Thomas Truax builds his own friends, and from that he has built his own career. His band is composed of mechano-electronic contraptions that he has designed himself, but he doesn’t get by on schtick; he croons his well-written, pop-sensible songs beautifully.
He is, perhaps, the perfect steampunk singer-songwriter; he dashes about the globe with his bandmates in his suitcase, doing a ridiculous amount of work on his own. What’s more, he was born and raised in Wowtown, a town in upstate New York that has physically seceded from the United States of America and relocated to the Atlantic Ocean. If that isn’t steampunk, we don’t know what is.
Our interviewer tried to fly to England to interview the man in person, but settled for interviewing Thomas via pneumatic tube.

I know people ask you about your instruments all of the time, but I’m afraid we must. We’re quite a bit interested in applied acoustic mechanics, so as much technical information as you can spare would be appreciated by us all. Tell us about the hornicator: how is it built, what can it do? It uses physical objects to create distortion and reverb?

I’m not really an electrician or engineer. I’ve always liked to build things; I’ve gleaned a lot of knowledge and experience from my days with puppets and moveable miniatures used in stop-motion animation. That probably also has something to do with the strong anthropomorphic element in my ‘instruments’. I really do see them as little beings, bandmates, if you will. We do spend a lot of time together. I also did time working as a prop and set builder for theater and television; that certainly comes into it.
Recently I played a corporate Christmas party—not the kind of gig I usually do—but it paid well and they were all engineers. They offered me a job at their firm afterwards! I said I had absolutely no training as an engineer and they told me that that was why they wanted me, implying that somehow having a proper education in this sort of thing somehow corrupts the inspiration quotient or something.
Anyway what I do is set out to find a way to make an idea happen; it’s mostly trial and error, and the fun part is that often I wind up with something completely different than I set out to create. The Hornicator is a good example of that because it was just a nice old gramophone horn from a roadside ‘junk’ shop that I thought would add a nice visual element when attached to one of my rhythm machines. But aesthetically, it wasn’t happening. However, I started tapping on the thing and singing into the big end of the horn (one of my techniques is to always try something backwards) and it dawned on me that it was originally created as an audio amplifier, and had a certain nice tonality of a certain flavor that hadn’t been heard in ages by most people. So I attached a microphone element to it and started sticking things in and on it. It’s now got fretted strings and springs on it; its structure lent itself to a harp-like set up.
Springs are fantastic; everyone loves ‘em, everyone uses ‘em. Stretch a spring across almost anything, put a mic or pickup on it and you’ll get something as good as coffee in bed. Spring doorstops were endlessly fascinating to me as a kid. I could lay on the floor for hours snapping those things with my ear pressed to the door happily absorbing the reverberation. Once someone came through the door while I was doing this and I’ve had an injured neck ever since. There’s one of those on my instrument ‘the Stringaling’. There’s a very long spring attached to the small end of the Hornicator, which has a cup-like ‘receiver’ on the other end. This was something my brother sent me for a birthday present. A ‘Space Phone’. When we were kids we’d make these by attaching two plastic cups with a long string between. When you stretched it and spoke into one end, the person on the other end would hear a kind of martian version of the voice of the other person vibrating down the line. This was a marketed version of that, but lucky for me the spring was the exact diameter of the small end of the Hornicator. Pull that spring and it’s got this great wobbly sound that reverberates through the horn. Sometimes, as one part of my performance, I sing into one end and listen through the other as if it were a giant phone.
So for me it’s not only about thinking up and making instruments for anyone to play in the usual sense, it’s really a combination of many different angles. Often an instrument is added to and developed, or even built, to accommodate a specific new song. Sometimes a song is altered or built by some accidental new dimension or discovery with an instrument, so it goes both ways. And I’m always thinking in terms of not only audio but also performance, storytelling, and play.
People have asked me if I can make them a Hornicator or a Spinster, or even tell me flat off that they’re going to rip me off and make their own. What they don’t get is that what they’re seeing me do is an amalgam; the instruments are born of and interwoven with my personal obsessions and fascinations and accidents and experiences, etc. Not to get too highbrow about it, but they are like individual sculptures. It took me a long time to realize it myself, but if you want to do something different, you’ve got to let your own imagination fly free; these things wouldn’t be the same in anyone else’s hands. What people really need to do if they want to go in the direction I’m going is find their own direction, let their own imaginations go. Someone more knowledgeable about electronics and acoustics than I will certainly come up with things that are acoustically better than mine, but people would also argue that it’s the lo-fi aspects, the shortcomings, that give some of the sound-making contraptions I build their unique personalities. The ‘distortion’ you asked me about is most likely accidental, but man, it can be nice! Someone better at mechanics could certainly set up a wheel that would turn more smoothly, but then it might lack that tension or uneveness that developed from my shortcomings. I’m constantly and pleasantly surprised by what I get away with.
I’m just a kid at play really. As soon as I get too serious, as soon as my mind goes closed rather than open, the creations get lame. Usually they come together organically, so I don’t do technical sketches beforehand. All I can offer are kind of cartoon doodles of my instrument ideas, though occasionally I do sketch out ‘Green wire in A to blue wire in B’ sort of things when the going gets rough.

Sister Spinster was designed to be a foldable, portable mechanical drum machine. How is it programmed, and how do you control its speed? And why didn’t I think of it first?

I had to suffer through a lot of human drummers before I decided I’d had enough and that it was time I built my own. If people don’t show up for rehearsals again and again you will eventually be driven to turn into Dr. Frankenstein. I thought how nice it would be to have a drummer that always played steadily, without fancy self-indulgent solos, who would shut up at the turn of a switch, who could sit on a shelf at home and not eat all your food. Who could be folded into a suitcase, and so on. She’s built of found objects mostly, though there is a little drum and cymbal that just sounded too good to pass up. There’s a piezo mic from Radio Shack glued straight on to the cymbal with epoxy. It’s tiny but it sounds like a gong.
One of the drums can be slid along a track to accommodate different settings of the mallets. The mallets are TV arials attached to wheels. The arials can be extended or retracted, in order to set up different rhythm patterns. They are dodgy parts and break often—they weren’t made to play drums, after all—but I carry spares. There’s a motor and a speed control. There’s a great surplus shop on Canal street in New York City where, if you’re lucky, you can find these sort of things. Now that I’m in London I miss it.
There’s the internet too, but I shy away from it; if you can’t tap on it to see how it sounds, or turn it on and see how noisy it is, you might find yourself with a regrettable purchase. I guess I’ve also got this kind of dumpster-zen thing going on, where there’s a faith that the next thing you need will come into your life one way or another if you keep your eyes open.
I’m not the first person to put a motor on a wheel to make a rhythm, though I think I’ve taken it further than others. I think that’s mostly because I have a limit to what I can carry on planes and trains—that’s how I often tour—so I’ve had to make the same machine do more. Even so, sister Spinster’s rhythms are very rudimentary. There are people with computer controlled robot drummers that are much more impressive in a lot of ways. I just feel a lot more comfortable with mechanics and visible physical reactions that I can grasp in my little ball of grey matter than I am with ones and zeros. I think a lot of people feel this way these days, and that’s why I’ve had luck with finding audiences. At the same time I’m no purist. Digital technology has opened a whole new box of tools and possibilities. With some of my contraptions I use a digital looper pedal. But live I never use anything pre-sampled, I always play it live into the looper, otherwise I don’t feel like it’s really live.

The backbeater is an interesting fusion of form and function, a balance that is quite dear to our hearts. What kinds of limitations did the design impose on the function, or vice-versa?

As far as limitations go, (aside from its irritatingly unreliable in-flight steering mechanism) because it’s on my back and out of reach it’s pretty much impossible to manually change the rhythm setup (as I would with Sister Spinster) without having to remove it again, which would put a dent in the flow and momentum of the show. So I usually just do a one-off song with the BB. But one of its finer features is that because it’s on my back and thereby shielded from a direct line to the monitors by my body, it doesn’t cause feedback problems like some of the instruments do, even when it’s up real loud.

In a strange way, a one-person band is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of DIY... you build the instruments, the songs, and your business yourself. What’s more, you stand as strong evidence that DIY work can be taken seriously. What do you think are the major advantages and disadvantages to doing this work yourself?

Well, the main disadvantage—that I’ve seen become more and more pronounced as time goes by—is that one person can only stretch themselves so many different ways until they’re spread too thin. You can miss opportunities and start losing your mind and run into problems in your personal life when things start expanding. I haven’t spent enough time ‘playing’—i.e. building instruments, writing songs, etc. these last few years because I’ve been on the road more and more. I definitely am DIY to a fault; I just don’t wanna let go of control, and I’m not very good at asking for help. I’ll be the guy that’ll put off dying an extra few hours because I want my grave dug just a certain way and won’t trust anyone to do it right but me.
But no one is good at everything. The trick is finding people that can do the stuff that you can’t, or that are better at things than you, and who want to be involved. Or that you can afford to pay. I’ve got an agent, which has been hugely helpful, but I wouldn’t appreciate her as much if I hadn’t booked my own shows and tours in the beginning and learned what a pain in the ass it can be, and how time consuming it can be. And in fact I wouldn’t have an agent at all if I hadn’t built up a fanbase on my own first.

So you hail from a small island that recently seceded from the USA? Was the secession politically motivated? Or does the move into the ocean provide better opportunities for fishing?

Yes to both questions. Wowtown seceded in a sort of collective-unconscious psychic joining of the local community immediately following Bush’s re-election. The resulting energy field was so strong that it lifted the land—and Wowtown on its surface—like a giant cupcake and floated us out to sea. It wasn’t an island when we were attached to the US, but now floating in the Atlantic Ocean, yes the fishing is superior to what we had before, with just the lake.

It’s understandable that off-the-beaten-path musicians are wary of finding themselves labeled. It seems inevitable that once a person has been described, the industry and press want to box them in. We at SteamPunk Magazine are of course interested in steampunk, but as a description instead of a definition. What are your associations with the label?

A theremin/violinist that I sometimes work with, Meredith Yayanos, sent me an email and in the subject line it said: “HA HA! You’re STEAMPUNK!!” She’d been visiting the Dresden Dolls forum online and there was an argument, or a thread, on there, about what was and what was not Steampunk. Someone brought up my name as the perfect definition. To be honest I was unfamiliar with it at that point, but I liked it and found the associations complimentary and interesting, so I just threw it on the myspace site. But you’re right, I don’t much like labels, and am quite happy with what I typically hear people tell me after shows: ‘I’ve never seen anything else like it’. That sort of thing is much more complimentary to me than being associated with something or some scene already established.

You’ve stated before that you build your instruments out of junk, including from the bounty of dumpster diving. What are some of the best things you’ve found in the trash, aside from musical components? Have you had any crazy experiences while dumpster-diving?

Well, I got into a great deal of trouble with the New York Department of Sanitation when I was putting something back into a dumpster once. It was some dismantled studio pieces when I had to move from my last apartment. I won’t go into it because it’s mundane but I would warn anyone not to even throw a plastic cup in a dumpster that is not your own in NYC. They are very strict about this stuff, they’ve got their electric eyes everywhere, and I wound up having to pay a ridiculously huge fine.
It is amazing what people throw away though. I’ve found functional bicycles, stereo components, a nice bedside table. A coffee mug with Elvis on it, which, when you pour hot water in it, turns into later-period Vegas Elvis. Rock-climbing equipment (handy to find in a really deep dumpster). But it’s always the thing you think you’ll need or want and don’t take that you will need or want the very next day, while other things clutter up your corners for years untouched.

And finally, what sorts of instruments do you envision you would build if your space weren’t so limited and your schedule so intense?
I don’t know yet, but they’ll come. I’m going to try and de-intensify my schedule and show us both.

Thomas Truax can
be found online at
http://www.thomastruax.com

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