April 16, 2013

Neptune manipulates the sounds around

Neptune is a long-running, adventurous band from Boston that uses unusual and homemade instruments to make their sounds. Their latest album, msg rcvd, focuses on radio frequencies. We asked leader Jason Stanford about their unusual approach to rock music.

LEO: Can you explain The Feedback Organ and elaborate on how you compose with it?

Jason Sanford: The Feedback Organ works by putting small microphones near speakers and letting the signal feed back. The microphones are at one end of a column, or pipe, and the speakers are at the other end, so the length of the column determines the pitch of the feedback. When Neptune composes material, we often are looking for quirky things that our instruments do. The Feedback Organ has plenty of these quirks, so it makes composing easy for us. The Feedback Organ is especially well-suited for droning and dissonant sounds.

The current model of The Feedback Organ — model VI — also has the added feature of “key reversal switches.” Normally, the Organ is played like any organ or keyboard: by pressing the keys down. But when the switches are thrown, the corresponding pitches become “always on” until the key is depressed. This is useful for building polyphonic droning sounds, and also very useful for turning upside-down the way one usually thinks about making music. Doing things in a backwards kind of way can often lead to surprising results that would not otherwise have been reached.

LEO: Is it true that you’ve built all your instruments out of scrap metal? If yes, why do all that work?

JS: A friend of mine told me about going to a senior painting show at an art college. Pretty much all the paintings seemed in a similar style, “of the same school,” yet the work of one student stood out as remarkably different. My friend couldn’t figure out why; the subject matter was similar to the other work, the brush strokes were not so different. On asking around, he discovered that this student had mixed all of his own colors from raw pigments while all the other students just bought the pre-mixed paint in a tube.

Making your own instruments does not guarantee that your music will be good, but you can be pretty sure that you won’t sound like other bands. These days, Neptune continues to use welded scrap-metal guitars and drum constructions, as well as many homemade electronic and electro-acoustic devices, including The Feedback Organ, various electronic oscillators, radio-gating sequencers and some self-made electronic distortion effects.

LEO: How are you working with radio waves and frequencies now?

JS: Radio waves are an interesting and abundant material that surround us and penetrate us continuously. Neptune has always worked with scraps and trash, and radio waves fit our expanded definition of what can be thought of as trash. Lately, we have been sending different radio signals to homemade gated sequencers. This can create sound patterns that have rhythmic regularity but indeterminate sonic content. 

LEO: How does it feel to confound an audience?

JS: If an audience walks away from a concert feeling (like), “That was nice,” then I don’t feel that I am doing my job. Our music is, at times, challenging. Hopefully, some will also find it rewarding.

Neptune with Junk Yard Dogs
Saturday, April 20
Quonset Hut
599 Rubel Ave.
$10-$15; 7 p.m.