by Mike Faloon
Photos by James Keepnews
Hold tight. We're starting soon. We've been warned that the show will be loud. We've been told that the staff went to the drug store next door and stocked up on ear plugs. We've been informed that anyone with photo sensitive epilepsy should leave. Yet people continue to trickle in. Doors lock from the outside. We're in for it.
* * *
Driving into Beacon clouds cling to the hillsides, strands of cotton stuck on velcro. A storm is moving in, midnight black and ominous. Even ten miles out I can tell the clouds are hovering over Quinn's. Then the rain comes. Wipers on high. Counting on the brake lights of strangers to find my way along route 84.
* * *
I don't recall the weeks leading up to Y2K that well, the days of panic and precautions, emergency rations and "What if..?" worries. The people I trusted were calm and I followed their lead. I did wonder, though, about the government, the airlines, the banks, the institutions scrambling to reset.
* * *
The lights go down inside Quinn's. Extreme Thursdays: Opening Night: Part Two. I'm trepidatious as the sound fades up, slowly ascending, building momentum by microscopic increments. Equally eerie and peaceful, like a quiet city street at night, tension rooted in restraint. My attention is drawn to what might happen, what could occur. Drummer Matt Luczak gently rolls back and forth across the rack and floor toms. To his right and left are Jonas Bers (synths) and Damian Cleary (guitar).
The video synthesizer is the focal point. Bers drives it. All of the instruments are connected to it—Cleary's guitar, Luczak's drums and cymbals which are wired with contact mics, and Bers' gear—synthesizer, steel guitar, and Walter, the PVC cello. More on Walter coming up.
The video synthesizer yields waves in the kilohertz range, thousands of cycles per second. These are the vibrations we can hear. The synthesizer also yields waves in the megahertz range, millions of cycles per second. These are the vibrations we can see. The video synthesizer is wired to a projector which is precariously placed atop the pie case turned beer cooler. The result is mounds of head scratching sounds coupled with streams of perplexing images.
* * *
Ironic that tonight's show is so tech-centric. I've been loathing all things twenty-first century today, riding a Luddite wave a mile wide ever since my mp3 player deleted over 45 minutes of an interview I'd recently recorded. I took every precaution I could think of and the file simply disappeared without a keystroke when I attempted to upload the interview to my desktop. I took the device to an expert. All he could do was apologize. I'd come so close to using a cassette and tape recorder, yielding to my old school self. Something about being able to see wheels in motion. Being able to tinker with parts if things went awry.
* * *
Coming into the night I knew there would be heavy synthesizer action paired with guitar and drums. I was prepared for a night of acoustic instruments vs. electronic instruments. Analog vs. digital. Monkeys vs. robots. There is a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments, but the gear is all analog, nothing digital, nothing binary.
* * *
Bers built the video synthesizer. He gutted an old keyboard ("the kind ELO used to use") and rewired it. Across the lower level keys have been switched out for dials, switches and protruding screws. Across the top are more screws, a field of them, like tiny mushrooms. He makes connections among the screws with a series of alligator clamps, always running the risk of a receiving a shock. Wires sprawl this way and that. The whole thing looks primed for James Bond to diffuse it, pull the right wire with a second to spare.
* * *
There are three currents moving on stage. The sonics move in slow motion, notes lasting four or five seconds. The musicians are busy, like chefs prepping for the dinner rush. The visuals are in hyperdrive, images flashing for hundredths of a second.
Luczak moves to the snare drum, building, adding, raising. He moves forward, he hovers but never lands. Cleary colors and shades, holding his guitar armpit high, thumping the body. Then he rotates it, turns the body upside down, plants it on the stage and rotates it like a slow motion drill. Bers changes to a steel guitar repurposed from his grandfather's vaudeville days. Images pour across the backdrop. Black outlines on purple. A field of static. Colored squares moving right to left, an ancient Hebrew text unearthed. The combined effect of sights and sounds is frantic and loud, but nothing like what I'd anticipated. There's a sense of calm and control.
My wife and I spent that New Year's in St. Kitts, in the Caribbean, where she was going to school. We went to dinner and then found a spot up on a hillside to watch the fireworks. The sky was dark in every direction, no other island or town in sight. We could see the headlights of cars twisting and winding along the country roads that ran through the fields of sugar cane. We couldn't see or hear anyone else. We kept waiting for the fireworks or at least a burst of cheers to signify that 1/1/00 had arrived but neither came. It was several minutes past midnight before Allie checked her watch and we realized that Y2K had come and gone without so much as a blink of the lights.
Three dudes walk in, each with glowbox in hand. Not one of them acknowledges the music. Really? This is normal, fellas? Not enough to provoke a visible response? Even if you're deaf you'd feel the vibrations, and these are vibrations without precedent.
There's a sudden blast of feedback. Someone in back, someone far removed from the blast zone, yells, "Ow, it hurts!" He might mean that the excessive volume is causing him physical pain. He might also mean that he doesn't understand what he's witnessing.
Either way the sound guy runs to the stage, assuming that something's gone wrong. But this is by design, this is on purpose. Before the show Bers told me that sound people usually don't know how loud the band wants to be. So when the music is quiet they turn up the volume, try to compensate, lend a hand. But that only eliminates the sonic head room, leaves nowhere to go. Then the band turns up and everything "turns to mud." Doesn't seem to be a concern tonight.
The sound recedes for a moment. People clap. Maybe in appreciation. Maybe in relief. The applause elicits a grin from Luczak. It ain't over yet, folks. He goes double time on the kick drum, finds another gear. Cleary works steadily, producing ever more sound. Bers tinkers, moves alligator clamps from one screw to another. The results might seem random but one look at their faces says otherwise, intense concentration. It's like being inside the machine. Monkeys running the robot.
Meanwhile, long narrow, horizontal rectangles flash, rainbow test patterns. That it's chaotic is obvious, but there are elements of cohesion, evidence of communication, a sense of collective building. I expect them to launch what they've built, push it further out. Instead they stay, linger, move in and explore.
Then Walter enters, about four feet of PVC pipe with bass strings and pick ups. Bers takes a seat and reaches for a bow, plays Walter like a cello. Walter speakth. Walter booms, forges slabs of sound. After the show, outside the club while the band is packing up, someone approaches Bers and asks where he got the bazooka. Bers jokes about removing plutonium to disarm Walter.
Between sets a quick glance around the room reveals more bodies than before the band began. Live bodies, I should note. Not casualties. When the music resumes Bers and Cleary get to the loud sooner, Luczak pushes the pace earlier. Images continue to splatter across the room. Checkerboards, sun beams, Atari graphics circa '79, seventh generation VHS dubs, Pac Man mazes. A cinematic collage of the last fifty years. Craig Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum collides with Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." It's Baldwin by KO in the first.