With that many blinking lights, it was hard to know where to look. Upstairs in the Williamsburg Rough Trade shop, past all the other music nerd eye-candy, sat so, sooooo many Moogs. There’s no recording studio or Guitar Center on Earth with that many. It had more knobs than a British porno. Since the music company's founding by Robert Moog in the early 50s, Moog synthesizers and theremins have been inherently linked to the still unceasing rise of electronic music. As an advertisement for this month’s huge Moogfest event in Asheville, North Carolina, the company set up what they billed as “the world’s largest modern synth installation” in the upstairs exhibition room at the New York record store/concert space/tourist beacon. The list of equipment in The Room was super long, filled with unfailingly silly names. A total of 24 “Moogerfooger” effect pedals were spread over 4 stations. Digital display panels on four enormous, wire-crossed “drone towers” flashed bits of text shorthand like, “Tron bass panel active” or “Cheese grits preset.” Since the New York installation opened on March 5th (it just closed this past weekend), it’s been visited by experimental electronic artists like Teengirl Fantasy, Javelin, Gavin Russom, and JG Thirwell. The New York Theremin Society, apparently not an invention of a Wes Anderson script, came en masse to pay tribute. Being slightly perverse, we brought our favorite local dispenser of guitar noise, Yvette, to wreak havoc in there.
Yvette’s debut, Process, was one of the best things any Brooklyn band did in 2013. Though continually harsh and metallic, the sheer variety of insane sounds on that record kept it feeling alive, electric from second to second. Most of the tones came from the abuse of guitars, or sounded like they did, though when you hear something resembling a surgical laser exploding a fax machine, who the fuck knows. Singer and guitarist Noah Kardos-Fein told us that many of the record's songs were actually built around pedal-distorted synth tones, and he was eager to use the noise-creating possibility of synthesizers even more. Still, dropped in the middle of this Wonka Factory of music tech, the duo barely knew where to start.
“It took us a good twenty minutes just to get our bearings and understand what sounds routed where. By the time I had the feedback cranked and screaming on a delay from a theremin loop, much to the chagrin of everyone else in the room, I had to admit to myself maybe not all of this gear would yield sounds I would be happy with,” said drummer Dale Eisinger. “That was about an hour in.”
Incredibly friendly Moog artist relations guy Jason Daniello was on hand for the installation's full month, to help both bands and the public make sense of the baffling array. Even with the room semi-closed off from the public so Yvette could rip unimpeded, there was a steady stream of deflated gear-heads who’d driven up from Providence, or somewhere, “just to see it.” They were ushered upstairs out of empathy, and allowed a quick peruse of various magnificent plug-ins.
Once they’d gotten acclimated, and Daniello had rigged up a basic overhead mic to record, Yvette produced something that sounded like Yvette. Eisinger planted himself at a synthetic drum rig triggered to “6 Minimoog Voyager Mounts.” Each component of the kit, from faux-kick drum pedal to high-tech cymbal, was wired to effect boxes that could make the tone of a stick strike as weird as they had time to. He settled into a mostly normal pounding beat, with one pad calibrated to provide chirpy, alien embellishments that sounded like miniature machine works on the fritz. They set up a secondary rhythm via a sequenced synth. Kardos-Fein played sporadic thrash chords through the house guitar and pedals set-up over both. For something cooked up in the course of a couple hours, it had a lot of promise.
When they’d jammed for awhile, Kardos-Fein downloaded the result onto a hard drive to take away. I asked him what they could possibly use it for. “Proof that at one point in time, we had about ten to fifteen Moog synths and twenty-some-odd Moog effects at our command and managed to make something that sounded cool.”
And while that’s a neat little something, it did seem a shame that dedicated play time is all that was available. When we talk about the necessity of corporate support for bands to make any sort of money off of music in 2014, we’re usually talking about sponsors who facilitate getting mid-sized paychecks from music festivals to young bands. The bands who survive to make a little bit more music from advertising placement cash are usually on the normal side. Harsh, or even just adventurous bands might sneak on to a supplemental stage at Coachella, but the prospect of them thriving solely on corporate largesse, or of noise-rock soundtracking a Volvo spot that could fully fund the making of a new album with this wildly expensive tech, is dubious. (Daniello estimated that the drum set up alone cost around $20K.)
An entity as definitionally devoted to strange music as Moog is not nearly the problem. Daniello floated the possibility of a less-hurried Moog session when the guys visit North Carolina for live festival dates this fall, but the prospect of a real, releasable piece of finished work resulting from it seems kind of slim. It’s easy to daydream about a climate where the making of lasting, tangible art was an end-goal of the real money-providers, an environment where the creation of weird new songs or full-length non-commercial albums might be set up and supported by national brands whose concern went deeper than throwing a kick ass SXSW party for their principals.
But even yearning for a realer kind of patronage, one that could effectively hook up challenging artists with the high-end technology that the overflowing budgets of a pre-collapse music industry used to provide, might be slightly wrongheaded. Good art has always been about finding ways to maximize resources and transcend limitations. Kardos-Fein doubts that prolonged access to a Moog Room, or something like it, would change much of anything about the work they are now doing on a new album.
“It might be easier to dial in certain sounds. I’m not sure it would really change the way we go about making a record...but we’d have a lot more colors to paint with, for better or worse. The record might never get made because I’d just fall down a rabbit hole of endless possibilities, plugging one thing into another. The scary part about being obsessed with effects is that there are always new sounds possible in new combinations of gear, so you always have an excuse to acquire more equipment. It’s a little like clothes shopping. It can become costly. But we still have a lot of textures we’ve yet to pull out from the gear we already own.”
Eisinger put it plainer. “Anyone who says you don’t need limits to create something worthwhile is probably lying.”