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.


  1. Actually, Thomas I would like to comment on the vexed question of percussion-section timekeeping - a kind of quasi-philosophical point, really. Do you think, perhaps, that the (good) drummer's praeternatural abilities in the micro-time world of rhythmic accuracy, render him/her hopelessly divorced from the the real-world macro timekeeping of rehearsal times? I think there may be some truth in that thought...
    BTW, shame on you for ignoring the sunny south coast of the UK, during this tour! I'm thinking, specifically, the Hampshire coastal area. Even more specifically, Southampton. A revisiting of your triumphant appearance at The Joiners would have fitted the bill nicely. I'll just have to console myself with another listen to Trolls...

    Best Wishes, Jon

  2. Jon, I think you're right in pointing out the potential differences between micro-time rhythmic accuracy when compared to macro rehearsal time inaccuracy. As for the south coast of the UK, nothing personal, planning tours is like a Rubik's Cube, difficult to make it all fit right. Next time it'll be a whole new puzzle so we'll see who is promoting where when and hopefully see you then!

  3. I'd love to know about the snake/tumble drier pipe thingy! Does it have a name too?

    1. Hi Sally. Ah, how could I leave that one out? That's the Stringaling! It's built on a bongo drum I got in Mexico and yes it's a tumble drier tube that extends out. It's covered with various items I collected that make sounds when you pull their strings. Unfortunately, in this digital age where everything's a button or virtual button such items are much more rare than they used to be. There's nothing like pulling a string to make a sound, kids are really missing out these days.