Pictured: James F Tarr
Philip and James Tarr, twin brothers from Nova Scotia, Canada, lived fast and died far too young. The pair committed suicide within a year of each other, cutting short what was already a boundary-pushing musical legacy. Philip masterminded the prolific trash punk band Mess Folk while James went a much noisier route with a profoundly obstreperous noisecore projects called Elephant Man Behind the Sun.
EMBTS has long been well-regarded in the dankest corners of the underground, and the project’s collected works are now available in a monumental collection released by Austin, Texas’s Breathing Problem Productions. The LP discography compiles almost all the blistering noisecore/gorenoise excreted by Tarr under the EMBTS banner before his untimely death in October 2013, including tracks from a handful of demos, a split with Dick Fungus, and tracks from a four-way split.
Taken together, the EMBTS collection is an encomium to a perversely creative mind and the uncompromising DIY mentality that drove Tarr’s musick and life.
“I am unemployed by choice,” James wrote on his blog Tapes and Poverty. “I am a known criminal and convicted felon. But all these negatives in my life has never strayed me from my obsession for weirdo music…I will take you on a journey of talentless bands with lots of energy, true art if you ask me.”
The Elephant Man Behind the Sun collection also serves as an excellent example of a genre that exists on the furthest extremes of what can be called “music,” sounds that are proudly hailed by its creators as total garbage.
Rusty Kelley, who co-runs Breathing Problem Productions with his partner Emelia McKay, said he jumped at the opportunity to put the discography together.
“EMBTS was a project that moved beyond the genre limits of noisecore and gorenoise,” Kelley said. “I decided I wanted to try to do a collection LP in a way that seemed to honor [James] and his work.”
Kelley said he’s selling the LPs as cheaply as possible, in line with Tarr’s stridently anti-money philosophy of music. Proceeds from sales of the LPs will be donated to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Life is short and can be cruel but art is something so beautiful, even art that is extreme and ugly,” Kelley said.
Such a paradox could describe the Tarr brothers as well.
James and Philip Tarr were born in May 1987 in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Their hometown was previously the site of heavy industry and is infamously known for being home to a toxic waste repository in the form of a local lake known as the Tarponds. The bleak environment of the place gave rise to a flourishing music scene and influenced James’ unflattering appraisal of human society.
By many accounts, the Tarr brothers were intense, confrontational individuals. Both had troubles with the law and battled drug abuse. It’s no surprise they would turn to a form of expression that channeled the tumultuous ups and downs of their lives, and they collaborated on a number of truly abrasive projects.
“I think there are a lot of musicians who write about pointless shit,” James wrote in issue 4 of his zine Intestine Stew. “But for some, like me, life is the subject of my noise, the projects I love I can relate to. I recycle for noise tapes, I steal to support my nomadic existence.”
For those not in the know, noisecore evolved alongside grindcore and death metal in the early 1980s, which endeavored to make music as fast, loud, and brutal as possible. Where punk affirms you need only power chords to rage, noisecore eschews even this modicum of ability outright.
There are no “songs” in the traditional sense but rather harsh bursts of seconds-long noise “played” by smashing on instruments and screaming hysterically into the mic. Cassette releases by bands such as Jangle, Penis Geyser, Horse Meat, and Urinary Tract Infection from Severe Pus Clots have hundreds of songs per side. The deeply underground scene flourished in the pre-internet world (and still does today) thanks to the dedication of global tape-trading maniacs.
Noisecore mutated into countless ad-hoc microgenres over the years. Some are almost experimental, like PTAO blasting noise over top of classical music, while Traci Lords Loves Noise lets loose explosions of nasty rage that do justice to the creator’s ultra-nihilistic outlook. There is the deeply revolting chauvinism of the Meat Shits, who go out of their way to be as offensive and mean-spirited as possible, and noisecore also verges into the patently absurd with projects like Nut Screamer, whose releases are recordings of a guy screaming as he rides rollercoasters.
Noisecore’s perhaps best-known offshoot is gorenoise, in which drum machines hammer at 1,000 BPM over top of gurgling pitch-shifted toilet vocals, the sonic equivalent of the sloshing entrails that adorn tape covers. Elephant Man Behind the Sun fits snugly into this festering niche, serving up a platter of pulsating and anti-social gorenoise.
It’s hard to describe the energizing appeal of this kind of musick, but it channels the primordial sense of excitement that comes with hearing a jackhammer and headbanging because it sounds like a sick blastbeat.
“[For me] it’s not even about a specific genre anymore – it’s just ‘what sounds the most unhinged?’” said Ben Durham, who runs Craniophagus Parasiticus Records. “More often than not, it’s gorenoise, noisecore, and harsh noise where I’m finding shit where I’m still like ‘what the fuck did I just listen to?’, whether that’s hateful anger or just hilarious garbage.”
Tarr lived for the underground cause but was also interested in mushroom hunting, Russian prison tattoos, and nursing stray cats back to health. In 2010, Tarr was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison in Canada for two counts of aggravated assault for beating two people with a tire iron. He faced charges of attempted murder charges and but the charges were ultimately plead down (thanks in part to Tarr’s “albeit somewhat qualified” expression of remorse).
Tarr’s crimes were by no means sympathetic or excusable, and the judge decried the long-lasting psychological damage he likely caused the victims. But Tarr seemed to undergo a change in perspective following his release from prison. As longtime penpal Andrew LeClare recalled, Tarr “moved back home with his mom and he was sober and putting most of his time into music and focusing on his zine and trying to stay busy with that, which helped him greatly and helped him to stay sane I think.”
Indeed, James wrote in his blog that he was trying to let go of the anger and hatefulness that had previously consumed him and find a deeper meaning in his pursuits, drawing parallels between noisecore and Dadaism and Marxist theories of art. Tarr discussed his growing interest in anarchist politics and the self-development this philosophy demanded.
“Do not look to “punk” as the main influence to this creation, because PUNK is a product,” he wrote. “We need to start telling people about the creation process, the feeling we get of total freedom, we must share this with our gay, lesbian, women and friends. This vector for socially unacceptable topics can be the perfect place for the talentless, hopeless person who has something to say but nobody to listen to them.”
Unfortunately, however, Tarr became increasingly overwhelmed by the depression that also plagued his twin brother, who he missed profoundly. Tarr also wrote that his fraught mental state was making him increasingly less interested in producing noise and maintaining his long-term collaborations.
Concerns ramped up when Tarr went missing on October 1, 2013. He was found deceased in a patch of woods the next day, not far from where his brother was buried. He was only 26.
The loss of the Philip and James, best friends and their parents’ only children, was too vast a burden to bear, and the brothers’ saga culminated in another impossible tragedy – their mother Cheryl committed suicide in 2016 on account of the double loss.
Ken Tarr, Cheryl’s husband and the boys’ dad, was in complete disbelief that a single family could suffer so much. But he is incredibly proud of what his sons accomplished with their music. Ken and Cheryl bought the boys their first instruments at age 12 and would later make runs to the corner store to buy padded envelopes and printer toner so his son could keep up with his gorenoise trades.
“He’d get money from different parts of the world that he couldn’t spend,” Ken laughed. “We supported him 100 percent.”
There are a million reasons Ken wishes things would’ve turned out differently, and he even misses stuff falling off his walls when James would play drums in the basement.
“James was a kind and loving person – he would give you the shirt off his back. I’ve even seen him give musical instruments to people,” Ken said. “I think he’d definitely be happy to see his music, art, and philosophy of life continue on.”
And continue it will. Gorenoise freaks from around the world are stoked that Elephant Man Behind the Sun is being memorialized in such a way.
“I’m super glad that he seems to have gained some recognition for his output, because he was super dedicated and did it only because he liked it,” said Konstantin Iakovlev, who maintains an abrasive noise project called Panties and knew James personally.
Jen Lazarus, who helms the long-running project Vomitoma and ran numerous cassette labels over the years, collaborated with Tarr on a well-respected “ecological gorenoise” project called Submersed Cadaver and finished up recording her part of a new release days before Tarr died.
“I really miss him still. The passion he had was too much for this life. He burned out pretty brightly,” Lazarus said.
As weird as it may sound, the EMBTS collection can serve as an “accessible” introduction to those just starting to dabble in the realms of unlistenable shit and the sense of artistic liberation it can bring.
“The writings of EMBTS are full of the desire for women, minorities and queer people to be involved in noisecore and to move beyond the tired gore tropes,” Kelley said. “He was saying very important things and hopefully more people will be able to see and hear his work in a new light.”
Whether a musical outlet with revolutionary possibilities or simply enjoyably obnoxious nonsense, Elephant Man Behind the Sun channels the most primal spirit of the musick we all love.
“I hope you enjoy my noise life,” Tarr once wrote.
He can rest easy knowing us underground freaks most certainly still do.