| An Interview with Valerie Martino of Unicorn Hard-on |
Over the past ten years, you’ve established your name in the noise scene. But one of the ways you’ve gone about that is by defying the conventions of noise: incorporating beats, techno, and even pop-inspired elements into your sets. Do you identify with one genre more than another, or do you see yourself as in between?
I’ve always been in-between genres, ever since I started ten years ago. From the beginning, I was creating music with beats in it; that’s always been my style. It was something I embraced to keep my music engaging, and it’s what makes me happy about making music.
The good thing about noise is that there are really no rules; the rule is to break the rules. So when I started incorporating beats, sure, that was breaking away from the noise music that had come before me. But the people who came before me, they had gotten where they were by breaking away from what came before them. Genres are always changing and adapting, and sometimes you have to give a big middle finger to what has come before and just do your own thing.
I do identify with the noise scene, because it’s where everything came from originally and has evolved from. Plus, I’ve been a part of it for so long now that there’s really no denying it. But genre distinctions are always changing. What people used to call noise—now they call it the “experimental underground.” At this point, I don’t even know what to call the scene or my music; I just want to make sounds that are beautiful and weird.
What is your history as a musician?
Well, growing up, I always wanted to be in a band, but I never thought I could do it. I never studied music; I never thought of myself as a musician. But I was really into art, and I went to school for acting.
At school, I had this best friend, and we would talk about the great band we were going to form someday. It was all talk, basically. Eventually, though, we got serious and bought some gear. Then, I ended up starting Unicorn Hard-on with a different girl, Jolene. We had no idea what we were doing; we were just creating soundscapes with synthesizers and beats. Our first gig was at a hardcore show at my friend’s house. Jolene and I were wearing weird costumes, and we pretty much scared everyone out of the room—except for this one guy, who was like, “That was fucking awesome!”
Then I met Mat Rademan from Breathmint Records. He was an experimental musician, who went by Newton, and he was the one who really introduced me to all the people who were doing noise. It’s pretty much thanks to him that I’m a part of the noise scene at all. He’s the one who really encouraged me to keep making music. He put out my first demo. So I just kept doing it, and now here I am ten years later.
What was it like to break into the noise scene?
When I started, I wasn’t really sure if people were taking me seriously or if they were only pretending to take me seriously because I was a girl. It was intimidating to be the one girl playing beats among all these dudes who were playing harsh noise with pedals and mixers plugged into each other. I wondered, “What is my place here? Do they think I’m authentic? Do they think I’m stupid? Are they just letting me do my thing because they don’t have the balls to tell me to get out?”
Luckily, I had friends who supported me and encouraged me. And there were people out there who liked my music; it just took me a few years to find my place. As time went on, other women started sending me e-mails and coming up to me after I played. They would tell me that seeing me play made them want to take their music out of their bedrooms. That is what changed my perspective about what I was doing. I was like, “Fuck all those insecurities. I am inspiring other women!” I wasn’t scared anymore.
Do you ever get tired of people asking you about being a female noise musician?
Sometimes it sucks when people write about you, and they don’t have anything to say about your music; it’s disappointing when all they have to say is that you’re a girl. Like, “one-woman wonder show!” When people write about guys, that’s not enough for a story: “It’s a guy! Doing music!” You have to say more than that. So it does get tedious, and after a certain point I’m like, “Why does it have to be about this? Just let me play my music.”
But when I was starting out, it was intimidating to be the only girl on the bill. And even though there are a ton more women who are doing noise now, I would like to see more women in the scene. Coming from where I did and having experienced all of the fear and intimidation, even if it was just in my own head, it doesn’t bother me as much when people want to know about what it’s like to be a woman in noise.
What does it feel like now that you’ve established yourself in the noise scene?
Well, a couple weeks ago, I went down to Chapel Hill, NC, and played the Savage Weekend Fest. Ryan Martin—who runs Hot Releases; they put out my split record—organized that; it’s like a festival for “weird music.”
This year, there were bands from all over, including some Providence bands. It was pretty inspiring for me to be there. I had this moment where I teared up for a second—sure, I’d been drinking a lot… But Russian Tsarlag was playing, and his set was so good; and as I was looking around, I had this realization that, “Everyone here knows me; they know my name; they know me enough to want to make sure I’m doing okay.” To have that moment with people where everyone was totally in awe and appreciating each other’s art, it felt like a family to me.
Growing up, I moved around a lot, and partially because of that, I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. It wasn’t until I found the noise scene and started making a name for myself there that I realized I could belong somewhere.
You moved around a lot as a kid, but your adult life has also been pretty mobile: first Philadelphia, then Providence, followed by L.A., then Nashville, back to Philadelphia, back to Nashville, and finally back here in Providence… What’s it like to move around so much, and how does being a musician in Providence compare to working in those other cities?
My family calls me a gypsy; like, my dad jokes about he has a book that’s just full of all my old addresses. I don’t even know where I could go at this point. Because of moving around and touring, I’ve been to pretty much every major city, and I feel like what’s most important is what you make of where you are.
In Providence, I’ve played a few shows at AS220—at the Performance Space and 95 Empire—but usually I play shows in Olneyville. My friend has a space there. The scene here is really big and there are always shows going on. It’s cool that I can be a part of that and contribute. It’s also great because when bands go on tour, they’re always going to stop in Providence; because it’s fun, and there are good people here, and there are good bands to play with. So even though my friends who are musicians live in all different parts of the country, I get to see them once, twice, sometimes even three times a year.
What is the story behind your band name?
All the way back when my friend Jolene and I decided we were finally going to be a band, we did what everybody does when they’re starting a band. We sat down together and started brainstorming, writing down everything we could think of on little scraps of paper, and tossing them into a big pile.
I was still in school at the time, and I had just done a project for some class… I can’t even remember what the assignment was, but I ended up making this long, involved presentation about the symbolism of unicorns. What I discovered, basically, is that it always comes back to masculinity: masculine power, masculine energy, masculine creativity… Which makes sense, of course, since the unicorn has a huge phallic symbol on its head. The end of my presentation ended up being a question: If unicorns are all about masculinity, then why do we use this creature as a symbol for little girls? Why don’t boys have unicorns on their notebooks and the wallpaper in their bedrooms?
So I was sitting at that table writing crappy band names on a piece of paper, and unicorns were on my mind! I just wrote down Unicorn Hard-on as a joke. I crumpled it up, and I was like, “There is no way that’s going to be our band name… But that’s hilarious.” Then, when Jolene and I were going through all the potential band names, we couldn’t stop laughing about it. We didn’t think we would ever play more than a few shows, so we figured… Why not?
Later, when Newton was putting out my first CDR, I wanted to change the name. He persuaded me to keep the name. He literally said, “Everyone already knows you by that name, because of the CDR.” Which was not true! We had done like maybe 25 copies! But he convinced me, and the name stuck.
Can you talk about what it’s like to perform with The Squelchers?
The Squelchers is my noise band. One of the main reasons I got so excited when I was asked to do a tour is that it gave people an opportunity to see me outside of Unicorn Hard-on and to realize that I do appreciate traditional noise music. The Squelchers is about a soundscape; we’re blasting seven radios in a row and running around the room antagonizing people, trying to get them to participate with us. It’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever done in my life—and it’s crazy; awesome; inspiring. I’ve done a few full US tours with Rat and The Squelchers, and every time I’ve come back covered head-to-toe with bruises, my legs swollen from being essentially beaten every night: rolling around on the floor, getting amps shoved into my shins.
As soon as the sound starts, I go into a trance where I let my body take over and perform. I don’t really think about the bruises or anything. It’s really been freeing for me; it’s allowed me to show that I’m not afraid of getting hurt; and it’s super fucking fun to be a part of.
Have you ever gotten seriously hurt?
The only really serious injury I’ve ever had was a super horrible black eye. That was at this basement show in Michigan; the guys there were huge. It was all these big noise dudes, who you don’t even have to instigate because they’re already so into it. I kept trying to back away, because there was this pile of big dudes, but I got pushed onto the top of the pile and someone’s foot just came up and hit me right on the top of my cheekbone. I got a black eye instantly. When I had my black eye, my boyfriend wouldn’t go anywhere with me, because one time this cop came up to us in the supermarket and was like, “Did he do that to you?” He was mortified.
Can you talk about your new record?
It’s on Spectrum Spools: six songs, three per side. It was a labor of love for me. Basically, about two and a half years ago, there started to be more people in the noise scene who were doing beats—more kindred spirits. So people who used to play traditional noise were doing more experimental, techno-driven music. It took me a while to figure out what my place was in all of that. I sort of had to find my footing all over again.
When I was recording this record, I had to strip everything down and not focus on what anyone else was doing. I couldn’t think about what people liked; for instance, the two songs on my split record with Hot Releases were probably my most popular, because they had vocals. I don’t usually make music with vocals, though. I just had to sit down in front of my gear and think about what I do. Like, “What do you do, Val? DO WHAT YOU DO!“
So I wrote these songs, and I think the melodies are like vocals. There are parts of the songs where the melodies almost talk. I went back at one point and tried to record vocals, because I thought that’s what people would want, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t work.
What are your goals for Foo Fest this year?
I just wanna play the best I can. It’s always really cool to play shows where you know there will be people who have never seen you play before. I usually play for my friends most of the time in the scene; and even on tour, people who know you come to see you. So at Foo Fest, I want to give people a chance to experience a little piece of my weird world, and maybe they can take some of it with them.