Even in this fertile generation of Orlando experimental music, Dr. Moonstien has emerged as one of the city’s most unorthodox and imaginative pop acts. But singularity is a likely result when you create mostly from self-crafted, sui generis instruments, and this electronic project is what occurs when DIY instrument builder Max Schwartz, his workshop and his own devices converge.
Schwartz is the prototypical curious savant who walks among us but exists on an entirely different plane. He employs technical nomenclature with casualness and zero hauteur, as if it’s a widely understood aspect of the common lexicon. Growing up, Schwartz was one of those kids, the kind hard-wired to dismantle things. Being around a father and a brother who were musicians led him to graft this instinct to music. Even before he knew the term, he was already circuit bending.
“I’ve always wanted certain sounds that I couldn’t get from pedals,” says Schwartz. “Plus, I didn’t have the money to buy a bunch of different effects to try and get the sounds I wanted, so I would screw around with things. I built a couple pedals.”
But it wasn’t until a friend, provocative local musician Danny Feedback, gave him a book on circuit bending for Christmas one year that the fuse was truly lit. Schwartz’ imagination was immediately sparked by pioneering experimental instrument builder Reed Ghazala. “I was really hit in the face by the stuff that he made,” says Schwartz. “Seeing it done as art made me feel like I had something to do. So I was really inspired to do it all the time.”
Given Schwartz’s propensities, it’s natural that his world would quickly blossom into a microcosmic universe of wild creation. In the past two years, he’s even developed a name for himself designing and building instruments for other artists like experimental California composer Truus de Groot and artist Bosko Hrnjak, as well as local acts like Emily Reo and Roomful of Strangers. “95 percent of the shit I build, I sell,” says Schwartz.
That other 5 percent is the bedrock of Dr. Moonstien. “I really just wanted to do something with the instruments that I was building,” he says. “I would make them and just keep them in a closet. I wasn’t playing in a band at the time, so I just started doing it by myself.”
What began as a solo noise project with no grand scheme eventually took on a more structured and recognizable pop form when Keri Chamberlin (guitar, keyboard, modified toy instruments) joined the act. “She’s very critical in a good way,” says Schwartz. “She made it more musical, definitely.” Moving even closer to the band concept, Dr. Moonstien has also recently added a third member, bassist Matt Herston.
From a ragtag scrap pile of electronics and toys including a Sesame Street School Bus, Speak & Spell and Tickle Me Elmo (rechristened “Circuit Bend Me Elmo”), an unusual pocket orchestra has risen through sheer force of concept.
Despite a motley constitution formed from the detritus of noise, electronic music and rock, Dr. Moonstien is a cohesive and raw vision of low-tech pop futurism that makes Grandaddy seem like Muzak. Their self-released debut album, Space Weenie, hums like a fleet of whirring machines and darts with an unpredictable sense of playfulness.
Atop it all is Schwartz’s rich croon – a marriage of Bowie’s flamboyance and Dan Boeckner’s (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade) urgent sonorousness – musing about outer space, societal angst and just plain nonsense with both pained conviction and profane humor.
“It’s just kind of cool to daydream about being a space dude,” says Schwartz. “I would much prefer life if I could wear a space suit 24 hours a day and go to the grocery store with a helmet and fucking talk to people through a microphone.”
Illustrative of the artistic context in which Dr. Moonstien operates, the album features guest appearances from the fringe of the city’s left-field music scene including members of acts like Franchise, Danny Feedback, Happy Valley and Pooball.
“The only people I can converse with are out there,” Schwartz says of the group of musical outsiders. “Normal people, I can listen to them and smile, but I can only pretend to care about football and everyday shit so much. So I think I’m drawn toward creative delinquents.”
Schwartz has already made Space Weenie available online for free on Bandcamp (drmoonstien.bandcamp.com).
“I don’t want to mass-produce plastic CDs because I think it’s kind of wasteful,” he says. “I’d rather people download it. It’s our first album, I don’t mind them downloading it for free.” But for the ostensibly tactile occasion of this week’s album release show, the band will have CDs and circuit-bending kits for sale.
Besides spreading the circuit-bending gospel, Schwartz has some grand ideas. “If there was a way I could, I would get animals to reap revenge on humans for treating them so poorly,” he says. “But like most of my ideas, they’re not tangible.
“If I can inspire people to be a little less selfish, that would be nice.”
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