"A lot of people said 'forget about your band, do this' and I thought 'ok, what is this?' – and I've been trying to figure it out ever since!"
Interview by Dawn. Photos by Dawn & Rich.
As interview locations go, sitting on a giant, green, snake-shaped beanbag in the middle of an empty art gallery after hours while strange video installations play on around you is pretty unusual – and ever so slightly creepy. Probably the ideal place, then, to chat to a slightly kooky Hornicator player with an affinity for David Lynch films and whose homemade instruments have been described as being "plucked straight from the mind of Tim Burton".
I first discovered Thomas Truax in 2006 when he supported Duke Special on a UK tour, but I've never asked how that pairing came about. Thomas explains: "We were put together on a bill mainly because he also had a gramophone horn that he was carrying around, and somebody had the idea to put together the two acts that had gramophone horns. That was at the Spitz in London, just for a show, and we both appreciated what the other was doing. He said 'I've gotta get you over to Ireland, have you played Ireland before' and I said 'No I haven't, I'd love to'. So he managed to add me on the bill for his Irish tour and it was actually an amazing thing because I got booked onto that and then, just shortly thereafter, he had a big radio hit with Freewheel so all those shows I played in Ireland, the first time I'd ever been there, were sell out shows and really enthusiastic audiences. I remember one day leaving soundcheck, I think it was in Cork, and they were soundchecking that song again. I went out and I walked into some shopping mall next door and over the speakers was Duke Special and I just thought that was hilarious – one of those classic things."
Thomas says he has been "making music for ages" and used to be part of a band named Like Wow before he started to perform 'solo' in 2001 – but although he's the only human onstage, he's always accompanied by his astounding array of self-built musical machines such as the Hornicator (a 'pimped up' gramophone horn featuring strings and a kazoo) and mechanical drummer Mother Superior, the co-ordination of which has to be seen to be believed. The contraptions came about partly as a cost-cutting measure ("They have to be fed batteries but generally their appetites aren't as hardy as certain drummers!") but also because Thomas has always liked to build things.
"Like most things I've done, it wasn't really a grand plan to become what it is that I do now. I did have this idea to do a bike wheel drum machine - it was going to be part of the band. I did an open mic night just as a rite of passage and I didn't enjoy that very much but that was when I got booked – they said 'oh, what you're doing is great, come play a gig'. That was in New York and when you get that kind of an offer in New York you don't turn it down, so yeah, that's how that started. And when people came down to see that happen I saw that they were all kind of hypnotised by the wheel. Basically a lot of people said 'This is great, forget about your band – do this' and I thought 'ok – what is this?!' – and I've been trying to figure it out ever since! So yeah, it’s almost 15 years that I’ve been building things and doing the one man band sort of thing."
One of the most entertaining parts of Thomas' gigs is seeing the complete look of bewilderment on the faces of people who have never experienced one of his shows before – either at his array of unusual instruments or the fact that, during Full Moon Over Wowtown, he likes to go for an unplanned wander around the room – or even around the venue, which doesn't always go to plan: "I don't think about it beforehand and then I walk out one door thinking I can come back in some other door and they're all locked from the inside – that's happened a few times."
Based between Germany, London and America, it often appears as if Thomas is permanently on tour. "Yeah, I'm actually not, but it does seem that way because a lot of times when I get home I'm repairing equipment and then getting the bookings and the arrangements together for the next tour. There might actually be a couple of months between tour legs but I'm always looking forward to the time when I'm off the road to chill out and do something else, and what happens is it just goes by really fast and I find myself the night before the next tour soldering something that broke on the last tour – yeah it's crazy.
"There is kind of a grass is always greener thing where when I do get off the road and I've been on the road for a while then I really, really appreciate being home and having my own cup of tea, knowing how the shower works, having nobody to blame but yourself if you can't find something. But then you start missing being on the road because it's an adventure and you're meeting people and you're not stagnating. But yeah it's really, really difficult to find that balance and I would really like to find more of a balance… I feel like I'm always working up towards something but not actually in it, but I think that's kind of the case for a lot of people in life.
The Wowtown stories that I do, for years I've been talking about making a book of Wowtown stories with drawings. The problem is that, these days, everybody's doing everything so it's almost taken for granted that we're all filmmakers and we're all actors and we're all musicians. I've often fallen victim to thinking I can do more than I can do – if I've got any major faults that I kick myself over and over for it's always thinking I can do more than I can handle. You can see in what I do that I'm successful to a certain level, but it would be great to have somebody else doing the driving at least. But yeah, I do a lot of touring right now and I'd like to do more writing and drawing and building things - that kind of thing where you can create with a more reckless abandon. The age we live in, you can do everything yourself now. I'd like to develop my talent – or my lack of talent - at relegating tasks to someone else, or getting help for certain elements of what I'm doing.
"I'm lucky that I can do what I do, but at the same time it's endlessly frustrating. I get really stressed, I get worried that people aren't going to show and then they almost always do and you wonder what you did with all that energy. But then if I didn't worry and if I didn't work myself up for these things I don't think it would happen."
With huge thanks to Thomas and to Luke. Visit www.thomastruax.com for more information on Thomas and his instruments and visit www.facebook.com/thecafe.space for more info on the new MIMA cafe run by Luke and his team.