“I got a laptop computer about a week ago. Actually, someone gave it to me,” says Boyd Rice, who, under the moniker NON, has been terrorizing the industrial-gothic underground for a quarter century. “But I don’t intend to go on the Internet, and I’m really doubtful whether I’ll even have e-mail,” he theorizes. For an artist whose work has perpetually forced the expansion of counterculture’s periphery, Rice’s personal life and predilections steer remarkably clear of the cutting edge. A notorious raconteur and prankster who, while exerting an influence over protégés like Marilyn Manson, has always longed for at least one moment in the sun, Rice is torn between his growing desire to live a more “hermitlike life of solitude” and his compulsion to communicate with and grow his fan base.
“I’d like to get more involved with my Web site,” he explains via phone from his home in Denver, Colo. “I was just talking with [the people who run my site] at Brainwashed [a Webzine that also hosts official sites for pioneering electronic artists like Rice, Coil, Meat Beat Manifesto, Luke Vibert and Diamanda Galas], and it’s always been my desire to have more communication, have more news on things that are going to be happening on it rather than just really bizarre rumors.”
His concerns are well-founded. It’s one thing for an artist to labor in obscurity because the work he produces presents a pill too bitter to be swallowed by the finicky maw of pop culture. It’s quite another to be forced out of the limelight by lack of attention to his Web site.
To wit, the “news” page on the official NON site. The most recent entry notes the impending release of NON’s latest album, Receive the Flame, which has been on shelves since December 1999. The “older news” section has remained static for the past year, despite Rice’s eventful completion of a European tour with goth luminaries Death in June (with whose leader, Douglas P., Rice works on a number of projects) and the Stockholm Film Festival premiere of Richard Wolstonecraft’s film Pearls Before Swine, in which Rice plays the lead role. In short, the site possesses little beyond a wealth of disinformation and outdated semi-facts.
This leaves Rice frustrated.
“It’s like, me remixing a Richard Stapleton album,” he says of the validity of the site’s news. “Who even thought of that? In the past, I’ve sent them obscure old albums for little contests, and they’ve gotten rid of those, given them to people. I’ve done stuff like that, but I’ve always wanted to be more involved. I just don’t necessarily [want to] be on the Internet. I’d get mail from everybody. It seems like e-mail makes things a bit too easy. People who would never have the patience to write a letter and put a stamp on it and mail it to you, if they had your e-mail address, you’d probably hear from them every other day.”
A fine line divides Rice’s ambitions, but after 25 years of pushing people’s buttons, Rice has grown notorious for treading fine lines. His music and performances have drawn strong reactions — positive and negative — since he started his trademark practice of melding raw noise into music back in the mid-’70s. “When I first started doing it and nobody was doing noise music, the responses were uniformly negative,” he laughs.
It’s easy to hear why. NON’s albums typically consist of viciously repetitive drones culled from tape loops and samples of, among other things, bubblegum girl-group music from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s easy-listening music taken to an uneasy extreme, sonic wallpaper that obliterates natural ambience. Though technically apolitical, NON’s aural assaults are often interpreted by his detractors as unambiguously fascist, bigoted and even demonic. And while Rice acknowledges that the spoken-word rants that occasionally accompany his sound collages do toy with fascist imagery and reflect his long association with Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, he is puzzled by the strong and vocal opposition his work draws from some quarters.
“I think mostly the people who impose some sort of negative meaning on it get pissed off about it, but they don’t actually come to the concert to see what’s happening. Because if they did, they’d have a completely different idea of what’s going on. They have no idea what they’re talking about. They formulated these opinions, and I’ve said to these people, “Come in and look at this, and if there’s anything that you object to, fine. But you won’t see anything.” And these people stand outside and protest, but they won’t actually come in and find out what they’re protesting against.”His frustration is typified by the misinterpretation of the image he uses as NON’s logo, an ancient symbol known as a Wolf’s Angle (pictured right), which the unaware have associated with Nazism, even going so far as to misinterpret it as a swastika (a symbol that is believed to have originated in ancient Troy or what is now Turkey, pre-dating its appropriation by the Nazis by about 3,000 years).
“[The Wolf’s Angle] dates back to the oldest alphabet of runes,” he explains. “When the second alphabet of runes came around, that symbol wasn’t even a part of it. That symbol is ancient and has existed for centuries and has always had the same meaning. And it was used by some extremist group in Germany in the 1500s, then it was used briefly by the Nazis at the end of World War II. The meaning I’m attributing to it has more to do with hermetic gnosticism [a pagan belief system dating back at least as far as 500 A.D., rooted in the texts on the Egyptian god Thoth] than totalitarianism.”
Controversy has earned Rice reverence as a cult icon, but his musical efforts have had a far greater impact, providing a sonic vocabulary to industrial, experimental and ambient music. Few — if any — pop and rock musicians were playing around with the composition of music from non-musical sources when Rice released his first LP, The Black Album in 1975. Today, mechanical clangs, tape loop drones and field-recorded samples pepper the pop airwaves, texturizing everything from Björk’s hyper ballads to Nine Inch Nails’ dour soundscapes.
“Maybe a year ago, I heard that media analysts had said that, in two or three years, the huge form of music would be noise music or industrial music — that there would be this overlap of fans from heavy metal getting into noise music, goth people getting into noise music, and that it would be this huge thing where people like me would sell a million copies of a CD,” he notes. But he’s quick to acknowledge that, while it has overtly influenced several now-popular artists and musical styles, NON won’t sell a million records until “Hell freezes over.”
So Rice won’t be hitting the Billboard Hot 100 any time soon. But he can take pride in the massive success of those he’s inspired over the years, most notably, reigning shock-rock king Marilyn Manson, who took some sartorial and philosophical tutelage from Boyd.
“He used to call me up when he was a teenager living with his parents in Florida. He would call me all the time and just talk and talk about philosophy,” Rice said of his relationship with Mr. Mechanical Animal. “Whenever he comes through town, we visit and hang out, and if I’m in London when he’s in London, we hang out together. But he’s a really busy guy now, so I actually had a lot more contact with him before he even had a recording contract.”
When he’s not making beautiful noise and shaping the minds of tomorrow’s counterculture icons, Rice amuses himself with his other driving passion: pulling pranks. The author of a popular book on the subject for the infamous RE:Search series, Rice has spent years culling practical experience in the field.“I still do stuff like that whenever the opportunity arises, but it’s just like — it was a passion when I was young. And now that I’m older, I kind of feel like actively wasting somebody else’s time could be fun, but at the same time, I’m actively wasting my time as well. The impulse is still there, and we still do it. Do you remember when Denny’s had those little timers? If you went in, they took your order and pressed this timer, and if your meal didn’t come within 10 minutes or something like that, you’d get the meal for free. So I stole one of these timers, and I would invite all my friends to go to Denny’s, and as I was about a half a block away, I would press the timer, and it would start ticking over. Then we would go in, and we would order, and the waitress would set her timer down, and as soon as she left, I would put my timer on the table and take the timer she had left. We would order all this food — you know, steak and eggs, coffee, milkshakes, pie à la mode, all this stuff — and get it free every time. When I was young, I was interested in how these things could be functional, how you could just screw around with somebody’s thought in order to get them to do what you wanted. I was thinking, I didn’t want to hold a normal job, and I thought, ‘When I’m older, I’ll just make a living off of conning people and getting stuff for free and just going through the world that way.'”
Little surprise, then, that he found a career in the music industry.
“I think it’s far more constructive,” he says of turning his impulse to prank into making music. “Because when you’re pulling a prank on someone, you’re sucking them into an alternate reality for a brief period of time, and then, sooner rather than later, they find out that it is false. It’s like a slap in the face. Whereas with music, I think that it’s an alternate universe that people can feel comfortable with. Or maybe it’s a universe that they’ve always existed in and have felt at odds with what people call’the real world.’ Or they’re at loggerheads with how everybody else lives their lives. That was always the way with me. As a youngster, I felt like I was walking out of rhythm with everybody else in the world. And then I’d find these strange artists or philosophers who [I was] totally in sync with. You kind of think,’Oh. Maybe I’m not alone.'”
While devoted more to music than practical jokes, Rice still finds time to indulge his prankster side. On his recent European tour, for example, he and his pals from Death in June came within a hair’s breadth of making global headlines.
“We went to Italy, and we tried to steal Mussolini’s brain,” he recounted. “Mussolini’s brain is interred in a little marble box, separate from his body. It’s in a glass case that’s in the wall because they removed it and shipped it to the United States to do scientific experiments to find out how intelligent he was. So we happened to be there in this town in Italy that was Mussolini’s hometown.
“We found that he was buried there and found that his brain was interred separately. So we snuck into this place and tried to steal his brain, and we couldn’t get in there. It would probably make the world press,” he said when questioned about why he would even want to possess the brain of the late icon of Italian Fascism.
“It would be exciting to have everybody in the world imagining that there are people who cared enough to steal Mussolini’s brain.” Ultimately, Rice found solace in the fact that his heist was foiled by Italy’s impenetrable brain-protection technology. “It was locked up tight as a drum at night, so we went back the next morning. We went in, and there were all these old people in there putting wreaths on his grave, and they had tears running down their face, and I just felt really kind of selfish — like, ‘Oh, fuck. What a selfish asshole I am, wanting to take this, and it means so much to these nice old Italians. I’ll leave it so everyone can appreciate Mussolini’s brain. It belongs to everybody. It doesn’t just belong to me,'” he laughs.
One imagines him barely able to keep a straight face. And if he could just get his Website updated, he could share the laughter with everyone.