Sounding like an archaic echo, If, Bwana could be the title of a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby vehicle that never got made. A little investigation reveals it as the oddly worded cover for Al Margolis, who is perhaps better known as a tireless activist in the 1980s American cassette underground and, later, as the co-founder of experimental music label Pogus Productions. Derived from an acronym for It's Funny, But We Are Not Amused, the name sticks out like a cartoon-swollen sore thumb alongside such artists as AMM, Morphogenesis and Pauline Oliveros in the Pogus catalogue, but the music more than holds its own. Essentially comprising Margolis plus occasional contributions from friends, If, Bwana have been active since 1984, making music that has swung between fairly spontaneous studio constructions and more process-oriented composition. His latest release, the double CD I, Angelica, leans more in the former direction. The grinding, textural soundscape, "Guitars By Al," is simply eight tracks of overdubbed guitar sped up, slowed down and processed in different ways. "Goo Pond" is built around a recording made during a walk through the woods near Margolis's new home in the small town of Chester, New York. The darkly abrasive drone of "The Railway Station Fire," meanwhile, recalls the kind of music he used to champion through his cassette label Sound Of Pig Music in the 1980s.
If, Bwana / Al Margolis featured in UK's Wire Magazine :: The Wire 221, Summer 2002 ::
Back then, a high proportion of the world's most adventurous and downright bizarre music was found on tapes circulating around the International Cassette Network, an anarchic web of home-tapers inspired by the post-punk DIY ethos and easy access to now-affordable professional-calibre home studio gear. As proprietor of Sound Of Pig
Music, Margolis released an incredible 301 cassettes between 1984 and 1991. Among the multitude of sound explorers and industrialists in SOP's catalogue were such future celebrities as multi-instrumentalist Amy Denio, French über-eccentric Costes and Japanese noise giant Merzbow. In part thanks to an understanding boss, Margolis ran his New York based label singlehandedly while holding down a day job as a shipping clerk. He recalls, "I had three cassette decks running in the back all the time, dubbing tapes. In one year - it must have been 87 or 88 - I sent out 3300 cassettes. All dubbed by hand."
In 1989, he teamed up with composers Dave Prescott and Gen Ken Montgomery to form the non-cassette label Pogus. Two years later, after a handful of releases - new recordings by Engish experimental outfit Morphogenesis and steel cello player Robert Ruttman, previously unreleased material by AMM and Swedish avant garde composer Rune Lindblad - Prescott and Montgomery quit, leaving the label in Margolis's hands. Though his cassette network activities were winding down at the time - "It just got harder and harder to do," he sighs, "there were less people active in the network, and the magazines that were supporting it were gone" - he was in no position to release any new Pogus CDs for a few years. "I didn't have money," he explains. "I was still working a shipping job. So it was a semi-dormant time."
After managing to fund a few Pogus discs on his own - including releases by California noise artists Big City Orchestra and avant jazz trio Trigger - Margolis experienced a career change that improved the label's finances. He took a job at New World Records and eventually rose to A&R Director before leaving to work as a freelance label manager for several small experimental labels. An odd incident at New World put him in touch with Belgian composer Leo Kupper, who later released the CD Electro-Acoustic on Pogus. "I knew his stuff from an old avant garde record on Deutsche Grammophon," Margolis recalls. "One day he sent a package to New World which supposedly had four DATs in it, and the package arrived empty. The DATs had fallen out. But I recognised the name, and so I got in touch with him and said, 'We [New World] don't do non-American music, but I have a label, and I'd be interested'."
In addition to drawing attention to composers "who are a little more obscure - people who are not as prominent as others and haven't had quite as much stuff out there," one of Pogus's goals has been the rescue of worthy older or forgotten recordings, like Pauline Oliveros's Alien Bog/Beautiful Soop, which contains two early electronic/tape experiments. "I tried raising money for that at New World for three years," Margolis says, "and they just wouldn't do it. So I said 'Fuck it, I'll do it myself'." Pogus's latest release, All Known All White by American composer Roger Reynolds (reviewed in The Wire 220), originally came out on CRI, who had let it go out of print. "CRI had so much of his stuff in the can, they weren't getting around to that one," Margolis says.
As to If, Bwana's music, Margolis has taken it in a more composed direction. "When I was a shipping guy and had absolutely no responsibility," he says, "I used to spend all day thinking about my music. I could go into the studio and I'd have the piece in my head. It was almost done." But after getting a 'real' job, there was less time for daydreaming: "You're [only] thinking about your music on the walk to work, and the walk back, and the train. So instead of eight hours it's two hours. So I found myself over time getting into the studio almost having to compose there. But now that I'm working out of the house and I don't have to travel as much, I'm a little more back into pre-composition."
The Wire (U.K.) 221, Summer 2002