Say hello to The Hornicator
by Neil Cooper June 2, '05
AS one-man bands go, Thomas Truax isn't your average street-corner peddler of big-bass-drum novelty ditties. But then, given that he invents and builds his instruments, which he carries round in a suitcase, and howls junkshop melodramas peopled by after-hours eccentrics in the neighbourhood of Wowtown, you wouldn't expect him to be.
Such marvels of modern science can be heard in all their glory on 2003's magnificent Full Moon Over Wowtown album, and anyone who witnessed Truax's performance in Edinburgh's Forest Cafe will be aware of his pop-eyed singularity as a performer. Taking full advantage of the room's former status as a church, Truax leaped about like a demented preacher talking in tongues, and closed proceedings with his legs splayed precariously astride the former altar while he howled at the moon.
"That was a really kooky room," he deadpans. "There was even a baptising bowl that looked like a mini Jacuzzi. I was lucky it was so sturdy, unlike what happened the other night in Stockport, when I had this idea to jump on a table, which then flew from under me. That made me realise I should always check the stability of things before I take the leap."
Such off-kilter venues as the Forest are an ideal backdrop for stories involving a Wowtown mascot called Al Camus the Groundhog. It's as if Thornton Wilder and Dr Seuss had conspired with David Lynch and Nick Cave to script The Waltons, their runtish progeny able to run wild and free in the spookiest of soap operas. There's some of composer Charles Ives's playful felicities at the music's wayward heart.
Nutty professor-type labours have gone into creating an array of some of the oddest instruments known to man or groundhog. Truax arrives in Glasgow tonight for his show at Bar Brel in Ashton Lane fully equipped with the kitchen-sink dynamics of the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, The Hornicator, Sister Spinster and, most recently, that particular machine's recently birthed kid brother, The Back Beater. Another addition, the Stringaling, has been left behind in Wowtown for the duration of this current tour on account of it being too big to fit into Truax's bag.
"I wonder how I get any of them through customs," Truax muses. "With this search for weapons of mass destruction, these must appear rather odd contraptions. I suppose one of these days I'll be taken into a back room and be forced to set everything up, then give them a free show, just to prove everything's fine."
As such impishness implies, Truax was the classic wide-eyed small-town suburban loner, who was first introduced to the possibilities of music after witnessing the sights and sounds of a primitive synthesiser for the first time. "It was a church concert I was dragged to," he reminisces, "and I was blown away by the noise it made, even though all I could hear was this ominous church music." Truax utilised a complex DIY kit of rubber bands and record-player machinery to construct his own prototype synth. Before long, the ramshackle surrealism of The Hornicator -essentially a gramophone horn with pick-up mics inside, which TTruax then buries his head inside - was born.
"In a town like that," Truax dryly mourns, "you get bored out of your skull, so you do what you can to make things interesting." Prior to his musical explorations, making things interesting included a spell burying himself in comic books, and fledgling experiments in the world of animation. It was here the foundations of Wowtown were laid, before Truax's musical career began in low-level trio, Like Wow. Like Wow were initially lumped in with the so-called "anti-folk" scene, a loose-knit network of likeminded musicians who plucked real strings and yodelled real songs, albeit in a progressive way. "Because we didn't want to sound like Peter, Paul And Mary," Truax points out, "the purists thought we were too weird to be part of their world, so what became the anti-folk thing created its own."
Truax outgrew his comrades as his wanderlust grew. "I never thought playing solo would appeal," he admits. "I thought all that travelling from town to town on my own would wind up feeling pretty lonely. Playing in a group with the right people can be the best thing in the world, but you sometimes have to contend with other musicians arriving late for things or else not turning up. That can be frustrating. I've discovered that he who travels alone also travels faster."
"When I first made Sister Spinster, I'd been through something like 20 unreliable drummers, and I kind of made it as a goof, then accidentally ended up playing live with it, which people seemed to like. Drummers," he observes, "aren't rocket scientists."
Fans awaiting forthcoming dispatches from Wowtown should log on to The Wowtown News, the e-newsletter penned by its creator and keeper. Subscribers can tune into the latest scurrilous gossip via bite-size short stories designed to welcome the reader into this most charming of boroughs and make them feel thoroughly at home.
Two episodes from a spoken word version of The Wowtown News that appeared on Resonance FM last year were released on a limited-edition tour CD. Complete with sound effects and accompaniment, the stories' absurdities brought to mind a medicine-show Ivor Cutler. Given Truax's comic-book past, it also pointed to the potential to adapt Full Moon Over Wowtown into what Disney Enterprises might call an animated feature.
Complete with Truax's own wonky score, it could readily find a niche market somewhere between Charlie Brown and South Park. As much as the idea appeals to Truax, he observes that "it would probably take about 20 years to make".
A new album, Audio Addiction, released on Monday, finds Truax looking beyond Wowtown for inspiration. He admits, however, that there are still "bleeps and blips swinging through the corners". Audio Addiction also widens Truax's musical palette to include cello, violin and theremin, as well as a more conventional backing that includes whisper it) real drums.
While hardly on a par with Bob Dylan picking up an electric guitar and rocking out enough to enrage the more puritanically minded elements of the coffee-bar folk scene, Truax believes "there are people out there who might resent me not doing the one-man band thing".
He's also savvy enough to realise that, as his audience grows, his act will inevitably be forced to grow with it. "There's a kind of beauty about playing in little pubs and clubs," he says, "where you can wander among the audience, although I have to be careful. Somebody at a show got scraped by The Hornicator, and they sent me a letter saying they would cherish the scrape each day as it healed. So, as the shows get bigger, they also seem to get more dangerous."
A forthcoming Glastonbury appearance, as well as dates playing alongside The Dresden Dolls and Misty's Big Adventure, may find Truax moving out of bars, although, he says: "If I ever do get to play big halls, one thing that's certain is that Sister Spinster will have to grow up".
Meanwhile, back at The Wowtown News, it's all happening. "People keep calling me to ask how come every issue has a cliff-hanger," says Truax, "so, eventually, I'm probably going to have to have a big clearing house and tie everything up. "But that's okay, because the one thing that matters is that Wowtown exists. Because, you know, regardless of whatever else goes on out there, it's always going to be sunny in Wowtown."
Thomas Truax, Bar Brel, Glasgow, tonight.
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