Experimental music often pushes at the edges of the unlistenable: the assaultive skronk of free jazz, the relentless, undifferentiated roar of harsh noise wall, the breakneck ceiling-fan-to-the-face tempos of death metal. Across genres and traditions, artists work toward the same goal: creating sound worlds so intolerably loud and dissonant that listeners collapse with their brains oozing from every orifice in their skulls.
And yet, despite their fierce effort and cruel inventiveness, their giant amps and tortured electronics, none of these artists has ever created music as soul-destroying as playlists filled with the likes of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” looping continually for a month in every grocery store and mall. When it comes to music of terror and torment, Brötzmann, Foetus, and Deicide are mere pikers compared to the purveyors of Christmas kitsch.
Chicago experimental stalwarts Max Allison (aka Mukqs) and Doug Kaplan (aka MrDougDoug) have heard the tinny trumpet of holiday despair, and they’ve decided that if they can’t defeat it, they will simply let it consume them. The new album by their duo, Pepper Mill Rondo, titled It’s Christmas Time! (released Wednesday, December 11, on their own Hausu Mountain label), is 70 minutes of deconstructed Christmas collages, samples, and fractured karaoke carols. Like much Christmas music—and like much experimental music—it provides its audience with a fascinating exercise in horrified masochism.
“A really important part of this project is this idea of sensory overload,” Kaplan says. “Not just with the amount of content that’s being blasted at you, but the length of the album—it’s important for us that the album is a kind of a transportive marathon listening session. It’s meant to push you into the furthest zone possible.”
The duo don’t intend the album as a parody so much as a cracked mirror held up to the tide of Christmas detritus, and to all the queasily overwhelming emotions associated with it. “We only wanted to include samples and sources that we have had a connection to,” Allison says. “Songs that we like, or songs that we really hate, or sounds that really weirded us out.”
On “Fresh Christmas Aire,” for instance, the two artists sample, loop, and demolish snippets from the Christmas recordings of synthy new age prog rockers Mannheim Steamroller. The result is an ecstasy of irritating but groovy noodling, like Muzak on steroids cheerily trying to claw its way out of your cranium. Kaplan says that for him the track was inspired in part by his secular Jewish family’s trip to a Mannheim Steamroller concert. His mom, who loves Christmas music, was delighted, and Kaplan, who’s a prog rock fan, was delighted too—but his father, Kaplan says, was “having a low-key panic attack.” Chip Davis’s version of “Deck the Halls” had accomplished what experimental musicians are always trying to do—provoke transcendent bliss and/or a flight response.
The Pepper Mill Rondo track “The War on Xmas” gets at the contradictions of the season from a more overtly political angle. Kaplan worked on this track alone, assembling and juxtaposing joyful snippets of kids singing Christmas carols with right-wing ranters fulminating about the threat posed to the Constitution and the country by people saying “Happy holidays.”
“I am proud to have led the charge against the assault on our cherished and beautiful phrase ‘Merry Christmas,'” declares Tucker Carlson in his unmistakably oleaginous tones. Then someone even more unhinged starts to fume and bluster about how he told a Starbucks barista that his name was “Merry Christmas,” forcing the coffee shop to put those words on a cup. The message is clear: everyone must celebrate Christmas all the time. Listening to the track, you can feel the album closing in around you, and all its cute samples of Oscar the Grouch and slowed-down burping versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” start to sound less like a cheery goof and more like a threat. You’re going to be trapped in this Starbucks listening to Christmas music forever.
The collective endurance experiment that our culture conducts with its approach to Christmas music has begun earlier and earlier over the years—the holly jollies and inescapable bells routinely begin on Thanksgiving. For Kaplan and Allison, creating It’s Christmas Time! involved submitting to holiday cheer even sooner. They started the project early in the fall, and Kaplan says that when he woke up to snow on Halloween after working on Christmas music all night, he thought he’d somehow slept through several months. “One major side effect of the Christmas album is deep temporal confusion for both of us,” Allison says.
- Pepper Mill Rondo perform live at Tritriangle in November 2018.
Not all Christmas music has to involve disoriented suffocation, of course. Some holiday songs can be appreciated in the straightforward way you enjoy pretty songs or pop favorites. Allison notes that he loves the carol “O Holy Night,” and is a lifelong Mariah Carey fan. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” didn’t make it onto It’s Christmas Time! in any form, though—in part because Allison and Kaplan weren’t trying to create listenable, enjoyable, traditionally good Christmas songs such as the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” or Destiny’s Child’s “Opera of the Bells.”
Instead, It’s Christmas Time! is more in the tradition of Mike Spalla’s “Jingle Cats” novelty recordings—for the first, 1993’s Meowy Christmas, he sampled more than 1,000 assorted cat noises to make 20 songs, and he subsequently created Christmas magic/anti-magic using the sounds of dogs or babies. Spalla’s brilliant recordings served as an inspiration for Kaplan and Allison’s own meticulous, obsessive quest to create music so intense that markers like “good” and “bad” fall away and loathing and delight become indistinguishable. Pepper Mill Rondo has stared into the seasonal abyss, and in its cold depths they have discovered a harsh truth. No music is as extreme as Christmas music. v