Think of the one-man band and if you’re like me you’ll think of Dick van Dyke’s Bert in Mary Poppins, stamping and flapping his way around the streets of London. Chances are you
won’t think of Thomas Truax. But you should. Having just played at
Glastonbury this year for four nights in a row in the Lost Vagueness
Chapel, the eerily voiced troubadour hit Oxford on Tuesday and on
Wednesday night was featured on Radio One in a one-man band special.
And this one-man band is special. “I was just fed up of working with
live drummers” he drawls, “it kind of came about organically”. Truax decided that as a
substitute for unreliable bandmates and to fulfil his musical needs,
he’d design and construct his own instruments. And these are no normal
instruments, but rather the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, the Hornicator,
the Backbeater and his latest addition, Sister Spinster.“She’s retired actually”, he says lovingly of the Cadillac BeatspinnerWheel, a “Flintstones-era drum machine” whose primary feature is a
small motorised bicycle wheel that rotates, clacking, clanking and
chiming its way past various musical
adornments on its frame. In fact she’s been usurped, her throne taken
by Sister Spinster, a similar but smaller contraption. “I made Sister
Spinster mainly because she can fit on an aeroplane,” Truax explains,
although it’s hard to imagine the faces of airport security staff back
home at JFK Airport in New York, especially when Truax’ luggage also
contains the Hornicator, a modified
gramophone horn with strings and microphones that twang and sqeak with
various other-worldly noises, and the Backbeater, a multi-pronged
backpack that flaps and snaps in rhythm. I ask Truax if these
prehistoric solutions to the one-man act problem are a reaction against
the digital and synthesised age. “I haven’t made it a rule that I’ll
never do something with a laptop,” he replies, “but it can be an
unsatisfying live experience to see somebody bending over their
computer. I try to think of what would interest me if I were in the
audience”. And it works. In the endless parade of sharp-suited,
sharp-riffed and synthesised bands that plague modern music, jaws drop
when anything as original as Thomas Truax strolls up on stage. “I like
to see where the sounds are coming from,” he says, and without
realising it, the audience find that they do too.
But this is no straight novelty act either. This isn’t a man
desperately crying “Look at me, I’m wacky”. There’s music here too.
Often rich in lyrics, Truax’ sound ranges from “dark, romantic
lullabies to lively rock melodramas” and he is seen as part of the New
York based ‘antifolk’ movement that prizes honesty, integrity and
originality above everything else. “Personally, I try to steer away
from any specific labels,” he emphasises, “but the antifolk scene doesn’t really define a particular sound or even a particular approach”. Truax’ ghostly and mysterious tales hook the ear with their
melody and the mind with their words, calling for references to Captain
Beefheart’s originality coupled with Tom Waits’ narrative abilities.But Truax’ creative drive isn’t limited to music. For several years he
was a stop-motion animator for MTV’s ‘Celebrity Deathmatch’ and his
dedicated fanbase is kept up to date through the Wowtown News, a
sporadic e-mail newsletter detailing the latest happenings in Truax’
own fictional world, Wowtown. “I was brought up in Denver,” he
explains, “and it’s known as ‘Cow Town’. So Wowtown was my ideal place
to escape from the Cow Town”. In fact, the success of these stories alone has led
to requests from London’s Resonance FM for Truax to do an hour-long
show based upon them. “They wanted me to do it off the top of my head,”
he says, “but I kind of have to be in the right mood for that, so I
recorded some stories with sound-effects and music”.With a smile he adds, “I’m one of those people who just bites off more than they can chew”.
Nevertheless, things seem to be going from strength to strength for
Truax. “The crowds keep building each time I go to a town,” he states
matter-of-factly and he’s extremely modest about a recent NME article
branding him as achieving “musical godhood”. Certainly, the interest is
kindled by the unique gadgets and contraptions surrounding him on
stage, but it’s the songs that charm you and regardless of whatever
gimmicks surround them, a good song never loses its novelty.ARCHIVE: 2nd week MT 2005