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Vibrate Yourself

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

Chas Smith makes beautiful music and striking visual art out of metal.

The art’s impact springs straight from its functionality: The material that carries the sound glows with an intrinsically attractive sheen, and music is all about relationships — proportional sequences of notes in a scale that can strike the eye as well as the ear with a special grace. Think of the strings of a harp, or the tubes of a vibraphone. Smith’s approach, though, is more modern. His instruments’ look is about the sensuality of the machine.

As for Smith’s music, it isn’t beautiful like Patsy Cline singing “I Fall to Pieces,” though being an old steel-guitar player, he can definitely get behind that. Instead, the beauty seems to have existed before Smith located and presented it, seems to have existed before humankind.

The effect comes from vibrations, and how one thing vibrating can coax vibrations from other things, including your inner ear. Smith builds his instruments to exploit the natural relations between vibrations.

“I write very simple music,” he says, “and then complicate the sounds. The foregrounds don’t do a hell of a lot. The backgrounds are what’s moving.” That’s what makes it art instead of physics. “The music’s in the details.”

Smith’s music is physical. It’s like wind; you can feel it. There are audible shapes, too, always changing, like the blobs in a lava lamp. Timbres, from harsh shivers to womb-deep throbs, stretch out in limitless gradations. The music doesn’t claw for your attention. You can fixate on it, meditate on it or ignore it altogether — the music doesn’t care. It will remain, even after you’re gone.

(Photos by Debra DiPaolo)

 

Way out in the Valley, Smith lives in a ranch-style house with his metal. There are big sheets of government-surplus titanium. (“Magic stuff. Your tax dollars bought that for me.”) There are wire rods and metal aerospace tubing, which he can saw into resonating lengths. There are Dobros and steel guitars. Metal everywhere. Even his girlfriend is named Steele.

Except for the screeching of his cockatiel, it’s quiet, until Smith demonstrates some of his surreal, geometrically impressive creations. He knocks big things with a mallet in precise locations, generating different tones and long-sustaining wooows. He applies a violin bow to smaller things, setting their interrelationships in perpetual motion: “Go out, put your clothes in the dryer, come back, and it’s still resonating.” Bell-like elongations, ghostly feedback, edgy whines.

It’s all junk, more or less. That’s one of his rules: Use leftover stuff. He indicates a big metal case, part of one instrument.

“This used to be a hard-drive storage. It bonged against the door, and hmm, it made some kind of interesting sounds. I hung it up and hit it a few times with a screwdriver.” His neighbor has 14 dogs. “They started goin’ crazy, and I went, ‘Fuck, man, I’m on to somethin’ here.’”

Smith talks in quick bursts of shrug-it-off vernacular. Originally from Massachusetts, he’s also lived in Louisiana and Georgia, but now sounds pretty much like any middle-aged Valley dude.

“I feel like I fit in really well,” he says. “I’ve had an I.Q. drop. What’s that bumper sticker? ‘If you act like a shithead, they’ll treat you as an equal.’”

A music lover first and always, Smith picked up welding and drafting skills along the way. So while he’s in steady demand for film sounds (Finding Nemo, The Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption) and movie tech (he shared an Oscar for creating a motion-controlled camera crane), he also gets calls from visual artists such as Jonathan Borofsky and Nancy Rubins to realize their concepts for big metal things — today he’s just polished off a 15-foot-tall table for Paul McCarthy. His metal movers include a forklift and a carrying cart, but hell, all this crap looks heavy. How’s his back?

“Fucked up. I spend a fortune in chiropracty.” Further damage: Smith’s limbs are streaked with welding burns. No sweat, though; he grows aloe plants. When he gets a cut or a scorch, he just whacks off a green spear and scrapes juice on the wound.

At least he’s still got all his fingers. “Well, this one’s grown back. I got it caught in a circular sander in 1972. So I went to the foreman — ‘Whagh!’ He went over backward. That pretty much finished the piano.” Smith’s mom thought he’d be Mozart Jr.; he himself leaned more toward Bill Evans, after first being diverted by Link Wray’s “Rumble.” Today, his 1893 Steinway pretty much serves as a shelf.

Looking for new fields to plow, the nine-fingered Smith left Boston’s Berklee College of Music to try electronic music at CalArts, where he studied in the ’70s with Morton Subotnick. He preferred the more versatile Serge synths to the Buchlas that Subotnick wrangled, and kept hunting for ways to make “pretty” music on them — an unfashionable idea that was about to become fashionable.

“If you listen to it now,” says Smith, not completely embarrassed, “it’s kinda New Agey.”

 

When it all shook down, though, Smith realized that oscillators weren’t pushing his buttons, and he returned to the principles of the steel guitar as stroked by his hero, Joaquin Murphy: You can’t beat metal vibrating. Most of his self-built instruments are too bulky and fragile to move, but some are just greatly augmented guitars, like the electrified, vertical- filamented Guitarzilla, which he hauled out to a multiperformer evening of weird guitar music at Eagle Rock’s Center for the Arts in May. His tones, wafting across the austere mission-style space, were like the solemn chords of a distant cathedral organ, except the experience didn’t seem to be music at all, so much as a state of mind. It was like that time just before dying, when you might be offered a moment of clarity to make peace with your life, beyond judgment.

If you wonder how a cowboy like Chas Smith gets to a place like that, well, it’s not by being a media maven. He just goes out to his workshop or his studio to build stuff or record one of his excellent albums (another Cold Blue release is due in the fall), and stays there for weeks at a time. When he travels, he dreams of home.

“I haven’t had a TV since 1972. What this place gives me is a chance to exercise my skills. And to me, that’s about the most enjoyable thing that you can do. I get to be who I am here. The thing grows, and it either works or it doesn’t. A young man came out, and he said, ‘That must be really great. You spend a couple hundred hours, build a thing, and it goes ding!’ And I said, ‘No no no. You should see all the ones that went thunk.’” The disappointments are okay. They’re part of the process, and the process is the thing.

So, some people get bored with their lives? Smith is dismayed to hear of it. “If you don’t like your reality, you’re the fuckin’ one to change it. We create our own realities.”

The Sound series presents Chas Smith, Jim Fox, Michael Jon Fink and Rick Cox at the Schindler House, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, on Saturday, June 26, at 7:30 p.m.; www.soundnet.org/sound/2004

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