"The whole hill was on fire," says Close, 42, sipping iced tea at PF Chang's in Santa Monica one recent Saturday, dressed in a stylishly slim button-down and suede ankle boots. His eyes crinkle. "That was an intense part of my life." He would later wow the America's Got Talent judges on national television, but that was well down the line.
Instead of retreating, however, he called in family -- one uncle is a boat builder -- and threw himself into rebuilding and making his instruments better. "Everything was wiped out. It was the ultimate edit. I don't know that I would've taken that step if they hadn't all been eliminated," he continues.
Close grew up in the countryside just outside New York City. He spent a lot of time on sailboats and his mother, an architect, would give him broken objects to fix or dissect. He played both guitar and percussion and became fascinated with bagpipes in his late teens.
"They're so bizarre and tech-y. You have to pull the reeds out, put vodka in there, take your hairs and put them in each reed, then put it back together and tune it. It sparked the idea that I could create my own instruments," he says.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, he studied sculpture and sound design, erecting huge steel animals and making "weird audio pieces." A girlfriend gave him an exhaust pipe as a birthday present, and he turned it into his first instrument, a harp.
In late 1999, he created the instrument that would later earn him Howard Stern's praise this summer on America's Got Talent, the Earth Harp. Commissioned by an arts and science foundation, he mounted a series of chambers on one side of a valley near Peoria, Illinois. Then, he ran strings 1000 feet to the other side, turning the valley itself into a huge harp. "It was known for being one of the most fertile areas in the world, and I was a bit of a hippie, so I thought that it being birthed there was really cool," he says with a laugh.
He wound up stringing places all over the world...