Dance Away

Bank Notes and the rise of Tucson’s heady underground electronic music

Bank Notes is shorthand for one of Tucson's most exciting new music scenes. The name is shorthand for a community of electronic acts, a DJ night, a promoter of ongoing events—including a rave-like show this week—and a cassette-only Tucson-based record label.

Bank Notes was conceived by Club Congress employees Michael Hayes, 26, and Otis Baldwin, 22, with indispensable help, Hayes says, by Matthew Baquet, who is never too far from interesting musical things happening locally.

Hayes is skillful, to be sure. His 2013 ambient- loop-based self-titled solo album (under the Sutcliffe Catering Co. moniker) was one of 2013's best releases, and his current one-man show is called Grey Sweater Audio.

Hayes explains how he evolved, in his tastes and music, from guitar-oriented indie rock to much stranger and original forms of electronic music.

"A few years back, when I was still playing in bands, I had this crazy obsession with Arthur Russell and that got me into disco, which got me into house and techno," he says. "I liked Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin but I realized there was this whole other lineage of music that I think I was inadvertently taught was unimportant or even vapid. When I realized how good all of this music was, I was kind of outraged that no one thought it was cool. I was also influenced by what a lot of people in North America are doing right now—people who grew up on noise and punk who discovered these different forms of music and are doing really interesting things with it."

Hayes and Baldwin were inspired by contemporary electronic music recently coming out of Canada—this weekend's event is headlined by Montreal's Project Pablo, one of their faves—along with the experimental sounds their friends were making to start Bank Notes earlier this year as a series of shows at Club Congress.

"Bank Notes started as a kind of noisy and ambient free show every month at Club Congress and became a DJ residency on the plaza," Hayes says. "The first event was in January, where it was more of a show leading into a club night. After that, we did the DJ residency since the summer. And there have also been Bank Notes house parties."

In September, Bank Notes' definition changed again, with the release of two cassettes by the spacious, rainy-day '90s R&B of Grey Sweater Audio and Sunfucked, which is more downtrodden, anxious droning.

Hayes says that releasing tapes and, in the future, vinyl singles, is now the focus for him and Baldwin.

"Now, Bank Notes is more of a tape label. We put out anything on the left field of electronic. So far, we've put out my thing, which is kind of poppy and R&B. We've put out Sunfucked, which I'm really excited about. Sunfucked is more influenced by doom metal and hardware techno—as far as hardware techno goes, no one in town does it better.

"The next release is ::Wet Marble, which is a mixtape of one-minute collage songs. We'll be putting out Eric Schlappi, who is a really awesome ambient artist. So far all of our releases have been local, and we try to put out anything that wouldn't have a home on any other label here in Tucson."

Both the Gray Sweater Audio and Sunfucked cassettes are mesmerizing and unlike anything else in Tucson because it is part of a small international movement of underground live electronic music, much like Project Pablo from Canada.

Both Bank Notes releases are available at Wooden Tooth Records, off Fourth Avenue. For his own music, Hayes keeps on moving.

"The Grey Sweater Audio tape was recorded about a year ago and it's sort of pop and R&B," he explains. "I sing on it. But I don't know if I'll still be performing those song anymore. Even at the release show, I did all new material. Grey Sweater Audio is just what I'm doing.

"But for the past year I've been playing live, I haven't really been recording because I've been learning all these new instruments. But live, I'll be playing one melodic phrase that's recontextualized for 15 minutes. It's not as song-oriented but there's certain melodies that are starting to emerge that I know will be songs at one point. But right now it's just this blob and I like that. It feels really free."

For now, however, Bank Notes is focused on releasing tapes by avant-garde leaning local electronic artists and creating a community of musicians and listeners that is as inclusive to all as it is unique to Tucson.

The scene has grown out of indie and noise shows but also dance nights, like Opti at Congress, where Hayes, Baldwin and Baquet have all DJ'd, and while it's new and followed by a small group of adventurous listeners, the fact that it's cutting edge, especially for a rock and roll town like Tucson, causes these acts to stick together.   

"I feel a really strong connection to Sunfucked and (local ambient artist) Altrice and to all these folks," Hayes says. "The common thread is like any other scene—you stick together because it's easier to get shows, but we're all interested in the same kind of music and have a similar ear for things. It's definitely a community.

Doing shows like the ones we do, the idea is hopefully to also bankroll 12-inch record pressings. The goal for me is putting out Tucson dance records. Promoting a Tucson dance scene. Giving people an outlet. That's what's most important to me."

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