“This willingness to reject conventional ideas about electronics, music, and electronic music defines Octant’s unpretentious yet inventive stance.”
– Heather Phares (AllMusic)
Octant is a band for which I have built and orchestrated robotic and experimental musical instruments as accompaniment for performances of songs that I have written over the past twenty years.
When I started the project in 1997, I was bored with the current digitally-bound tech culture growing in Seattle. I looked to previous artists like Einstürzende Neubauten and the Italian Futurists. They had a novel vision for music and technology, developing homemade acoustic noise machines which they used in their performances. I took a similar tactile approach to performing songs and incorporated other styles like psychedelia, krautrock, new wave, lo-fi, post-punk, etc. I felt like it would have been too obvious to make instrumental abstract sonic textures with my instruments. My musical tastes at the time were extremely eclectic and I wanted to continue to write poetry-driven music. I used avant-garde elements like drones, noise, dissonance, lo-fidelity, and atonality as devices within compositions. Like alchemy, ingredients were added to a mixture in order to augment or divert the meaning of the songs.
Octant was a hybrid machine-human multimedia performance involving kinetic/robotic art, lighting, music, and sound introduced into everyday bars and all-ages music venues. I knew that having strange instrumentation and a robotic percussionist was a gimmick but I didn’t care because the sound was great and the instruments were fascinating to watch. Foreshadowing the Maker movement, the project was a decade ahead of its time, part of the 90s Northwest DIY artist youth culture which included bands from labels like K, Kill Rockstars, and Up Records, and the pre-internet, mail-order art from Catch of the Day catalog, Miranda July’s Joanie 4 Jackie (aka Big Miss Moviola), and the postcards of Stella Marrs. The Octant vision was accessible and immediate, maintaining a punk ethos, staying out in the field, and playing shows with other bands instead of retreating to a more forgiving (academic) context.
Initially, my idea of having a robotic percussionist was egged on as a dare from a bandmate from another project because drummers were scarce and over-committed in the Seattle/Olympia area. The challenge of developing and performing with an acoustic drum machine was a solution to a technical problem and a worthwhile aesthetic experiment. I wanted to see if we could tour, record, and do all the same things that normal bands do. In the process, I became proficient at programming music, developing digital circuits, and designing musical objects. I am still exploring the role that robotics and experimental instruments play in art.
I am indebted to Chris Takino (RIP) from Up Records for putting out the first two records and Doug Martsch for letting me open for Built To Spill literally weeks after I started the project. Octant must have been a risky choice for him even though his fans really seemed to love it.
A documentary that was shot in 1999 in conjunction with the release of the first record, Shock-No-Par.
Machine Project, LA 2011