INTERVIEW: Brett Eugene Ralph on Surface Noise, Punk Rock, & Schoolin’!

A modern day renaissance man, Brett Eugene Ralph is the real deal. A prominent figure at the birth of punk in Louisville, Ralph sang for seminal acts Malignant Growth and Fading Out before going into academia to study literature. It didn’t stop there though, as Ralph went on to form Rising Shotgun, and later Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Revue, who are still performing. Feeling the stress from his work in academia and his writing, Ralph recently opened Surface Noise, the newest addition to the Louisville record store community. Check out his music below and read on to learn more about his new enterprise, his old work, and whether or not there is a God!

Never Nervous: What prompted you to open Surface Noise? Tell us a little about the store and its origin.

Brett Eugene Ralph:I started saving my allowance to buy records when I was seven years old and have been collecting them ever since. A few years ago, Nathan Erickson told me he was going to create an open-air flea market, which he initially envisioned as a monthly record fair. He asked me if I’d like to be involved. I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to cull my collection down to something more manageable, a plan that backfired miserably. Still, sitting outside and listening to records on Steve Driesler’s Califone proved to be a blast, as was having an excuse to hunt for and buy great records I already owned.

All of this was happening at a time when I was getting burnt out on teaching and disillusioned with the direction of 21st century academia, so I started pipe-dreaming about opening a store. I had worked at Phoenix Records while I was in high school, and I’d hung out at Twice Told Books on the reg as soon as I discovered it. My plan was to open a store upon my retirement from teaching that split the difference between the two. Bill Barriger heard through the grapevine that I was looking to open a record store, something he longed to do as well, and he approached me about pooling our resources. The location at 600 Baxter seemed perfect: it’s across the street from Magnetic Tape, Louisville’s only turn table sale and repair shop, and as everyone knows, you gotta cross that corner at Baxter and Payne to get almost anywhere in this part of town. It seemed too good to pass up, and it was a way for me to realize my dream of opening a store without having to quit my job to do it.

“I was getting burnt out on teaching and disillusioned with the direction of 21st century academia, so I started pipe-dreaming about opening a store.”

NN: In a market relatively flush with record stores, how do you hope to stand out? Is there any one specialty that you gravitate towards?

BER: I was very conscious of wanting to create a specific kind of environment that invites people to linger, hang out, and cross-pollinate. There have always been great record stores in Louisville, but since Harold Maier closed Twice Told Books, I can’t really think of another establishment in town that serves as a kind of literary salon or creative nerve center as Twice Told did. I know a whole lot of people in this city—as Billy does from his decades as a promoter here in town—so we seemed well-suited to establish a store that functions as much as a social setting as a place of business. We’ve tried to deepen this by having near-monthly customer-appreciation parties. We also have a guest deejay spinning records every Friday from 5:00-7:00 p.m., which is not only loads of fun but really instructive—each week I am turned on to songs, records, and artists I’ve never heard before. We have also been hosting intimate musical performances in the store a couple of times a month, usually on Sundays at 4:00.

Another answer is that with somewhat limited floor space, we have to be discriminating about what we carry because we simply can’t put out as much stock as Better Days or Guestroom. While we do have some cheap racks with more commonly found records, most of what we have out front on the main floor is good stuff, noteworthy either for its rarity, its condition, and/or the quality of the music.

We have also arranged our stock into categories that create new groupings of genres. For instance, our section entitled Tell City is devoted to the narrative arts, which includes Country, Bluegrass, Folk, and Blues as well as Singer-Songwriters. Boogie Mountain initially housed Metal, Prog Rock, and Hard/Heavy Rock, but when we bought a bunch of Modern Cult’s metal albums when they went out of business, we had to move the Metal off of Boogie Mountain. Our other main sections are What Is Soul?, which focuses on African American musical genres, and Something Witchy, which is mainly Punk Rock and Post-Punk, along with the kinds of books punk rockers like to read: stuff about Sex, Death, and Revolution. We have a shelf of books in the What Is Soul? section devoted to the black experience, and a third shelf at the front of the store filled with edgier fiction, nonfiction, and books related to all genres of music.

Our bookshelves were hand-painted by Richard Peyton AKA “Mooch,” who also designed the Surface Noise logo. Signs announcing our various categories were commissioned from Sean Garrison, Rachel Hertzman, Catherine Irwin, and Joel McDonald; Sean also painted our sandwich board out front, and Jason Brownstein painted the design on the outside of the store. Catherine also created the faux telephone poles that stand in our front window showcase. It is important to me to support the local artists who support us. In the not-too-distant future, I hope we can redo one of our back rooms and open it up as a gallery space.

Another thing that sets us apart is the set of Klipsch La Scalas that we blast our in-store stereo through. Music sounds so damn good in there—it has become my favorite place to listen to music, and I listen to music everywhere.

NN: What got you into records and music? What were some of the first records you owned and how did they influence you?

The first record I owned was a 45 of Jim Croce’sBad Bad Leroy Brown,” which I’d gone crazy for when it was performed by Sonny and Cher on their TV show. Every week they’d cover some hit of the day, which served as the soundtrack for a garish 1970s cartoon based on the lyrics—I remember seeing cartoons for “Brand New Key” and “One Tin Soldier,” too. In all honesty, the cartoon probably captivated me as much as the song itself, though I still find Jim Croce pretty appealing.

The first album I remember listening to was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, the one record of my mother’s that wasn’t schmaltzy stuff like Englebert Humperdinck. That album may have shaped my sensibility as much as any other, its title track in particular, what with its story-driven funkiness and Gothic shadows suggesting illicit sex and secret crimes. My first real musical love was the Jackson 5, followed in close succession by Sweet, Elton John, and Queen, which led me full-throttle into all the hard rock of the day: Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, KISS. I was buying records and obsessed with music for almost ten years before I got turned on to punk rock, which I adore but certainly not to the exclusion of other genres of music.

NN: Relative to that, what new records have you heard that have you excited? Do you still seek out new music?

BER: Since we deal in used records almost exclusively, I don’t seek out a whole lot of new music—and most of the new LPs I buy tend to be reissues of music from the 60s and 70s. Most of the new music I listen to is local acts here in town and/or music made by my friends, both here and elsewhere. I still wait with anticipation for anything Catherine Irwin does, with or without Freakwater, and I’d be a fan of Will Oldham’s music even if we hadn’t been friends since we were kids. Josephine Foster might be the best singer-songwriter of my generation—I get excited about her new releases the way I used to be for Prince or Neil Young records way back when. Local bands I try not to miss of late include Black God, Blind Scryer, and Jaye Jayle.

“Most of the new music I listen to is local acts here in town and/or music made by my friends, both here and elsewhere.”

NN: While not unique to every record store in town, many have served as a venue for smaller shows or promotional gigs. Is that a plan there, to have live music ever?

BER: Yes, that plan has already come to fruition. Thus far, we have had performances by Misha Feigin and Jon Silpayamanant; John Paul Wright & friends; droneroom; Warren Ray; Chuck Baxter; Jacob Duncan, Misha Feigin, and John Silpayamanant; and Smiths Guild.

On July 9, we have a show by 38-Barbies (Joee Conroy and Joe Frey), and Jon Ashley will be returning to town on July 23. Our shows are free and open to the public, but we suggest a five-dollar donation and pass the hat, with all proceeds going to the performers.

NN: What were the logistical difficulties in starting up a new business? What hurdles are you meant to jump in order to get that done? What was easy and what was hard?

BER: I can’t speak for Bill, but it was all pretty hard for me, particularly while maintaining another demanding full-time job in another part of the state. The trauma is still fresh enough that I’d rather not revisit it, but it was most definitely worth it as the store’s success has exceeded our expectations, particularly in terms of people appreciating not just our selection and prices but the care we put into creating an aesthetically appealing and inviting environment.

NN: Switching gears, let’s talk about the music that you have and do create. What got you into punk rock and hardcore?

BER: My punk rock gateway drug was hearing “Mongoloid” on The Dr. Demento Show. Once I got through Devo, the B-52’s, the Clash, and the Pretenders—that is, “new wave” music one could hear on the radio—I just started perusing the imports at Phoenix Records and buying anything that looked cool, i.e., the songs had cuss words in them or the band members had leather jackets and fucked up haircuts.

NN: How did Malignant Growth start? What sticks out as most significant during that time of your life?

Malignant Growth started in 1979, three years before I joined. What is significant to me now is my sheer good fortune at having been invited at fifteen into a scene comprised of people who were mostly 5-10 years older than me and lifetimes cooler and smarter. Nobody ever pulled rank on me or held my youth against me, nor my humble South End roots, which is why I have little time for aging punks bemoaning their less sophisticated siblings in the scene.

“I have little time for aging punks bemoaning their less sophisticated siblings in the scene.”

One can’t help when s/he was born or what awesome shit happened before one got hip. I got a leg up from a lot of folks who had no real reason to help me other than magnanimity and a sense of radical inclusiveness. These are qualities I try to emulate in my store and in my personal life. Getting to share the stage with lots of my teenage heroes was pretty fucking righteous, too.

NN: How did that transition to Fading Out? To your mind, what is the difference between the two projects?

BER: I think that Malignant Growth is one of the greatest band names ever, but at the time I was a little embarrassed by it. Also, once Sid left the band, it was clear that we would never find a drummer as relentlessly fast as he was, so we started slowing down and going a little bit more “metal” like a lot of punk rock bands did circa 1985. “Fading out” is a quote from a Stooges song, and I was (and remain) obsessed with the Stooges, so I lobbied to change the name. Chris said, “If we call ourselves ‘Fading out,’ we will”—and so we did, until Will Oldham released our 1985 demo on Palace/Drag City ten years later. It remains in print, and Self-Destruct is in the process of releasing Malignant Growth’s 1982 demo as a 7”, which came out as a limited edition on France’s Who Cares? Records a few years back.

NN: I understand that you are a writer, in terms of your academic and professional background. Did or do you teach? If so, how was/is that?

BER: I do teach and have for 27 years. That’s a long time to do anything. I continue to feel privileged to help people express themselves more meaningfully, and I love getting to teach poetry writing and African American literature, but academia has changed a lot since I began teaching, and the increased politicization of educational funding has been a nightmare, not just for educators like me but for our entire American culture. I do not for a minute believe that Donald Trump could have been elected—or Matt Bevin, for that matter (if indeed either of them were)–had it not been for the slow and systematic decimation of public education in this country over the past 20 years.

“I do not for a minute believe that Donald Trump could have been elected—or Matt Bevin, for that matter (if indeed either of them were)–had it not been for the slow and systematic decimation of public education in this country over the past 20 years.”

NN: How has that impacted your music, if at all?

BER: The main way that teaching has impacted my music is by subsidizing it and affording me the time and relative freedom to continue pursuing it.

NN: What can you tell us about the Kentucky Chrome Revue? How did that project start? How has it evolved?

BER: “Kentucky Chrome” was one of the last songs I wrote in Rising Shotgun, a band that rose out of the ashes of Slint in 1991 and continued, off and on, for over a decade. I’d written a few other country-flavored tracks but wasn’t really happy with how they were faring as played by what had evolved into a three-guitar hard rock band. After Rising Shotgun broke up, I started playing “solo” shows, usually backed by a couple of friends like Todd Brashear, Wink O’Bannon, and Paz Lenchantin, who was living in Louisville at the time. Paz is one of the greatest bass players alive, and when I heard she was moving back to California, I decided I needed to get her in the studio before that happened, so I put together a core band of Wink, Paz, and Jason Loewenstein and started recording with Paul Oldham out at Rove.

A couple of years later, pretty much everyone I know had made a cameo on the record, which led me to refer to it as the Kentucky Chrome Revue, kinda like a country version of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, some of my favorite music ever. Noise Pollution released that record in 2010, and in the decade or so since those initial sessions, maybe a hundred people have passed through the band, live or in the studio. I have a second full-length album completed, which I hope to find a home for soon. I took a two-year hiatus from performing to get Surface Noise up and running, but I returned to the stage just a few weeks ago, opening for R.Ring at Monnik, a set for which I was joined by KCR alums Mark Hamilton and Jamie Colvin, on guitar and violin respectively, as well as my new friend Jon Silpayamanant on cello, whom I met when he played our first in-store set with Misha Feigin in December.

NN: When should we expect a new album?

BER: Whenever somebody agrees to put the damned thing out.

NN: What is the hardest you’ve ever laughed and why?

BER: One time Black Nasty and I went to see Jimmy Webb perform in Austin, and it was just spectacularly bad. We became tickled, particularly by the way Webb would rear his head back and shake it so as to induce some kind of vibrato. Now, I love Jimmy Webb’s songs, but he was so full of himself and so ill-suited for solo performance, it seems, that the whole thing just became ridiculously funny. Gradually, we began to draw the attention of the balding, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Texans who seemed to make up most of the audience.

It occurred to me that some of these men might be armed and ultimately take issue with our behavior, so we got the hell out of there. The thing was, we could not stop laughing. I mean, we were truly hysterical, having lost total control of ourselves–my stomach would remain sore over a day later. Even after leaving the venue, BN and I had to separate ourselves. Whenever we attempted to reunite, we’d dissolve back into hysterics until one of us moaned “get away, get away!” as we leaned on trees and tried not to pass out from lack of oxygen.

NN: Is there a God? If so, why?

BER: Not from where I’m sitting.

NN: What non-musical things have you engaged lately? What are you reading, watching, eating, or drinking and why?

BER: I am reading a book about the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which happens to be my favorite film. I eat at Wiltshire on Market every chance I get—it has long been my favorite Louisville restaurant—and I recently discovered Con Huevos, which is just fantastic. As it’s hot now, when I drink, which isn’t often, it’s white wine, usually a Gruner. I also stop at the BP at the Brooks Road exit off 65 for a bottle of Squirt on my ways in and out of town. If anyone knows a gas station in Louisville that stocks Squirt, let a brother know.