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Trip Metal Fest Was Free—In Every Sense of the Word

How Wolf Eyes turned a meme into an experimental music festival.

A curious message hung over Detroit during the weekend of 2016's Movement festival—an annual event, born in 2000 as Detroit Electronic Music Festival, that's often likened to "techno Christmas" by devout attendees. At the corner of Trumbull and Michigan Avenues, about a mile and a half from the festival, loomed a stark billboard with black text on a harsh white background—a contextless proclamation that simply said, "Trip Metal is Free."

It'd been there since late April, lording over the intersection as the city readied itself for the hundreds of thousands of people who would be flocking to the festival and its myriad afterparties. Maybe it had seemed ominous to the locals who'd encountered it, shuddering at the starkness of the sign and wondering what might have been loosed upon their community. Or maybe they'd been puzzled by its vagueness, before eventually accepting it as just another viral marketing gimmick in an era flush with them. Or maybe they'd laughed at the absurdity of a billboard that carried no indication of what it was actually advertising—no website, no phone number, just four black words hovering in a sea of white.

Wolf Eyes, the Michigan noise trio responsible for the sign, would have been happy with any of the above responses. After all, terror, confusion, and humor are at the heart of the band— and of the Trip Metal phenomenon (part music genre, part meme) they spearheaded a few years ago and that they've been promulgating on the Internet ever since.

Though you couldn't tell it from the sign itself, the billboard was erected in support of the band's first-ever Trip Metal Fest, a small, wily—and yes, admission-free—event focused on noise and experimental music that ran concurrently to this year's Movement at a new venue in the Mexicantown neighborhood called El Club. But what is Trip Metal anyway?

From the beginning, the idea was intentionally confrontational, contradictory, and violently surreal. At the tail end of 2013, the story goes, Wolf Eyes resident saxophonist (and occasional electronics manipulator) John Olsen christened the phrase when he tweeted a photo of a wolf—fangs bared—with a declaration that his band embodied "Trip Metal."—ostensibly to highlight both the psychedelia and the aggression of his band's sound. A few weeks later, he repeated the still-undefined phrase in an interview with the Miami New Times, while simultaneously declaring in a joke that upset knob-twiddlers worldwide that noise, the genre that the band was usually filed away under, had "run its course." Nevermind that Olsen, Wolf Eyes frontman Nate Young, and guitarist Jim Baljo had just released No Answer : Lower Floors, the atonal guitar blasts and electronic wrangling of which fits most easy definitions of noise music.

Like all of the internet's most enduring content, the phrase took off organically from there, turning into a meme as weirdos across the globe began posting grim, gory, and goofy photos across the internet with captions that jokingly attempted to determine whether the image's subject was part of the phenomenon or not: "Trip Metal: Y/N?" What qualifies something as trip metal remains malleable, but it's a good bet that anything goofily violent, slimy, or surreal counts. A mostly hairless dog shaking water from its mane? Trip Metal approved. A news article about a cannibal cop? Definitely Trip Metal. Satan skateboarding? Possibly the most Trip Metal thing imaginable. Writing an article trying to parse its meaning? Definitely not Trip Metal.

Basically, trip metal was any random joke that Wolf Eyes and their friends and fans thought was worth smirking at and spreading further on the internet. This has confused some. Even The New York Times parroted an understanding of Trip Metal as only a self-ascribed musical descriptor, though critic Ben Ratliff remained skeptical about referring to the freewheeling noisemakers as a "metal" band in his review of the fest. Defining the phenomenon as solely a musical genre or an inside joke fails to capture the full picture.

As the meme evolved, it grew to encapsulate anything that those who sought to define it wanted it to be. The best thing about it was that, as the billboard later emphasized, it was free—unburdened with preconceived notions of genre or the downcast disposition that many in experimental music communities feel obligated to project. This is why the prospect of a Trip Metal festival was so exciting to those who showed up: with a lineup made up mostly of acts unknown to those who aren't intimately plugged into the midwest noise scene, there was a general feeling of unpredictability. You weren't sure what you were going to get, but whatever it was would be an insight into what makes Wolf Eyes, one of the United States' most prolific and enduring collectives of experimenters, tick. And you'd probably laugh along the way, too.

Detroit's resident weirdos—along a host of out-of-towners, who told me they'd trekked from Chicago, Baltimore, New York, and more—probably would have showed out in force even if the fest was charging admission, but the more literal meaning of the billboard made the whole thing feel refreshingly low-stakes. Whether young or old, freak or fan, the festival cost $0 for all involved. You could choose to pay $75 for the whole weekend to guarantee that you'd get in even at peak times, but even at the busiest moments, there was still room to spare both in the event space and on a breezy back patio, and it didn't seem like organizers were turning any curious fans away. Call that a lack of demand or a well-kept secret, but either way, the breathing room had the added effect of making this fest feel a little more special than the skyscraper-shaking electronic music happening a few miles away. Those who were there had made an active choice to be a part of the strange musical and subcultural lineage that Wolf Eyes positioned themselves in, rather than just heeding the call of the thunderous tracks reverberating through downtown.

The programming largely reflected the stunning variety of Wolf Eyes' influences and interests, though there were some recognizable threads. Most of the bill, for one thing, leaned toward heavy electronics. Experimental pioneer Morton Subotnick, used his first ever Detroit show to offer an extended set of curdled synth manipulations. There was performative noise from Midwest acts like Panicsville (whose set involved, in part, magic tricks and drinking milk with contact mics) and spoken word adventures from Wolf Eyes' old friends Nautical Almanac (who Young played with when the now-Baltimore-based duo still lived in Michigan). But there were also freakouts of another variety, like a slated performance of saxophone contortions courtesy of Sun Ra Arkestra's Marshall Allen, who played in collaboration with Chicago dancefloor destroyer Hieroglyphic Being. Sunday night culminated with the band's pal Andrew WK performing droning synthesizers alongside Young and Nautical Almanac's Twig Harper, as well as a beautifully subdued closing set from Wolf Eyes themselves.

These disparate forms, Trip Metal Fest's curation seemed to suggest, come from the same place. "To me, the festival is almost a giant context-builder for Wolf Eyes and noise/experimental/electronic music in general," co-organizer Forest Juziuk wrote in an email to THUMP in the weeks leading up to the festival. The resulting project was equal parts low-key music fest, history lesson (there were films, panels, and conversations during the day with some of the headliners including Subotnick and Allen), and a celebration of weirdness itself, thrown by some of the area's most prominent misfits.

That's not to say that those who assembled were always 100% in tune with what was going on onstage. During the placid opening of Morton Subotnick's performance on the first night, I overheard a restless concertgoer behind me say in a stage whisper to a friend that he wished the 83-year-old composer would "do something already." Later in the weekend, a man in makeup that can only be described as juggalo-meets-corpse-paint ended up in a brief physical altercation with another attendee in the bar room adjoining the concert space. But these momentary bad vibes were mediated by the overall feeling of freaky communion—like-minded friends and travelers with ears for the weird convening under one roof.

Jokes wear thin over time, though. The New York Times, reported in the days following the fest that it wouldn't be happening again, at least under this name. For Olson, it seems, a couple years of Trip Metal has been enough. Per his Twitter, he now deals in psychojazz, another new jokey genre that he's just recently invented. It's a bit that's still unfolding in real time, so try to pay attention—years from now, you could find yourself standing in a club in Detroit watching another Billboard-charting artist play a noise set under that banner. It probably won't help to have the context.