An Interview With BLOOD RHYTHMS (noise/experimental)

BLOOD RHYTHMS is an ongoing and constantly morphing collective spearheaded by veteran experimental artist and Chicago native Arvo Zylo. The unit’s new LP, CIVIL WAR began its conceptual impetus before its vinyl debut, 2014’s ASSEMBLY, which was a layered whale song / locomotive stomp of brass & wind instruments recorded in a meat locker, released in collaboration with RRRECORDS. In 2010, after a few years of makeshift group performances delivering noisy, loop-based industrial drones as a brass ensemble, and inevitably growing to incorporate a series of damaged synth/junk metal outings, the group’s official debut was met with live accompaniment from legendary Chicago avant/industrial/gospel giants ONO. With that, the very beginnings of BLOOD RHYTHMS’ new LP, CIVIL WAR, were set into motion.  We’d like to thank Arvo from Blood Rhythms for the interview.

Blood Rhythms is an “ongoing collective” with you as the only permanent member, right? Who all is involved with the project for this new release?

For the CIVIL WAR LP, some of it was recorded in 2013. I spent some time recording with Wyatt Howland (Skin Graft) in Cleveland, and I also recorded “Sick Skin” with Kenny Brieger (Architeuthis Dux) in Austin, TX during that time. Kenny only recorded it, but his placement of mics for feedback purposes was crucial, so I consider it collaborative. The amount of feedback would not have been allowed in a regular studio, but Kenny is a noise guy and I’m thankful he engineered that session. In 2016, I booked some time at Minbal Studio, in Chicago, and Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Corrections House, Bloodiest), Mike Weis (Zelienople), and Richard Syska visited me to throw down some overdubs. I had recorded the solo work prior to this, so it was people taking turns improvising with as many instruments as they could bring, with my direction, for 12 hours.

During this time, I had some more ideas I needed to flesh out, and Dave Phillips (Schimpfluch Gruppe), B. Z. from T.O.M.B. Sent me material, as well as Michael Krause (Death Factory) and Daniel Burke (Illusion of Safety). I was seeking out specific sounds, like for instance I specifically asked dp to send me balloon material for symbolic purposes, and he was gracious and kind enough to send it in abundance. The man is incredible with balloons!

I read that the concept for “Civil War” actually began prior to the 2014 release, “Assembly.” Could you expand on that?

“Assembly” was conceived inside a meat locker in October of 2008. We recorded brass and wind with tubes and a number of directional recorders. I didn’t finish putting together Assembly until 2010, that was a lot of looping and layering on Side B, and it was only finished because I couldn’t add anymore layers without my computer crashing. I didn’t come around to releasing that until 2014, because in 2010 was my first real tour, and I started putting all of my effort into that.

I did a tour in July 2010, which initially didn’t have vocals. By the time the tour was over, I was doing a Swans cover and some other vocal things. In October of 2010, I was on my way to a show in Chicago, and I had an idea on the train. I immediately went into the venue and created something on my sequencer in the sound room, it was just a spoken word piece over a sort of rhythmic glitch (an actual malfunction in my sequencer), with some other elements interspliced. I might have been a little louder with my vocals, but my friend brought a German Shepherd to the show, and the dog was growling and barking at me the whole time. Later that month, I went to play a noise fest in St. Louis, and that piece had become a bona-fide loud, booming power electronics piece just naturally. It went over very well, to one of the larger crowds I’d ever played for at that time. In November 2010, I did another tour of the south, by way of a greyhound bus. It was 27 hours from Chicago to Houston, and I had another idea. I had already commissioned my friend to make me an aluminum mask with a mic built into the mouth, and I had not used it before, nor had I ever really messed with feedback to any serious degree, until I performed at Dead Audio Fest. So the first performance of “Sick Skin” was also the first use of the aluminum mask, which also allowed me to take a belt sander to my face in addition to the sheet metal I’d been carrying around.

In December of 2010, it was the official debut of BLOOD RHYTHMS, as I’d just been throwing together ensembles since 2007, and I’d decided that the new name was a more focused direction to go into. The now-legendary “avant-industrial-gospel” band ONO had recently reformed after several years of hiatus (first starting in 1981) and ONO was my “backing band”, if you will, although they started without me and it was total noise, with lots of sheet metal and angle grinders, etc. That was my first performance of “Locked Away”, also written on the greyhound bus. “Alchemy and Grief” was written on the bus around that time as well, but being unsure how to finish it, I looked up some poems, and naturally came to a poem with a strikingly similar theme by Baudelaire. It turns out he’d written something resembling my lyrics and themes very well, but he also wrapped it up in a way that I partook in, considering that the theme was the same. So all of those lyrics came before I’d read the poem by Baudelaire, up until the part with “The Clouds Wind Like Wild Sheets and I Kiss Her Beloved Corpse Goodbye”…

I came up with the line “My Paradise Is Hell” before I knew that Baudelaire did it, and so forth. It was strange. I didn’t perform that piece until 2013, but those 4 pieces, “The Face”, “Sick Skin”, “Locked Away” and “Alchemy & Grief” were performed constantly from 2010 to 2016, whether it was solo or with groups.

Could you talk a bit about the difference between some of the instrumentation used; found objects vs. electronics etc?

The only “found objects” are on the track “Closure”, I have to say. There are lots of electronic voice phenomena on that track. I recorded my vocals for that on a haunted recorder. It is constantly acting up. I recorded with it at Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, and it has been acting crazy ever since.

Also, I guess I should say, that I sampled a (long out of print) movie, but I’m not going to say where or what, because I don’t want the pressing plant to hear about it and get mad. I think it’s decently obscured.

Everything else is instrumentation and effects, but I also use a technique that involves a lot of layering. I heard at one point that people layer guitars a lot to get a good sound for bands, and I just started experimenting with layering. I still don’t know how to mix a band, but I know how to mess with 175 layers at a time for my own purposes, and I’ve been doing that for over 10 years. Richard Syska used a synth, and I used a sequencer. We both had some pedals. In my case I’d borrowed pedals, because I didn’t own any. I still only own a couple. Michael Krause brought on some synth material, and Wyatt Howland had a big set up, but I think we only used his gear minimally, compared to what we could have done.

Your Bandcamp page notes: “CIVIL WAR is a studio culmination of nearly ten years of ongoing work; A synthesis of Zylo’s main focus, and what has come to be referred to by some as “outsider power electronics”. Other than the number of people involved, why did it take so long?

In short, because cover artists are flakes. The long end of it is that I like to make sure everything has run its course. I explore every idea within a concept before I am finished, hence the need for a 44 page booklet. There will be a silver vinyl edition that will be available as part of a box set. In that box set will answer the question to “what else have you been working on?”. Four cassettes, four Cdrs, a lathe, and hopefully some other odds and ends. Those things are great, but not my main focus. My main focus was putting out this LP at all costs. It was my main reason to get out of bed for many years.

What’s been the strangest reaction to one of your noisefest performances?

Hard for me to define strange. There was one time I was covered in packing tape and a very attractive lady offered to help me take it off… People have cried, people have offered hugs. There was another time where someone was so enthused by my set that they kicked my briefcase and almost knocked over the table. There was another time where I brought a bunch of lamps and mirrors, and the heads of Denver Noise Fest gathered beer bottles for weeks for me, so I could put them into boxes wrapped in duct tape. Everyone threw around the boxes during our set, and I guess what was strange is that I honestly didn’t expect anyone to break any of the mirrors or lamps, but every one of them was broken! People kept throwing around the glass after the set was over. It was fun.

I want to talk for a bit about the track, “The Face.” It goes from a pulsating electronic wave to some overwhelming harsh, ear-jarring noise. Can you talk about the composition of this track specifically and how important the lyrics are?

Performing it solo, I’d first take a coronet out and blow into it until I felt I was going to pass out. I knew there would be something comical about my face by that point. The second bit of harshness would come when I put a piece of sheet metal over my face and took a belt sander to it. So there’s some symbolism there. I did my best to translate that into a studio environment.

With Blood Rhythms, what is the most important reaction either mental or emotional that you try to evoke? Or rather, do you simply hope the listener recognizes that you are stretching dynamics of composition?

I’m glad I don’t have to answer this in person, I would have to think for a long time on how to properly word this! But I’m glad you’re asking these questions. There are a lot of people that shrug at any sense of meaning, and call it pretentious, but I think it’s pretentious to think that anyone deserves attention if they’re not inspired or visionary in some way. That said, I definitely don’t expect the listener to follow the words consciously, but I also deliberately avoided obscuring the vocals in too much distortion/effects.

The name of the release was almost called “Cosmic Dysphoria” or “Soul Dysphoria”. These things came to me like a bolt of lightning. I typically do things like that on the spur of the moment and then meddle with them until that “lightning” is over. From there, I figure out the meaning later, just like any listener. Essentially, the release is about being stuck in my body. I’ve been talking about this years before I knew that Swans, Genesis P. Orridge, or Jodorowsky had mentioned this concept, and I respect them more for it. It’s the bane of my existence, and I’m not too good at astral travel, still. The piece “Sick Skin” gave me panic attacks to listen to, and to mix down/edit from a much longer piece. I performed that piece alone with just me and feedback for as much as half an hour before. I’ve woken up screaming the lyrics to that track in my dreams, my neighbors would tell you.

For reasons I won’t go into, I find the fact that I have to live in a body very limiting and oppressive. If there is something mental or emotional I’d try to evoke, it would be that. An artist hopes that the audience will relate to them, I guess, but I don’t think for a moment anyone will gather it based on the audio alone. It’s more me transcending these circumstances, and I know the words “transcendent” and “alchemy” are overused, but they are not used haphazardly here, I promise.

Can you talk about the artwork and the elaborate booklet that comes with the new album?

I think it was 2013 when I first tried to commission taxidermist Sarina Brewer to make a preserved deer heart for me. She only works with recycled materials, so it was really a task to get hold of a good deer heart. I think it took two years. She is the only one I knew of who could properly preserve animal organs without them shriveling. You might imagine I’d contacted a lot of artists who’d used animal parts, and it took me a while to get to this point.

At some point in 2011, I commissioned Steven Leyba to do an “alchemical portrait” of me, and that was the original plan for cover art, but then it became outmoded by the deer heart idea, and then the deer heart idea became outmoded by the x ray collage idea, and then there was the xerox portrait idea… It was just a matter of following intuition, and I guess it’s somewhat rare for my intuition to say to me “stop while you’re ahead”.

I met Bradley Kokay in 2013 and found his xerox collage work to be incredible, I was also floored to find that he does these things in coffee shops and galleries in real time. I went to someone to do a photo shoot and sent these photos to him to see what he did. I initially thought he would cut up my face and rearrange it, but he moreso warped the hell out of the photos and made them look, in a way, like there was an occult element involved. It reminded me of the occult photography of the early 20th century, like demons were being exorcised from me.

Initially everything done by me in the 16 page booklets was considered for cover art at first. I think I was blown off by three different cover artists, and I’d already finally did the cover myself and sent the gatefold jacket art to print when I reconnected with Bradley Kokay. By the way, I’m really glad those artists blew me off, because I came up with something that was even better than the idea I had presented to them at that time. After Bradley and I got into motion, a lot more other ideas came up last minute. Bradley contributed far more than I expected, and it gave me ideas for modifying the xerox materials he sent me, plus doing some other material for the booklet, and so forth. The 44 page booklet edition (for red vinyl) is basically what happened when I gave Bradley and I room to spread out a bit, since there was so much material that happened relatively quickly. I am not a good minimalist, although I really tried to narrow it down. I was working 60-80 hours a week at this time, and I still plugged away on new ideas for the booklet. Bradley and I sent master prints back and forth trying to instigate or finalize an idea.

Performers like Rudolf sometimes involve themselves in almost “ritual-like” performance either in the studio or in live shows. How involved in any kind of rituals are you when it comes to composing or performing?

I will say that the first brass ensemble performance that eventually became what Blood Rhythms is mainly known for live, it was on April 1st, 2007, and was intended to be for the purpose of a sort of meditative breathing exercise more than music. Of course, people still tried to get jazzy, but the intention was for human drone music for horns. We did this for 75 minutes once, until the venue turned off the lights. The current incarnation of Blood Rhythms, with Blake DeGraw and friends, is back to doing that, except no one tries to get musical at all, it’s great! It can be called a “ritual” if you want, but it doesn’t need to be advertised as such. It seems really silly, but active imagination is the best method of ritual for me. For me to go into details just seems goofy. I can’t expect anyone to understand it overnight. I don’t need to burn sage or anything. Any association with live performance is purely coincidental.  Essentially, will power and imagination are the cornerstones of achievement, in alignment with a balance of giving and taking, and I like to see what I can do with live performance in that context.  

What do you have planned for the coming months in 2020?

The aforementioned box set, some very limited lathe cut LPs, another multiple tape box set compilation on my label (NO PART OF IT), a 2xCS art edition on Oxidation label, a tape on Personal Archives, a tape on Dumpsterscore. In general, now that the LP is out, I can let loose the other things I’ve been working on since 2013. I don’t do one-offs or jam sessions. We can call it “the outgrowth”.

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