Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Master of the Electric Jews Harp

As much as I like covering the whole spectrum of strange music, from experimental composers to thrift-store records, I am pleased that this year has begun with a bumper crop of outsider musicians, thanks to good Maniacs working to bring these musicians to the public eye and providing us with their fascinating back-stories: Bernie Sizzey, the return of John North Wright, and now, thanks to Rich from the great Kill Ugly Radio show up in Portland, the master of the Electric Jews Harp, Bruce Hodges. Rich sez:

"One evening I was looking on my local Craigslist for musical gear and I noticed an ad where a person was selling a mixer I'd been looking for, along with some guitar effects pedals. The Craigslist poster had supplied links to a CDBaby page where he said you could hear what these pedals sounded like. He failed to note, however, that it was how these guitar effects would sound if one wanted to route the sounds of a jaw harp through them. With curiosity I listened to all the samples on the album which he had entitled he EJH: Electric Jew's Harp. He was named Bruce Wayne Hodges and he’d recorded an entire CD’s worth of tunes on an electronically processed jaw harp.

It all sounded sort of the same,
like outtakes from the Dr. Who theme but I was fascinated that someone would do it and it did have a certain early Electronic, Electro-acoustic appeal.

And considering that he was a local artist, it seemed natural that I would make contact with him. He turned out to be a 60-ish looking old guy who knew nothing about Avant Garde music,Noise music or anything. The only 'weird' music he knew about that he could compare himself to was Pink Floyd. He explained that he really just wanting to sound like a guitar player but could never master the instrument after many attempts over the years. He’d always had a jaw harp, or Jew’s Harp as he’s inclined to call it. Running the sound through guitar stomp boxes just seemed natural to him.When I offered that he could be considered an Outsider musician, he sort of bristled, then seemed to warm to the term. I was fascinated by Bruce and that an ordinary guy would make such weird sounds with no preconceived notions of strange music - like it just seemed natural to him, coming as if from some innate impulse.

We corresponded back and forth a few times and made plans for him to come onto my radio show on KBOO. In the intervening months leading up to the date, I got numerous emails from his then-fiancee, who apparently was acting in the capacity as his business manager. She wanted all kinds of assurances from me and demanded to know how many people would be listening, how would this show be promoted and wanted me to plug his CDBaby site.

When the event rolled around and Bruce showed up with his adult son in tow (his manager had apparently stayed home), he shocked me by telling me that he had lost all of his equipment to a pawnbroker and that he was using equipment with which he'd never rehearsed with.He spent more time getting used to the equipment, but managed to do a brief but fascinating set. Listeners were calling in, wanting to know the origin of the strange sounds over the airwaves.

The next day, his 'manager' emailed me to say that while Bruce was a nervous wreck before the show, he was energized at having been on the radio and was ready to perform live shows.I suggested that Bruce try out for No Fest, a local noise festival in nearby St. Johns, Oregon and he eventually got himself on the roster after I'd introduced him to one of the bookers. Bruce showed up with his whole family. He seemed terrified, even though he seemed to think the rest of the noise musicians made his music fit right in. I stuck around for Bruce's set (he was billing himself as B.A.T.T. now - Bang A Twang Thing) and he'd added a few more harps and was deftly switching between them like changing chords on a guitar. In this configuration, he was now backing himself with a stiff 4/4 drumbeat on a guitar processor’s drum machine preset. He sounded exactly like what he had endeavored to do in the beginning: emulate a guitar player with a Jew's harp.He did OK, though, even though the noise crowd seemed to turned their nose up at the drum beats, the many young kids and older people in attendance thought he was cool.I chatted a bit with Bruce and he seemed stoked and disappeared into the crowded festival to catch more Noise acts. I think he felt like he had found his tribe at last.

I should note that this whole time, I'd been getting emails from his wife, who insisted that any day now, Sony, Warner Bros, etc. were going to beat down their door with a contract. She wanted to book Bruce on Leno. Everything. She wanted my advice, based I guess on my expertise as an unpaid volunteer community radio programmer. She just knew rock stardom was right around the corner.I replied back to her once, telling her my take on what to expect with an outsider act and how they could at least make the most of something with such limited appeal. I told her most self-styled artists create out of the sheer love of the act and that if you produce any CDs, tapes, etc., don’t be disheartened if they end up in piles, forming coffee tables in your living room. The goal, I told her, is to have Bruce record, record, record. She wasn't having any of it. She knew that Bruce would be discovered and that he'd be making movie soundtracks, tv specials, you name it.
Bruce couldn’t get a more determined manager if he paid 50% of everything he gets out of his act. She really believes in him and his strange music.

I still occasionally get emails from Bruce. His experiments where he does something out of sheer expedience - like his overdubbing himself by playing with multiple layers of self-shot YouTube videos - affirm that the man’s still got it. He’s still twanging away in his own musical world.
- Rich Lindsay"

Buy the album:
T.H.E. E.J.H.: "Hearing is Believing"

Blow your mind to these cool tunes. First one's called "Skyer":

And this one is "Shimmer":

Watch the man in action! Check his video channel, e.g.:

Mucho thanks to Rich for heppin' us to these fine, freaky phonics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i find this outstanding, i have been playing about 40 years, on and off...:) but it is my fav. do this well, and i am going to go electronic asap..maybe we can meet someday soon and play together..keep,farmpride bakery,gays mills email me.