Harmony of The Weirdo-Sphere

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10 Questions for Dutch DIY instrument manufacturer Yuri Landman.

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Turner Williams | February 16, 2012

Two of Yuri's invented string instruments.

Two of Yuri's invented string instruments.

For the average budding applicant to the American Underground avant-starsearch, the synthesizer may well be the new electric guitar, but Mr. Yuri Landman doesn't give a '67 Flyin' V about that shit. For over a decade the Dutch experimental luthier (thas' a geeTAR-maker, son) has been stretching this most holy instrument of the People's Rock'n'Roll™ arsenal light-years past its pimply Sears-Robuck adolescence to new post-2001 Starchild Vistas of Yon. But without lasers, robots, or fucking Pat Metheny, thank you very much! The tools of Yuri's trade are simple: strings, wood, bits of metal, and, yeah, nice pickups. What's not so simple is the theory and process that culminates in his fantastic amalgams.

But don't worry! This ain't some 19 string bass bluegrass fusion wank-off: Yuri Landman is a self-taught out-there soul who went searching for new sounds and found himself straddling about 4,000 years of musical science. It's tempting to impress you by rattling off the facets of his work ad nauseam, but there are Wikipedia articles and Youtube videos for that bunk. Well okay, here's a couple things: he's built custom string-things for Sonic Youth, Liars, Half Japanese, HEALTH, and other plugged-in pickers, and he tours the weirdo-sphere in Europe and America with his intimate DIY instrument building workshops.

I corresponded with Yuri on the eve of his latest trip to the New World in March where he'll be Johnny Appleseeding the sonic soil of Hot Springs, AR and Los Angeles with a taste of his DIY luthier-iffic know-how. I love the idea of hearing a good guitar solo as terrible car accident! Is this man a genius? You can find out more about the workshops at the end of the article.

The guitar seems to be the root of your work. Beneath the extra pickups, bridges, headstocks, and strings, I still see the soul of the electric rock guitar somewhere in your creations. How did this instrument enter your life? What inspired you to play guitar in the first place?

I prefer natural sounds above artificial sounds. Percussion, flutes, and especially strings are sounds I find very appealing. I've never had a warm feeling about the sounds coming from synths and computers, although I must admit that's changing a bit, and, nowadays, I'm also happy with sounds coming from electronics when it has a good amount of edge. Most of those sounds occur in circuit bending stuff or noise boxes that are kind of hip in the avant-garde currently. I hate FM synths, because they remind me of the soft synth '80s with Whitney Houston and other terrible music of that era. I prefer the sound of guitars to be the starting point. On top of that, I alway use a good amount of overdrive to let the overtones come out as good as possible.

Your instruments are quite striking, yet they seem so economical and intentional in their design and they are highly functional and versatile sound-makers. How do you go about designing one? What importance do you place on the instrument's utility to a musician?

Originally, I was a comic artist, and I pay attention to things looking good. When I started building I wanted to build instruments that looked as high-end as possible. Obviously, that goal was never reached, but, in pics, the Moodswinger, Moonlander, and the others from this time look pretty slick.

Most builders have a tendency to make stuff as rough as possible to keep a good amount of hand-crafted-ness in it, visually. Guys like Bradford Reed, Iner Souster, and Eric Leonardsen make such pieces. I think that's very cool, but to prove experimental instruments are not just an over-arty medium, I wanted to convince people with impressive slick designs. But after the Springtime, my designs became too slick for my taste. I prefer a good amount of roughness, and the slickness started to fade away in the designs. Instruments like the Moodswinger II and the Burner Harp guitar are on the edge. Still cool, but if I had continued on that way, it would become really nasty. There are more slick designs of new instruments, such as the Warr Guitars, which I despise for their bad design looks. Way too kitschy, and the music that is usually played on those kind of instruments is not my cup of tea. Mike Oldfield, Pat Metheney etc. I prefer my designing to match with the feeling of experimental noise rock, with certain roughness. And therefore, I began to appreciate the simple unvarnished designs of Bradford and Iner more than my own designs. I became trained enough to make it slick, but I quit that goal and returned to roughness.

In 2009, some guy from Northern Ireland asked me to do a DIY workshop, which led to the design of the Home Swinger, the first instrument for which I totally abandoned slick design. I used unfinished simple cheap wood and iron parts I could find in the hardware store. Form following function became Rule 1. The sound had to be good, therefore the pickup had to be good, and the design had to be strong enough to hold everything in place. The design was focused on building it as fast as possible and with the minimum of screws, soldering and assembling. Two other important aspects were making the weight and size as small as possible. I upheld this style of designing on all the instruments that came after.

You've had past success as a comic book artist. Do you still draw? Is instrument building a form of sculpture?

I was a comic book artist from 1996-2000. As a small job, I was a salesman in a comic book store in my village, and I bought the store in 1998 and sold it in 2001. These years were fantastic in my life, very parallel to the adventures in the movie High Fidelity. But if you've seen the movie you know that job sucks up your energy. The friends that have jobs, girlfriends, a life visit the store sometimes. The unemployed, guys without girlfriends, pot smokers, depressive people, or people with other disorders fill their time in your comic store and the record stores. Very funny sad stories, but, after a few years, you don't want to be in that environment every day. The comic book industry is also mainly for 40+ year-old men, and my works were coming of age comics, similar to the works of the stuff Drawn & Quarterly which publishes in English. So my product didn't meet the audience I had expected, people of my age/girls.

So I became disappointed in the medium, and its public exposure. I really like comic book artists and people who buy arty comics, but not really the people that collect old bad comics, and there's a lot of bad comics. The arty niche in the medium is unfortunately very small.

So that's why I abandoned the medium, and I never finished my third book. Perhaps in the future, who knows.

I don't draw anymore. Besides the comic industry, my fascination for visual arts grew and broadened. When I made comics, I was fascinated about expressionism painters like Munch, Schiele, van Dongen, Otto Mueller, etc.

But I began to appreciate other art movements as well: Bauhaus, Futurism, Dada, Constructivsim, Cobra, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism. Since my appreciation is closer to other art forms nowadays, often more abstract, I really don't know how to draw comics anymore and still be satisfied with the result. I'm having a writer's block on that skill. And it's not really possible to make comics with abstract images. Comics are always figurative. It can be arty, but in the end, you have to tell a story, and that requires a good amount of figurative art to make things clear. It may look cool, but the story is the most important aspect of a comic book. At least, that's my opinion.

And to answer your last question: yes, the building has become the substitute, and I consider the design the visual art within my work. It complements my musical works, and the instrument is a cross disciplinary work of art.

Your instruments seem informed as much by the prepared guitars of Sonic Youth as tradition Asian stringed instruments like the guqin or koto. Can you talk about the relationship between Western noise/experimentalism and non-Western traditional music in your work? How did your interest in dissonance and noise in experimental music impact the way you listened to non-Western music?

Well, that's a complicated story. I started playing prepared guitars, indeed, based on the techniques Sonic Youth used. Since prepared guitars are pretty random in sound and difficult to replicate music with in a live situation, I started building instruments that covered the preparation and made it easier to replicate music once you have to play it live again.

I made a few predecessors of the Moodswinger and already knew the basic theory about harmonics and its relation to string lengths. When I built the instrument for Liars, my English was very bad. I had to explain the physics to them. The best way to do that was to develop a system on the instrument that explained it. This took me months to work out. There was a website by a guy called Steve Rowatt, which is nowadays offline. He had built an instrument with a color-dotted system. I could follow some of his ideas, but didn't understand the color signs consisting of two colors, like little flags. Later on, I learned he had used the color system Harry Partch had developed for some of his instruments. I made an alternate color-coding, which was easier to read. This system is, after the Moodswinger, used on many of my instruments. It's a fraction-dividing system where each number has it's own color. 2 is grey, 3 is red, 4 is orange, etc. The colors represent the fraction. So orange is 1/4 or 3/4, Red is 1/3 or 2/3.

The scale was irregular. I wondered for years why it didn't match with the logarithmic scale on guitars. I was musically untrained. When I had finished the Moodswinger, I all of the sudden realized the Turkish saz also features an irregular scale. This triggered the idea that maybe I was doing the same thing that the Turkish had developed and that their system was not so random at all, based on a tradition, but that it was based on mathematics. Since the saz has a lot of frets, I couldn't figure out the exact overlap with that instrument with the internet pictures I had available. So I started searching for other non-Western instruments and stumbled on a 4000 yr old Chinese instrument called the guqin. The scale on this instrument was, remarkably enough, exactly the same as the one I had developed for the Moodswinger.

The sound of the Moodswinger sounds very Eastern. I already knew that for years, but this clarified that resemblance. The guqin is one of the oldest string instruments in the world. All musical cultures made alternate instruments with scales slightly different from the guqin. They used a selection of the keys, depending on which ones fitted with other instruments. Not all timbres in the flutes of bells can get the same set of pitches, for instance, but can have a few out of the series. So other instruments caused alternate scales for string instruments, causing alternate musical cultures. In the Western musical history, several smart mathematical people such as Pythagoras and Wreckmeister made alternate scales. These scales started slipping off the road more and more in the period 1500-1900, ending in what is now the standard 12 Tone Equal Temperament: the Western musical scale you hear in Western classical music and pop music.

The weird thing is the experimental, noisy music of Sonic Youth resulted in the Moodswinger, which is very close to the guqin, which is the complete opposite of anarchy in tonality. It's the most pure form of harmony. So within the noise of Sonic Youth, there is a layer in the background which is purely harmonic. That's the weird atmosphere you hear in their music. The softness behind their harsh sound has a hypnotic effect. You must not consider this a simple circle. That was my first conclusion, which is too naive. You must consider it a fractal, when you soon in, it becomes more chaotic, but when you keep zooming in, you see, as in a Droste effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droste_effect), the reoccurance of order, harmony.

The harmonics theory is not only present in sound. Once I realized the fractal occurence in sound, I started searching for other connections and stepped into the world of resonance and cymatics. Things like orbital resonance of the moons of Jupiter and Lichtenberg figures are all connected to harmonics theory. So basically all shaped matter, all living things are more or less harmonic structures. My philosophical conclusion is we like shaped sound, harmony in music, because we recognize the order that life has in itself. We recognize a fundamental part of what we are ourselves, shape.

Did this revelation about the guqin lead you further into the music of other cultures, non-Western and traditional?

My impression is that looking into stuff from those cultures can enhance your music. I'm not focused on World Music at all, and I'm not a fan of traditional arts in general, because I think it is not very progressive. But you simply can't escape certain things, as explained in the boomerang effect with the third bridge technique bending back to ancient Chinese culture. Art is throwing balls as far as possible, but they always land on Earth again, no matter how hard your throw. If you shoot them out of Earth's atmosphere, obviously not, but that's comparable to Cage's silence and raises annoyance and questions as to whether it is still art. I think it is, and it was very relevant when he and some others explored that field, but, in the end, to enjoy things, it is good to uphold a some normal parameters in music and just add a good amount of noise to it. Avant garde is not the better art than more traditional, but it's the R&D (“research & development”) corner of the art world, and the corner I prefer to work in since it suits me the best.

The Netherlands has a long-standing engagement with cultural blending and the issues that creates. Did free-thinking Dutch experimenters like Hans Bennink and the Ex influence you? Do you feel like some part of being Dutch inspired the direction that your work has taken?

I've no Dutch cds in my closet, so I don't feel connected to it, although I do admire the Ex a lot. But that's something of the last few years. I always had deep respect for their radical approach, just like I did for Fugazi. But in a way, The Ex, as well as Fugazi, never appealed enough to me to buy it. I've the same problem with Picasso. A really great painter, but I don't like his flow or something. But he's for sure the greatest, and my feeling is just my problem to solve. I've solved it with Fugazi the last few years, and, nowadays, I listen to it very often. It really strikes me deep. I always found The Ex pretty parallel in how they sounded and finally I've become a fan of them. A relief for me! (Laughs!) What a great band!

Bennink is free jazz. Although I appreciate the concept and the historic relevance of the genre, it doesn't have my fascination. I can listen to all kinds of radical music, but one of the main things that is very important for me is a steady beat. I've a very basic musical feeling and prefer the 1,2,3,4 above any other type of music. Bennink never does 1,2,3,4, that's almost his rule. He's a great guy, especially in interviews. Very smart, and for sure a good hang out and somebody who knows what he's doing, but I don't listen to his music. But with very deep respect, no doubt about that. You can't like everything in life, and there's a difference between good art and nice art. Bennink is good art.

In Western Art music, those who design their own instruments and techniques seem to also develop a very personal philosophy that informs their work. Those who go against this grain are highly motivated with a spiritual devotion to their innovations. Do you have a philosophy that guides your work? Is there something you hope to accomplish by getting your instruments out into the world?

Yes, there is, although my starting point is completely opposed to that of the people coming from the art music direction. I started as naive, experimental punk musician and discovered the universal old rules of harmony. Many composers know about the rules and start to work on new ideas based on that theory. My background was naive, but our result is very identical. Now that I also know pretty much about harmony and micro-tonality, I work in exactly their tradition. But I also try to abandon it, because the rules are narrowing your scope. Music has to sound good. Theory and concept is cool, but intuition is an important factor in art, too. I often miss that part a bit in contemporary classical music. I prefer No Age above complicated arty compositions without a heavy emotion. In No Age, I hear the guy has issues in his life, and their music expresses that.

My work is very conceptual, but this doesn't mean I think it's above intuitive indie rock with a lesser focus on concept. The conceptual part is just something I think I'm good at, and Daniel Johnston is good at making impressive, deep songs with heavy feelings. Everybody has their own individual quality.

You conduct workshops in which participants build their own replicas of your instruments and then the join you in performances. What inspired this DIY workshop project? What is it like to play with strangers rocking their variations on your instruments? How does this compare to that of building a single instrument for a client?

The workshop is the outcome of a request from a guy from Belfast. I'm so grateful he asked for this, because it triggered me to design the Home Swinger DIY kit, very comparable to an IKEA kit you can built in a small time/space. The instruments for the bands were very cool to make, but I could only make 3-5 instruments a year. I couldn't solve the problem of how to be profitable in that context. The workshop solved it and led to a financial success. I could quit my job as a graphic designer because of the success of the Home Swinger. Nowadays, I've 7 workshops, a complete shop, and a complete selection of different products people can choose from. Also I try to develop new side projects besides the workshops, such as live shows, a book about guitar preparation (in coll. w/ Bart Hopkin of windworld.com), a record featuring Jad Fair and Philippe Petit, Artist in residence programming w/ WORM in Rotterdam, and others.

The workshop resulted in me entering the making music again. I had quit making music in 2006. Similar to how I quit the comic drawing, I didn't have any inspiration anymore and had the impression my work was a weak copy of music that was made by other people already. The DIY workshop led to the request for a sound moment with the group afterwards. As said, I'm not a huge fan of free improvisation. I like it a lot for 5 minutes, but it bores me very much when it takes longer than that. So I made a few easy to learn compositions as a grid for the people playing their new toys. It was completely unpretentious and just meant to give people a good time. Amateur art, but also it became serious. That's an ambivalence, but I feel comfortable within that spectrum. I'm free to do what I want. If it sounds bad, just bad luck. If it sound good, then we're lucky.

The group of participants is sometimes very good, sometimes less good. The good moments that appeared in past shows led to an improvement of the musical pieces. They grew from 10 minutes to a set of 40 minutes which it is currently. I stole small good ideas appearing at the live performances and added them to the composition.

Working with unknown musicians is one of the best things that happened to me in my musical career. I'm very individualistic, but, also, I like to meet people who make sense. And the people showing up at the workshops are always very bright and have a wide knowledge about difficult music. They are unknown, because they prefer avant garde. Avant garde sells badly, so the musicans stay unknown, but they create the local scenes and are the coolest people for me in the cities I visit. They take me to the good spots, and I enjoy it when I can help them with my simple-to-build instruments. I always remember a few special guys in each session, and when I re-visit their city, I ask them for new projects.

WORM is a familiar name– in Rotterdam? Can you speak more about it?

WORM is an artist-in-residence space with a large collection of vintage analogue synths. Really exciting and unique stuff like the ARP 2500. It's not their property, they rent it from the CEM Studios which no longer has funding from the Dutch government. When I was at their place, it triggered me to write them a proposal. I offered Lukas, who runs the AiR-program there, my collection of instruments, so they and the artists can use it for free. It's good promo for my work, and I've a steady spot in the Netherlands where I can easily do workshops every half a year. My larger plan is to create more of those working stations all over Europe allowing me to travel easier and create a good infrastructure for my workshops as well as for musicians I adore and the avant garde scene in general.

Before the commercialization and mass production of instruments in the twentieth century, people all over the world get their axes from a local artisan or, more often, built it themselves. This obviously leads to a lot of variety and mutation. Do your DIY workshops relate to this? Do you envision DIY instrument building taking off as a subculture like circuit-bending?

Yes, you understand this well. I think Death By Audio and the circuit-bending scene are indeed really great. New ways to achieve new sounds. I feel very connected to that scene. I do things with the same intention, but with wood and strings instead of resistors and transistors.

The music industry is pretty stupid when it comes to achieving the best artistic result. Bands simultaneously want to sound as original as possible as well and as good as possible. Therefore, they buy a Telecaster or a Les Paul or, if they go wild, they buy a Jazzmaster, because Sonic Youth and J. Mascis play on that. ?????? That's the most stupid way of thinking if you want to sound different. SY began playing on Jazzmaster because that particular guitar sounds very different from any other electric guitar. The people choosing a Strat are, in my opinion, even less bright than the Jazzmaster buyers, since that is the most sold instrument in the world, and you must be pretty arrogant if you think you can achieve a more original result than Jimi Hendrix. That's simply impossible with common gear. You can, of course, make great, nice sounding songs and sell huge amounts of tickets for your live show if you have a good voice or are a skilled songwriter. But that has nothing to do with sounding original. The voice is often the most distinct factor of pop music sounding different from other bands, not the tools they use. The bands that sound different always play in an unorthodox way, using extended techniques or have unusual, adapted, or new gear.

When you have gear that is more rare than the standard industrial stuff you can buy everywhere, it is much easier to sound different. Not that this sounds better in terms of hi-fi, but at least different. Artistry is about being different, not about being as hi-fi as possible. So Indie-pop artists talking about their work as if it is art can be true, but, most often, it is just a lie or a naive conviction or a smart seller. A promo trick not meant to be artistic, but meant to sell as much as possible. I know this sounds very bitter, but I'm not so bitter. There's nothing wrong with NME or Pitchfork hyper-nice sounding Indie-pop. I really enjoy many of those bands, but it always irritates me a bit when stuff is sold as art while in fact it is much more entertainment. Entertainment is not a sexy word, but, actually, there is nothing wrong with entertainment as long as it has a good amount of real emotion or engagement in it. As even if it is rather flat, then music can still be a good party. There's nothing wrong with what I tend to call “season” music. I enjoyed the debut album of The Strokes a lot. Not longer than one season, but it was pleasant for the season.

What is your favorite guitar solo?

Phew, I don't know. The ones that slip off the road. What's non-standard, out-of-whack, is comparable to a motor crash in a motor race. Things going badly wrong on the recording but kept in because the coincidence or the rude, wild result is so thrilling.

More info about Yuri's American classes. At Yuri's workshops, he provides the materials and know how to made his most popular invention, the Homeswinger.

The Hot Springs, AR workshop and performance will be at VOV on March 21st/22nd

The Los Angeles workshop and performance will be at The Smell on March 25th/26th

The workshops cost $135 and are limited to 15 people in each. This covers the class and all materials, which are provided. Deadline for registration is Feb 24th. Email drowningman@casema.nl to reserve a space. For more information: http://www.hypercustom.com/

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