"I had a rule for a long time that anything I looped or sampled onstage had to first be played live, and I wouldn’t play anything that was prerecorded. But times are changing"
Most musicians aim to develop proficiency in a certain instrument, or at least remain within a certain style.
The word multi-instrumentalist is traditionally used to describe those with a certain level of competence in a wider range of disciplines, but when describing Thomas Truax, the word seems almost self-deprecatory. For Thomas, the existing range of musical instruments is not enough – he uses a host of mechanical parts to create his own from scratch, ranging from the motorised spinning drum machine Mother Superior to the bizarre harp-microphone-gramophone creation The Hornicator. Celebrating the release of Thomas’ ninth album All That Heaven Allows and his UK tour (which he is currently around halfway through), Jack Rayner picks the quite extraordinary brains of the New York native.
When you’re performing on tours, given the nature of your live shows, does each show end up becoming an entirely unique performance?
I always have a setlist, but I seldom follow it. You have to know where to go in case you suddenly feel lost and you need to turn to a script, but it varies show to show. It depends on the ambience of the room, the people that are there and the kind of energy that you feel on a given night. I’ve got my drum machine, Mother Superior, on which I play various rhythms that I have set up for various songs, so when I start a new song I’ll often have to work on her a bit to get a new rhythm designed. She’s not like a digital drum machine where it’s got infinite possibilities.
Are you often tempted to recruit a full band and do a more traditional performance, or does that detract from the fun?
I have done in the past, and when I first started out I had a real aversion to the traditional solo, singer-songwriter thing. Maybe I was just in love with the idea of the ‘punk rock electric guitar band’. I’ve changed my mind since then – every time I decide I don’t like something, someone will show me an example of that thing that’s incredible. When I started doing stuff with the drum machine, it was quite accidental. I got an offer to perform a solo gig and I didn’t want to do it, but eventually I did it and people enjoyed it, so I thought “Maybe I’m on to something here”. It took me a while to move away from having special guests on all the time or to have the drum machine playing along with a live drummer. I still do some of that in the studio sometimes, but not as often on stage.
You’ve worked with a whole host of collaborators in the studio. Can you think of one in particular who really ‘gets’ your style of creativity?
I’m not sure what brings particular people together, but most of the people I’ve worked with I’ve found I’ve gotten on well creatively with. Most recently, I wasn’t sure my songs with Gemma Ray were going to work, but we turned out to be mutual fans of each other’s stuff and it worked really well. I was working with a guy called James from a band in Leeds called Post War Glamour Girls, who I really like – we’ve done some stuff together, and we kind of battle it out for a while and come up with a lot of ideas that don’t gel, but then you hit something that really works well. Then again, I do that when I’m working alone as well – I come up with ideas then realise that they’re shit the next day.
When it comes to creating an instrument, do you hear a sound in your head that you find a desire to create out loud, or do you use parts available to you and improvise? How does the creativity work?
It’s more like seeing something lying on the street corner and thinking “I wonder what that would sound like if I hit it with something or attached a spring to it”. Or, I’ll put two things together and it will suggest what kind of sound wants to be on top of that, if you know what I mean. I guess it’s a little bit like a Jackson Pollock painting – you might throw some paint on the canvas, see what it looks like, then decide what the next colour or direction should be.
Why do you think more people don’t do it?
I am seeing more of it recently, but when I started building instruments I expected to find some sort of scene or group that were all doing it, but I didn’t. There are a few things that have a little in common with what I’m doing, like the steampunk world. What I do isn’t extremely complicated, but I guess I’m just thinking differently. A lot of people will ask me “Can I take a picture of this drum machine?” and then tell me that they’re going to build one themselves, but I’ve never heard from anyone who actually has. We can all envision a house we’d like to build, or a trip we’d like to take, but when you actually get down to the planning of it, it’s a lot more complicated.
Are you ever tempted by the idea of building your own electronic instruments – synthesizers, for example?
I don’t think there’s a defined line between electronic stuff and the electro-acoustic singer stuff, but I think a lot of the fascination that people have with what I’m doing is because they can see what’s making the sound. That’s an increasingly rare thing these days, because there’s such ready access to just about any sound you can imagine in your average computer. I do like circuit bending, this kind of thing where you take an old Casio and mess up the wires and make sounds that it wasn’t born to make. I had a rule for a long time that anything I looped or sampled onstage had to first be played live, and I wouldn’t play anything that was prerecorded. But times are changing and to an extent I think people expect to hear some prerecorded elements. Even with the traditional rock band format you’ve always got the ubiquitous Apple computer sitting on the edge of the stage. I’ve actually ‘cheated’ a little bit like that myself recently – I’ve got a sample of Gemma Ray’s backing vocal for one of my songs from the new record that I trigger with a footpedal, only because I can’t afford to have her come just to sing that one song wherever I go. I don’t think anybody’s going to see that show and say “Oh, Thomas is over now”.
What’s your plan for the future?
I’d like to take a break! I’ve been really gunning it lately but that’s what happens when you’ve got a new record and a tour and so on.
All That Heaven Allows by Thomas Truax is out now on Psycho Teddy Records. Thomas Truax performs at Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique, London on Wednesday 14 March
Related Articles: Sad Song Co.: Nigel Powell