When discussing music made under the influence of chemicals, the default archetype is 1960s psychedelia, with its implied pharmaceutical and sonic excess. Some genres like Texan chopped and screwed music were brought about by the recreational consumption of cough syrup. What about considering the opposite — music made under conditions of deliberate chemical withdrawal? Or obscene amounts of Shasta?
"It was a two-month-long inpatient dietary study where they were researching choline, an essential nutrient and neurotransmitter," Rachal Spikula explained in a recent e-mail. "We were being depleted of [choline] to determine whether the body could produce it itself and at what rate." These were the circumstances that spawned the 2009 noise album Birth of an Older, Much More Ugly Christ, which Spikula made with her twin sister Roxann under the moniker Relay for Death. They produced the whole thing in a University of North Carolina lab — Room 2233 at the GCRC Hospital, to be exact. They released an LP edition on Hanson Records and pressed up 300 copies.
"It was hell, but also like the poor person's meditation retreat," Rachal wrote of the experience. Such forms of self-induced exploitation have always been a viable option for a certain breed of migrant musicians. "It's just something we do for money because we don't have many options and would rather sell our bodies to science than our souls to wage labor."
The music thus generated documents isolation and claustrophobia, hazy drones made with whatever materials were available. "We had a reel-to-reel tape machine, an old mixer, a Califone record player, some old taped recordings of ours, and VHS tapes we got from the library for source sounds," Rachal wrote. "Also because the study was all inpatient we had daily chaperoned 'outings.' The chaperones would make sure we didn't try to sneak a piece of broccoli." The twins convinced one of their UNC student chaperones to lend them a microphone from the school's media department "to record the daily nothing that went on." Sounds on the LP make it easy to fill in the backstory: internal machine hums, those ominous VHS snippets, and a creeping escalation of discomfort amidst tedium.
At present, The Spikulas split their time between the East Bay and North Carolina, where they were in the now defunct noise project Boyzone. When asked what ended that group, Rachal replied, "everyone dispersed or had babies." Touring and medical experiments frequently bring them back south, and they spent most of the past year in North Carolina caring for a grandfather who passed away in the spring. The sisters' resourcefulness with antiquated technology may be a family trait, or at least learned behavior. Rachal described their grandfather as "a Ukrainian hardliner radio engineer and Depression-era hoarder. He built his house and five or so other buildings and shacks on his property to house his radio equipment and everything else he never threw away." She said their dad inherited the property, but not the hoarder proclivities. "He claims to be an anarcho-nihilist who wants NOTHING, and has been haphazardly scrapping things so we've been here trying to preserve the old machines and interesting shit [to] keep it from the scrap yard."
Despite all their familial obligations, the twins don't consider North Carolina a permanent home. They keep coming back to the Bay Area. "Oakland has a harsh beauty that we love," Rachal wrote. For her, "harsh beauty" is as easy to romanticize as small-town gloom. And it's a fecund source of inspiration. In addition to Relay for Death, the twins started an art installation and dance project called Atrophy Motor. "It was improv sound and movement with a vague guiding mood — desolation and atrophy I guess, and our interpretations of it and how to translate it to become the mood or environment," Rachal wrote. "We didn't talk about it too much. It was just kind of like 'go.'" The project takes on new dancers and performers as it travels from town to town.
Aaron Dilloway, who runs Hanson, says that Birth of an Older, Much More Ugly Christ sold out quickly and is being reissued on cassette. It feels like the right format. It's easy to imagine chain letters of magnetic tape passing through generations of this family, rescuing artifacts from the scrap heap and repurposing abandoned technology. Rachal had some tapes of her own stolen from an Atrophy Motor performance at her Fruitvale home. These were recordings Roxann had made of their grandfather labeled "Grandpa talks about Tesla" and "Grandpa talks about Sex." One of the tapes turned back up. Perhaps its inherent value was lost on the thief.