Linda: So there’s a little bit of your grandfather, and your father-who-is-Brian's-great-uncle, and a little bit of Pong, in the Dewanatron instruments. How did your very first one, the Alphatron, come together?
A coin-operated Melody Gin
Brian: A friend of a friend showed me a broken sound instrument that he had built, which used that SN76477 chip. We were going to try to fix it, but instead we decided to build our own. Then we began thinking: What if you could buy an old-school analog modular synthesizer and set it up for modern-day music? All of the synthesizers that had the kinds of controls that we really liked were huge and expensive and really only available to conservatories. The ones you could get your hands on were smaller and mass-produced and designed for live rock shows... more like an electric organ, with a simple piano-like keyboard – not a very flexible way to synthesize sound. So we started thinking about what would be the ideal combination of oscillators and how many envelope generators, and all these different components that interact with each other.
Leon: The big surprise for me was, if you roll your own, how good they actually sound! I could tweak them to get the exact sound I wanted.
Brian: We weren't saddled with making something practical for mass production; so, once we realized we could design to our own tastes, we started coming up with ideas to plan what the instrument would do and be, how to interface with it, what kinds of hardware we'd be able to get, what it should look like. Leon designs and builds all the electronics here in his basement, and then I do the console stuff – designing the aesthetic and the construction of the instrument up in Catskill. It's a fun sort of collaboration.
Linda: You both play the Dewanatrons in other bands, including Flaming Fire.
Leon: Yeah, Brian and I were invited to join Flaming Fire in 2004. We’d done a couple of radio shows and live gigs with the Dual Primate Console, and Patrick, the frontman for Flaming Fire, heard about it and thought it would be really fun if we got together and did a live collaborative performance. We lugged the Dual Primate Console to rehearsals for about a year, until we got tired of hauling it up several flights of twisty stairs to their rooftop practice studio. So we switched to smaller instruments that actually lend themselves to Flaming Fire’s sound better. These days, I back them up with the Swarmatron and a keyed Melody Gin, and Brian joins in on a Revolutionary War-style drum and a bell whenever he can make it to a gig, although originally he played with me on the Dual Primate Console.
Leon: Flaming Fire started in 2000 as a performance chanting group led by Patrick Hambrecht and his wife, Kate and has evolved into a colorful and intense music collective. Fronted by Patrick, Kate, and a revolving cast of female singers, they wear masks and red robes, and sing wonderfully weird and propulsive songs about such diverse topics as killing the right people, the admirability of advanced inebriation, water privatization, incest, missile silos, and the end of the universe. Flaming Fire practices in Williamsburg, is based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and in addition to playing gigs in the New York/Philly/Boston area, tours nationwide once a year. They just got signed to a British label, so there may be some European performances in the next year or so.
Brian: Playing these instruments in the context of a band is a little different than when we play as Dewanatron. In Flaming Fire, the challenge is to be sparing, because there are so many performers, and there are these front players that are chanting; I always tried to figure out a way to not bury them.
Leon: I play Dewanatrons with another band called Circuit Parade. These are fantastic, classically trained heavyweights who play these flawless gigs, and they let me play with them because they have never heard instruments like these, even though I don't come to rehearsals, which doesn't really matter anyway, because I never do the same thing twice. I just sort of mess around with it on stage and it all works out really well. Somehow, their intense discipline seems to balance with my complete lack of responsibility!
Brian: What you're doing in Circuit Parade is such a different texture, you’re sort of weaving in and out of the key of a song, or doing something that doesn’t have to do with key at all – something that’s more of a sonic shape or a percussive thing, or a gesture. It’s really a whole other angle on the music that’s not organized the way everything else is.
Leon: From their perspective they feel like they have the secret weapon, and from mine, I'm getting away with murder.
Linda: A nice synergy.
Leon: Everybody wins.
Linda: Though it could be said that your diligence came in the inventing and constructing these instruments out of nothing. The design and testing hours must be endless.
Leon: I appreciate the novel luxury of sleep.