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Thomas Truax has a love-hate relationship with the rulebook.
It might seem like he’s chucked it out of the window musically, abandoning bandmates in favour of a motley crew of invented instruments, which he talks to like friends and builds himself starting with a single perfect sound.
But he also pays acute attention to the rules he sets himself, adjusting his playing to his home-made drum machines Mother Superior and the Back Beater, which might run faster or slower depending on the heat, the electricity or anything else.
“It’s kind of like playing to a metronome,” he explains. “They’re supposed to build a rhythm into you so you can play without it. I’m still basically using one. People tell me when I start off the rhythms don’t seem that amazing, but then I play against them and they get complicated. There’s a molding of man and machine, like science fiction.”
So who’s in charge?
He pushes back his choppy DIY haircut, looking uncertain. “That’s a good question. We have arguments about it in the band, even onstage sometimes.”
‘The band’ consists of Thomas himself, his guitar, his Casio keyboard and four instruments of his own invention. He started building prototypes back in New York in the 90s after one drummer too many skipped rehearsals, but the finished versions reside in Britain fairly permanently. The Brits have more time for quirky, he says.
Mother Superior consists of a mallets on expandable sticks mounted on a large motor-controlled wheel. Between songs, the mallets are adjusted to hit drums at different speeds. The Back Beater is a shoulder-mounted version of the same, giving the effect of a Steampunk Doc Octopus. The Stringaling looks a bit like what might happen if a Chinese paper lantern and a bongo drum conceived. And the Hornicator – well, the Hornicator has a life of its own.
“All the instruments talk for themselves,” Thomas explains. “Somebody once compared the Hornicator to a ventriloquist’s dummy, so we obviously have a relationship. I’ll often find that he’s left tweets on my Twitter feed in the morning.”
The other crucial ensemble member is a loop pedal, with which Truax provides his own backing vocals and layers of texture, including sound effects courtesy of the audience.
“With the loop pedal you can do things that sound like maybe a five-piece band, and then go to just singing or playing one instrument. I think that gives a wider dynamic than your typical four-piece band.”
The music is all about incorporating as much as possible of time and place: on the first show of his current tour he parted the crowd like the Red Sea with his guitar, then ran madly through them, kicking dropped beer bottles around for the strange tinkling noise they made.
That ideology is reflected in the Monthly Journal album, released last month.
“I set myself a mission to create a song a month for a year. In a way, I put a gun up to my head, but that was the only rule. It forced me to respond to the immediate time instead of thinking about how it would all fit together in the end.”
Truax supports his work via a small army of fans – and a few fanatics – who just keep coming back and, luckily, bringing their friends.
“Some people might long for the mythical time when Pink Floyd would disappear into their mysterious castle and then bring out an album, but it’s history now.” Not everyone can be Adele, after all, he points out. “The flipside is that with the Monthly Journal I could write a song and get it online within a few days, and having feedback coming in on Twitter immediately. It changes how you work.”
Fluidity and openness to audience input are among the most exciting things about a Truax show. It’s why, while his recorded music is definitely worth hearing and frequently very impressive, the live shows are electrifying. Howling quaveringly into the gramophone throat of the Hornicator, his conviction is rock-solid.
“My conception of where reality ends and fiction begins is a little bit vague I think. I’m lucky because I’m working with true things, but in a fantasy context, whereas so much that you see online pretends to be true but isn’t.
“The instruments are good that way. You can build a 3D model in an animation program in minutes. When you actually start drilling holes in things and looking for the right size bolt to make it move, you realize how long that takes.”
I ask him what he’d build if he had unlimited time and resources.
“I’d really like to build something that would drive itself to the gigs, then set itself up and take itself down. It’s not like there’s a Hornicator repair shop on every corner.”
Time to hire a human to play percussion, perhaps?
“I don’t think so. At least the instruments don’t eat too much. And they’re fairly quiet on days off.”