Tim Hughes speaks to the rock eccentric who creates all his own instruments

Thomas Truax is one of rock’s great eccentrics. Endlessly inventive and creative, if it isn’t interesting, weird or beautiful, then Thomas admits he isn’t interested.

Juggling a guitar he calls ‘Hank’ with quirky homemade instruments made from chunks of scrap metal, gramophone parts and bits of bicycle, his looped avant-garde electronic post-rock indie-blues is impossible to categorise. It’s a mix which has made him not only irresistible to audiences, but to such creative types as Jarvis Cocker and David Lynch, both of whom he has collaborated with.

So what is it he does exactly? “You know that thing they have in school when you’re very young that they call Show and Tell?” he says. “What I do is kind of like that, but it’s a grown man instead of a kid, with somewhat compli-cated toys that he makes himself that make strange sounds. 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.”

What is beyond doubt, is that it is unlike anything you’ve heard — or seen — before. He goes on: “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 realising that most of the music I 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.

“This was the point where I noticed more people starting to take an interest. 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.”

Taking that individuality to its logical extreme, the New Yorker has turned to creating his own instruments — with names like the Scary Aerial, The Hornicator and drum machines called Mother Superior and Dr Pacemaker.

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

“I guess if there’s a problem for me, it’s maybe that standard arrangements with instruments and sounds have become a little too standardised. I guess I just get bored easily.

“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 does he own? “Maybe several dozen, but a lot of them never saw the light of day,” he says. “They’re locked in the basement of aborted experiments and bad ideas. You’ve got to fail a lot to succeed.”

And which is his favourite? “Well, they’re all like my children so I don’t really like to single out a favourite,” he smiles, “But if I had to it might be the Hornicator.

“The gramophone horn that eventually became the Hornicator had its own personality, so I started building on it as a separate entity.

“The Hornicator’s become a little like my ventriloquist’s dummy, my left-hand man,” he laughs.

His most recent creation is another horn-like instrument called The Saxogramophone, built for his latest work — a soundtrack to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. The resulting album, called Trolls, Girls and Lullabies, features a re-working of Greig’s original orchestral score along with Rolling Stones covers and original compositions.

“I was asked to do the music for a production of the play in Dortmund,” he says. “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 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.”

Is he building anything new at the moment? “There are some half-finished and barely conceived ideas,” he admits. “My main focus this year, though, has been on refining things, making what I have sound and function more smoothly. 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, let’s say I created a wide open road for Murphy’s Law to get me every night.”

Though an American, now based in Germany, Thomas is something of an adopted Oxfordian, playing the city and nearby Truck festival several times, and with friends in the area. Tomorrow he returns with a visit to the Art Bar, in a show supported by The August List and Huck Astley.

So what kind of experience can people look forward to? “Well, I hope it’s a good one,” he smiles. “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.”

So does he see himself as eccentric? “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 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.”

He adds: “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!”

Thomas Truax
Art Bar, Cowley Road
Tomorrow, doors 7.30pm
Tickets: £8 from wegot tickets or Truck Store, Oxford. £10 on the door.