Wednesday, 24 December 2014

WOWTOWN NEWS: A Spiders Christmas

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Here in Wowtown it's a tradition this time of year to gather round the fire and recall the story of young Jimmy the Spider and his icicle climb. I hope you enjoy it.



'Twas the day before Christmas and school was let out early! It was that special day of the year when the children of the Huxley family of spiders rush to the Crickshaw Bridge, off the northeast end of Wowbegon Lake, to play their forbidden annual game of icicle climbing.

 To prepare for the game, first a large patchwork quilt of web was spun together by all the participants. It was then stretched horizontally above the frozen river underneath the icicles hanging from the edge of the bridge, forming a large trampoline. Then the spiders would take turns leaping from the bridge, bouncing off the trampoline and attempting to grab hold of and cling to an icicle. If this was managed, the spider would then attempt to climb the slippery icicle back to the bridge. At the end of the day the spider with the greatest number of climbs would be crowned Ice King, or Ice Queen, and all must bow before him or her. A well aimed, powerful bounce is required, and most spiders are unable to reach, let alone grab on to an icicle.

 Jimmy was a little smaller and tended to be a bit more clumsy than the other spider babies, his feet were not as sticky and his attempts to discharge proper web silk were usually embarrassingly unsuccessful (it shot out like a spiraling mass of silly string). He was a figure of ridicule for his siblings, nevertheless it seemed that this was his day to turn things around, as on his very first attempt he not only bounced high enough to reach an icicle, he was also able to grab on and HOLD! Throngs of tiny spiders gasped in awe around him. He could hardly believe it himself as he clenched his multi-faceted eyes shut, took a deep breath and told himself "Now, now Jimmy, don't let your excitement foul this up. Hold on tight!"

He knew he still had to make the climb, and that the most devastating thing that could happen would be to slip off now, after having come so close to victory. So he held on tight while he regained his composure.

 This turned out to be a grave mistake, for he held too long, and when he tried to move the first of his eight tiny legs he found it to be frozen to the ice! He grunted, groaned and strained. He tried each other leg, one at a time, but each was unfortunately very much as stuck. The other spiders began to snicker and giggle and nod their heads back and forth, then went back to the game around him for the rest of the day. As it got colder and evening set in he realized he'd probably be stuck there all night. He would have to wait until morning and hope the warmth of a new day would be enough to thaw him free.

Gradually his siblings filed off into the night, with an occasional "Merry Christmas Jimmy!" thrown at him spitefully. And through his cold multi-faceted eyes he saw a multitude of warm things: distant webs of Christmas lights began to go on in the nearby town, candles burned in the window hole of a nearby squirrel family tree. And then there was smoke coming up from Al the Groundhog's hole, probably from a lovely fireplace that made him think of the nice fireplace that must be burning below at his own family's home back in the rafters of the Tailspin Tavern. There they would be stringing eight tiny stockings for each brother and sister from the big family web, and they'd all be excitedly preparing for the arrival of Big Santa Spider later tonight, with his eight bags of treats, flying through the night in his sleigh pulled by eight tiny flies stuck to webbed reigns.

Yes he had plenty of time to think up there on that icicle, little Jimmy did. He shuddered with thoughts about creatures that might swoop in on him in the darkness and how he was pretty much a sitting duck up there. But maybe that wouldn't be such a bad way to go, because what really scared him were thoughts about the anticipated wrath of his father, Daddy Long Legs Huxley, whom it should be said ruled with nothing less than an iron spider fist. Once he had even violently ripped the front two legs off Jimmy's brother Aldous when he was caught examining an 'adult' site on the Big World Web, leaving him to lead the shameful life of a veritable six legged insect!

Snow began to fall and tiny multiple tears began to drip and freeze into tiny icicles from all of Jimmy's eyes. Exhausted, he finally passed out. In the morning the sun did indeed shine down on a sparkling, crackling crystal landscape and Jimmy melted free and dropped with a soft bounce on the web trampoline below. There couldn't have been another being in all of Wowtown happier about it being a sunny Christmas, but he was still very frightened about facing Daddy Long Legs who would certainly be waiting to deliver a severe punishment. His fears were unfounded, however. For due to a long standing family tradition of which Jimmy was too young to be aware, Mommy had eaten Daddy during the night.

 Happy Holidays from all of Wowtown! Thomas

Thursday, 2 October 2014

It's Always the Drummer's Fault Isn't It?

Or… "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Machine."

As I write this I'm in Scotland heading towards the final dates of the tour. Touring is tiring but it's been going great. I've been reminded again that when talking to people after my shows, or in interviews and so on, without a doubt the one question I get asked more than any other is:

"What in the world inspired you to start building your own instruments (or whatever you call these crazy things)?"

     My answer is pretty straightforward: it basically started with getting fed-up after years of being in a long line of band situations where the drummer (it's always the drummer isn't it?)  wasn't showing up for rehearsal, or canceled on shows last minute or just quit the band, and so on.  Finally I decided to build my own mechanical drummer that I could always rely on. And I haven't looked back since.

     This is basically true and looks good in print, but it's also an oversimplification of what was actually a combination of things that transpired gradually, and probably puts too much blame on some of those drummers, who were (and in most cases still are) good friends and musicians that I respect and feel lucky to have worked with.

     In addition to music, I've always had a fascination with machines and moving parts, and things that want to get out of skips and make noise, which I keep an eye out for and try to rescue. I have some history as a stop-motion animator, which I started doing as a kid, building puppets and models and shooting them one frame at a time on an old 8mm camera.  Later it became my final day-job (before I was able to scrape a full time living playing music) most notably on shows like MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch and Cartoon Network's Robot Chicken.  Much earlier I also spent some time doing magic shows for kid's birthday parties,  and I ran off with the Toby Tyler Circus for a while and I think there are a lot of elements in these experiences that had a big influence on what I do now.

Toby Tyler Circus
    The last band I was doing before I 'went solo' was called Like Wow and it went through a lot of lineups. My great friend and long-term guitar player for Like Wow, Carlos Vivanco, was building some instruments. He asked me never to throw away my old guitar or bass strings when I changed them, so that he could have them for what were usually stringed instruments, kind of like cigar box guitars, but with wooden bowls or plastic cups as resonators. It was partly because of seeing him doing that that I started working on the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, my first bike-wheel drum machine, which I originally thought might just be a cool addition to the band if the drummer played along with it (and in fact 'Shooting Stars' on my first album is exactly that, drummer Scott Hartley playing to the Cadillac Beatspinner).  I don't know why we didn't use Carlos's instruments more in the band, but had we stayed together it might have gone in that direction.

     I definitely was a little burned out by the band thing.  I never thought I'd enjoy being a 'solo' artist, I saw it as potentially being too lonely, but I'd never done an open mic before and I thought I eventually had to do it just to see how it felt, kind of as a rite of passage. So I did the famous 'Antihoot' one night in NYC at a place called Sidewalk (run by antifolk kingpin Lach).  It was rough.  I thought I played terrible and that that would be the end of that, but Lach seemed to think otherwise and immediately offered me a gig.   Since gigs in New York City don't usually come at you like that, I agreed, and then thought in a panic "what the hell have I done?"  I really didn't have any other solo acoustic songs down yet and didn't know how I'd fill up the half hour time slot.

    But I had been working on the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, I had practically abandoned it because it just wasn't coming together without falling apart, but I decided  I'd drag that along and play some old stuff I had with that as my drummer.  I made flyers that billed it an "Experimental Electro-Acoustic Rhythm Contraption and Romantic Song Demonstration".
Early gig poster NYC probably 2002

   As I was playing this show I was thinking the whole time that this is really an embarrassing disaster.  The machine was indeed not behaving at all, pieces actually fell off and flew at the audience at one point and the rhythms were fluctuating all over the place.  But in the end, to my surprise, it didn't seem to matter to the audience- they seemed to be entertained whether it was working or not!  My friends said enthusiastically that I should forget about my band and go in this direction, which was both encouraging but also a little insulting because we'd put our hearts and a lot of work into trying to make Like Wow fly. 

     But that was really the turning point for me where I realized I was on to something a little different, and that really stems from just having let my imagination run wild instead of trying to do it by the rule book.  I realized I'd been compartmentalizing my talents and interests with music/bands in the one drawer and my love of building things in another drawer and my storytelling and movie-maker selves in other drawers, and there was a kind of internal battle over which of these sides would eventually win out and what I'd eventually "become". But when I let all of them collide it felt a lot more like I'd loosened the reigns on myself and had something much more unique to offer as an artist.

     So it all started with the drum machines, of which now I've designed an built a good handful, culminating in my current road-partner Mother Superior.
Mother Superior
  I'll just wrap this entry up by chiming in briefly about The Hornicator, because it's a completely different kind of thing, a gramophone horn which I originally intended to be part of the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel  in much the same way that I've now got a horn as a percussion element on Mother Superior.  That combination didn't work out though, aesthetically or practically, at the time, but I sat with that Gramophone horn for a long time because it was such a beautiful piece, and started tapping out rhythms on it with my hands. Then I realized what a strange and wonderful reverb it had when I sang into the big side of the horn. So I stuck a mic in there.  I'd received a gift of a 'Space Phone' which is like one of those things you make when you're a kid that has a cup on each side and a string down the middle, so that when you speak into one side your friend can hear the reverberation through the other side. Only this one had a spring that  perfectly matched the circumference of the small end of the gramophone horn, so I substituted the horn for one of the cups. Then I got the idea to string it with more springs and some guitar strings almost like a harp, and to add frets and put a kazoo inside and, well, by that time it had practically taken on a life of it's own. The Hornicator seems like it really wanted to be born, I just had to help it along.
with The Hornicator - photo by Chris Saunders
The second most-asked question I get is 'How long did it take you to build that?'  It's a simpler answer (basically, always longer than I think it will take) but I'll save the details for a future entry.
As usual, please let me know what you think about these blog entries by leaving comments or questions, I like hearing back and really appreciate you taking the time to read these.