Archived below or click here to read on the Guardian Website

Five facts and things: a chat with Thomas Truax

Thomas refuses to name a favourite or least favourite invention: “They’re like my children, and we have to work together, so it wouldn’t be wise of me to choose a favourite and risk resentment from the others. A sad case, though, was Mary Poppins, another percussion contraption that had arms that would lift when she spun by centrifugal force (in the blur appearing somewhat like an expanded umbrella – thus the name) and then play a rhythm against a motorcycle headlamp and a playing card. I was proud of it, but, unfortunately, a wobbly stage or even a breeze could throw off her rhythm and screw up the song. That happened every other night, so eventually I had to put her away.”

Thomas has no previous engineering experience: “I went to film school in New York and I worked as a set builder and then a stop-frame animator for MTV. That had an impact, thinking about motion and rhythm and the mechanics of creating those illusions. Aside from that, it’s trial and error, mostly, and if you could see all the failed experiments I started on, you’d have a good laugh.”

The next addition to the family? The soon-to-be-complete Scary Aerial: “It’s built out of one of those old TV aerials. I was looking out at the rooftops one night and I suddenly thought: ‘Look at all those frets! They should have strings on ’em!'”

He doesn’t build his instruments with any particular idea about musical theory in mind: “The Hornicator, for example, has some frets, but the scale that resulted is not only much more limited than an average instrument (it’s got about four notes) but it’s not ‘correct’ as far as a western 12-note scale would be. So it’s not likely that I’m going to consciously or unconsciously rip off a riff from a Beatles tune, for example. It makes it easier to be original. A lot of both the instruments and the songs I develop from them are based on limitations and happy accidents. The sounds are often lo-fi and ugly but that keeps it kinda punk.”

Thomas’ favourite instrument that he didn’t invent himself? “Human voice. So much easier to transport and keep properly lubricated.”