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Indiana Music Archive: Phil Reavis
Posted September 04, 2013 by Rob Peoni
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Rob Peoni
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September 04, 2013
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Phil Reavis MFT Page

(Listen while you read!)

Earlier this year, I wrote about an oddball collection of experimental home recordings from a mid-1980s Muncie four-piece called Three Black Shoes. The group was an offshoot of Muncie's No Bar scene, where Jon Rans served as the unofficial ringleader of this merry band of misfits. Much of the material from this No Bar era was documented through Rans' cassette label Bob Chaos Records. The label released a series of "Muncie Samplers" as well as full-length releases from Rans' own noise project Latent Chaos, The Suadetones, MCRB, Atomic Butterfly, Sonic Clams and others.

One of the recurring characters on the Muncie Sampler series was Phil Reavis. Like many in the No Bar scene, Reavis was a member of several different bands, including the aforementionedAtomic Butterfly and Latent Chaos. I was particularly interested in a batch of (mostly) solo material entitled The Reagan Years. The songs, propelled by guitar, are largely instrumentals featuring wild tunings, chaotic tempo changes and dissonant chord combinations. The material works in contrast to the more accessible, surf rock-infused tracks that comprised a later batch of recordings called Driving Me Backwards.

From Phil Reavis:
"I guess my thing back then was un-tuning the guitar and finding ideas for songs. The Muncie and Bloomington stuff was outside of regular band projects. I was in a lot of bands in those days, so this kind of stuff came up a lot. Also, back in the day a 4-track cassette recorder was still pretty new. That opened up a lot of experimentation at the time. There was better gear available, but all my stuff was really done on the cheap with stuff that was primitive even for that time."

"Bands at the No Bar and Second Story benefited from some very adventurous audiences and we took advantage of that support.The first performance of my band Atomic Butterfly had no rehearsals, we just knew each other and knew we wanted to play together so we took the stage at the No Bar and said "on your mark, get set, go" and we had an audience that was willing to go along too, or at least not boo us off.At the last Latent Chaos performance at Second Story we had time to fit in a couple rehearsals and turned out to be the most "polished" song-oriented band of the three on the bill.Lots of noise and improv and chaos from all three bands that night."

Many of my favorite moments from The Reagan Years involve frequent Reavis collaborator Tim Noe, perhaps best known for his role in the early 80s Bloomington post-punk, art-rock outfit The Dancing Cigarettes. Noe later moved to Muncie, where he was involved in many of the No Bar acts. Arguably the most epic of the pair's collaborations is the three-song medley aptly titled "The No Bar Suite," which begins with an absurd snippet of dialogue from famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey exclaiming, "Say yes to any new drug!" Reavis offered up a brief description of how the suite came to fruition:

"Tim was working at the Repeat Performance record store in the basement adjacent to and connected to The No Bar.One afternoon '85-ish, I pulled him away from the record store and we filled a tape improvising at the empty No Bar.Each bit starts with me and Tim retuning guitars (edited out here), I wouldn't say it was random, since we were picking tones that sounded pleasing but it's not traditional alternative tuning in the sense that it's not Open G or Drop D or whatever, so I'll call it pseudo-random tuning. I find that each piece has its own internal logic but it's a bit chaotic for most people I play it for."

Another of my favorite Reavis/Noe collaborations is the impossibly weird art-rock piece "Delicatessing." Reavis said that the song began with a bunch of his guitar overdubs in a random tuning, before Noe added vocals and sax. This was a long-distance collaboration, no small feat at that time, that Noe contributed to while living in Brooklyn around 1985. The vocals are a sort of stream-of-consciousness, sinister William Burroughs meets Hunter S. Thompson insanity. Reavis had this to say about their recording process at that time:

"Those collaborations with Tim meant packing up the master cassette and shipping it through the mail.I would bounce my tracks down to one or two tracks leaving Tim two or three tracks to work with.We hardly talked about what direction to take, so the music and even choice of instruments was a great surprise when I got the tape back."

Follow-up track "Arriving Home Drunk" is another undeniable gem, and one whose edges feel softened relative to the more overtly aggressive chaos found on the rest of The Reagan Years. It was recorded on an unplugged, solid-body electric guitar with cheap, plastic microphones duct taped to the instrument itself, giving the guitar an almost acoustic feel. The harmonics at play feel as close to a recurring theme as Reavis offers up on The Reagan Years. The song has this dual personality that is simultaneously peaceful and turbulent. Though unpredictable and experimental at its core, I find it's overall aesthetic quite beautiful.

Given the pure experimentation and improvisation that defines The Reagan Years, it seems almost impossible that Driving Me Backwards stems from the same musical mind. On this later batch of material, recorded in Indianapolis, Reavis offers up tighter arrangements that prove immensely more accessible. They tend to be sketches, but many could function as complete thoughts given a bit more attention. I asked Reavis about this radical shift in tone and personality in his songwriting:

"My own recordings have changed sound and some of that is learning more about recording and getting better gear, but compositionally, I've learned stuff and have leaned more toward melody and having things composed more both in my stuff and what I listen to and for a while I was taking more time and care in developing recordings more (up through the late 90s stuff on Driving me Backwards) but I like qualities in the earlier stuff and in recent years, especially since having kids I'm recording more quickly and I'm re-embracing some of the rough edges of the earlier stuff.Also, much of the older improv stuff was collaborative and many of my home recordings are solo bits, so some of the chaos depends on who's around.There are some examples here onSoundCloud of more recent stuff, some recorded much more quickly, even a few composed, recorded and posted the same day."

For most MFT listeners, Reavis' catalog will prove too dissonant and a tough code to crack. Some may wonder why I'm calling attention to such a bizarre era of Hoosier rock n' roll. For me, these home recordings amount to some of the most original, impossible to reproduce or imitate, material in the archive. In a lot of cases, even Reavis is no longer sure about the precise tunings of his early stuff. While it may not prove as relevant to pop culture as Bob Dylan's Witmark Demos, it's nevertheless something unique to Muncie and Bloomington in the early 80s. For that reason alone, it's worth celebrating and sharing in this space.

Reavis continues to play and record in the Indianapolis area. Interested parties can catch him at theCottage Home block party on October 12, playing with his band Bat Tattoo. The band has played Tonic Ball, the annual charity event in support ofSecond Helpings since 2009. They are currently working on some original material - some of which is derived from Driving Me Backwards. With any luck, some of these old tunes may find a new life in the near future.

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