Thomas Truax occupies a unique position in contemporary popular music. He pursues a career as a musician and inventor of musical instruments, creating a body of work that resists classification, largely through his dogged resistance to being co-opted by the many (often short-lived) fads, fashions and other vagaries of the mainstream music industry. His music sits (un)easily somewhere in the twilit zones of the collective dystopian fantasies of the post-industrial West, with references that include the Beat poets, classic Gothic literature, Devo, the Residents and David Lynch. Song titles include Escape from the Orphanage, Prove It to My Daughter, The Cannibals Have Captured Our Nicole Kidman and Moon Catatonia. His array of inventions includes the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, Sister Spinster, The Hornicator and Stringaling. A former claymation animator for MTV (Celebrity Death Match), a builder of models and former kids’ party magician, Thomas Truax is, ultimately, an artist of a kind that may seem now – to some – to be slightly old-fashioned. He makes things.
I first met Thomas when he performed on the first-floor mezzanine of the de la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, in 2010, as part of a series of multi-disciplinary arts events under the umbrella title Random Fridays: free events incorporating art, music, poetry, sculpture or performance in no necessary combination. Sadly, they have since been discontinued.
On this occasion I joined a spellbound audience for Thomas’s bravura performance, and afterwards offered to make him a video. Having made a video with American countertenor Derek Lee Ragin two years previously in the Underground Theatre in Eastbourne, I booked the same venue to film a performance of It’s All Happening Now [from the album Sonic Dreamer] with backdrops by Felix Zakar, four make-up artists and a cast of twenty-or-so bespoke zombies, all of whom had crawled from their fetid zombie lairs to answer the call to work with Thomas Truax.
In May 2015 I caught up with Thomas in the bar of the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, mid-way through a UK tour promoting his latest album, Jetstream Sunset, a project realised through crowd-funding, and made with percussionist Brian Viglione, drummer with Dresden Dolls and the Violent Femmes. Recording was interrupted for the better part of a year by Thomas’s involvement in Kay Voges’ staging at the Dortmund Theatre of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. He still managed to turn in an excellent album, sonically more sophisticated to my ears than previous outings, and an LP that further mines the dark lode of existential foreboding, leavened with a healthy dose of absurdist humour, that I was first enraptured by in sleepy Bexhill-on-Sea five years ago.
KR: Last year you worked in Germany on a version of Peer Gynt?
KR: As Peer Gynt was a stage show, was the process of writing the music different than usual?
TT: The difference with working in theatre was that I had to answer to somebody else’s ideas. The director [Kay Voges] was a fan of mine and knew what I was doing, so he knew what kind of stuff I was going to make him. Basically I had to make a lot of music, really fast, and that was different as well, and then he picked the things that he thought would work in the play. Often, to my surprise, he’d pick some little blow-off thing I did that he loved, while something I laboured over he was not that impressed with. And a lot of the songs had to be chopped short and – um – made to fit the play, as opposed to the play being made to fit the songs, which was kind of annoying.
KR: So, did that inform how you went on – is the album we have here subsequent to Peer Gynt?
TT: This a new album that I started working on before Peer Gynt, so Peer Gynt kind of fell in the middle and disrupted my latest album.
KR: I listened to some songs on the website, Satisfaction and Crazy Me. They’re not on here?
TT: No, those are not on the album. This [Jetsream Sunset] is just being released now. Peer Gynt was last year’s album. The play ran for a year. I was actually participating in the show itself, and playing the songs live, and while I was working on that, I was working on this on as well. So there’s a lot of overlap.
KR: I loved Satisfaction and Crazy Me – do I detect a note of self-reflection?
TT: It’s all reflection, though the Peer Gynt songs were special in that a lot of them were coming from the perspective of the character in the show so I had to write from that perspective. To make it convincing you have to find those things in yourself that would be in common with that character, that’s the challenge. You interpret it, or project into it. Peer Gynt is not a nice guy – and how Satisfaction came about was that the director of the play sat down with me and said ‘what do you make of this character, Peer Gynt? What do you think of him yourself?’ And I said ‘well he’s this guy who kind of grinds his wheels – he’s really ambitious but he steps on people, he goes out and he sleeps with girls and throws them aside, he parties madly, and he can’t get no satisfaction.’ And his eyes lit up and he said, ‘Ohhh, you have to do me a version of that for the play!’ I was trying to steer away from doing covers but I put myself under the gun with doing that one. I enjoyed doing it, I had fun with it and I think I ended up doing something different. It’s big and slow.
KR: I like the video. It’s quite disturbing – did you use found or archive footage?
TT: It’s either stuff that I shot myself, or it’s in the public domain. Which part were you thinking of?
KR: There’s something that looks like a large crustacean –
TT: I filmed that myself. I have a Kodak underwater camera and I was out with my niece out in Colarado and we’d hook a piece of cheese around a bit of string and drop it into the water, and the crawdads [crayfish] – as we call them – go after the cheese – and this crawdaddy was trying to grab that piece of cheese, and he can’t get it, and he can’t it, and he can’t get it – it just works in the video.
KR: Not knowing what it is, it looks quite sinister.
TT: There’s a part where he’s reaching out for the camera itself – that made it in there.
KR: So – crowdfunding.
KR: You escaped with your life from crowdfunding?
TT: It’s great, it’s humbling and rewarding that people will believe in what you do enough that before you’ve even put it out, they’ll say ‘Oh, I’ll give you money to help you make this [LP]’. What I underestimated – once again – was the amount of time you spend creating special packages, and signing things and making things for people – the amount of time it takes to pack these up and ship them out…and I’m doing that at the same time as I’m on a 28-day tour in the UK, so when I’m not on the road playing a show, I’m going through the lists of all this stuff I have to package, and I’ve gone past the point of total exhaustion.
KR: Have you done it all yourself?
TT: I’ve done 90% of it myself, there’s been a few gracious people who have offered to help pack stuff up, but it’s tricky because now I’m on the road and sleeping on couches, and having some stuff made in Germany. I’ve brought some with me but a lot of it is sitting in various people’s apartments and I’ve got to back to the list, you know, and, say, Joe in Arizona needs a badge and a magnet kit plus an LP record and he also wanted a signed hand-written lyric sheet – it’s fun to do but it’s very time-consuming, and I like to do a proper job of it, not just scribble out some lyrics. I do think people really appreciate it, but it’s a strange way of doing things, you spend a lot of time doing stuff that isn’t music, and when it overlaps with a music tour…I put all the energy I can muster into my music shows, and I don’t have much left over to be as playful with a lyric sheet as I would like to be, and that can be very frustrating.
KR: Are you still as enraptured by the whole process of making music as you always have been?
TT: I don’t think I’m ever going to stop doing it, it’s different worlds that come together – when I’m at home or I’m in a private space and I’ve got time and I’m making a piece of music, that’s an adventure in its own right, and you’re thinking in sonic and lyrical terms. When you’re out playing shows it’s a different kind of adventure – you’re driving long distances to get to a sound check on time and there’s all the technical stuff to be concerned with, and when you finally get that out of the way you want to put as much as you can into your performance – and make people happy – and there’s times when I get really exhausted when I think ‘what the hell am I doing, how can I keep doing this?’ – but at the end of a night when people come up to you and say, ‘Wow, that really made my day, I’ve seen or heard anything like that’, then those are the things that make me realise, ‘Oh shit, I’ve agreed to do another one’ – [laughs] – it energises you, the response from the audience.
KR: Is it a kind of validation one looks for in performing live?
TT: There is definitely an aspect in which you’re looking for validation, but it’s multi-dimensional – I think it’s a dangerous area because making music, or any kind of art, is in itself a journey of a self-discovery, to use the classic quote – but if you’re making music or art just to please people or just to get famous and validate yourself in the eyes of the public, then I feel that’s not pure in its own way. And I’m not saying I’m necessarily a purist, but you make music for its own sake and its own rewards, and then sharing it with people is the icing on the cake. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that you can make more money putting in half as much effort. When I worked at MTV as an animator, I got paid better for that – but I didn’t have a passion for it. I had an interest in it, but I realised that the people around me had thereal passion for animation that I had for music. And then I had an epiphany and knew that I had to do music, because otherwise I’d be cheating myself out of doing something that I feel really passionate about.
KR: You were an animator originally?
TT: When I was a kid I did a lot of animation and then I did it as a job for a while. But that’s something else with its own trials and tribulations.
KR: The music business has changed quite substantially in the last ten years or so and it seems now that it’s dominated by solo performers for whom music is one part of a multi-faceted career. Has the way that you make music been affected by that? Has it affected the music, rather than just the way you operate?
TT: I was working with bands for years, and part of the reason I started inventing my own instruments was because I had drummers that didn’t show up for rehearsals, and so I decided to build my own drummer – a mechanical wheel that plays drum parts – and I subsequently was asked to do a solo show. I didn’t want to be a solo musician, but I had people saying I should follow this direction, this is fantastic – you’re doing something no-one else is doing. They were fascinated by the fact that I’d built a mechanical band-mate. Also, economically, I started thinking ‘Ok, if you’re one person it’s easier to find a couch to sleep on than if you’re a twelve-piece band.’ And you can take a night off now and then. I’m able to make a living now off my music but I wasn’t able to do that when I was playing with three people, and if I had now to split my income three ways, we’d all be going back to our day jobs after the tour was over. Deciding to go in that direction and realising I could make it on my own – it’s like the old adage of ‘he who travels alone travels fastest’. So ten years ago I decided to go out on my own, and I haven’t looked back. It certainly affects the way I make music, it’s less collaborative, and I do think of myself as a one-man band, a solo performer. Is that bad? Is music supposed to be a collaborative art-form? I suppose in a way it is, but then again people don’t go to an author and say ‘there should be three of you writing this and it then would be three times as good’.
KR: I read someone who wrote of you as the inventor and singer-songwriter Thomas Truax. Is there a sense in which you think of yourself as an inventor first and musician second?
TT: I always liked to build things, I built toy models as a kid, and I made animated movies as well, so I did always like to draw and build things. There was a time when I first started to make music, and I had a romantic idea of what a rock band was supposed to be – you all pile into a van and go out and have an adventure, all the ingredients are spelled out in the music magazines and you read that and you think ‘Ok, what do we have to do?’ There was no mention of building models or inventing instruments, so I realised that you don’t have to limit yourself in that way, put yourself in that box. I was a magician at kids’ birthday parties when I was a kid myself too – and I had a girlfriend who said ‘Oh, that’s what you’re doing, you’re doing a magic act with music’. And I had never thought of it that way.
Jetsream Sunset is available online from http://music.thomastruax.com/album/jetstream-sunset
For more information about Thomas Truax: www.thomastruax.com