Friday, April 03, 2009
ANDY HAZEL discovers into a world of Theremin orchestras, rooms of analogue synths and plenty of nerd jokes, courtesy of The Night Terrors’ MILES BROWN.
Long relegated to sci-fi soundtracks and as an oddity from the chorus of Good Vibrations, the theremin is an instrument guaranteed to cause reactions ranging from appreciative interest to rabid fanaticism. Phenomenally hard to master yet incredibly easy to play badly there is but one player in Australia using one in a rock setting, and, in his hands, it is by no means a novelty.
Miles Brown, bassist and thereminist from Melbourne’s The Night Terrors is intent on putting the theremin centre-stage on their newest release Back To Zero, an album already pricking ears in both hemispheres, and for good reason. There is nothing like this. “The focus was to make a very theremin-centric album. It ended up being more rock and with a lot more pretty stuff than on our previous records.” Brown explains. “We’re treating it more as a vocalist than a toy. In Australia, I’m pretty much the only person playing [theremin] live, so it’s easy to get away with making mistakes because people think it’s hard and no one knows what it’s supposed to sound like,” he laughs. “After studying with Lydia Kavina ([inventor] Leon Theremin’s grand niece and the foremost thereminist in the world), there’s no question about having any leeway to get away with anything,” Brown says. “Before I went overseas I’d never met any theremin players or talked in depth about it. Once we made Back To Zero I’d made it pretty much as far as I could, so I thought I’d go overseas and to not just meet other people, but actually spend some intense time with the person who’s the best in the world. It was awesome and sort of scary.’
A recipient of an Australia Council grant to study in the UK, Brown was then invited by Kavina to join her at a Theremin Festival in Germany. A Theremin Festival, who knew? ”There are some interesting characters around this instrument,” Brown says with a sly, self-incriminating chuckle. “After the conference and the Theremin Orchestra performed we had this theremin party there where we were all having dinner and a Sam Hoffman song came on (Sam Hoffman did the soundtracks to all the sci-fi movies in the 50s and 60s), and this old guy started pretending he was swatting flies and everyone cracked up. It was like: ‘Wow…a theremin nerd joke!’ My nerd quotient was high when I went to study with Lydia, but now it’s just…insane,” Brown confesses, shaking his head. “Only one other person actually played their own music, which I wasn’t expecting at all. My approach was very different to everyone else’s because I come from a rock background. Everyone comes from either a classical background or is a hobbyist, whereas I’ve come from getting up on stage a lot and getting progressively less shit.”
Indeed, he has. The Night Terrors began as a bunch of ex-Tasmanians in 2000 as a band often described as ‘prog metal’. Brown now says the band is interested in making instrumental music that isn’t ‘Mogwai-esque’ or ‘your normal post rock thing’. “We’ve been put in the box of ‘John Carpenter-style’ because of what we do and how we love Goblin and that kind of stuff. Because we recorded the album really low-fi, we pushed the whole analogue angle; we didn’t have the money to do it differently. Also, we recorded it with Nao [Anzai] who writes for Keyboard Magazine in Japan and worked with a lot of synth bands there in the eighties and he loves the prog thing so he was really keen to work with us. Paul [Kearney] who’s the keyboard player now, is definitely more into the analogue-tweaking stuff. He’s a real synth nerd and collector; we had 15 keyboards set up when we were recording! At this point it is definitely a pre-requisite to be a nerd to be in Night Terrors,’ he says with another boisterous laugh.