It makes sense that Jon Nelson's art is inspired by dreams, since it's created using the same building blocks: fragments of memory, broken and reorganized in a new, strange way that makes them unfamiliar even as you might recognize their source. His audio collages, which he releases under the alias Escape Mechanism, are evocative mosaics of displaced sound from film, radio, television, and other media of collective experience. The most recent disc, (Emphasis Added), came out in September. His visual art similarly reshapes old items in new contexts, deriving hazy romantic suggestions from lightbulbs and drive-in movie theater speakers. He's also been a champion of his chosen genre since 1999 as host of radio program and podcast Some Assembly Required, a stage for both new and established sound collage artists. The program, which airs Wednesdays at 6 p.m. on the U of M's Radio K, celebrates its 10th anniversary this month with a special broadcast Jan. 28 featuring an interview with Nelson conducted by Evolution Control Committee's Mark Gunderson. Decider met with Nelson at Polish piano bar Nye's Polonaise Room, where the dim, nearly deserted (it was midday) and surreally noir setting was the perfect backdrop for discussing Nelson's weird dreams.
Decider: We kind of have to talk about your stance on copyright, given the genre you work in. Do you mind?Jon Nelson: No, I understand. It's one of those things I choose not to think about, personally. If I did, I might get frightened. That was a big part of the [audio-collagist] scene back when I started [Some Assembly Required]. Everybody was scared. That's why I called myself Escape Mechanism instead of Jon Nelson. But at this point, I don't think anybody is really that scared. The record companies are going after the people who are bootlegging, which is all they should be doing. I guess that's my official stance on copyright: If you're taking my whole record and making a copy for yourself, maybe I don't care so much, personally. But, if you're selling copies of my record, then that would piss me off. If you're sampling my record, I would give you a big clap on the back and say "go for it."
D: Do you find that your sound and visual collage projects overlap?
JN: I want to move the sound collage into the visual art realm. I'd like to have people take it seriously as art, as opposed to music. While I have marketed the last records to college radio, I really don't think of [my work] as music. Some of it is really musical, I have to admit, but my stock response is that, while all music is audio art, not all audio art is music. I'm starting to work on a new record right now. It'll be my third studio album, and it's not going to be musical at all. It's not going to be noise, either. I guess it's almost like a spoken-word record, but 100 percent recycled. No music, no beats, no sampled music. Which is really all I ever wanted to do.
D: Do you feel you've had to compromise until now?
JN: Because I was working for college radio, I kind of got suckered into making stuff that would be more college-radio friendly, and I kind of regret that. In a way, it's been good because it's probably gotten me more media attention than I would've gotten otherwise. And, everyone - especially artists - likes attention. [Laughs.] But, I'd be much happier doing the kind of stuff I'm making now. I feel like I'm finally ready just to do what I want to do, rather than worry about what other people want. I'll probably get a lot less attention.
D: As you work, are you able to listen to people talking without dissecting their words? Can you enjoy music or movies simply for what they are?
JN: When it comes to spoken-word records, it's really hard for me. I'm always listening for that turn of phrase. But I can still get into movies and lose myself in them. I love movies. I had a really sheltered childhood - I went to this super-religious school - so, a lot of what I learned, I learned from watching movies. A really old movie theater is kind of like church for me. I always thought that I'd like to get married in a movie theater. [Laughs.] And that translates into sound art: Media saturation, some sort of nostalgia. A lot of my visual stuff is based on reoccurring dreams I have about movie theaters. A lot of old theaters that were built in the '20s or '30s had giant ceilings that were painted blue with 100 little light bulbs coming through to look like stars. They were called "courtyard theaters," and the walls were decorated like Spanish courtyards, so that it looked like you were in an old Spanish courtyard looking up at the sky. I just love that, because it's an illusion. That ties into my philosophy of life because, really, everything is an illusion, to varying degrees.
D: What happens in the reoccurring dreams?
JN: I go behind the theater's movie screen, and there's this pile of junk. In all these old movie theaters, because they've been there for a hundred years, you'll find old theater parts - old theater seats and decorations, ticket machines, old film reels, light bulbs, old fake plastic plants, and things like that. A lot of these theaters were also vaudeville theaters before they were movie theaters, so sometimes there are remnants of old dressing rooms; sometimes you'll see old costumes and props. It's crazy. The dreams are about me wandering through those tunnels and hallways and basements and backstages and backrooms and attics. Lots of cool stuff in the attics. I used to have those dreams a lot, five years ago. And basically my assemblage art is trying to represent those dreams a little bit.