The ever-inventive Thomas Truax tells Tim Hughes what he does - and why it is necessary to create his own instruments to do it....

WHEN it comes to sheer creativity, there is no one quite like Thomas Truax.

The New Yorker not only makes music which is singularly original, he invents his own instruments to play it on.

Tomorrow (Good Friday) Thomas arrives with a lorry load of those creations – which rejoice in such names as The Hornicator, The Saxogramophone, Mother Superior and Dr Pacemaker – for a set at The Art Bar, in Cowley Road.

The show will see him playing material from his latest work, a soundtrack to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. The album, called Trolls, Girls and Lullabies, features a re-working of Greig’s original orchestral score along with Rolling Stones covers and original compositions.

Earlier this week, Thomas took time out to answer a few of my daft questions about those weird and wonderful instruments. Here's what he told me....

  • Thomas, a lot of people may be unfamiliar with what you do. How would you describe it?

You know that thing they have in school when you're very young that they call 'Show and Tell'? -that's what they called it in America anyway - what I do is kind of like that, but it's a grown man instead of a kid, with somewhat complicated toys that he makes himself that make strange sounds.

And then the "telling" part gets into things beyond the things he's showing and sometimes he takes out a guitar and starts howling and singing.

I used to do magic shows for kids when I was a teenager. It was kind of a nightmare and often went wrong but I learned a lot and I think what I do now definitely had a lot to do with this past ambition.

  • It's not your usual fare is it? What makes it different?

I think after years of struggling with more traditional band-style musical goal-chasing, trying to figure out what the secrets are to doing it right and 'making it', which was endlessly frustrating, I eventually had a kind of epiphany.

It was a combination of realizing that most of the music I most admired tended not to be the most popular anyway, and that trying to figure out these 'secrets' was much less worthwhile and enjoyable than just letting my imagination run wild and indulging in the kind of musical creativity that made me feel happy, forgetting what anyone else might think.

The beautiful thing about that is that this was the point where I noticed more people starting to take an interest in what I was doing. The lesson is just be yourself and you can't help but be different, because people are like snowflakes, everyone's an individual, and that's what fascinates us all about each other. Or at least that's what fascinates me about others. I'm perplexed by those that always only want more of the same.

  • You've been described as a rock eccentric. Can you see their point of view? And do you think we need more eccentricity in music?

Yes, yes, and double yes. I'm not trying to do anything odd, I'm just expressing myself and trying to communicate musically in what I find to be a pretty natural way. Singing about what I like or what troubles me or what I dream about. But I'm also aware that my methods, the instruments I make and what satisfies me musically might be off the beaten path and wont be everybody's cup of tea.

What prompted you to make your first unusual instrument?

Though it can be beautiful, I was bored with the same old bass/guitar/drums first off, and felt a repeatedly held back by trying to assemble multiple players for shows and rehearsals. So I decided to make my own band that I could switch on and off at will.

  • What was wrong with normal instruments? After all, most have been with us for centuries

I don't think ANY instruments are 'normal', and even those that have been around for centuries had a first day at some point. I guess if there's a problem for me it's maybe that standard arrangements with instruments and sounds have become a little too standardized.

I guess I just get bored easily. Though with the multitude of independently created stuff accessible on the internet these days, I think times may be changing. All that said, I do spend a good amount of my sets playing a resonator guitar.

People surprise me sometimes after shows when they say to me "hey, you played guitar tonight" as if it was something new. But actually I started this whole thing years ago just playing guitar and singing, then added a self-made mechanical drum machine, and then more things.

But, at the core of it, I've got to admit I'm really just another singer songwriter. Maybe with some bells and whistles added.

  • How many creations do you have?

Maybe several dozen, but a lot of them never saw the light of day. They're locked in the basement of aborted experiments and bad ideas. You've got to fail a lot to succeed.

  • What's your favourite creation?

Well, they're all like my children so I don't really officially like to single out a favourite, but if I had to it might be the Hornicator. The gramophone horn that eventually became the Hornicator was going to be part of my first drum machine, but it didn't quite work in like I'd imagined it would, and had it's own personality, so I started building on it as a separate entity.

I started tapping on the thing and singing into the big end of the horn (one of my techniques is to always try something backwards) and it dawned on me that this thing was originally created as an audio amplifier and had a certain nice tonality of a certain flavor that hadn't been heard in ages by most people. So I attached a microphone element to it and started sticking things in and on it.

It eventually had fretted strings and springs on it, it's structure lent itself to a harp-like set up. There's a very long spring attached to the small end of the Hornicator which has a cup-like 'receiver' on the other end.

This was something my brother sent me for a birthday present. A 'Space Phone'. When we were kids we'd make these by attaching two plastic cups with a long string between. When you stretched it and spoke into one end, the person on the other end would hear a kind of martian version of the voice of the other person vibrating down the line. This was a marketed version of that but lucky for me the spring was the exact diameter of the small end of the Hornicator. Pull that spring and it's got this great wobbly sound that reverberates through the horn.

Sometimes as one part of my performance I sing into one end and listen through the other as if it were a giant phone. So for me it's not only about thinking up and making instruments for anyone to play in the usual sense, it's really a combination of many different angles. Often an instrument is added to and developed, or even built, to accommodate a specific new song.

Sometimes a song is altered or built by some accidental new dimension or discovery with an instrument, so it goes both ways. And I'm always thinking in terms of not only audio but performance and storytelling and play.

The Hornicator's become a little like my ventriloquist's dummy, my left-hand man.

At night when I'm sleeping I suspect he borrows my phone and takes over posting things on my twitter account. After I posted something recently that was maybe a little too regular, like a gig announcement or something, someone responded by sending a response that demanded: "More tweets from the Hornicator!" So I guess he's a little better at the social networking element than I am.

  • Do they take long to build?

It varies greatly, but almost always a lot longer than I think it's going to take. Mother Superior (drum machine) took years to get stage-ready, and that was the third of it's kind that I'd built, each an attempt to improve on the last. They are also all pretty much works-in-progress. As I touched on before I add new bits as I create new songs.

  • Are you working on any new ones this year?

There's some half-finished and barely conceived ideas. My main focus this year has been on refining things, making what I do have sound and function more smoothly, set up and take down more quickly. It's kind of naturally progressed that Mother Superior, the Hornicator, Hank the guitar and I have become the core 'band' over the years, and I've recently been more interested in developing this as a lean, mean machine.

For a while I'd kind of dug my own grave on the road with just too much to carry and, well, lets say I created a wide open road for Murphy's Law to get me every night.

  • Are they built to come up a particular sound, or is that just a happy accident?

I believe fully in happy accidents. Even if I have an idea in mind initially, usually something goes awry in the plan, slips out of place and snaps and I think 'Aha! That 'snap' is a sound I can use, let's make it do that repeatedly!'

  • Where do the names come from?

They're inspired by the pieces from which they are built, and from me talking to myself which I often do, and eventually getting bored with my own company and thus beginning to talk to them instead. I have an anthropomorphic imagination. I was a stop frame animator for quite a few years before I went solely music. It strengthens that tendency we have to attribute human-like characteristics to, well, in my case things I might find in a junk shop or rubbish bin.

I imagine some kind of creature's spirit in just about anything, whether it be in it's form or the sound it makes when struck. I have a hesitation before I stab into a pancake if it happens to resemble a face, and it usually does. I might say "Well, Arthur, wasn't an easy life for you was it? And now I'm going to pour syrup in your eyes and stab and eat you."

  • What experience do the audience have at a Truax show?

Well, I hope it's a good one. People often come up to me after and say I really cheered them up and/or inspired them.

I'm not always sure what to make of it because my songs are not all rainbows and unicorns, but it's nice to hear. Reliable sources tell me that I always miss the best moment of my own shows because sometimes I play my Hornicator from the inside (I stick my face inside where there's a kazoo to play) and I can't see the audience in front anymore, so I guess what they see is a man with a Hornicator for a head, and I'm told this is when the whole audience typically has a huge collective grin on their faces.

  • You recently worked with legendary film maker David Lynch. How did that come about?

I was introduced to David by my friend Chris Saunders who was doing photos of us both. He was very nice and friendly and excited about music.

He pointed out that a man by the name Truax was also an incidental character in the pilot of Twin Peaks. I was talking about how great his choices for songs in his films always were and how my music's been described as 'Lynchian' or something directly referential like that more than a few times, so that's where the concept sprang for an album of my own reinterpretations of some of the best songs featured in his films, that's Songs from the Films of David Lynch. It was by all accounts a successful project, but to clarify Lynch wasn't actually working with me in the studio.

  • Who is the most impressive/ inspirational person you've worked with?

That's a tough one, I've been lucky for a person that usually works alone to have worked at times with some inspirational people.

I did have a great experience collaborating with Jarvis Cocker on an improvised live film score at the Royal College Of Art in London. He called me about it at very short notice and I'm not usually an improvisor so I was a little apprehensive about it but we'd done something briefly when he was doing these 'happening' rehearsals, and then I'd played support for him in London.

I was impressed that though he's quite famous he's very humble and down to earth, and has this endless curiosity about everything. The film was by a former professor of his, John Smith, and I was impressed that Jarvis was willing to take the time out to do this kind of small event thing.

Oxford Mail:

Something funny happened though when he arrived in the parking lot. I'd just gotten out of my car and I saw this Jaguar pull in with a girl in a fur driving and Jarvis in the back seat(!) like he was being chauffeured right out of a Pulp video or something, like someone on a total rock star trip. I thought for a minute, wow, maybe I'm wrong about humble Jarvis. But then he crawled out and so did two kids, and they were all crammed in the back because the only way they could fit Jarvis's big keyboard into the car was to squeeze it longways into the front passenger seat.

Anyway, we both set up our music gear, the film was called Slow Glass and Jarvis handed out wine glasses around the audience and instructed them that at some point he would cue them to either start clinking the glasses or making them 'sing' by moving fingers around the rims, otherwise there was no plan, it was he and I responding musically to the images on the screen and to each other.

A lot of cool things happened, the whole thing went pretty smoothly.

  • More recently you have presented a piece based on an Ibsen piece - Peter Gynt. What was the attraction?

I was asked to do the music for a production of the play in Dortmund, Germany. I wasn't really that familiar with it, to be honest.

The director, Kay Voges, who has been a fan and friend of mine for a long while told me that he thought this character of Peer Gynt was a "little bit" like me, always running in circles and spinning my wheels. So he thought I was the man for the job. Kay is an award winning director and I'm a fan of his work, so I couldn't really turn it down.

I play live in the show, I'm there through the whole duration of it, suspended from the rafters in an open-front metal box filled with my instruments above a stage covered in water. It's a unique experience. The album came about because there were people asking about how they could get their hands on the music.

  • What else are you planning to do?

There'll be more touring and I'm looking forward to getting back to work on some recordings and videos I started before the Peter Gynt experience took over for a while. These involve some sessions I did with Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls (now drummer of the Violent Femmes), where he played live drums to Mother Superior.

  • Is there an element of missionary zeal or education about introducing stuff like that to a new audience?

I'm passionate about what I do but I'm not really out to educate. I just do what I do and on many levels it's as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone else.

  • Was your latest instrument, the Saxogramophone, designed specifically for Peter Gynt? Why did you feel a new instrument was necessary for that?

Yes. I think the Hornicator may be a bit perturbed because it's the second instrument I've built around modifying an old Gramophone horn, and that's always been his territory/identity. But it's pretty different in that it's actually a horn you blow into to make a sound. I needed it for one of the few parts of the play that we reference the old Grieg score. We also built a big bike wheel drum machine called Dr Pacemaker into this box that I play live in during the play.

  • Your song material is also unconventional. Where does that inspiration come from?

Everywhere. I’ve written a quite a few songs about insects, and astral subjects like the moon and stars make a lot of appearances, and the sea and the weather. All very natural, traditionally musically inspirational things. But then technology rears it’s head as a recurring subject matter, all these rhythmic mechanical things bombarding us all the time.

I also just look at basic human dilemmas, and at personal relationships with which I’m struggling, and loneliness. Sometimes when you’re feeling most trapped or lost, that’s when the music steps in.

  • Finally, with such creations and the constant gigging, I imagine mishaps and amusing incidents aplenty... does anything stand out?

A while back I was performing in Manchester and suddenly someone burst through the side door into the room while I was playing the Hornicator and started shouting at me through some kind of megaphone. He was brightly dressed, had a silver scarf and was quite upset, not just your average heckler.

He must have been working himself up to this well beforehand. He seemed to be confronting me about how he was the only "horn man" in this city or something along those lines, I thought it was brilliant and said he should join me on the stage and we can have a "horn off".

I guess he hadn't expected that, nor the pregnant silent pause of the crowd. He kind of melted and mumbled a few things under his breath and scarpered back out.

  • Thomas Truax plays the Art Bar, Oxford, tomorrow (good Friday). Doors open at 7.30pm and tickets are £8 from wegottickets and Truck Store, Oxford, or £10 on the door.