Alex Abalos – Audium Listens S2E2

Carlino Intro (0:00):  Welcome to Season 2 of Audium Listens. This season, we’re sharing some exclusive interviews from the artists-in-residence of our annual residency show Audium: New Voices. Tune in to hear from Alex Abalos, Sharmi Basu, and Ronald Peabody about what brought them to Audium, how they’ve evolved their practices during the residency, and what they’ve created for this space. My name is Carlino Cuono, and I’ll be your host for these conversations.

This episode, I’ll be talking with Alex Abalos about his history in the Bay Area experimental music scene, how he drew inspiration from a 1980’s activist documentary about a Filipino housing project in San Francisco, and about what he calls the “punk rock spirit” of Audium. 

Carlino (1:08): …with, uh, Alex Abalos and, uh, we’re just gonna talk a little bit about him and his work here at Audium. Um… just wondering if you could, you know, share a little bit about your background, um, where you’re from – all the places, maybe – and when did you start, um, becoming involved in the sonic arts?

Alex Abalos(1:26): My name is Alex. Uh, I am 1/4th of this group call–named Secret Sidewalk, uh, I’ve been a, um, recording artist and engineer under both Alex Abalos and Puzzle. Other general things: I’m a, uh, a community organizer, music organizer, and, uh, just generally chaotic person underneath all the organization. Um, I… have done stuff and been a part of different, uh, uh-uh-um – we’ll say, community-minded, uh-uh, events, spaces, and nonprofits all throughout here in San Francisco for the last 10-15 years. Um, I moved to San Francisco in, uh, 2– like early 2000’s – um, lived off in the Tendernob, and then, uh, slowly midway through, around like 2015 or so, moved out to the Mission to a very, um, fun space called 382 Bayshore. But-so, been doing a lot of stuff with those collectives and, maybe as of late like, uh, I’ve also, um, been owning up to being one of the founders of this zine in the Bay Area called Smart Bump. 

I have all these weird little, like, things that I’ve been able to engrave, I guess, within the Bay Area, we’ll call it hive mine of experimental music, beat music, and, just, people trying to push something – I don’t know, whatever it is. (laughs) Push something. 

Carlino (3:06): Yeah. Is that what brought you here to Audium? You’re looking for another, you know, experimental venue in San Francisco to push something? 

Alex (3:13): Naw, I mean let’s be honest, like, this is a place out of curiosity. 

Carlino (3:17): Mhm.

Alex (3:17): I first, initially, just got a-a, uh, the notion of this place by just running through the neighborhood.

Carlino (3:22): Mmm.

Alex (3:22): You know? Uh, I had a buddy, uh, maybe like last year he was, like, trying to get me on as a first cohort, like get on this, this is totally up your alley. Finally got the ping of the open residency after, um, I saw last year’s, you know? And I loved last year’s and it’s one of those things where I was like “okay, cool. I finally know what’s going on here, I see there’s an artist-in-residence here, I see the people are kind of cool”, you know? Lemme-lemme do a little bit more of, like, my – uh, what’s the word? – Scooby-Do sleuthing. You know what I mean? And I Googled a bit more and tried to check in with some of the artists and, well, in the before COVID world, um, I just had to like go here and fill out the app. 

Yeah, but that’s the main reason. It wasn’t, like, trying to push music or this or that, I was just wondering what the f**k is in here (laughs), you know?

Carlino (4:27): Yeah.

 Alex (4:28): Yeah, like that’s it. And, now that I’m in here I’m like, I’m very humbled by and, like, you know… I already do a lot of, like, uh, (laughs) I already do a lot of, like, crazy, like – I’m already a workaholic from what my friends tell me, and so… I guess what people will witness is like a hyper amplification of that workaholicism. So…

Carlino (4:49): Mhm. Cool. I guess, uh speak a little more about your work, um… like, curious if you wanna share with the listeners, uh, the key elements of, like, your artistic practice now. Like, what-what’s like, um, what are the techniques and kind of, um, you know, philosophies behind your sound today? 

Alex (5:18): Um, I create like these kind of, like, if-if you look up some of the music that I have, like, it’s not really this type of like “track 1, track 2” – It’s like 15 minutes of linear thinking.

Carlino (5:28): Mmm.

Alex (5:28): Like of just things I’ve made brainfarted over like 3 months, 4 months, and then finally had the time to sit down and really, like, collage them all together. You know? And so, I would never really – I would think about mood, I would think about pacing, I would think about how certain sounds would uh-um, interact with each other and create like a kind of, like, rhythmic chaos, but it wasn’t till like really working here and, like, being challenged to think of, like, I have unlimited tracks to really push sounds all over the room – that’s when I really started thinking about “Oh! I can move the sound around.” And so, you know, with these, like, I, with-with the performances, I pressed a record. And, within pressing that record I utilized engineering and tracking within the Audium soundsystem.

Carlino (6:18): Mmm.

Alex (6:18): And as I was like, you know, laying down low eng-low end, all the essential parts – the gongs that I recorded at the house, like, I-I brought ‘em here and then started to mix it so it would actually, um… using sounds as a means of, like, shifting air and physicality in the room, and then also telling a narrative.

Carlino (6:39): Mhm.

Alex (6:40): So, it was – it was a crazy process to get that and understand that, and then hearing that – cuz I did the same type of, like, process and I made a 15-minute, just like, stream, you know? Like, a little bit of context, um, I made about 7 different sets for this whole experience. So instead of just having this one that I’m always playing on, like, I wanna read the crowd and, like, kinda see what-what… how I want the crowd to react that night. You know?

Now coming back to the record, there’s this documentary called The Fall of the I-Hotel. It was made in the early 80’s and it, um, it-it, it-it chroniclizes the struggle for this housing project called The International Hotel. Um, I was very moved by it, like, at the age of 20, you know what I mean? And that, like…

Dialogue from The Fall of the I-Hotel (7:53): The International Hotel emerged as a symbol of the struggle for decent community housing. The fight for the hotel brought together the broadest coalition ever – of labor, political, and neighborhood groups.

Alex (8:04): I still think about, to this day, like… one of my mixing sessions here of,, like,  just, um, I was like kind of doing, uh, initial tracks and in-introductions, like, it came to me, like, “dude, I should score that documentary”. And so, like, yeah, that’s gonna be one of the narrative ways I’ve pushed myself to think about making these 15-minute sound collages. And then, on top of making cohesive narrative, you’re-you’re creating, like, this kind of spatialization between the stereo space that I never really was aware of before.

Carlino (8:36): Cool. That’s amazing, yeah. So much, uh, richness in how you’re, um, working with this space and, um… in so many different ways. Could you, um, talk a little bit about the title of your piece, uh, “Soliloquy of Chaos”?

Alex (8:50): Aw man… um, like, first off it’s, like, it’s a name of a, um, Guru song. Uh, uh, yeah, and like, if you listen to it, it basically just tells a night of living in the-in New York. 

Yeah, man. From my organizers in the SOMA district all the way to here in the TL to the Mission, to, like, even in the outer areas of the Excelsior, you have, like, these wild ass nights of, like, lemme just… lurk and mob about, you know, and see what happens, you know? And, uh, I have –  of the 7 different compositions I have, like, you know, different means of showing this chaos, I guess, of what you can get into, you know? Like, and they all have to do with, like, just, (sigh) you know, growing up. Growing up, and… growing up here within the Bay– not like growing up, like, in my youth, but like growing up in my formative years a-as a young adult– becoming the adult I am now. 

Carlino (10:07): Mmm.

Alex (10:08): You know? I want folks to kind of, like… partake in this… audio time capsule I guess I’ve built of the last 20 years I’ve experienced here in the Bay Area– or in this city.

Carlino (10:20): Amazing.

Alex (10:20): Yeah. 

Carlino (10:21): I love that.

Alex (10:21): Yeah. 

Carlino (10:22): Like, bringing it around and kind of, uh, wrapping it up, like, how has-how has this experience – working at Audium –  um, how do you think… like, what techniques and even what mindset changes, um, are you gonna bring with you forward in your life and your artistic practice?

Alex (10:37): Um, I think I spoke a lot about just the-the spatialization, but I think more so is like, you know, um… there’s a lot of, like different spaces I’ve done installs for and, like, doing like-like-like, uh, artistic organization things for and, like, doing sound as an engineer for, like some of their shows. But this place, more so is like… it-I think I’m gonna bring, just –  still upholding the punk rock ethos. Like, you know, there’s not too many venues that have. Like, they say they have that feeling, like, you know…  like, everybody references 924 Gilman out of here but, like, a punk rock club to me was like SUB/Mission, in the Mission off of, like, 17th or 18th and Mission. And so, like, for me, it– being able to experience this and be a part of it, leave my mark, and then be able to wherever I go I can be like “I was in one of the most punk rock-est spaces of the city,” you know? 

Carlino (11:30): Yep.

Alex (11:30): Like, whe-whether you want it- anybody wants to admit it or not – like, as much as there’s like some quote-on-quote “academicisms” here that happen with some of the music sometimes, there’s also like a, uh, a really downhome punk rock feel to it. And I think, like, you know, in general, the foreseeable future is just– it’s gonna get more, like… punk rock but in a good way. 

That’s the main thing I’ll be walking away with, you know? Yeah. I don’t know… I, uh, I hope that answers it. Like, it wasn’t anything too technical or anything, like that. (laughs)

Carlino (12:13): (laughs) No, no, it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be too technical, no. I think that, uh, punk rock spirit of Audium that you’re both infusing with your own work and, uh, bringing forward with you is an amazing thing. 

Thanks for tuning in to listen to my short conversation with Alex Abalos, one of the current residents in the Audium spatial sound residency. I find it really fascinating to hear about the convergence of, uh, punk and his history in electronics, and how that makes its way into his work, as well as his passion and pride for the Filipino people of the Bay Area. 

The sounds you heard in the show today include a snippet from The Fall of the I-Hotel, as well as some of Alex’s previous work as Puzzle and with Secret Sidewalk. I even put in some sounds from Alex’s show at Audium. Come check out the show Audium: New Voices 2, which opens on February 9th and runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night until April 1st. You can find more information online at 

Episode transcription by Odin Rosado