The Rumpus Interview with Shawn Reed of Wet Hair


When Shawn Reed was in grad school at the University of Iowa, he and some artist friends formed a band called Raccoo-oo-oon, and they were sort of like the great German experimental band Can reincarnated as punk. They started in 2004, put out a ton of records and cassettes and CDs, almost all of which are now out of print and hard to find, and they broke up in 2008, right after they released a self-titled double record that is a peerless masterpiece of the DIY scene. Around that time, Reed started Wet Hair as a solo psychedelic synth project. Fellow former Raccoo-oo-oon Ryan Garbes soon joined in to play drums and add another layer of synth. Last year, the duo added Justin Tye on bass. Over the years, Wet Hair’s sound has become less overwhelmingly freaky and more head-boppingly weird, like something Dieter would dance to on Sprockets. Meantime, Reed completed an MFA in Intermedia/Multimedia and took over the band’s label, Night-People, which has become his sole source of income.

The Rumpus caught up with Reed during a moment of downtime between a spring tour with Psychedelic Horseshit and the release of Wet Hair’s sixth album, Spill Into Atmosphere, which came out June 5.


The Rumpus: Why do you create?

Shawn Reed: I don’t know how to do anything else. As a kid, I wasn’t good at school. I had learning disabilities. I felt like an alien. Society seemed fucked from Day One. So much seemed impossible or crazy about just being alive. But I had good parents, grandparents, and eventually some good friends who encouraged my artistic ability, and I hung on to it like a lifeboat, and eventually tried to figure out how to steer the thing to make it work and give me something to do, something to survive on. Without that initial skill in visual art, I would have been much more directionless as a person.

Rumpus: How do you feel now having gone all the way through and received an MFA? What did you get out of art school?

Reed: The MFA was actually a waste of time in a lot of ways. It was good getting some teaching experience and to have time and space to hash out some of my ideas with things I was working on, like textiles, sculpture, printmaking stuff. But overall I was pretty distracted from school by being in Raccoo-oo-oon, touring a lot, and also showing my artwork in group and solo exhibitions in places like New York and Tokyo.

The department I was in was also going through a harsh transition and there was a lot of drama and it wasn’t a good fit for me.

Rumpus: Did you mix it up with the Iowa Writers Workshop scene at all? Do you socialize with them much as an Iowa city townie?

Reed: Not so much. There is just a real divide socially, in a certain sense. I’m not a dude that hangs out at the bar, so I don’t meet new people that much. The grad student scene is its own thing with its own little world and priorities and it doesn’t mix as much as you would think. I’ve only had a couple good friends from the writing program over the years and it’s mainly because they were people interested in or making weirdo music. Like Elaine Kahn, who does Horsebladder, whose work I’ve put out on my label.

Rumpus: The other members of your band have art degrees, too, right?

Reed: Everyone in Wet Hair has a BFA in printmaking. We all went through the same program at the University of Northern Iowa, under these really rad guys, Tim Dooley and Aaron Wilson. I went first. Ryan started around the time I was done. Then Justin went towards the tail end of Ryan being there.

Rumpus: Wet Hair is such a great name. How’d you come up with it?

Reed: When I started this out as a solo project I had this cheesy pic of a woman in some tropical beach zone, throwing her wet hair out of the water in dramatic fashion, and that’s where it came from. I also thought about it like standing in the rain, being pathetic or destroyed, half-drowned, which is a bit how I felt about life in general when I started. Which is the opposite of the bikini girl pic.

Rumpus: What does Wet Hair sound like?

Reed: We use vintage synths, effects, and drum machines. We don’t want to be retro, but we like using the sounds from retro gear to create a contemporary sound and aesthetic that’s unique. I see so many bands using the same stuff, like a microKORG, or whatever. You can get good sounds of out those things, but it’s not very specific. Using specific retro gear can be a challenge, though, because it can leave you high and dry when it breaks down, especially on the road. But I guess I like to torture myself for the sake of the aesthetic.

I’ve always used a Roland SH101 vintage analog mono synth with a variety of effects — mainly just delay, phase shift and tremolo and a very primitive rhythm machine called the Univox SR-55 also know as the Mini Pops 3. Ryan plays drums and uses a Yamaha SK-15 Polyphonic Organ Synth that has a distinct, nice, vintage organ sound mixed with poly synth capabilities, but is overall pretty simple. And Justin plays a short neck bass with some pedals.

Honestly, it’s always hard to answer these types of questions. I’m not very good at knowing a lot about the band or its music in a way. I enjoy making it. But at times I can be pretty self conscious about it and never really fully understand it. It’s maybe pointless for an artist to really try to describe the work, since the end point of the expression is the work. It feels like it creates itself as much as we create it.

But I think the Kraut Pop tag we get sometimes actually fits pretty well, in terms of describing the sound, and maybe how it relates to things from the past. It’s minimal, even simple in approach, but it attempts to be maximal in sound or feeling.

Rumpus: The new album, Spill Into Atmosphere, what’s it like?

Reed: It’s a continuation of what we created with our last album, In Vogue Spirit, but maybe even more pop and more hi fi. It’s another step forward in clarity and definition, for sure. Some of the listeners who liked the more quote unquote experimental earlier records will probably be even more disappointed with this one. But to us it’s just as much of a true experiment as anything we have ever done.

And I feel like Spill Into Atmosphere has the best artwork we’ve put together yet. I spent a couple weeks glued to the drawing table. Ryan and Justin both gave me some Xerox copies of some drawings and collages they had made, and I had that stuff sitting in with my collection of images, and I just started putting different ideas and images together. Once I got that done, we all huddled around Photoshop coloring the thing, and adding in photo images Justin and I took on our recent Australian tour. It comes with a big poster we worked on together, huddled around a table with lots of glue sticks and Xeroxes. The album cover is a bit of nod to the amazing Japanese artists Keiichi Tanaami and Tadanori Yokoo, especially Yokoo. He’s one of my favorite visual artists of all time.

Rumpus: You do all the art for your label, too. What’s the aesthetic of Night-People?

Reed: Everything except the actual pressing of the vinyl is done by hand. I create and lay out all of the artwork by hand. Everything is silkscreened. I dub all the tapes myself, which is kind of an insane number of cassettes I do each month. I’m not a Luddite. I just gravitate towards the hands-on approach because it’s natural for me to work that way. I think the label works as a reaction to living in a continually more computer-dominated world. It’s a way to sell physical objects in a digital Internet age. Make it specific, make it fetish, and don’t cut any corners.

Visually, the Xerox machine has a big part in the aesthetic, and it works really well with silkscreen. I make drawings and collect thousands of images to make the covers. I have rules about what I use and what I don’t use. Making visual artwork for me isn’t therapeutic or about my feelings. It’s about the aesthetic itself. It’s not about my personal narrative.  It’s more like a strategy game, a battle with myself, a visual boxing match.

Rumpus: How many releases has Night-People had?

Reed: I’m up to 170 releases. Well over 100 bands, from a variety of countries, with an emphasis on Australia in recent years. I’m really interested in the Beijing underground scene right now and hope to do more from there as well. Most of the releases are cassettes, but I’ve done around 15 vinyl releases thus far and am always trying to come up with ways to be able to afford to do more vinyl.

Rumpus: Do you make any money?

Reed: I live off the label and do it full-time. I do it very seriously. The label and the band dominate my life. I’m passionate about some other things, too, like physical exercise, being outdoors, collecting records, and NBA basketball, but really, the label is my master. I make money, but not much, just enough to keep it going.

I am always curious how long I will be able to keep it up before it kind of eats itself or just stresses me out to where I can’t deal with it. It’s a privilege, though, for sure, to be able to do something creative full-time where I am my own boss. I don’t take that for granted. I don’t come from money.  I never had any capital to get it going. I just roll over any extra money from a release to fund the next round of releases. And that’s how it has worked since the beginning.

Rumpus: What’s the biggest challenge, other than the low income?

Waiting on distribution checks is the most brutal part. Sending out records, having them sell from the distro, but waiting months to get paid, it’s a harsh system. But I’m glad the records sell. I’m glad people entertain my taste, because I really don’t think about audience much. I just put out what I like, what I think is new, fresh and interesting. I really enjoy the collaboration with bands, meeting people, trying to help them get more attention for the music they’re making.

Rumpus: How do you keep your art and music as the primary focus in your life?

Reed: It’s more difficult the older I get. Playing in a band takes other people to be in it, and as you get older, more people move away from that lifestyle of shitty jobs so they can tour, etc. I feel like the label has a pretty good grounding, though, so I could do it even if I became more hermetic and less social. I don’t really expect either the band or the label to last forever, but hopefully the label at least can maintain. This topic depresses me pretty often and has at times even been to a point of crisis.

Longevity is hard to create and sustain. The more you gain, the more you have to lose. It’s that tricky balance of not having too much want, or too much ambition, but still doing something meaningful with your time. It’s always fading, everything as it comes, it’s going. I should stop there so I don’t get too morbid about it.

Rumpus: Do you worry about retirement?

Reed: That’s too far away to really worry about. I worry about just surviving now, just keeping the ball rolling now. It’s too hand-to-mouth right now to really worry about what I will be doing at 65. I can’t really worry about the world because it’s out of my hands what it’s going to be like. Seems like ecologically, technologically, even socially, some wild things could end up happening in the next 50 years.

I’m not reckless, though. I try to prepare for the future. I defiantly work at trying to be healthy, physically and mentally. I figure if I get really strapped I will head back towards academic pursuits in visual art.

Joe Miller is the author of Cross-X, winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award and the Harry Chapin Media Award in 2007. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Salon, New Letters, Pleiades and Decomp. He's an assistant professor of writing at Columbus State University in Georgia. More from this author →