Luci Waldrup has waited a dozen years for this surreal sight.
On a Friday night, standing beside a photocopier at a FedEx Office on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, Waldrup pops the thick, gray plastic bands wrapped around the square box she's been toting all evening. She flips the cardboard corners down, reaches inside and pulls out one of the box's 20 copies of burnthemasters, her beguiling five-track vinyl debut under the name Housefire. She scans the track titles on one side and then eagerly flips the LP. She glances up and grins.
"This is exactly what it's supposed to look like," she says, her eyes beaming beneath a slate-gray stocking cap. Waldrup holds up the record.
In the grainy black-and-white shot, printed on the circular sticker that surrounds the album's spindle hole, a man lords over a seated woman, his hands digging into her forehead. Someone else reaches in from outside the frame, holding her jaw still with a towel that also absorbs the blood streaming down her face. The woman seems to offer a wan smile.
Waldrup cut the picture from a book called Psychic Surgery, which explores the practice of digging into someone's skin to extract the evil beneath.
"I've been holding onto this image for so long," she says, "waiting for the right time."
Judging by the exceptional burnthemasters, just issued by the Carrboro-based experimental syndicate Hot Releases, this is a particularly fortuitous time for Waldrup.
During these five pieces, Waldrup lets titanic rhythms spiral toward their doom. On opener "4thwayschooldanceoftheneophyte," a techno-ready rhythm seems to be swallowed in a conflagration of distortion. On "moodswing," a soft house beat pulses beneath an electronic din, like a signal eternally stuck trying to break the noise. Waldrup loves horror films and comic books and confesses that she finds a certain comfort in gore; her music, like the sticker that now sits on top of it, betrays that same fondness for slow ruin.
"I like to watch systems crumble and things fall in on themselves," she says later at a sports bar farther down the collegiate strip. "I like to feel that happening. And then I like carrying out the residue of the sounds, peeling back those layers at the very end."
Waldrup moved from Asheville to Durham in October, drawn in part by a long-standing relationship with the area's experimental music network. But she started making music around 1999, she says, while living on a New Mexico commune that included a recording studio. She wanted to learn how to make music, but the studio's digital options seemed limitless and complex to the point of being counterproductive.
Instead, she asked to use a four-track to capture the sounds of static and household items before slowly building those into systems she could map and even reproduce. Nearly two decades later, she's still exploring that method. During burnthemasters, you can hear beats, melodies and textures sampled and spliced from pop songs, a Disney tune, thunderstorms, movies and YouTube clips.
"Once people find whatever their thing is, they can speak through it more eloquently than the language of the tongue. There are no limits," she says. "I always wanted to find the hardest, craziest, most intense sound, but I've always had this refusal to learn how to play an actual instrument. I had to find another way to do what I wanted to do."
For Waldrup, these pieces are dense composites of "subliminal messages," with each layer and its meaning wedged inside and against another. As Nicki Minaj's "The Night Is Still Young" booms through the room, Waldrup argues that's the true nature of the modern world, anyway—a barrage of competing messages and images, all with different goals.
"I go into this music with different intentions, but they're all geared toward a deprogramming or scrambling message," she says.
For the last several years, Waldrup has worked as a professional baker, picking up a job at Scratch after moving to Durham. She rises well before dawn most days to go to work, and she speaks slowly and deliberately, as though she's considered this aspect of her music during isolated working hours.
"If you hear the fact that you're being bombarded subliminally, it becomes more evident it's happening around you all the time," she continues. "I'm not trying to raise awareness of that, necessarily; it's just the angle I'm coming from."
In fact, Waldrup's music feels insular and inquisitive at once, as though she were asking these questions in the privacy of her own thoughts. The dimly lit, savagely manipulated beats on burnthemasters position Housefire alongside a legion of modern producers interested in dark but lively combinations—the squads of au courant labels like Hospital Productions, Tri Angle Records and Blackest Ever Black, for instance.
But when she talks about her music, it's never part of a scene or some bigger artistic picture. Ryan Martin, who runs Hot Releases and helped convince her it was finally time to assemble a proper vinyl release, says this is the music Waldrup makes when she's hanging out alone in her room, "creating the stuff she'd want to listen to all the time."
And when she thinks about how she fits in to any larger picture, she doesn't equivocate: She doesn't need to.
"It builds a certain character to do something with no frame of reference, a confidence," Waldrup says. "This music didn't have any trouble on its own getting out there, and I wasn't worried about it then. I probably shouldn't worry about it now."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Psychic signals"