Science was never a strong suit for The Spin — words always came easier than numbers. But ever since we were tiny tots, we understood that boxes covered in knobs and blinking lights could be used to bring ideas to singing, dancing life. Accordingly, we were stoked to hear that the Circuit Benders' Ball would be returning to Nashville — not only had founder Tony Youngblood planned a full night featuring discarded technology recycled to make new music, but also an entire day of workshops designed to provide hands-on experience in making the instruments. We chose Intro to Circuit Bending, and after snagging a $2 keyboard from the thrift store, we strolled to Brick Factory.
When we entered, the classroom was nearly full of students of all ages, busily cracking open talking toys of one sort or another. The bright and high-ceilinged Brick Factory now resembled a mad scientist's laboratory, bubbling over with all of the tools and components needed to turn abandoned toys into two-headed musical monsters. Leading the workshop were Patrick McCarthy and Tommy Stephenson, Chicago natives who perform and lecture as Roth Mobot. Rather than bombard us with all the technical information behind sophisticated circuits, they gave us the basics necessary to find the "sweet spots" in our toy's guts and start exploring possibilities for modification right away. They also gave us some important precautions — never try to bend circuits in something that plugs into the wall, for example.
After a chow break, we found the room already filling up. A ladder had appeared, repurposed as a multilevel stand housing two projectors, a computer and a camera. We had a minute to peruse the merch table before the show began; it's not often we see contact microphones and pocket electronic test kits laid out with the T-shirts and CDs.
The calm and organized crew seemed ready to take on any challenges presented by the large and diverse bill. We counted 12 acts scheduled over a five-hour block, showcasing a broad range of DIY musical experiments. Some, like solo performer Posttaste and duo Pineapple Explode, used circuit-bent toys as part of a performance with traditional instruments, though neither of their performances was exactly traditional: The former performed intricate drum parts over a pulsing drone emanating from his toys, and the latter presented fractured pop songs on the banjo punctuated by blasts from bent gear. Other performers, like Elegant Bassterds and Brain Lesion, created slowly morphing (and sometimes disturbing) soundscapes with an array of homemade synthesizers and effects boxes. Though their instruments are purpose-built rather than repurposed, they fit directly with the spirit and aesthetic of the event.
Other performances served as both technique demonstration and standalone art. Though it took a while to get going, the presentation by Kelli Shay Hix, Josh Gumiela and Lucas McCallister was worth the wait. They used a video feed to control a synthesizer; manipulating objects like a lit candle and a shiny jewel box on a white board on the floor made both subtle and dramatic changes to the sound. Shortly thereafter, Teletron Orchestra demonstrated a toy mod conceived by Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider. The Mattel Mindflex toy already transmits brainwave intensity readings to a base that turns them into electronic control signals; with just a few wire snips and a little solder, it becomes a device capable of controlling a synth with your brain. Two volunteers from the audience put on the Mindflex's Tron-esque headbands and read from a binder of prompts, and their brains controlling the TO's Minimoog created a spectacle that elegantly merged science and art.
Master DJ Pimpdaddysupreme delivered an impressive set featuring both his turntable skills and his circuit-bent gear. With his co-conspirator Matt the PM supplying live video mixing, PDS dropped 15 minutes of mind-bending mayhem that had to be seen to be believed, starting by using a mic mounted in a doll's mouth to amplify his toys (including a keyboard with a tongue controller), and ending with a 45 manipulated to sound like it was recorded on taffy.
Then it was time for Roth Mobot. They had preassembled their rig on two large folding tables, featuring about two dozen modified toys, and they presented the closest things we'd heard to a pop song all night. Some pieces featured a rhythmic base generated by percussive sounds, while others rode on waves of evolving drones. Some even had lyrics, delivered by talking toys bent to do the Mobot's bidding. All told, it was mesmerizing to watch and hear, and exemplified the key points of the night: Everything electronic has a rhythm and a pitch. It may not make sense on its own, but with a little practice and elbow grease, you can translate it and put it to work for your own artistic purposes.
Let's be frank, Nashville: You haven't always been the kindest to touring acts on Monday nights. We've seen all too many road-weary indie upstarts and hard-working semi-legends strut their stuff to a near-empty room on nights nearly identical to last (Dinosaur Jr. is of course both an indie upstart, or at least re-upstart, and a band of hardworking indie legends). Well, except last night, you proved our expectations wrong by showing up in droves.
We arrived at Mercy Lounge to find the place surprisingly packed as openers Shearwater were midway through their set. They seemed at the time simply an obstacle whose function was to make us drink more beer before Dino took the stage. But since then, we've learned that this Austin outfit has been at it for more than a decade and features at least one former member of Okkervil River. Singer Jonathan Meiburg's bellowing choirboy croon echoes the gloomy overtones of Bauhaus riding over the pop sensibilities of Echo and the Bunnymen, and sprinklings of arty electronics bring to mind Talk Talk. And that's all well and good, as The Spin does enjoy any and all homage to '80s art rock. But it wasn't the decibel-bursting guitargasm in which we came to bathe.
After half an hour or so of watching guitar techs adjust and tweak the cocoon of amplifiers lining the stage, the ever-bald Murph, a grizzled Lou Barlow (who'd graced this very stage just six weeks ago with Sebadoh) and the white wizard guitar god himself, J Mascis, walked out and graced us with an epic slow jam off their latest, I Bet on Sky. Were that to test the patience of an older fan, he or she was instantly rewarded with the subsequent shredding of 1987's "In a Jar." The rest of the show essentially followed the same pattern: The band would play a new track from its latest reincarnation, sandwiched between classics like "Freak Scene," "Feel the Pain" and "The Wagon." Hell, they even threw in a tune from the original Barlow/Mascis collaboration, '80s hardcore act Deep Wound, for ultimate throwback cred.
The biggest appeal of new Dino Jr. songs is that they basically sound like old Dino Jr. songs. So while they're less familiar than the hits, they still burst with all the same ear-bleeding squeals and thundering sludge — they're just a hell of a lot longer. Even on a few of the oldies, Mascis, Murph and Lou stretched the jams to almost twice their length in a relentless, full-blast instrumental onslaught over which Mascis effortlessly shredded with the same nonchalance Wolfgang Puck uses to slice a tomato. We couldn't help but think maybe we'd like to have heard just a handful more numbers, new or old, as opposed to this series of ambling jam sessions lacking any form of dynamic diversity. Our complaints were, however, undermined when Dino's two-song encore included "The Lung" and "Sludgefeast" — two standouts from the flawless 1987 landmark You're Living All Over Me.