article by jennifer kelly | photos by justin carl|
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Every few months, Thomas Truax sends news of his fictional Wowtown to friends and admirers, casual concert attendees and fellow musicians. In it, you can read about the comings and goings of the imaginary inhabitants of Wowtown. Most recently, they seceded physically from the United States: the entire metropolis "rose like a giant mud cupcake into the air," snapping sewage pipes and telephone wires in the process. Somewhere near the bottom of these missives, Truax will usually slip in an announcement about a concert, radio show appearance or new record. Suffice it to say that these e-mails are a good deal more entertaining than most of the show announcements and press releases that cross our virtual desks.
The Wowtown News is probably as good an introduction as any to the strange little universe that Thomas Truax inhabits, for it hints at the hyper-creative anarchy and free-wheeling intelligence that he takes with him everywhere he goes. If you do not catch him performing his wonderful, wildly creative songs about clones and rare butterflies, he may be recording in a tiny "primal scream therapy" studio, set on car tires in his Brooklyn apartment. He might be dregging the dumpsters, looking for bits and pieces to add to his invented mechanical instruments -- contraptions like the Hornicator and Sister Spinster. He also runs a DIY label, hosts a Wowtown radio show on the UK's Resonance FM, and works on stop-motion animation for MTV and Cartoon Network. Though relatively obscure in North America, he is beloved in Britain. He spent hours slogging his self-made equipment through two feet of mud at this year's Glastonbury Festival and has been featured in the heavy-breathing, who-will-save-rock-and-roll-now New Music Express.
I spoke to Thomas recently during a short break between UK gigs. We discussed one-man bands and invented instruments, the economics of touring, the appeal of headphones and an upcoming episode of Robot Chicken, among about one hundred other things Here's what he said...
Splendid: I liked Audio Addiction a lot, and I also liked Full Moon Over Wowtown. It seems like you've changed direction quite a bit, though, with the new one.
Thomas Truax: Well... I don't know. I guess you could say that. I didn't want to just repeat myself and become formulaic. The new one came together over a long period of time, so there's a lot of different elements in there. It was kind of hard to put it together. It was a tough one to sequence. I wanted it to have a certain coherence, and I think it does have a coherence and a flow to it now, but there were songs that were going to be on it that aren't on it simply because they didn't fit into the sequence very well. They'll be around at some point.
I guess Full Moon Over Wowtown was a little tricky as well, but it had this element of ...it was almost a concept element, but nobody ever pointed it out. Every song had something to do with the moon at some point. I think that even though it's a really simplistic idea, I think it was a really nice way of giving the whole thing a certain coherence that you might not normally get.
Splendid: It seems like Audio Addiction has a bit of a technology theme.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, I think that's... I notice that you pointed that out in your review. I really liked your review, by the way.
Splendid: Thank you.
Thomas Truax: It's very early in the game, but there have been a couple of reviews that have come out which are just very brief and kind of... You know, you can tell that people don't really listen. Or they might give it a listen and it doesn't grab them right off. You can just tell when somebody's reviewing something -- and I'm sure you must come up against this where you've got a pile of records to get through, and you're like "Well, what has this got?" Anyway, though... What were you asking?
Splendid: I was asking if you'd been thinking about technology when you were making this album?
Thomas Truax: Oh, right. I see that there. I think that's just a reflection of technology being in the world that I'm in. It may have something to do with living in New York City as well. The other night I was sitting on the roof of my apartment and just looking around me, realizing that no matter what direction I looked, there was an electrical tower or a skyscraper or something lit up and burning with electricity. You can kind of hear the buzz of it. I was thinking, "Wow, I'm living in the middle of a giant circuit."
Splendid: Yeah, I lived in New York for a long time and then I moved to a very rural place, and I remember the first few nights, when I was trying to get to sleep here, it was hard because it was so dark and so quiet.
Thomas Truax: Right, I've had that experience as well.
Splendid: Are you in Brooklyn or Queens?
Thomas Truax: I'm in Brooklyn.
Splendid: We used to live in Sunnyside, Queens, near the Swingline Staple sign.
Thomas Truax: Right. There's a use of technology right there.
Splendid: Well, speaking of technology, maybe you could talk about these instruments that you've made, and how you came to do that, and what exactly some of them are.
Thomas Truax: Okay, hmmm, where to start? It came together somewhat accidentally because I had been working in band situations. I had this band, Like Wow, that went on for some time. I think I've told this before and I hate repeating myself in interview situations, but it's kind of just the truth. I reached a point where a mix of things came together accidentally. It was being really frustrated with being in New York City and trying to get even three people together in a specific time and place. Paying by the hour for a rehearsal space and getting a gig and then having somebody not be able to make it due to some conflict -- I was just going absolutely crazy with things like that. I never really wanted to do a singer/songwriter thing with, you know, just an acoustic guitar and sitting on a stool somewhere. I just never wanted to do that. It's not that exciting... even though, with some people, it can be magic when they do it.
Somewhere between all those things -- and an interest I had in tinkering, basically, with mechanical things -- I came up with the Cadillac Beatspinner. It's basically a mechanical drummer made out of an old bike wheel and other bits and pieces of junk. That was something that didn't function very well, but I thought I would go ahead with it. I got offered a gig after doing an open mic night once. I took the gig even though I didn't really know what I was going. I immediately thought afterwards, "Oy," because I had about three songs as a solo guy. It was a two weeks' notice thing. So I just took the Cadillac Beatspinner wheel with me, and played guitar to it. It was all kind of disastrous, I thought. It was an uncomfortable situation. But I could tell immediately that the friends that I had brought down and the people that had come to see it were fascinated. In fact, it was kind of funny to watch people's heads moving around with the wheel and looking at me playing guitar and thinking, "Is he keeping up?" Because pieces were flying off the Beatspinner...
AUDIO: Inside the Internet
Splendid: So that was the beginning.
Thomas Truax: That was sort of when I knew that I had something going on here. It was sort of like, "Why are people interested in this? They weren't very interested in my band." Especially in New York City.
Splendid: There's a lot of competition.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, you're just another rock band. If you're dragging your drums and your bass amp onto the stage after somebody else has played, people are going, "Who's up next?" and, "Oh, well, it looks like they've got drums and guitars and basses and that's fine, but..."
Splendid: But I think something mechanical... It's almost like a wind-up toy. It's fascinating because it's mechanical.
Thomas Truax: You're right.
Splendid: You have a couple of others. The Hornicator. What is that?
Thomas Truax: It is an old gramophone horn...
(There is a kind of loud grinding sound from my basement which temporarily throws Thomas off track.)
What is that?
Splendid: That's the sump pump. I'm really out in the country. It keeps the basement from filling up with water, but it's done now. Maybe you can work that in?
Thomas Truax: The sounds that are coming over your phone... It sounds like I should be on that end and you should be here. "I called Thomas Truax and all I could hear were these strange noises coming out from his laboratory in Brooklyn."
Anyway, the Hornicator was an old gramophone horn that I found at a junk shop. I originally thought that it would look really cool as part of the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, to just have this big horn sticking out of it. It was kind of an aesthetic, visual element. I thought maybe I could work it in as an audio thing, somehow, but I wasn't quite sure how -- but immediately when I stuck the horn up next to the Beatspinner, I realized that it wasn't working. You know, two and two didn't come together. So I started playing around with that horn. It was one of those things where you find a great piece of something, start playing with it. I realized that if I tapped on it or I sang into it, it has this unique sound quality to it. What I did was I attached a microphone to it and just started singing into the wide end of it. I realized that there was this funny sound, a natural reverb. It's another thing that I do which I think is appealing to people right now, which is coming from a really primitive angle. Right now, everything is becoming digitized. This may tie into your technology question.
I have this thing where sometimes people ask me, "Well, why don't you use computers on the stage? Why don't you use a laptop? You could do so much stuff with that." And I do use digital loopers and things like that. But for the most part, I think the attraction of what I'm doing in a live setting is that people can actually see what's making the sounds. I think there's kind of a shortage of that sort of thing these days. Especially in electronic music. The whole DJ thing and the whole laptop thing. There's this separation between when the sounds are actually created and a live performance. It almost to me feels like, "Well, what's the point of going to see this guy live, if he's just playing records of things he made in his room?"
Splendid: I saw some pictures of Kraftwerk playing in New York fairly recently, and they were just kind of standing there behind their laptops.
Thomas Truax: I think that they may have been the first laptop act.
Splendid: I went to see Todd Rundgren in probably the mid-1980s, and he was doing some of that.
Thomas Truax: Ohhh... That's great.
Splendid: It was cool. But, you know, it was brand new then, so it was exciting.
Thomas Truax: I have nothing against people that are doing that. That's something different in its own rite. It's a whole movement. I just get bored really easily. I think that with my live act, I've attracted a following of people that are similarly bored. They're like, "Thank god somebody's actually doing something you can see in a live music performance."
Splendid: It must be a pain to travel with all this stuff, though.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, it can be. I'm always working on ways to make it smaller. Collapsible things are what I'm into now. Sister Spinster is my new one. I made it basically to go overseas.
Splendid: That's a drum with pots and pans attached?
Thomas Truax: It's got little percussion items on it. Not really pots and pans, but a little cymbal. It's kind of a miniature Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, because I can't carry that on an airplane. And in fact, I don't use the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel anymore, because I've done it better with the smaller one. The Sister Spinster is the baby Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel that can be folded up and carried in a suitcase along with the Hornicator. So I've got this big case that I roll along with that stuff in it. And another case that I roll with clothes and CDs. I basically can travel like a one-man band. A guitar strapped to the back... that sort of thing.
Splendid: Have you always been interested in the idea of a one-man-band, or was it just that you got frustrated with other people? It's sort of a whole tradition in itself.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, it is, and it's funny because I'm starting to get approached by people about these ...there's going to be a one-man-band festival in London in December, I think it is, and they were asking me if I was interested. I get various people asking about that. And it's funny because I've never been... Much like the singer/songwriter thing that I was talking about earlier. It happened really organically to me. I didn't really come up with this picture in my head of me being a one-man band in any sort of traditional sense, although I'm fascinated by that...
Splendid: But it was never the goal?
Thomas Truax: It became the goal. I did realize... When I started realizing that, wow, I could do a one-person act and I could pursue this direction musically, economically it made a lot of sense. As most people know, if you're doing any sort of original music these days, it's really tough to pay the bills. As one person, I can do things like... in England, I'll travel by train. It's probably cheaper, if you do it in advance, than renting a vehicle and driving around. In the US, it's a bit more difficult, because we don't have a great rail system.
Splendid: And stuff is further apart.
Thomas Truax: So there are things like that, and the fact that you don't have three mouths to feed. Although the Hornicator has been very hungry lately.
Splendid: What do you feed a Hornicator?
Thomas Truax: Mostly beer.
Splendid: I was reading your bio, and, I'm sorry, I'm kind of fixated on this technology business, but it sounds like you've always been interested in, as you say, tinkering. Did you really build a synthesizer out of a radio when you were young?
Thomas Truax: That's true. That very well may be true.
Splendid: Or maybe not?
Thomas Truax: There's sort of a cultural thing where, basically, I think it's a generational thing, where our parents and grandparents, the older generation, has always had this thing of saying, "You have to figure out what you're going to do with your life." And "What is your major going to be?" in college. "What is going to be the career that you pursue?" So you work towards that, and you get this one job and you spend the rest of your life doing that one thing, and that's how you find a career and set yourself up.
But I think that times have really changed. I did spend a lot of time thinking, "Okay, what am I doing? Am I going to be a film-maker or a writer or a musician?" I was interested in all these different things. I was interested in sculpture a little bit and buildings things. Much like what I was saying about the music thing, where I came across something slightly different, I think I've also done that in the way I look at life in general. I don't think you can do that any more... or that you need to do that, where you just say, "I'm a musician." Or, "I'm this," or "I'm that." People can be so many things anymore. That's partly due to technology.
Splendid: Audio Addiction's first track is about a character who is kind of attached to his headphones, to a personal audio device. Is that you? Do you wander around the city with headphones on?
Thomas Truax: I have done. That's where that came from. In fact, when I was working at MTV, which I did for a couple of years.
Splendid: That's right, you did some animation for them.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, I used to work on Celebrity Deathmatch at MTV. I was never into walkmen before that. But I got myself a Walkman™, and I just really fell in love with it. I got really hooked on it. I had this hangup about it, where I thought, "Well, if you're wearing a Walkman™ all the time, you're cutting off all this real potential experience of hearing all the different sounds." As a musician or as a sound artist, why would you want to do that? You ought to be taking in all these subway sounds and people's conversations and...
Splendid: People yelling at you.
Thomas Truax: But you get this kind of fishbowl effect when you're wearing a Walkman™. I think that it allows you, if you're going through some sort of mundane, routine experience, going to a job everyday, it kind of allows you to control your own soundtrack. And that's what that song is kind of about.
Splendid: Sometimes you feel like you're in a movie when you've got the headphones on, I think. Especially in New York, where there's all this stuff happening around you.
Thomas Truax: Right. I think the song alludes to something like that. What is it, "With my soundtrack in my head, I've got nothing to fear."
Splendid: Yeah, it made total sense to me, and I'm kind of addicted to the iPod thing, too. So, what happened to Wowtown in the new album? It was there in the Full Moon Over Wowtown, but not in Audio Addiction.
Thomas Truax: People are always asking me, "Where is Wowtown?", because of the Wowtown News. It's not gone. It's just... that was, let's see, there was a song, "Full Moon Over Wowtown", and there are these characters from Wowtown. I felt like, and I'm sure that the next album will again be another departure in some ways and not in others. I'm definitely still doing Wowtown, so to speak, and writing stories. I have lots of notebooks lying about, and I'll jot things down whenever I come up with a new idea for Wowtown. But I felt like it might be... for better or worse, I don't want to run myself into a corner. It's not that I'm always thinking about what other people will think, but I wouldn't want to have Wowtown Part 2 and people expecting Wowtown Part 3. As far as albums go, because I think it restrains you as an artist. You should be able to just go wherever your imagine takes you. I think that what people like about the whole Wowtown scenario is that you never know quite what's going to happen next.
Splendid: How did you started on the Wowtown idea?
Thomas Truax: That's a good question.
Splendid: Or was it just always there?
Thomas Truax: I'll tell you what it is. I grew up in a suburb of Denver. There's a nickname for Denver, which is Cow Town. People like myself would be saying, "Oh, we've got to get out of this cow town," because there's cowboys there and rodeos and ...it's just no fun. So Wowtown was kind of a take on Cow Town. Basically, I always wrote stories and things. I'm not sure where I actually gave birth to this idea of having a collection of things ...there was a point where I thought, "Well, I'm going to start sending email invites to my shows out." This was before I was doing a solo thing. In fact, this was when I was doing Like Wow, my old band. We had a song called "Wowtown" based on Wowtown. It didn't say anything about Wowtown. It was mainly an instrumental. But it had a line that went "Wowtown, come on down." It was very goofy. Later that became the theme music for the Wowtown radio thing that I do for Resonance FM in London.
Splendid: Tell me about that. I don't know about that.
Thomas Truax: I started sending out Wowtown stories as email newsletters, just to make them interesting. When I started playing in England, I did some interviews for a station which is called Resonance FM. I found them to be very much like... do you know WFMU? I kind of think they're like the WFMU of London.
Splendid: I think WFMU was the first place I heard any of your work, because you were on Irene Trudel's show.
Thomas Truax: Aha. They've been really good supporters of my work.
Splendid: It's a great station.
Thomas Truax: It's a great station. So you might actually even know The Joe Frank Show.
Splendid: Yeah, a little bit.
Thomas Truax: I've been a fan of him for years, and that has had some influence on my Wowtown stories, as well as Lake Wobegon, and these kinds of things. But anyway, at some point, one of these people in London suggested that I come in and do an hour of Wowtown stories, just on the air one time. I thought, well that's a really nice invitation, but can I do a whole hour of stories? They wanted me to just come in and ad lib for an hour and tell stories, but I don't really work that easily. On a good day, maybe that would happen, but I told them it would probably be a lot better if I prerecorded something, if that was all right. That developed into a thing where I just said, "Why don't I do some of the Wowtown stories that I've written in audio versions?" So I did that for them. I've been really slow to keep up with them. They wanted to do that regularly, but it's more like...You can only do so much. But I'm still doing them, and they're really fun to do. It's just taking the stories and adding musical backdrops and sound effects and things like that.
Splendid: It sounds cool. Is it something you can listen to on the Internet?
Thomas Truax: You know, it will be. There will have to be a point where I backlog them. There's actually ... some of the people who involved in that station run a new record label. They've asked if I would be interested in having a 12 inch vinyl record of Wowtown stories, if I would be up for them putting that out. That would be kind of cool. But I don't know. We'll see what comes of that. In some way or another, that'll happen. I did a very limited edition tour CD one time and put a Wowtown episode on it. But yeah, that'll come to be. I think I need to build up a little more of a catalog of them.
Splendid: Is it a finite universe? Do you feel like there are only so many stories you can set in Wowtown?
Thomas Truax: The finite universe is more the time between waking and going to sleep. I think the problem for me is that, even though I've got a lot of help right now, I'm essentially still just a DIY business. I spend a great deal of time just doing the day-to-day business that you have to do to organize shows and promote them... trying to fix the instruments that get broken on the road and trying to come up with new ones. And writing songs. I've kind of spread myself very thin. I like the fantasy idea of being able to just close the door and make up Wowtown stories, but it always seems like there's something else that's happening.
Splendid: It must be frustrating, but also it's a good thing that you're so busy and have so much demand for your work.
Thomas Truax: It is. It is. I think so. I guess everybody's trying to find that balance.
Splendid: So you have this song about the Internet ("Inside the Internet"), and it sounds like a lot of your ability to reach your audience is internet-based and yet you're kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. Is that true?
Thomas Truax: Ummm... let's see. Yeah? It's true that the internet has been really good to me. It used to be that if you were in a band, you would mail postcards to everybody. You'd get people's addresses and put together a list. Then every time you had a show, you'd have to stamp all these postcards and print out all these addresses. So when email came along and you could just do an email for your shows, it became really convenient. But I think it's also ... It's also a little bit ... the internet has become so glutted with spam. I've found that a lot of people who have been on my list for years will come up and say, "I don't get your emails anymore." I think that what's happening is that everybody's had to increase their spam filters to the point where they don't get my emails anymore. Things aren't getting through anymore. Somebody has just informed me that... you know how there's a letterhead at the top of the Wowtown News?
Thomas Truax: Do you get those, the Wowtown News?
Splendid: I got one fairly recently, right before I got your record.
Thomas Truax: Right, okay, that's always good to hear. But somebody told me that there are so many filters now that if you have any sort of attachment or any sort of graphic on an email, they'll immediately just flag it and it won't go through. Maybe for good reason, but a lot of people are just putting their spam filters on maximum.
AUDIO: The Butterfly and the Entomologist
Splendid: You just have to have your computer wrecked once and that seems like a good idea. My favorite song on the new album is "The Butterfly and the Entomologist".
Thomas Truax: Good.
Splendid: Where'd you get the idea for that?
Thomas Truax: It's like a little butterfly dropped it into the basket on my desk.
Splendid: It's so bizarre. I wish butterflies would drop things like that for me.
Thomas Truax: That was a long time coming. It's funny, actually, that you mention that one alongside the internet song, because the internet song was something that came together very, very rapidly. Sometimes you get an idea for a song and a melody and the whole concept comes together very fast. And that's the song, and you play it in front of an audience and everybody grabs onto it. Then, the butterfly song was about four years in the works. It was something that I constantly... I had the chorus of it, and the story came together, but very, very slowly. It was one of these things that I kept thinking, "This is a really strange song. It's just not going to work." It was one of these things that I felt very insecure about. I didn't want to come out with a political agenda. I think it may actually go back to around the time of 9/11, when I think I, along with a lot of other people, had this revelation that... any kind of stupid and silly song went right out the window. You thought, "Wow, what are you doing with this? What do you do with your life as an artist when something like that goes on?" It kind of clears the path and makes you realize, you know, what are you going to do with your life? It could be over tomorrow. It's kind of dark and serious.
So that song started happening around that time. I had a really difficult time. I thought that it was a really compelling story that I was coming up with. I actually play the guitar through a mini-fan... like one of those fans you get in the summertime. That was happening and I knew I had something going on with it. I just felt like, if it's not happening really fast, like the way I described the internet song, then maybe there's a reason for that. Maybe it's just not that good.
Splendid: Do you still have your doubts?
Thomas Truax: No, I'm happy that I pursued it at this point. When I finally did play it in a live setting, which is often the test, it went over really well. It's very different from a lot of the other material I do. I don't want to repeat myself. Maybe that answers some of your question about, "Where is Wowtown?"
Splendid: So probably no songs about butterflies on the next album?
Thomas Truax: Oh, I don't know. It might be a whole album full of butterflies.
Splendid: You've got Meredith Yayanos on that cut, both singing and playing the violin. Want to talk about who she is, and how you found her?
Thomas Truax: Yeah, Meredith has played with a lot of really great people.
Splendid: She was in The Vanity Set, wasn't she?
Thomas Truax: Yeah, and still is, in fact. The Vanity Set has to be an on-again-off-again project, because Jim Sclavunos is in the Bad Seeds. Yeah, they've been going for a long time, but he may be gone sometimes for a stretch of half a year and nothing happens. Then he'll come back and they'll have to pick up the pieces. There's that, and... I'm drawing a blank right now. Meredith has done stuff with the Dresden Dolls and with The Walkmen. There's a band called Barbez that she played with for quite a while, though she's since left Barbez on a mutual disagreement that I won't go into.
Splendid: You've actually got a lot of other people on this album, for someone who started building his own instruments out of frustration with people.
Thomas Truax: I'll tell you. The reason for that is that I don't feel like I have to be really faithful to this one-man band picture. When I set out to make a record, I really set out with the intention of saying, "What would I like to listen to if I went out and bought a record today?" "What would be a great record that I would want to lay down and put headphones on and listen to?" And I don't want that to be affected by someone saying, "Well, we're not going to have drums in here, because we're a mechanical drummer act, and that would be cheating, right?" So in other words, I don't want to limit the musical pallette by saying that's not what I do so I won't have it. I don't like to have any rules basically. So that said, there are times... for me, the hardest thing in the studio is to not put too many things on it. That was really hard with this record to try and restrain myself.
Splendid: It does seem a little sparser than Wowtown.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, I think it is. Intentionally so. With all that I've just said, I should also say that, a lot of the CDs that I sell, I sell to people at shows. So if somebody comes to a show and they've never seen me before and they decide that they want to buy a CD, they do want it to be something of the effect of what they've just heard. I think I tried to mix it up with this one. I'll do songs live where it's just me playing guitar and singing and being that guy on the stool...
Splendid: I thought you weren't going to do that.
Thomas Truax: Well, I said that when I first started doing solo stuff, I never had aspired to being one of those. I do steer away from that, just because I find it somewhat unsatisfying, unless... You do see these people where that person was born to sit on that stool and sing that song. If I come up with a song where I think, "Well, this is a song for mainly guitar and voice, and I think that's what it's about and what it should be." Then I guess I've got to go and do it that way.
Splendid: Tell me about recording your albums. Do you do it at home?
Thomas Truax: Yeah, I have a home studio set up. It's a little box that sits on car tires. It's about four by six feet. That's Wowtown studios. It's kind like a little primal scream therapy tank or something like that.
Splendid: Only one person at a time?
Thomas Truax: You could fit more in there, but it wouldn't be too comfortable. You definitely couldn't put a full drum kit in there, so I go outside to studios when I have to do that. But almost everyone I work with these days has some sort of home studio, so there's a bit of that that goes around. Like Paul Wallfisch, I'll go to his studio space and do stuff with him, the keyboard player. And sometimes people will come over to my place to record and we'll set them up outside the box. If it's a cello player or something like that, it just doesn't make sense. It's fun. The box is like a space capsule or something. It's all full of gear with a place to stand, and there you go.
Splendid: No claustrophobes on your records, I guess.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, I'm not really claustrophobic, though it does get a little tight.
Splendid: Psycho Teddy! Is that basically you?
Thomas Truax: Yeah, that was basically a label that I started as a vehicle for Like Wow and stuff that I was doing, with the intention originally of doing other bands as well. Being one of those people that always bites off more than they can chew pretty much, it became... For a while there was an online store. I had various friends and people that I knew, mostly people that were releasing their own records. I'd get their records and we'd make a deal and I'd sell their records from my site. But what happened was things like CD Baby came along. They basically just do that so well. And why should I be running to the Post Office for a dollar?
Splendid: Oh, yeah, going to the Post Office in New York City is a whole surreal experience.
Thomas Truax: It's terrible.
Splendid: It sounds like you're much more recognized in the UK than you are in the United States. Do you think that's true?
Thomas Truax: Yeah. I do. I think that there's several elements to it. I did immediately find that for an unknown reason -- I think about it a lot, but I really don't know why it is -- but I found immediately that audiences were really into what I was doing. In a way that I found, hmmm, it's a tricky area, because I have really great shows at places, but it's more of a struggle to find an inviting audience here than in the UK. I think that a lot of it has to do with this all-American thing, that we want the biggest and most popular, the fastest. If we're going to go see music, what's the buzz band? What's the hottest thing that's happening right now? What's going to win a Grammy? Have they been on TV? There's this thing where you almost have to be either already really successful or it has to have this promise of being a big thing.
Splendid: Well, you were in the NME, which isn't exactly restrained about declaring the next new thing.
Thomas Truax: That's true, but...(he laughs) I'm not going to go to the NME and say, "I refuse to be in here."
Splendid: And you also played Glastonbury? The rainy one?
Thomas Truax: It was crazy. Crazy stuff.
Splendid: That's such a huge festival, isn't it?
Thomas Truax: Yeah, it's huge and I actually played four times. I think if I get invited to do it again, I might opt to do slightly less, because it's very difficult to do anything else if you're dragging all your equipment to the shows. That was great. It was also a nightmare.
Splendid: But a really good one?
Thomas Truax: Yeah. One that you wake up in the morning and say, "That was crazy. I'm glad we got out alive."
Splendid: Was it just too much work and too many shows?
Thomas Truax: I wrote about it on my web site. For one thing, I had just finished 32 performances. I wasn't playing every single night, but close to it at times. And I do tend to put on a fairly energetic show. That coupled with the fact that I'm often dragging all this equipment up and down staircases, so I was already tired when I got there.
And then, at Glastonbury, there were literally places where there was two feet of mud on the ground. When I first entered, I said, "Okay, where is the stage where I'm playing?" which was in the Lost Vagueness area. And it ended up taking me two hours to walk there. It was that far away through the mud and the people. And I had to make two trips to get all my equipment over there.
Splendid: Oh my god.
Thomas Truax: So in that sense it was quite an ordeal. Once I was there and all set up, it was a little bit better. There is this thing when you're out playing -- I really, really love doing it -- but there's a certain point where you go into this almost déjà vu area. And I'm always trying to keep it fresh and keep it real, so to speak. I feel like if I'm not enjoying myself then these people who came out to see me aren't enjoying themselves either.
Splendid: Were people having fun, despite the weather and everything?
Thomas Truax: Yeah...
Splendid: They were all drunk?
Thomas Truax: Yeah... but there's a balance that you have to find. There are going to be times where you're really exhausted and it's just the way it is, and you're still obligated to play that show, and there are people that have come to see you. That's just life. You do have to be ready to do a show.
Splendid: And speaking of being ready, you're about to head back over?
Thomas Truax: I'm going to do a festival, the Big Green Gathering Festival, which is... I don't really know that much about it. And also, I have a manager over there, and he's getting married in Sweden. So I'm going to Sweden to his wedding, and he got me a couple of gigs just beforehand to pay the bills. So that'll be fun.
Splendid: I've always wanted to go to Sweden. And then, aren't you playing a concert at Lincoln Center?
Thomas Truax: Yeah. It sounds really good, and it will probably be fun, but it sounds like a bigger deal than it really is. It's some sort of a homemade instrument convocation. Homemade instruments day. It sounds like a bunch of people that invent their own instruments will be there. They're going to have some sort of a workshop thing -- I haven't got the entire story -- and then there's going to be presentation. Each person does a 15-minute performance. It's not like I'm playing...
Splendid: Avery Fisher Hall.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, Avery Fisher Hall and playing a two-hour set. But I think it'll be fun and of course it'll look good on the resume.
Splendid: Are you going to do a bigger US tour at some point?
Thomas Truax: I hope so. Right now, just the cost of gasoline makes it literally... there are literally acts, and I might be one of them depending on where I'm going, where you spend more on gas than you get paid.
Splendid: Yeah, that stinks.
Thomas Truax: It just doesn't pan out. I'm at a point now where I'm solvent doing this if I'm playing places where people know me. The trick is to go... The US is massive compared to a lot of other countries. I think a lot of bands come overseas from England or Western Europe and die out on the road.
Splendid: Especially when you get out West.
Thomas Truax: The drives between cities are just ... I've gone out sometimes here, but I've decided that I'm going to treat it differently than I used to, which is... I used to just tackle the whole country, but I don't think you can do that unless you've got some major backing. Some serious support.
Splendid: Are you still doing animation work?
Thomas Truax: I did a brief stint on a show called Robot Chicken, which is a Cartoon Network Adult Swim thing. That was just for a couple of weeks in Los Angeles, because I had a hole in my schedule, and I thought, "Well, I'll do that because I need the money and it'll be fun." I saw a lot of my old friends who were animators on Celebrity Deathmatch. That was all right. But it's very tedious work.
Splendid: Is it?
Thomas Truax: It was a really, really silly show.
Splendid: In a bad way?
Thomas Truax: That really depends on whether you're in the college demographic and whether you've smoked enough pot that day.
Splendid: I probably wouldn't like it, then.
Thomas Truax: Yeah, it's very stupid. Do you know that show Blind Date?
Splendid: I've heard of it.
Thomas Truax: It's one of those shows where they send people on a blind date. They did a parody of that show, where they had Predator and Alien going on a blind date. And Alien was dressed in a pink bikini. Always in Blind Date, there's a point where they're in the hot tub. So, Predator and Alien are sitting together in a hot tub, and she's really shy, and he's like your typical...
Thomas Truax: Yeah. It was fun to do. We were actually using toys, which can be a real pain to animate. Slightly modified toys with wires inside them. The quality of writing... it was very similar with Celebrity Deathmatch. Some episodes would actually be funny and others would be really, really not funny. So... hmmmm... it's television.
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Jennifer Kelly is sponsored in part by a grant from the Children's Television Workshop.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - justin carl :: credits graphics ]