Explosive video surfaces of the legendary, time traveling musical terrorists Ski Troop Attack

A few years ago, I posted something here about the shady work of a private Israeli intelligence agency to discredit those in the Obama administration who had helped secure the nuclear deal with Iran. The organization’s name was Black Cube. And, in my post, I noted the fact that, decades before, I was the member of a two-person acoustic noise band in Ann Arbor that performed a song by that very same name. Here’s what I wrote at the time, lamenting the fact that absolutely no documentation of this particular band existed.

Sadly, no recordings exist, but I was once in a band with a fellow by the name of Jim Magas called Ski Troop Attack, and we had a song called Black Cube. Interestingly, in the band, we played time travelers from a post apocalyptic future who had come back with broken instruments to give the people of the world clues as to what the future holds. In addition to Black Cube, we had songs called Clean Surface and Glass Needle. Hopefully those names don’t also come up in the press. If they do, I might start thinking that I really have been sent from the future.

Well, some old footage of Ski Troop Attack in action was just posted to Youtube by Aaron Dilloway, a long-time member of the influential experimental music ensemble Wolf Eyes, and founder of Hanson Records. I’m not sure how the video came to be in Dilloway’s possession. If I’m not mistaken, it’s video taken, back in 1992, by my girlfriend at the time, Linette Lao — video that I’d thought had been long lost. [Linette and I would end up getting married in ’99, upon moving back to Michigan from Los Angeles.] I suspect, at some point before Linette and I moved away from Michigan in ’93, I must have given a copy of this recently surfaced video to Pete Larson, founder of Bub Records, for the label’s archive. [This would have been around the same time that he and I were working on the infamous Prehensile Monkeytailed Skink video compilation, Fears of Practice.] If I had to guess, I’d say that Pete likely taped over the Ski Troop Attack show in question when making a video for Dilloway, leaving only the short clip that you’re about to see, which Dilloway, by sheer happenstance, discovered a few days ago, and subsequently unleashed upon the world.

I have a notoriously bad memory, but here’s what I recall about my time as a member of Ski Troop Attack.

I should preface this by saying that Jim Magas and I, while certainly friendly, were never particularly close. I can remember, on at least one occasion, walking around town with Jim, and having what I’d consider to be a fairly meaningful conversation about life, and stuff, but that wasn’t the norm. He’d come to my shows, and I’d go to his, and I certainly enjoyed his company, but we never had the kind of relationship that, say, I had with Pete, or he had with Pete. [While I was in Skink with Pete, Jim was in Couch with Pete. So, I guess, to use Mormon terminology, we were kind of like “sister wives“, living kind of parallel lives, with Pete being the King Strang-like character between us.]

If I had to identify a reason why Jim and I never really became close friends, I’d say it was because he cared about the art of music making, and I didn’t. I didn’t want to write songs, or practice, or, for that matter, even learn how to play an instrument. I guess you could say that I didn’t want to try too hard at anything. I just wanted to have ideas, and then pretty much immediately act upon them. [This, by the way, is not something that I’m proud of. I think it comes from a deeply held, and all-consuming fear of rejection. Subconsciously, I believe, I think that, if I don’t try too hard, the criticism won’t effect me. Like, if I were to put my all into writing a book, and it got reviewed horribly, I think it would devastate me. But, if I were to dash off a zine, and it got bad reviews, I could somehow justify it to myself by saying, “It was only a zine, I didn’t try that hard.” This is something that I still struggle with.]

Jim, I don’t think there’s any doubt, was always much more serious about the music. He, it seemed to me, had a clear vision as to what he wanted to accomplish. He appreciated the context in which he was working, and cared about moving the genre forward. [Again, I may be wrong about this, but it’s how I perceived things at the time.] And I didn’t know shit, or care to know shit. I just wanted to explore, try different stuff, and find new ways to offend and confuse the people who found themselves trapped in the same room with me. I was much more interested in the performance art side of things than I was by the music itself. And, Jim, while he appreciated the performative stuff, cared a whole lot more about the music. [I can still remember an early gig at a house in Ann Arbor where it occurred to me that I could run my cord up through a heating vent, so I could be upstairs, playing bass by myself on a couch, while the rest of the band was in the basement, playing with one another. That was the kind of thing that I enjoyed, not writing songs, practicing, and getting better. I just wanted to mess around with the model of how stuff was done.] So, I wasn’t someone that Jim could really talk with about obscure European noise labels, and the like. While I made noise, it was out of necessity. It wasn’t what I listened to or cared about. [At the time, I was probably listening to Songs of Love and Hate, by Leonard Cohen, and Marquee Moon, by Television, more than anything else.]

I mention all of this just to illustrate how strange and unexpected it was that Jim reached out in ’92 to ask if I wanted to play a show with him. [My guess is that he couldn’t find anyone else to play with on this one particular occasion, but maybe there was something else going on at the time that I don’t remember.] He said, if I recall correctly, that he was putting an acoustic noise band together to play the birthday party of a University of Michigan math professor, and asked if I’d like to join. And apparently I said yes. [All of these details could be wrong, but this is how I remember things having gone down.]

I remember, just prior to the gig, being introduced to a young woman, and getting into a tiny car with my warped and broken acoustic guitar. We may have all be wearing gingham, as Jim had told me that the name of the band was to be the Gingham Girls. I can’t recall. And I remember driving up to this small, one-story house, getting out with our various instruments, walking through a fence into the backyard, and immediately climbing up into a tree, where we started playing, mostly hidden by the foliage, as a table full of confused people sat beneath us, having drinks and eating hors d’oeuvres. Jim may have talked with the host, but I don’t think I said anything to anyone. I just walked in with my broken, out-of-tune acoustic guitar, climbed the tree, and started playing. I may have been wearing a ski mask. I suspect Jim knew them, had come out in advance and proposed that we’d be playing in the tree, etc. But, for all I really know, we just drove around that afternoon until Jim saw a backyard party taking place, and we just crashed it, with him telling us that it was a birthday party for a U-M math professor, and that they were expecting us. I really have no idea. I just know that, after a “song” or two, the woman came with us climbed down, never to be seen again.

I had a good time in the tree, just plinking away, while Jim, I think, played his saxophone. I liked the fact that, as an acoustic noise band, we didn’t have “songs” to learn, or heavy equipment to lug around. And I liked that music was secondary to the performative aspect. [I was never good at learning songs, and would often have to have my bandmates remind me as to what strings I had to hit, and where to put my fingers, as we were on stage, playing in front of people. My memory just doesn’t work that way.] So, I think, after that Gingham Girls appearance, Jim and I decided to keep at it, and try something new. Jim contributed the name, Ski Troop Attack. [If I remember correctly, he was a fan of the 1960 Roger Corman film about American soldiers on skis trying to blow up a German bridge during World War II.] And, from there, we developed the back story of our characters. We were, as I recall, time travelers who had come back from a dystopian future with salvaged instruments, to warn the people of the earth of the horrible fate that awaited them. But, for some reason, we couldn’t just come right out and say what that horrible fate was. Maybe we were afraid that, by doing so, we’d make matters worse. Or, maybe, we’d mutated in such a way that we weren’t able to communicate vocally, or through writing. I can’t remember exactly. I just remember that we communicated by making guttural kinds of noises. I may be wrong, but I don’t think we ever spoke to the audience, or introduced our “songs” by name. We just kind of growled and yelped our way though our sets.

I can’t remember all of the song names, or what differentiated them from one another, but there was one that we called Water, during which we’d just gargle water. I don’t know if Jim shared my interpretation, but I remember thinking that, where we’d come from, there hadn’t been much water, and we’d wanted to savor it for as long as possible before swallowing. We just stood there for minutes on end, our heads tilted back, gargling the same mouthfuls of water, and smacking our instruments. There was another one — it could have been Black Cube — where Jim, putting a paper bag over his head, hyperventilated to the point of passing out, while I ran a buzzing metal vibrator over the strings of my guitar. Others, like Glass Needle and Clean White Surface, I don’t have clear memories of, but the names have stuck with me some 30 years now, so I imagine they must have been at least somewhat interesting.

There may have been other shows, but only two come to mind. One, which you can see in this video, was at a performance space on the second floor of a building in downtown Ann Arbor. I think it was on Liberty Street. The guy who ran the place was named Harvey, and he was somewhat famous around town for photographing nude people in public. [Again, I may have my facts wrong, but this is how I remember it.] The place, as I recall, didn’t serve anything in the way of food or drink. It was just an empty room that you’d pay to sit in. And, if I remember correctly, you’d pay by the minute. It was a ridiculous idea, but I appreciated the insane ballsiness of it. You’d have to sign in and sign out. And there would be entertainment. I don’t know how long it lasted, or how we came to be there, but I know we played there at least once. My guess is that Jim must have set it up.

I don’t recall much about the show, but I know that Jim and I, at some point, started crawling across the tables. And, in doing so, we knocked into a large candle that had all of this hardened, melted wax surrounding it. Well, the wax broke, and, after we were done, Harvey came over and yelled us, telling us how hard he’d been working for weeks to melt the wax just right. I don’t remember if he requested restitution, but I remember it be awkward, uncomfortable and surreal… standing there in a ski mask, being yelled at someone for breaking wax.

The only other gig I remember was late one night in Nickel’s Arcade. I remember that we’d printed up little handbills, and we’d handed them out to people downtown, urging them to come and see us perform. The only person I can clearly remember being there was Andy Claydon, from the Monarchs, who was super enthusiastic about the whole thing. I remember him out on State Street, dragging unsuspecting people in to see us. I also remember the show coming to an abrupt end when a police officer walked over and pulled the paper bag off of Jim’s head as he lay on the ground, writhing around. To my credit, I didn’t stop playing my broken acoustic guitar, or warn Jim about what was going to happen. I just kept playing, waiting to see how things would play out. And it was kind of magical.

So that’s the story of Ski Troop Attack. Or at lest that’s my version of it. I don’t know that it would have translated well to vinyl, but I wish we’d recorded something, if only to be a part of the official Bulb pantheon, along with all the other great, historic acts, like Couch, Math and Skink.

OK, so here’s the video. Sadly, it doesn’t capture what I remember to be our best work. But I’m thankful to have some proof that we did in fact exist… Oh, and for what it’s worth, Pete Larson has gone on the record saying that, in his opinion, “(Ski Troop Attack) was the greatest musical act to ever come out of the area.”

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17 Comments

  1. Jean Henry
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    There’s a Roger Corman movie called Ski Troop Attack.
    https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0054315/

  2. Anonymous
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I think that’s what Mark was getting at when the wrote the following:

    “Jim contributed the name, Ski Troop Attack. [If I remember correctly, he was a fan of the 1960 Roger Corman film about American soldiers on skis trying to blow up a German bridge during World War II.]”

    Am I think only one that reads these articles?

  3. iRobert
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Sadly, yes, Anonymous.

    From what I understand, the time travelers gave up on trying to warn people and went back to their dystopian hellscape…

    …2020.

  4. Karl
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    May I ask a serious question? At what point did interesting things stop happening in Ann Arbor?

  5. iRobert
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Karl, I think the decline in interesting things can most be contributed to the rise of the internet and then smart phones. People used to have to come up with all sorts of crazy shit to do in real life for entertainment and to express creativity. Now most of that energy is directed into the online world.

    I feel bad for the younger generations. seeing how they don’t generally socialize so much in real life anymore. Ann Arbor used to be a great place for young single people to just go out and meet other single people. You used to see it everywhere. Only a very small fraction of that sort of open in-person socializing goes on any more.

  6. iRobert
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry. I meant to say “attributed,” not “contributed.”

    I proof-read AFTER I hit the post comment button. Maybe I should rethink that order.

  7. a second anonymous
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    The percentage of wealthy douchebags on campus started increasing rapidly at the turn of the century.

  8. Jean Henry
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Anonymous– My bad. I missed that mention. I probably only skimmed the article because my interest in the minutiae of Ann Arbor’s noise scene is limited. But I very much understand why it’s important to record these details here and thank Mark for doing so.

    I was distracted because yesterday a bunch of A2 city council reps engaged in an extended public social media riff intended to be funny which equated the housing insecure and just plain excluded to chickens and expanded housing options to chicken coops. I posted about it and was getting pinged constantly all evening.

    Karl– the above chicken debacle may explain why ‘nothing interesting happens in A2 anymore’. The artists and committed creators were mostly pushed out decades ago. Young people who aren’t wealthy students can’t afford to live there anymore and there are no cheap spaces for shows and happenings anymore. This is still a wildly creative community but we have hollowed out our city of that presence. It’s unfortunate because th city’s vitality relied for years upon a kind of creative flow between UM scholars an students and the local population. Iggy Pop has talked about avant garden art movement influences he learned about in A2 and channeled through his musical performances. The White Panthers occupied an old frat on Hill. The artistic Petri dish that was A2 has been sanitized. We still produce great creative kids, but they leave if they can. Those that don’t get beat down by just trying to make rent. In the old days Ann Arbor was a city you could come to and grow creatively by splitting your young life into thirds: 1/3 work for money, 1/3 study, 1/3 experiences. My daughter is better able to do that now in Brooklyn than she could have in A2 or even Ypsi. Pay here is too low; rent is too high. A classic formula for creative stagnation.

    Ain’t no one here but us chickens.

    I should have kept my trap shut, but that movie is awesome.

  9. Anonymatt
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    You wrote a description about STA in Crimewave (or perhaps your autobiography) which reproduced a painting you did of it. I think you mentioned that if you ever released album, it would be called “[X] Years Wasted” where I think X was 3 and represented the time that guy spent melting the wax. At least that’s my best recollection.

  10. Jean Henry
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    It all started when they closed the Half-Ass. At least from my perspective. I mean it was even called the Halfway Inn– That was a very apt name– A cafe/performance space in a dorm filled with local kids. Sigh.

    Now all our spaces are segregated. Kids can go to the Neutral Zone where kindly volunteers will monitor their behavior so it’s in no way disruptive to the status quo. I love the Neutral Zone, but it should not be the only place for rebellious teens to hang out other than the RR tracks.

    Please note that a multi-million dollar plan is underway to sanitize and institutionalize the RR tracks downtown. It will be called the “Treeline.” the intentions are good and I get the value of making a nice planned pathway to the river trail system. They are promising creative community studios etc. We’ll see… I would bet $$ the momentum for public art spaces that aren’t high-brow dissolves.

    There is a high cultural value to uncurated spaces. Ann Arbor’s remaining blank walls show that there’s still creative energy. The graffiti game there is really strong. Any free, unprogrammed space left in the city still gets used as a creative outlet by kids.

    Guess what? No suprise. There’s a movement afoot to fund professional murals on all those blank walls. The engaged citizenry (olds) get to select which they like best. See A2 Public Art debacles.

    With our good intentions, we are systematically erasing all the creative energy in Ann Arbor.

    Maybe we should start a movement called “free the spaces.” Heh..

  11. Posted May 11, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    http://www.blackcube.com

  12. Posted May 11, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    What is Black Cube?

    https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2018/05/08/what-is-black-cube-sciutto-pkg.cnn

  13. Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if soon, the real creative spaces will be suburban or even exurban since in many areas, the inner city has become more desirable while outlying areas less so? Now that I am also an old established person whose artistic friends tend to also be older and pretty well established it is difficult for me to have a feel for where the young creatives are doing their thing. I am not too worried about it though. Creative types always seem to find a way. Maybe it is going online. I am totally ok with that!

  14. Jean Henry
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    The new diapers will be empty malls, which was actually Their original intent. Indoor malls were conceptualists by their inventor as a year round public commons. Commerce was very secondary to their intent.

    Imagine if Briarwood became housing, work spaces and studios. With jobs and public transportation options aplenty.

  15. Jean Henry
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    ** ok I don’t honestly know what I was typing that autocorrect changed to diapers. But it’s funny as it stands. I meant something like creative spaces.

  16. Posted May 11, 2020 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea, especially as someone who doesn’t like winter! Malls have a lot of potential if they can be changed to be more mixed-use space! Some of the architecture is actually interesting too. I am still kind of sad that Northland was torn down rather than converted into something else. It was quite an interesting bit of midcentury modern architecture.

  17. ElsieGal
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jean, I agree about Half-Ass. Studied there even after moving out of East Quad (Residential College grad), with a few locals and UM groundskeepers who’d discovered the joint. Ate great cheap food there. Listened to great music and fab poetry. Rented the place for my graduation party. Amazing spot and (for me) quintessential East Quad and Res College. Thanks for giving me a reason to dredge up great memories!

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