the usual Toronto indie bar band thing (which at the time meant how close you could get to sounding like The Smiths). I actually never got involved in graphics until I worked at Kinko’s, but since then I have my own advertising/design practice after going to Ontario College of Art part time after work.

We started Surface Noise in the mid 1990's after working together in other bands such as Braino.

Noise: Braino was a sort of improv – jazz wacko band, although after a while it morphed into a more traditional approach.

We're old guys now. I was born in 1962, and Phil a couple of years later I think.

Noise: Yep.

235: We were taking the cue from groups like Negativland and John Oswald who wanted to construct music by collaging various sources together to make a comment on sampling, collage, and appropriation itself.

Noise: Yeah, that and girls.

235: Yeah, being in a high-concept band about sound collage and appropriation was a virtual electromagnet for female interest!


We wanted to make music that would be impossible to license from a copyright perspective. We sampled soundbytes that themselves were sampled from other sources, covered other musicians' covertunes ("Helter Boring" was technically a cover of U2's cover of the Beatles song; We included samples from the Beatles' original and several other Helter Skelter covers, including but not limited to: U2, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Husker Du. Mixed in soundbytes from Charles Manson and Mr. Magoo for good measure.)

Noise: We started to realize that all music, all art actually, is sampled. It’s just sampled with your brain and played back with your hands. When a country drummer starts to do a hip-hop pattern, he just didn’t make it up – he heard that on the way to the rehearsal – and his band mates will say that it’s out of their “style” – a “style” is just a series of previously heard bits of music that everyone unconsciously agrees belongs together. The whole suing other artist trend that started around then was just a krock that smart lawyers used to get money from dull-brained record exec’s.

*How would you like to be remembered:

Clever smartass and a great, rollicking lay.

Noise: slightly taller

*Web address:

We don't have an official website anymore, but I can be reached at:

Noise: Keep in mind that we predated the internet – well the web at least. We did release a single on the OneNet network (a global network of First Class Software based bulletin boards) to the joy of some, and annoyance of many. I think I may still own the domain.

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