Thomas Truax (pronounced troo-aks) is an American singer/musician, inventor and multi-media artist.
One of the most imaginative characters on the pop music fringe, since the year 2000 Thomas has been traveling the world performing with his evolving “band” of bizarre self-made Harry Partch-esque instruments including a motorized drum machine made of bike wheels called ‘Mother Superior’ and a pimped-up Dr. Seuss-ian Gramophone called ‘The Hornicator’, as well as his venerable resonator guitar ‘Hank’. Time Out magazine has dubbed him “The king of home-made instruments” while Splendid magazine called him “one of the five or ten best singer/songwriters in the world that you’ve never heard of…an exceptional talent, unique and resistant to comparison, yet fairly accessible even to casual listeners.”
Truax crafts rich, poetically evocative songs about insects, trees, technology, and a lifelong obsession with things lunar, including various reasons ‘Why Dogs Howl at The Moon’. Notable supporters and collaborators include Jarvis Cocker, Duke Special, Richard Hawley, Amanda Palmer, Brian Viglione (of the Dresden Dolls/Violent Femmes) and the late author Terry Pratchett.
Thomas spoke to us about his unusual songwriting setup…
1. What’s the first piece of music or song you remember hearing?
My Mother’s heartbeat.
2. You co-wrote one of your most recently released songs, A Wonderful Kind Of Strange with Budgie. We heartily encourage co-writing as part of this project but as we all write in different ways it can be an interesting challenge to figure out how that will work. Can you talk to us a bit about the process you engaged in with this song? For example, did you work face to face? Did one of you have the initial idea to build upon?
Well, that song is one of a number of pieces that will be the main meat of my next album.
It’s not really a co-write, though there is no doubt that Budgie’s input on these pieces have had -and will have – a big influence on how they will turn out (it’s a slow project that is still in the works). And I also hope there’ll be a bit more back-and-forth on some of the yet-to-be-finished pieces, but mostly, he’s playing drums. And man, I love how he plays drums! Budgie saw me play when we were on a bill together in Germany and he was always a hero of mine. I warned him before I played that my drum machine Mother Superior was pretty basic and couldn’t hold a candle to what he does but he absolutely loved Mother S.
Some time later I asked if he’d be interested to do some playing along with Mother S and some song ideas I had and he was very much up for it. I have done this with some other drummers in the past with good results (and occasionally not so good). So next time I was on tour in Berlin, where he lives, we set up a recording session to do that. We spent a lot of time talking, ate a lot of cake and drank a lot of coffee. Then we had some technical problems. So we ate more cake. This is modern rock-n-roll excess. I had a handful of pieces in varying degrees of development, some just rough sketches and some (like ‘Wonderful kind of Strange) were closer to already half-finished songs. He really nailed it, he just listened once and then we usually just did a few takes. Now my fear is that I will just be too precious about finishing these and it will take forever.
3. Your collection of self-designed and constructed instruments play an important part of the ‘Truax-sound’. How much of that process is part of the writing? Do you write on a traditional instrument and then figure out which instrumentation to use or do you start with ideas and sounds direct from your ‘band’ and then write around those sounds? If the process is always different, feel free to talk about a specific song.
I do different things, but the instruments I build don’t necessarily play by traditional music rules, so I start interacting with them and they tell me how limited in tonal or rhythmic options I’m going to have to work with when I move on to layering with traditional instruments like guitar, if I go that way.
I don’t see that building instruments is much unlike building songs. Basically I’m collecting little bits and pieces and gradually assembling them into something that I hope is going to turn out musical and pleasing in the end.
4. Can we talk a bit about one of my favourite songs of yours, the beautiful song, The Butterfly and the Entomologist… was there a specific intention when you sat down to write it?
Thanks. That’s an odd one for me because I came so very close to throwing it away so many times. I’m glad I didn’t, but it was certainly not one of those that came together easily.
I worked on it in little baby increments over years, and though I thought I’d struck something good combining the image of this giant butterfly in my car (which was something I’d dreamed) and this chord progression played on the guitar with a motorized fan, I felt like no matter what else I did with it began to feel contrived and, well, just not right. I kept hitting the wall with it. Also it bothered me that as the story developed it felt like I was trying to imbue it with some kind of political message or moral, and again that felt wrong to me, because it wasn’t born from that. And I didn’t like to envisage myself as a political songwriter. I had a stereotype of this in my mind and though I have a great deal of respect for political songwriters I thought that’s not my forte.
But in the long run I realize this was me just being too hyper-critical of myself, and of labeling myself before anyone else did. I decided to play an unfinished version of it at the antihoot open mic in NYC, and as often happens when you play something in front of other people, it suddenly looks different than you think it did. I had one of those moments where towards the end of the piece -which is quite long- I realized the listeners were gripped by it, that it was working somehow and deserved to be finished.
Occasionally a song comes together fast, but more often not for me. I remember an art teacher in elementary school once instructed us to keep working on a drawing even if it’s not exactly what we had in mind in the first place, because it just might turn into something better than you’d had in mind. And if not you’re still working on improving your skills.
5. As a follow up, is that your usual process and if not how does it differ?
I’d like to think I try to approach it differently each time, but there are some patterns. There’s usually the old standby question of lyrics or music first, and I can go either way. I like to build on something rhythmic, so if I come up with a chord progression or melody I like, I might record a loop of rhythm as the next step and lay those chords down on top in a sketchy way. Then I start to build on that. If I don’t have a new lyric idea that fits I go skimming through piles of old notebooks of lyric ideas that I’ve collected over decades to see if anything marries. I often spend a lot of time ripping out old pages of what I now see as garbage so that I trim it down for next time. Occasionally my recent songs include a line or two that are twenty years old. I’m thinking ‘YES! Finally I found a home for that line!’
Musically then its just a case of whittling away one way or another.
6. Give us a Thomas Truax Oblique Strategy… Are there any special techniques you employ to get a new song started?
One that I get a lot of mileage out of is to work on writing and recording a whole song really quietly, especially if it’s meant to wind up being played loud.
Another technique is wherever I am in the process of writing a song, whether it be a new barely-started idea or something that’s maybe all but finished, I like to put it away and let it simmer and ferment for a while, sometimes a long while. Ideally so long that you forget it, and when you hear it you think: was that something I did? A bit like those old lyric notebooks again. If you can step this far away from it, you can approach it almost as if someone else brought the idea in and then you can judge it and challenge yourself to better it from a fresh perspective, if you decide it needs bettering.
I like to take little nuggets or sketches or loops that might be the seed of something and bury it, maybe check on it now and then, add a little water, give it time to flower naturally. This is why I work so slowly in coming up with new things.
When you’re lucky, when your muse drops in, things can hit a point where they start to write themselves. That’s the rare but very special day.
I’m typically a slow songwriter but I’ve also challenged myself in an experimental way by doing a thing in my bandcamp Full Moon Music Club, which is to fulfill the promise of a song or piece of new something every full moon. Maybe it’s a bit like your positive songs project in that this puts me under the gun, and forces me to work in a way in which I can’t let things ferment, or linger too long on details. Occasionally something really magic happens, sometimes it’s really stressful and I have to release something to my most supportive fans that I feel isn’t quite what I’d like it to have become.
Sometimes I feel I’ve had to cut corners and it’s so often that I’m cringing slightly while pushing the upload button just about Midnight on the night of the full moon. Maybe that’s because I didn’t have time to iron things out or self-critique, and maybe that exposes a little truthfulness or human flaw and perhaps that’s good sometimes. Maybe the Full Moon subscribers get to see some aspects of me that I wouldn’t be brave enough to shout from the rooftops, so maybe they get to know the real me better that way.
I get experimental, paint with a wider brush, throw ideas more wildly, maybe come up with new techniques that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And possibly best of all with this situation, is how these pieces reflect the present, how I’m reacting musically or lyrically to the proverbial ‘now’.
It’s cooking the dinner and serving it to your guests right away, before it gets cold.
7. Gear-head Question! Take us through your gear list. When you demo new songs or ideas, what is your home recording setup for writing? For example, your favoured instrument? Any favoured FX pedals or plug ins? Which DAW(s) do you use? Which interface?
I have a twelve-year-old barely-breathing macbook that I will drive ’til its wheels fall off, running Logic 9 on Snow Leopard, with a focusrite Forte interface. I built up an arsenal of plugins and got to know the ins and outs and I got tired of upgrading. And now with background updates and things going obsolete, I hate having to keep up with all that. It can just put you in an endless loop of upgrading and relearning and you never get around to actually writing and recording. Everyone is expected to be a beta-tester these days and I just don’t have time for that, I get enough of it trying to sort out the technical glitches with my new instruments. One day it’ll all go down and I’ll have to upgrade but I dread that. But the essential elements of recording digitally with a DAW are no longer progressing in a way that makes what was there a few years ago pale or obsolete anymore.
I have an RC-300 looper but I prefer my old Boomerang, because that’s what I had first. I suppose it could’ve been the other way around. Again it’s what you’re comfortable with from working with it for years that matters most.
Stay up to date with Thomas’s tourdates releases at thomastruax.com
Check out his current album, All That Heaven Allows (available in blood red vinyl!)
And his excellent Songs From The Films Of David Lynch…