Thomas Traux emerged from the wonderfully subversive New York Antifolk scene that also gave us the likes Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson. If he shares anything with these two it lies in the lyrics and a sharp wit through which he views the world. The title track of his new album Jetstream Sunset is very revealing as it shines a spotlight on today’s accepted norms exposing their true madness. His lyrical demeanour is one that is completely at ease as he delivers his verdict on how people waste time glued to their phones all day when we could be watching the river and ‘waking up from nice dreams’. His philosophy, if you can call it that, snubs technology and all its associated baggage it creates in controlling our lives whilst we mistakenly believe it’s aiding us. He’s far from commonplace which makes his live act so appealing, playing unusual looking home-made instruments such as ‘The Hornicator’ which fascinate and excite audiences delivering unexpected sounds.
Thomas is currently touring the UK (dates below) so we caught up with him for a chat, but before that, feast your eyes on his new video I’ve Got To Know in which you can admire Truax’s ‘drum machine’ Mother Superior and Truax playing his self-made ‘Scary Aerial’. Artists like these come around once in a blue moon so to call again on Jetstream Sunset – you are a freak show and I love you so.
FRUK: Where did the inspiration or creativity come from to create your own instruments?
When I was a kid I used to complain of being bored all the time. My Mother would say ‘Why don’t you draw something or make something?’ I made a lot of things out of torn up cereal boxes and rubber bands. My Father was a carpenter and had a big bucket of unsorted mixed nuts and bolts and nails and things that I was allowed free access to. They had an old 8mm movie camera which I started doing my own animated movies on. I turned an old record player into a thing that would make rhythms with nails and rubber bands. I made it useless for playing records any more, but it did make a kind of music.
It must be difficult assembling them and touring with them? You must have your fair share of last minute improvisations or have you been lucky?
One very early review said ‘The audience loved it when it worked, and even more when it didn’t work’. I try to remember that when anything goes wrong during a show. At airport security, I’ve been held up a few times. The Stringaling is the main culprit. It’s got a plastic chattering skull on it and a mini audio mixer inside which I made myself out of a small tea tin. You know, the kind of things that naturally would make airport security nervous.
You’ve said in the past that the more commonplace instruments we use have became boring for you. Your musical performances possess a real sense of freedom, what was your epiphany moment which took you in this direction?
Thanks. Well, I may have said that at one point but I do love the guitar and most instruments, and I play a lot of guitar in my sets and recordings, as well as other instruments. The only thing that can make them boring is the player. It is strange to me that guitar/bass/drums is as far as it goes for so many acts. But for years that’s all I did too, or wanted to do. I never thought I’d enjoy being a ‘solo’ artist, but I’d never done an open mic before and I thought I eventually had to do it just to see how it felt, kind of as a rite of passage, so I did the famous ‘Antihoot’ one night in NYC at a place called Sidewalk (run by antifolk kingpin Lach). It was rough, I thought I played terrible and that that would be the end of that, but Lach seemed to think otherwise and immediately offered me a gig. Since gigs in New York City don’t usually come at you like that, I agreed, and then thought what the hell have I done? I really didn’t have any other solo acoustic songs down yet and didn’t know how I’d fill up the half hour time slot.
But I had been working on the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, as a side-project, which I had envisioned originally as something I’d employ in a band situation. I had practically abandoned it because it just wasn’t coming together without falling apart, but I decided I’d drag that along and play some old stuff I had with that as my ‘drummer’. I made flyers that billed it an “Experimental Electro-Acoustic Rhythm Contraption and Romantic Song Demonstration”.
Well, once again I thought as I was playing that this is really an embarrassing disaster. The machine was indeed not behaving at all, pieces actually fell off and flew at the audience at one point and the rhythms were fluctuating all over the place. But in the end,to my surprise, it didn’t seem to matter to the audience- they seemed to be entertained whether it was working or not!
That was really the turning point, the ‘epiphany point’ as you say, for me where I realized I was on to something appealing and a little different, and that really stems from thinking like I did when I was a bored kid, just having let my imagination run wild instead of trying to do it the ‘correct’ way. It’s a lot more fun for me and whoever has to suffer one of my performances.
Can you explain to those that are maybe new to your music what The Hornicator is?
Sure. He’s a little like my right-hand man, or a ventriloquist’s dummy. He started as a nice old gramophone horn from a road side ‘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 when I tried it. 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 this thing was originally created as an audio amplifier and had a certain nice tonality, a reverb 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, it’s structure lent itself to a harp-like set up. There’s a long spring and a separate element at the other end. I tap out rhythms on it and record that into my looper, then build layers and eventually a song with it.
When you’re creating an instrument have you a sound in mind that you want to create or are you drawn by the objects quirkiness first or is it something more nostalgic?
The objects usually have some kind of inherent sound depending on what you do with them, and it builds from there. But there’s never one way I go about it. Often I think something’s going to go in one direction or sound a certain way but it goes off in another, and that’s a good thing usually, it keeps it interesting and not sounding like everything else. There’s a horn on Mother Superior (my main ‘drummer’ these days) that is actually being used as a percussion device and provides what would be the snare sound, usually.
Is part of the attraction thinking up new and ingenious ways of playing, have you a proudest moment? The spinning eye glasses on The Hornicator was impressive and a surprising sound.
Thanks. Not really any particular one moment, because there’s always going to be something new, and it’s really all about pursuing that adventure of discovery by trying things (most of which don’t work, incidentally). The spinning eye glasses was something that came after I’d been using fans to play my guitar for years. I wanted to try that on the Hornicator and decided that if I strapped fans to my face I’d have two free hands still, which I’d need to hold and manipulate the Hornicator. That’s how it started. There are moments -like when you’ve got a fan strapped around your head- when you do think to yourself: this is getting a bit weird. But you just roll with it – the layered buzzing sounds from those motors sounded like bees and I had some lyrics in the works about a heart resembling a beehive. The mechanism for making these sounds could be steered in the direction of resembling weird eyes, and the Hornicator maybe some kind of beak underneath – so performance comes into it then. Again, I’m just a kid at play really.
On Jetstream Sunset you’ve collaborated with drummer Brian Viglione. How did you both get together?
I met Brian when he played with the Dresden Dolls, at one of their gigs very early before they were signed and became sort of famous. We became mutual admirers, and I was invited to support the Dolls at their first album launch in Boston and subsequently toured with them throughout Europe in 2006. Brian was always intrigued by my mechanical drum machines and when our paths crossed again while we both were working on music for plays at the Theater Dortmund (in Germany), I invited Brian to join me in developing some rough new song ideas and recording along with the machines in Krefeld.
You seemed to have really hit it off in the sessions, almost a spontaneous thing going on there? Did this surprise you?
Not at all. Brian’s also playful, as well as being a serious musician, and a phenomenal drummer. During the Dolls tour Amanda (Palmer) used to always give me a shout-out in the middle of their set. At that time my drum machine was Sister Spinster, and she’d say something like “We’re so happy to have Thomas Truax and his beautiful drummer Sister Spinster!” at which point Brian would play a little imitation of Sister Spinster on the rims of his drums which sounded exactly like her. A lot of drummers react towards drum machines with the fear that it threatens their jobs. Drum machines play too perfect, and the goal is to try and make them sound more human, while human drummers are often working hard to develop themselves to play like a machine. Put them together and it’s a beautiful combination, I think.
Those that know your music what can they expect from the new album?
Well, if they know my past records and what I do, they know to expect the unexpected. That said, I don’t feel like what I do is that weird or avant garde. They’re just pop songs mostly. From the moon maybe but I feel like I’m just making songs that -had they been done by someone else- I would like to listen to. And of course they can expect some really great drumming.
You have some well known fans including the late Terry Pratchett, did you ever meet?
We were introduced briefly years ago at a festival, and he was very friendly and said he was so pleased to meet me. I thought that was just him being polite. But it wasn’t until years later that someone told me on Facebook how he’d been talking about my music and how he’d wanted to include my ‘Full Moon Over Wowtown’ if he could re-do his Desert Island Disks and so on. I was bowled over.
You’re touring the UK now, when was you last here? Any particular highlights for you?
I try to get back here once or twice a year. I really enjoy touring the UK. The shows have been really special, and every room and audience has it’s particular charms, but the Cube Cinema in Bristol, the album launch in London at the Lexington were special, and the Newcastle Mining Institute library in Newcastle – well, how can it not be somehow victorious to get really loud with your Hornicator in a library?
Jetstream Sunset is available on CD and limited edition 12″ coloured Vinyl.
Now let’s go sit and watch the river….
24 Apr – SOUTHAMPTON Talking Heads (Supporting Duke Special)
25 Apr – READING Bowery District (Supporting Duke Special)
26 Apr – CARDIFF The Globe (Supporting Duke Special)
01 May – Northampton, Labour Club
02 May – Oxford, Cellar Bar
06 May – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
08 May – Hull, The New Adelphi Club
16 May – Wood Festival, Braziers Park, near Wallingford, Oxfordshire