The Beep Heard Round the World

At the No Response Festival, Cincinnati’s mysterious synth legend comes out of the shadows to teach a clinic in noise

John Bender has an intimidating reputation. He is the Cincinnati musician who 35 years ago came up with the template for dubstep, unless he invented “cold wave,” or maybe he helped define analog minimalism. And then: poof. A few people knew he still lived in Cincinnati, but fans of his three ultra-rare self-released albums knew his Cincinnati might as well have been Bombay. “The man behind the music remains shrouded in self-imposed mystery,” one online admirer explained; a writer from the Red Bull Music Academy website cautiously sought him out for a friendly profile, but “the scant few contacts I had all said the same thing: he ain’t talking to no music journalist. Self-imposed obscurity is definitely the name of the game for the mysterious Bender.”

Even John Rich, co-organizer of the amazing No Response Festival at the Woodward Theater June 23 and 24, which will present the first appearance by Bender in maybe 30 years, sounds palpably baffled. “I haven’t met him. Nope, I never have—I don’t even know what he looks like. Literally anybody could show up and say they are John Bender.”

So it’s a relief to meet the guy, in his office near the UC campus, and see first of all that he exists, and second of all that he’s willing to talk. Downright effusive, as he power slams coffee and hemorrhages interesting ideas. He made three now-legendary releases, decaying, mopey and beautiful noise masterpieces that embodied the late-70s Ohio rustbelt avant-garde, and then seemed to disappear.

“I didn’t have a girlfriend then, so I had a lot of time to spend doing beeps and squeaks,” he says. “I found out it really didn’t cost that much to put out an album and that’s what I did.”

The disappearing act, the 66-year old Bender explains, wasn’t exactly planned. “I was doing the thing for eight or nine years and it was not intentional when I just stopped doing it.” One day stopped, then another, “then it got all dusty and one day I put my equipment away,” he said. “I got a bunch of letters but I never responded—I don’t do letters. To quote Lou Reed, ‘between thought and experience lies a lifetime.’ For me it’s a millisecond—if you miss it then I’m gone.”

But: gone where? Turns out for the last few decades Bender has had a therapy practice in town. “Part of my thing has always been the issue of what is reality. Among my favorites back then were [French writer] Alfred Jarry and the surrealists, the whole project of bending and reshaping how we perceive things. So being in mental health and working with schizophrenics and the bipolar—it’s all right there. You get these delusional thought systems with which you can make connections with the world. Those connections have always been important to me, though I’ve always been something of an isolated, detached person.”

For a long time, he kept his music life and his professional life absolutely separate. But then, “I had this one client I saw for years. One day his father came in and said, ‘Are you THE John Bender?’ ” Things started to change.

“Of late there have been some people that already knew about me—it’s not like why they come to see me but it’s a blanket, they already know something about me, so maybe it’s safer for them. They know I used to be cool.”

His father was a military chaplain who settled down here and founded a Lutheran church. That experience shaped his work and his music, says Bender. “I’m really a paradox of two extremes. Because I grew up around military, I cussed like a sailor when I was five years old. Because my father was a minister, I never cussed around him. It was always about context. And today it’s the same thing—I work with people to get toward a better sense of understand of their own normalcy; at the same time I like to work toward the extremes.   So what I do has to be limitless but it also has to make sense.”

Bender says he could count on one hand the times he’s played before a live audience, and so his performance at No Response will be a revelation, and just one of many. Also on the bill of this ambitious two-day blow out of noise and experimental music are brambly guitar visionary Bill Orcutt, tape loop masseuse Aaron Dilloway, and former local C. Spencer Yeh, now busy retuning the world’s ears one electronic improvisation at a time. We need more! Support the blare, before 35 more years go by.

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