"When Suzanne and I got together, it was in the context of playing in a band. We quickly split off from that, and our greatest interest at the time was to be alone. We never wanted to go back to being a pop band, but we never threw away any possibilities. Our interest in doing music has mainly been about feelings and emotions. It's a ritual for us."
For 18 years, that ritual has created some of the most diligently collected experimental records in the underground world, while keeping the band faceless in the eyes of the public. The group's releases typically feature abstract art for covers, its songs veer wildly from genre to genre, and live performances are about as common as three-sided toast. Even high-profile gigs at the Oakland Museum and Fillmore seemed more like freak blips on the radar than plotted points on a career trajectory. But now, after three years of little activity, Gendreau and Crawling With Tarts are coming out of self-imposed isolation. How far out remains to be seen.
Michael Gendreau met Suzanne Dycus in Santa Monica in 1983 when he joined her punk band Youth Camp, which also included her boyfriend. After collaborating on a punk fanzine called Youths Gone Camping, the duo fled town (and her boyfriend) and ran off to Mexico. When they eventually returned to California, they decided they had no interest in creating another rock band that was tied to conventional song structures and instrumentation.
"For us the musical expression was way more important than any kind of style or instrument," says Gendreau. The love-struck couple immediately started recording at home, incorporating self-made noisemakers, old records, and an odd assortment of percussion into standard guitar, bass, and drum tracks. The results ranged from noisy collages to almost free-jazz clatter to the occasional primitive pop number. Dycus-Gendreau's unaffected voice and poetic verse swelled amidst the duo's minimalist chord progressions and Gendreau's proggy drumming. (Madeline, released in 1995 on S.F.'s Silent Records, compiles the best of these songs.)
Over time Crawling With Tarts dispensed with its tenuous links to pop music, preferring to tinker with tape decks and xylophones instead of rehearsing a live set for clubgoers. "Once you start playing this kind of intuitive music, it's really hard to go back to "1-2-3-4, sing the song, play the guitar.' It just doesn't seem as fresh and exciting," says Dycus-Gendreau. As a result of their methods, the Tarts seldom played out; however, while Gendreau was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late '80s, the twosome got its own radio show at KZSC-FM. On the air, the pair indulged in songs, sounds, and absurd theme shows such as "The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots."
"We found that between the two of us, we didn't need the rest of the world, and if we had this form of music, we had the best form of expression in the world," Gendreau explains. "So we were hidden for many years."
The couple often chose to live in isolated locations -- a seven-acre ranch outside Santa Cruz, a house in the forest near Felton -- where they could concentrate on music. Dycus-Gendreau began populating these places with 3-foot-tall sculptures of colorful stick figures (now they line the walls of their garage). "Suzanne made these in a lot of ways to keep out evil spirits, protecting our isolation and our ability to live and work in peace," Gendreau says without irony. "We ran into a lot of little conflicts with neighbors who didn't really like us putting these strange totems in our front yard!"
Fearing that no "real" label would release the rustic and eclectic material the pair was creating, Crawling With Tarts formed ASP, a cassette-only label, in 1984. The two spent many hours crafting art for each release, silk-screening, block printing, Xeroxing, and painting the sleeves. Through OP magazine (later known as Option), the group discovered a growing number of home-recording artists who traded tapes across the globe. By joining this network, the Tarts had an outlet for a music far removed from the record industry.
"The first contact I had was with people from Europe, and then Japan," says Gendreau. "Now it's expanded to other parts of the world with participation from places like Russia and South America." The friendly response from overseas was a big encouragement, and the first Tarts cassette was quickly rereleased in Holland, with various labels in France selling subsequent albums. By the early '90s, ASP still remained the chief purveyor of CWT product, although the label switched to CD releases to meet the growing demand.
"A record company doesn't trust a band that isn't able to hold onto a particular style," Gendreau says in explanation of his continuing self-distribution. "That doesn't rule what we do, but it's important for us to have this freedom of trying different styles without people having expectations."
This free-form attitude allows for a palpable giddiness on the group's recordings. The excellent 1994 CD Mayten's Throw showcases the band's kaleidoscope of styles, including atonal accordion rants, bleating horns, musique concrète noise, and new wavey pop. From track to track, it's hard to predict what will come next.
"I apply this idea now when I'm cooking or doing landscaping," says Dycus-Gendreau. "You start throwing different elements together. Sometimes you get globs and monsters, but most of the time it's surprising. When you can invent something new, that's the exciting part."
In the mid-'90s, Crawling With Tarts applied this concept to its "Operas" series. The band created loose and lengthy scores, using turntables to mix ancient recordings of science lectures, duck sounds, and opera singers. Over the sound of weathered 78s surface noise, the pair added live percussion to create surrealist soundscapes. Word spread about the operas, and the couple, then residing in Oakland, received offers for shows. To solve the problem of performing as a duo, the Tarts used turntables as surrogate band members. "With the "Operas' we started to do more serious gigs like the Oakland Museum of Modern Art," Dycus-Gendreau laughs.
The popularity of its turntable operas led to coverage in fanzines and a growing awareness in hip circles, but Crawling With Tarts' brief moment in public faded when the couple's first daughter was born in 1994. "Dedicating yourself to being a mom is a huge sacrifice, no matter if you're a housewife or an artist or whatever," Dycus-Gendreau admits. "It's the same tragedy that happens: You have this beautiful baby, but you have to slow down."
While Dycus-Gendreau chose to use her small amount of free time to work on her visual art (which graces all of the Tarts' releases), Gendreau took to guesting in noise ensembles like Big City Orchestra and Speed the Parting Guest and playing drums for noisy rock group Rrope, whose six-year run included a prestigious show opening for Sonic Youth at the Fillmore in 1997 and the CD Mahagonny on Oakland's Silly Bird Records.
Soon after the Sonic Youth gig, Gendreau quit making music altogether, feeling overextended by projects and family concerns (the couple's second daughter was born in 1997). Not surprisingly, he found this isolation only fueled his obsession with sound. Combining his previous interests with his new vocation as a consultant on noise and vibration control, he began researching why certain combinations of seemingly random sounds make beautiful music. He eventually realized that such mysteries could only be experienced and not explained, and returned to playing. "I went back to making music without having to worry about what it meant," he says.
After recording at home for many months, he started doing solo performances last January. Even more than before, however, Gendreau is taking his music further away from regular structures and instruments. During a recent show opening for world-renowned Spanish sound artist Francisco López at the 3 Feet Off the Ground gallery, Gendreau coaxed symphonic noise out of a huge compressed-air tank and accelerometers that converted vibrations into electrical signals. The resulting music sounded something like bell tones heard echoing down a windy shore or an airplane idling on a runway. (Gendreau plans to release 55 Pas de la Ligne au No. 3, a solo CD of similar material, on local sound-art label 23five in the near future; he is also working on several collaborations with López for the Spaniard's Absolute label.)
Dycus-Gendreau is also ready to return to recording. "When my 4-year-old goes to kindergarten, it'll be the first time in a while that I'll be able to have three hours to myself every day, and Michael and I will probably start playing music again."
In the meantime, Crawling With Tarts fans and other adventurous listeners will have to content themselves with the group's massive back catalog. While the numerous cassettes are impossible to find, several CDs and LPs are available: 1993's Operas is the best document of the Tarts' turntable experiments, while the double 7-inch EP Motorini Electrini is an arresting microsymphony using tiny motors run on 9-volt batteries. I Am Telephoning a Star is the band's most recent release, another enticing grab-bag that throws the occasional rock song in with abstract screeches and rumbles. No matter what the focus of a particular release, however, each is a playful extrapolation of Crawling With Tarts' ritual of sound-making.
And with the rituals so much a part of their home life, the Gendreaus' children seem interested in carrying on the family tradition. "One of our daughters does it now too," Dycus-Gendreau says. "She'll have a whole little setup of gongs and cymbals, putting marbles inside them, just playing and experiencing the beauty of sound. When Michael is away on a business trip, she'll get on the phone and say, "Poppa, listen to this sound,' while tapping on some object."