David Scott Stone: The Master Modulator Experiments With Old Tones

Multi-instrumentalist/composer “Sir” David Scott Stone enunciates beautifully. Lanky and soft-spoken, crowned with horn-rimmed glasses and a mop of dark, modish locks, this stealthy instigator isn’t the mad scientist one might assume from his work with a homemade modular synthesizer and other odd devices.

Timothy Norris

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The Sads at the Westwood Art Forum: A “silent performance,” audible only through headphones

His look underscores his music: Stone has flitted about the musical under (and above) ground since the glory days of the influential club Jabberjaw; he has given Los Angeles’ experimental/avant-garde music scene something more interesting than the serrated guitars, punctured Marshall stacks and standard-issue bleeps, bloops and weirdo instrumentation that punctuates so much of that ill-defined genre.

He’s an undamned, five-fingered Dr. Faustus who must never sleep: One week he’s injecting his astrological mojo into Lavender Diamond, and coaxing sounds from his gadgets with new band the Sads the next. He’s worked with the Melvins, Unwound, Jello Biafra and Joe Lally (from Fugazi), as well as Mike Patton and Fantomas. On the local front, he’s accompanied Get Hustle, No Age, the Locust and Big Business. In between releasing a more structured, more conventional (and somewhat ominous) split album with Mike Gallagher of Isis (on metal brainiacs Neurosis’ label, Neurot), Stone these days has received invitations to play all over the place — in addition to his ubiquity at downtown all-ages music/art venue the Smell.

His own recently released, unadulterated, all-modular-synth LP, David Scott Stone Plays the Modular Synthesizer (released on No Age drummer Dean Spunt’s PPM imprint), is an incredible slice of electronic mayhem for the age of No Age. Eschewing the whimsy of pioneers Perrey and Kingsley’s proto-electro, Stone produces music that is austere, nuanced, even sophisticated, but still playful. These soundscapes conjure up all kinds of things: insectoid microbots in a battle royale (“Glitched Legless”); the backdrop to an interdimensional swinger’s pad (“Forst Field”); inclement postwar weather made of metal (“Read My Mind”). Those who prefer their noise overlaid with detuned guitars, vocals and songs rather than compositions would do well to give it the old collage try, easing into the track “La Queue du Chat Manquant,” a spiky French number, and Stone’s first mod synth song to feature vocals.

A master of musical cross-pollination, Stone’s longest tenure thus far has been with Northwest-bred masters of density the Melvins, with whom he started working in the 1990s doing “noise and soundscape things with bowed cymbals, contact mikes, wire, oscillators and circuit bent stuff” on their albums Stag, Honky, Hostile Ambient Takeover and Pigs of the Roman Empire, a collaboration with veteran noise artist Lustmord. He was asked to tour with the L.A. band by lead singer Buzz Osborne on a ferry back from Alcatraz on New Year’s Day 2000. Stone agreed, and traveled with them for a few years. He then played bass with the group from 2004 to 2006.

While touring with the Melvins, Stone began creating his own instruments. “Buzz would have me play before the rest of the guys, to get the audience riled up for the big drop “D” string,” he explains. “It was a three-month tour, so every night I would try to find different things around the club or in the town to play. Since I used contact mikes with a huge amp, I could ‘play’ and get to feedback, everything from paper cups and tennis shoes to beer bottles. One Easter in Ohio, I played an unused toilet bowl cleaner. From there, I got an idea of what did and didn’t work.”

Upon returning from Unwound’s last tour in 2001, Stone set up a series of solo shows in order to “break free from the bands I’d played with. This was before I got really into electronics. I had this giant PA, and I featured all homemade, electro-acoustic instruments.

“I had this thing I called the Electric Thundersheet,” he continues, all cosmic-like. (Cue the slightly mad scientist.) “I’d attach a piece of copper wire across the Smell, stretch it, and the wire was feeding back, and I’d be going over people’s heads, and they’d back up because they thought they were going to be electrocuted. It was like ’70s, ’80s noise. I wanted something that was more physical and more performance art, something that felt dangerous. I wanted to make it fun too, something you hadn’t seen before. ... I hope I don’t sound arrogant!”

On the contrary, Stone is wildly inventive but incredibly humble. Case in point: His idea of a “silent performance” with the Sads, held at the Westwood Art Forum on June 14. Separated from the Buddhist-themed art show downstairs, and with dimmed lights, hundreds of flowers and film compilations of laughter, hysterical crying and the words “I love you” assembled by music-video director Mike Mills, the quartet was encircled — with Stone in his bunker — by 80 pairs of ears absorbing the live show via headphones. The band was interviewed, to great cheers, for NPR that day.

Stone credits Jim Smith, captain of the Smell (“a magical place”) as the man with “the only place in L.A. that would do performances like [mine]. The thanks I have for Jim — an Aries, of course — for allowing the kids to experiment, and to learn how to connect with people while experimenting ... if it weren’t for Jim, it’d be the Silversun Pickups representing L.A. music.”

When his number of guitar effects grew unwieldy, Stone attached the pedals to a music stand. From there, “it seemed like a natural progression for someone who liked to make sounds that weren’t always harmonic in a song sense but mixed well in a band” to build his own modular synthesizer.

Dissonant feedback and that synth comprise the three tracks on Stone’s latest 7-inch, When I Had Your Love I Had the World (on the L.A.-based Teardrops label). With an homage to Japanese noise artist Masonna (“Masonna Is Playing at My House”), a forlorn, darkly nautical “Theme” and the noisy, vexatious title track, Stone’s work employs machinery that on the surface seems terribly antiquated sitting next to a laptop — especially the modular synthesizer.

A modular synthesizer is an electronic instrument — looking more like a phone operator’s switchboard than a piano — that was used in the early days of electronic music, long before manufacturers like Moog mass-marketed keyboard synths as viable instruments. The user plugged patch cords into the various parts of the synthesizer’s “modules,” lending itself, as Stone notes, “to a deeper exploration of sounds and sonic accidents.

“Lots of people have never seen one, so I think it’s important to play out with it,” he explains. “Some nights, I bring people up to play it while I have a patch running, and they freak out. It’s amazing watching people who have never been onstage before patching in cables and making crazy new sounds ... it’s exciting for me to watch and fun for everyone.

“You have to get used to the fact that you may not ever make the same sound/patch again. In some ways, it’s meditation for me because it keeps me present and in the moment — it’s calming. I have a 7 VCO system with another seven different types of filters ... getting those mixed up with all the modulators, event sequencers, frequency shifters, et cetera — you have to be in the moment.”

Why the googolplex of potential sounds? Why the democratic stance? Stone answers simply, “I want to make experimental music that affects all the senses.”


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