As a general rule, Angelenos don’t leave home before 9 on a Saturday night without good reason, let alone to go crouch and sit on El Rey Theatre’s heavily trafficked floor at 8:30. But down here on the ground is a pile of enticements. Promising objects in myriad colors snake out from the laptop hub around which 50 or so curious kids are gathered. They have completely forgotten the old theater’s stage; The guy who would normally be up there, Luke Fischbeck, scuttles around on the dance floor handing out instruments and wordless direction like some fired-up, mute shaman.
He offers me a long, brown pod connected by cables to a hot-wired mixing board, stares at me and shakes his hand like an evangelist until I understand how to use the thing. Others bang on small drums. Fischbeck’s partner Sarah Rara sings, or plays amplified thumb piano. But most of the excitement surrounds a metal box to which 10 or more audience members are connected via four yarn-covered electrical leads. Each time somebody grabs or lets go of this human chain, the music shifts. And each tonal aberration sounds remarkable.
Earlier in the week at the Lucky Dragons studio in Chinatown, Fischbeck gave me a lesson in how it all works. He built this device himself, along with the software that converts four channels of feedback variegated by “live people resistors” — human bodies as conductors — into so much aural manna.
“There’s something to be said for the collateral benefits of making the tools yourself, then sharing them with other people,” he says. “There’s this dialogue, where you’re not just, like, ‘Where’d you get that?’ It’s more, ‘How’d you make that?’ It’s the thing and the concept together.” Because, though Fischbeck is clearly an expert at what he does, he’d wager that you or I could do it too. He’s even taught classes to prove it.
The local music scene’s current bleeding digital edge is twofold, encompassing the kind of experimental rock-ish output of groups like Lucky Dragons and their more lo-fi counterparts (namely, other Smell-frequenting bands), and the “beat music” of Flying Lotus and the Low End Theory crew. While sonically separate, these camps share a lot of the same technology, not to mention a DIY spirit that trickles down to their fans. It should come as no surprise, then, that against a backdrop of growing urban interest in local food, handcrafted goods and self-sufficiency, it’s become quite easy for all comers to learn the basics of harnessing sound through homemade electronics.
Fischbeck himself has led workshops on the subject at one of the city’s chief do-it-yourself institutions, The Public School. Located in Chinatown, the small space plays host to a huge knowledge-share and works on a simple, community-generated principle: A student or teacher proposes a class online, and if there are enough takers, the Public School gives that class a bricks-and-mortar home. Echo Park’s Machine Project operates differently (seminars are decided on by a board of directors), but also offers affordable, hands-on lessons with everyday applications — everything from kimchi-barreling to converting toy keyboards into hardcore skronk machines.
Circuit-bending is the easiest of the audio arts, and it typically involves tearing open a second-hand battery-operated sound device — that toy keyboard, a megaphone, or, for the more sadistic, a Furby — and making it do things it was never designed for. Circuit boards have a certain logic to them that’s easy enough to grasp (just follow the wires) and easier to derail. Santa Monica–based musician Daedelus — who’s recorded for nearly every beat-oriented label in town — meets me before a mid-August show at Señor Fish, and he quickly demystifies the technique: “You just lick your fingers and touch stuff.
“Your body is electrically conductive,” he continues, “but not as much as metals are, so you add resistance to the circuit, or create bridges between points that weren’t there before. A lot of record diggers, we’ll go to the Salvation Army for old albums and wind up finding a toy with low batteries. You see the potential really quickly, because suddenly it’s making the wrong right sound.” This partially explains the strange magic gushing out of that box at El Rey. Fischbeck’s own bent device — factory-conceived to convert analog sounds into digital signals — is being warped by a pileup of clammy hands.
What isn’t explained by basic, spit-powered circuit-bending (classes often focus on soldering knobs, pressure sensors and other inexpensive add-ons) is that a Lucky Dragons show includes nary a bum note. There’s a high chaos factor inherent to bending. Artists like Daedelus sample the good stuff and toss out excess noise. Others bask in the squelch. In Fischbeck’s case, the dissonance is mitigated by a program he wrote using a popular form of software called Max/MSP. “The basics of Max are pretty easy to pick up, which is why it’s fun to use,” Fischbeck says. “It’s just connecting different boxes.”