“I’ve never had a desire to become famous,” says Jay Blanchard, owner and founder of Burlington’s experimental music “microlabel” Mars Pyramid. He’s sipping on a TLA India Pale Ale in the bustling dining room of American Flatbread and holding forth on why the music he releases will never be popular. Over the next hour of conversation, Blanchard transitions easily from abstract-expressionist painters to food culture to celebrity meltdowns — all while calmly munching gourmet pizza.
“I think the avant-garde is appreciated a lot more in visual art than it is in other mediums,” says Blanchard, 32, who focused on experimental film and video-art installation at Penn State. “There are tens of thousands of people who can enter a museum and rush toward the Jackson Pollock or towards the [Jean-Michel] Basquiat or [Robert] Rauschenberg, but at the same time, you don’t see that kind of embrace of something that’s completely over the top in music,” he laments.
And yet, Blanchard is encouraged by Americans’ love of the Food Network. The self-professed foodie points toward the pizza in front of him as an example of the way Americans are embracing adventurous food. Among the ingredients in front of him are grilled peaches, blue cheese and balsamic glaze.
“This isn’t something that would be normally mainstream, but people are willing to try it,” he points out. “And it’s the same way I feel about a lot of experimental art, and music in particular, is the fact that it’s exciting to try something that — you might hate it, but you might love it at the same time. Whereas, listening to a pop album, you know what you’re in for,” Blanchard continues. “It might be a little bit exciting, but it’s not going to blow your mind.”
Blanchard might be onto something. Whatever experimental music is, it’s having a moment in the national zeitgeist right now, and some Burlington musicians and label owners are helping to make that happen. NNA Tapes, run by Toby Aronson and Matt Mayer, was recently named one of the six best cassette labels in the country by none other than mainstream curator SPIN magazine. And Autumn Records label head Greg Davis was quoted in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times on the resurgence of New Age music. (New Age is his jam, FYI.)
Blanchard doesn’t mind that he’s not getting calls from the mainstream press. Not yet, anyway.
“I’m at a point in my life where I’m confident enough with where I am that I don’t need to be the hippest guy in town,” he says with typical modesty. “I never have been, I never will be.”
Blanchard’s roots in underground art run deep. Though he can reference famous visual artists to make a point, his real affinity is with underground filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, who were early influences when Blanchard was an undergrad. But early in his college years, he realized he wasn’t going to make a living as a filmmaker. While his friends were drawn to Quentin Tarantino, Blanchard loved Fellini.
“I was drawn to the dark, European stuff,” he says. “I was driven more by the aesthetic than the dialogue.”
Blanchard’s college roommate turned him on to experimental music. Brian Eno’s early ambient albums, Radiohead’s Kid A, and his first, live harsh-noise shows were touchstones in his evolution from listening to Bob Dylan to running a label that specializes in drone and ambient music that’s way under the radar.
But it wasn’t until that same friend was fatally shot in a tragic accident that Blanchard started making his own music. He had played some guitar and a little keyboard for years, but didn’t take it seriously until his friend and collaborator died.
“He was such an influence on me, personally and creatively, that I kinda felt the need to take that on,” Blanchard says. “I probably never would have gotten into music had that not happened.”
Around the time of his friend’s death, Blanchard was resettling in his native Burlington after his years in State College, Penn., attending Penn State. He was working a corporate job and writing a music blog, called Spitting Out Teeth, when he started to follow other local bloggers such as Tanner McCuin (Highgate) and JB Ledoux (the le duo).
They all became fast friends, and eventually contributed to McCuin and Josh LaClair’s online forum and record label Aether Everywhere. That’s when Blanchard realized that a label could be the perfect outlet for his creative interests. He launched Mars Pyramid in 2009.
Though the label has released mostly arty avant-garde and experimental work, Blanchard emphasizes that Mars Pyramid isn’t solely an outlet for ambient, noise, drone or any other subgenre. He points to Burlington singer-songwriter Lady Lioness’ easily accessible 2010 CD-R The Glimmer and the Gleam as an example.
In the batch of four CD-Rs Mars Pyramid released last month, albums by Anton Caligula Maiof, Even the Dew Is Porous and Comoros all feature long, dense, ambient compositions, but Wirefall’s eponymous debut is an outlier: It’s full of short, playful, prog-rock instrumentals.
“You don’t have to be over-the-top experimental crazy [to be on Mars Pyramid],” says Blanchard. He explains that even the name Mars Pyramid is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek parody of what he calls the “New Age conspiracy-theory-laden scene” that was becoming popular in experimental music when he started the label.
“It’s the label for people who love experimental sounds but don’t have the ability/desire to try to fit in to the pseudo-bohemian, paranoid twentysomething scene,” he says. “It’s not meant to be negative, though. We’re just offering an alternative.”