THE BUREAU: Part Seven, "Lockdown in the Building, News of an Active Shooter Near the Cafeteria" — with Mr Quintron's Circuit-Bent Guitars

THE BUREAU by Ethan Persoff

Welcome back to The Bureau. This week will be a holiday segment.

Above the fold you'll see this week's comic and playlist, and you can catch up here on the current story. While the main office building gets covered in gasoline and the intruders pounce upon The Brain, we're reminded of this time of year and the basic need of giving thanks and appreciations.

Part of this series has been to acknowledge electronic instruments that impact our lives positively. We've already highlighted the work of Metasonix and Soma Labs, as well as the RF Nomad and SSL's Scat Talker, but there are some incredible pieces never made for mass production. Easily one of the most interesting categories of electronics is circuit bending.

When asked about the weirdest thing in the studio, I'm happy to point to an unassuming set of toy guitars. One is a Hot Lixx guitar by TYCO and the other is a generically titled "Electronic Guitar" by Radio Shack. To certain friends with shared interests, the phrase "These are modified guitars by Mr Quintron" is usually all the introduction needed to elicit immediate interest. These are treasured items that I acquired about 15-20 years ago when he put them up for sale. First, let's meet the guitars without modification.

By themselves, these toys are pretty damn funny and obnoxious. Here's a TV commercial from TYCO from 1989:

The TYCO Hot Lixx Guitar promises you'll PLAY IT IN A MINUTE with its computerized buttons. Also includes a whammy bar and pitch wheel.

And here, by glory of the all-providing Internet, is a gentleman performing the Radio Shack Electronic Guitar – Amazingly, Part 1 of a 4 part sequence:

The Radio Shack Electronic Guitar has a pretty nice drum machine built in.

And this, without any need for an introduction, is Mr Quintron

But let's back up two and a half decades to 1993…

So, in the spirit of holiday appreciations, I want to thank Chicago's Wicker Park in the mid-1990s. It's hard to mention something like Quintron's music and not think back to that era, in particular the No Wave scene of Chicago in 1993-1995 or so. WFMU has a great two part post on No Wave from their blog. The author Fatty Jubbo is a vivid writer, sharing experiences that I consider familiar:

When I moved to Chicago in 1994, I arrived for the last half of a very interesting period of Chicago music. I'm not speaking of the MTV shit-pile of Smashing Pumpkins, Varuca Salt, etc etc, but of the strange avant-weirdness that was brewing around the not-so-gentrified-yet area of Wicker Park (now a derogatory term and a place to avoid if you live around these parts). Bands such as Scissor Girls, Mother Country Death Rattle, Dot Dot Dot, Duotron, Flying Luttenbachers and Math were some of the mysterious names I saw on flyers around town, performing at strange places such as The Milk of Burgundy, The Hub Theater and The Czar Bar. These bands were carving their own identity though continuing a long Chicago tradition of exalting dark humor and the absurd while actively avoiding classification.

Read Part One and Part Two. Mr Jubbo's WFMU playlists are not to be missed, either. And while there, support the station.

The Milk of Burgundy was Mr Quintron's club on North Avenue. It was a portal into a different way of thinking. I had just moved to Chicago from Denver, which had its own portals. The Denver ones I frequented are gone and very missed: Muddy's Cafe, Rock Island, and Ground Zero. These were weirdly psychic places (the real kind, not the foolish stuff I was discussing last week) but places that gave a strong imprint on your mind and direction in life. Moving to Chicago I wanted to find that same thing. This lead me to Earwax Cafe, which has its own bizarre memories, like Jay Lynch, Archer Prewitt, and Dan Clowes at a booth drawing and cracking one another up or the Ear Wax back room, filled with videotapes, comics, and records. Down the street off Damen was the original location for Quimby's Books.

Rather funny New York Times rave on the Milk of Burgundy in 1994:

The decorating scheme for Milk of Burgundy on West North Avenue could have been dreamed up in 15 minutes; the only formal seating area in the low-ceilinged nightclub is a rumpled queen-size bed.

I moved to Chicago in 1993 to go to school. I chose the city partly because Wax Trax was there. I was a teenager from Denver and my goth/punk/weird head was soaked in Industrial music. Denver had the original Wax Trax record stores (still around) but Chicago had the actual Wax Trax label (dead and/or revived). I found Wicker Park on my first night, because I'd heard that KMFDM were somewhere around there recording their Angst album.

KMFDM seems really silly and creatively conservative now but I absolutely loved it.

Thrill Kill Kult still stands up beautifully well, though, and is why I moved to town.

Mr Quintron and his curious effect on people's lives.

My first week in town, much of my taste in music would abruptly change. The school booked a local band in its ballroom to welcome new students. One advantage to going to an art school is their occasional bullseye in cracking your head open to something new. They invited the band MATH. I think it'd be another decade before I'd play another Wax Trax album.

MATH was a total shock to my system. It was a three-piece band that seemed like some weird Dada or Futurist group, but serrated and primitive. A great stage with a giant radiola horn. They were beautifully percussive. Charismatic and booming in the middle of the room, enchanting you with strange organ playing, a vibrantly loud woman's voice paired with two men shouting, and these weird weird wonderful horns, musical saws, noise makers. Just pure art menace. It felt like three snake charmers wrapping around every one in attendance. The man screaming in the band doing an abriged cover of "Old Man Mose" and counting out loud chants was Mr Quintron (though going by another name back then)

When I die, thinking we can revisit our life's experiences, I'd like one of my first dips back in time to be a reenactment of that evening, so much is my regard for that moment. That this experience was just handed to me at a school-sponsored party my first week in the city is still very odd to comprehend. I was very young and it was a blessing.

Sometimes life can be very kind to you.

MATH's BASK album was issued in a square paper box, on the fondly remembered and dearly missed BULB RECORDS label

What did MATH sound like?

Thanks again to WFMU, two entire Math albums are downloadable here. And if there was any one song that shows off MATH best, it's Bill the Conductor — I also love the number song from Rubber Musique.

A hint at the surrealist stage design of a MATH show, from the liner notes to BASK

I can't find performance video of MATH, but I can give a suggestion of what it felt like. The closest impact to your mental space might be a Crash Worship show, which Quintron also occasionally fronted on vocals:

Of course MATH was only a three piece with no dancers or fire swinging, but same genome.

I would only see MATH live once again, at Chicago's Empty Bottle. That evening was nuts itself, a friend had a bottle dropper of acid back at his seat/table, and was dripping any quantity into sugar cubes for any takers. Subsequently my memory of the second MATH show was somewhat more prismatic and less specific, but I remember them glowing.

I'd live in Wicker Park until its art culture died out, moving to Logan Square for the remainder of time in the city. In 1999, I moved to Austin.

It was only once I got to Austin that I resumed my interest in MATH and found all the amazing music and inventions Mr Quintron had made since. His move to New Orleans with Miss Pussycat, and the music and art they'd make together was fascinating and life affirming. The Drum Buddy, a four oscillator light bulb-based drum machine that plays patterns based on holes drilled through coffee cans (and operated with a car key) will likely go down in history as one of the most impressive stage instruments of this century:

His recent Weather Warlock is another stunning invention

And of course the current stage shows, talk about mind-cracking:

In 2000, my world sank a bit, depression-wise (we all go through it) and going through Quintron albums and catching up with their characters and self-contained world was a delight, saving me from feeling worse.

Two Other Great Albums: Robot and Tahiti

MC Trachiotomy, a fellow inhabitant of the Rhinestone Records planet, put out two albums at that time: Robot, Alien or Ghost which helped me in depression in a real way. In fact I'll say it complete cured it (thank you man) and then I met the woman I'd soon marry. His next album With Love From Tahiti would be our courtship record. Trachiotomy's song "Angel Dust" would be a romantic song for me and my wife, as we fell in love together, laughing to lyrics like "Talking to myself, taking a shower with no water". I'm forever thankful for that and recommend both Trachiotomy albums for their lyricism, off-the-wall uniqueness, and amazing creativity.

This is some outstanding sampling and performance:

Anyway, this is a long drive around the road to my point, but around 2001 after my life had caught back on its rails, these two circuit bent guitars came up for sale from Quintron and I delightedly acquired them.

The two guitars add a little bit of his uncanny charm and carnival unpredictability into the toys.

Here are two completely unprocessed examples of their sound output.

The guitars really come alive with a little studio processing. Here's a short demo. The guitars are playing with their output split into audio and into an envelope generator sent into a VCA that's gating a noise channel.

These guitars in The Bureau

The TYCO Guitar's whammy bar is the sound of the Cartoon Tip-Toes:

The Radio Shack Guitar is the sound of Pitch-Bent Weather and Clouds:

The TYCO Hot Lixx

The modified TYCO Hot Lixx shows the most visual changes with a series of switches on top that modify the tone of the guitar itself, one is a hard clicking dial that seems to dampen the signal and changes the tone depending on what you dial setting you select, the other switch modifies how the pitch wheel responds and how much voltage seems to apply to the light and touch sensors when you tap them with your fingers. A strobe light sent on the guitar can cause a nice vibratto effect and the whammy bar seems to be especially rubbery when you pull the bar.

The modified TYCO Hot Lixx with two added switches and two touch/light sensors

The Radio Shack "Electronic Guitar"

The Radio Shack guitar is the most exciting of the two. The addition of that large knob on top slows down the bitrate of the guitar, which you can slow to near quanta-level noise grit, or very fast, backwards and forwards causing very odd bit-rate clacking to other weird tones and loops. There are preprogrammed note sequences that are affected by this dial. The onboard drum machine is wicked, too.

The only visible difference on the modified Radio Shack guitar is the very prominent knob. Vast changes in sound and function suggest a lot of components and rewiring below, however

Sound Examples in some Quintron & Miss Pussycat projects

By most evidence, Quintron never recorded much with these, but you can hear the toy guitars being used in Miss Pussycat's "North Pole Nutrias" right here at the 7 minute, 12 second mark:

I hear it in the introduction of this Flossie and the Unicorns album, as well:

Most importantly, I'm thankful for the world we live in, where if you look for things not common you can find deep meaning and joy.

Happy Holidays from The Bureau – Continued Next Wednesday.

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