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Feature: An Interview with Rob Funkhouser
Posted September 30, 2014 by Taylor Peters
WRITTEN BY
Taylor Peters
ON
September 30, 2014

 

Not too long ago Rob Funkhouser and I went Dutch on some greasy food at Peppy's in Fountain Square. He had just put out the MFT-Exclusive EP Mellow Mania, in addition to the intimidatingly large Digital Opus from earlier in the year on Auris Apothecary (read my review of Digital Opus for NUVO here). Though both of those releases are made up of instrumental synth compositions, Funkhouser has a wide-ranging musical interest. He's a committed DIY percussionist, building a lot of his own gear, and is even working on a violin sonata right now. We talked about an awful lot, and it was interesting to speak with someone with such an extensive techincal knowledge of so many musical things. Ultimately, though, in a few places the editor in me ultimately won out over the nerd in me, and I took out our digression regarding what sorts of transducers are best to buy when making homemade contact mics. Know this though: Funkhouser recommends two-part epoxy over duct tape for mounting contact mics, and, having since given this a try, I can vouch that it's solid advice. 

If you want to catch Funkhouser live, he'll be performing a new piece this Friday at the Irvington alongside Veronic Pejril and Perfect Villain

 

MFT: I know you recently moved back to Indiana from Austin. What brought that about?

 

 

RF: I was working for Apple and I had kind of put the music stuff on hold to find a job. aThen I found another job with a software company that’s actually based in Richmond, Indiana. Around that time I was starting to make a lot more music and stuff and I came back here to visit one day and it happened to be on a First Friday, and everything was just going on, and then a room opened up and the rent was like half of what I was going to be paying elsewhere, so I just packed up and came back. And all the connections I have back here are great. It was nice to get away from Indiana for a while, but it’s good to come back.

 

MFT: Tell me about the process of putting the music on hold for you--I’m curious about the Digital Opus release you did with Auris Apothecary; how long were you working on that?

 

 

RF: I say I put the music on hold, but I was still putting out a decent number of songs. With that record I probably started right after I left Bloomington, so that was probably three years ago, probably in the summer of 2011. Then I started seriously working on it later that year, so there was about two and a half years of serious work on it.

 

 

MFT: Were you always thinking of doing it as a big giant thing like that? [Digital Opus is a four CD set].

 

RF: No. It’s a funny story actually, Bruce [from Auris Apothecary] would call and he would say like “Ok, yeah, we can put it out pretty soon.” But then we both kept getting bogged down and it got pushed back and pushed back, and so at one point it was going to be a 2 cassette set and even then we thought that was excessive. Then he called me back 9 months later asking if I had more stuff done and I was like, “Yeah, I do.” And so this happened like four times eventually, and by the fourth time he was like, “Let’s just put it all out, let’s get it all out there,” and I was like, “Perfect.” So each album in that four album set is sort of like a coherent piece within itself. After I was finished with each album that was when I would talk to Bruce. And so each one did have it’s own stopping point, but they ended up being one thing.


 

 

MFT: Tell me a bit about how you’re making these tracks.

 

RF: Oh, I love talking about this actually. I’m using a Russian DAW called SunVox. It’s a tracker like something like LSDJ if you're familiar with that. You have patterns arranged in vertical columns: the interface is just nuts. I saw it and I was at a point where, you see, when I first started making music it was through the process of using some program I was learning to write music on, that was Acid Pro for me back in the day, but I saw this program and I had no idea what to do with it. That’s what hooked me, and that’s half the reason Digital Opus came out. I just started just learning this program.

 

 

MFT: Working with Apple, and then working with software in general, is there any overlap with that knowledge and how you approach music technology?

 

 

RF: Um, I guess there is to a certain extent, but I’d say with music software in particular, it’s more from the music creation side than like general software knowledge. Music interfaces, they tend to be intuitive, since the goal of the musical interface is to be intuitive, because the endgame is to make music. So, actually, the thing I like about this interface in SunVox is that it strips away a lot of that. Nothing looks like an actual instrument other than the little keyboard in the middle of the screen, which I think is great and I think more software will go like that as we get more comfortable with that.

 

 

 

 

 

MFT: Tell me about Mellow Mania, was that just an outgrowth of a similar process to Digital Opus?
 

 

RF: Yeah, definitely. The main difference, with the exception of, I think the name I gave it on the EP was “Melancholy Breakdancing,” with the exception of that, most of that was written over the course of like 8 hours.

 

 

MFT: Oh, that’s interesting, because my question was going to be… it definitely does sound like a more compact internally consistent little thing.

 

 

RF: Yeah, I was, to be perfectly honest, I was binge listening to Lake Daggers from Bloomington and Forest Swords. I’ve known Wyatt [Montgomery, of Lake Daggers] for a long time, and his new project Lake Daggers is incredible, and my roommates got me into Forest Swords which I’d never heard before, and both of those are great. Both of these guys have their own styles but they have a kind of similar vibe, and that was me trying to rip them off. I do a terrible job ripping them off, but I think it worked alright as an EP.

 

MFT: Do you usually work on stuff over a longer period of time?

RF: Well at least with the Digital Opus stuff that was slower, that stuff could take a few weeks to finish stuff up. Usually I try to have a few things going on at one time, so usually it seems like things come out in clusters, just like a lot of things in life I guess. This year’s been kind of steady. I’ve got the Mellow Mania EP, and I’m actually working on a lot of classical type stuff.

 

MFT: Yeah, I saw your post on Facebook about that. How’s all that going? Did you do classical stuff as an undergrad?


RF: Yeah, a little bit toward the end, at IU-East. So, that’s what I want to do in grad school, it’s really the one thing that I feel like I can’t teach myself completely because I don’t have an orchestra at my disposal to like play my ideas. But that piece in particular, it’s one of the most rewarding but also frustrating things in music. It’s so hard to write at that level of density and also make it listenable. So that piece in particular I’ve really been struggling with it. I wrote four bars that are really nice and I realized I have to change the entire piece.

 

MFT: Can you tell me a bit more about the direction you’re heading with the piece?

RF: Oh yeah, so the violin sonata, that piece in particular, it’s really funny. With everything else, I don’t know if I have an attitude so much, but with the classical stuff I’m just always out for blood. It’s partially because I tried to do stuff in a conservatory setting as an undergrad but I didn’t have the mentality for it. I think I’ll be able to do it in grad school, but the whole classical establishment or whatever is just one that I’m A). never comfortable and B). it’s something that it’s really funny to be angry at it.

 

I think, like the 50s and 60s, we got in this super cerebral phase in the music and I’m trying to move past that a little bit. So the music has to be listenable, but it’s also one of those things with the Digital Opus and stuff, part of the reason that moved so fast and maybe with some pop music in general the tone is as much a thing as the notes themselves. So if you have one good progression, you can ride that for four minutes, and that doesn’t mean it’s simple or bad, it’s just how that kind of music works. But with classical music or art music whatever you want to call it, there’s tones that are there, and you can certainly make outlandish sounds with traditional instruments, but at the heart of it when you’re writing, you’re being held on such a smaller amount of tones. Because of that, the writing becomes much more involved with the notes and harmonies and things.

 

MFT: I think we were down in Bloomington around the same time, and were a little bit around the same people, but never met, but I feel like I remember seeing you on the quad at Collins playing your hang drum made from a propane tank--that was you right?

 

RF: Yeah, absolutely.
 


MFT: I wanted to ask you then: I remember I watched a video about how to make them, and I was all geared up to make it, but then the video, at least for me where I was in college at the time, it was a little too involved for me to feel like I could pull it off. So how did you get involved in that process?



RF: Oh, I found the website online one time, because I was looking around--I mean I wanted a hang drum, you know? So back when I was in high school, it was like nobody. There was just the guys in Switzerland who were making them, and there was this guy named Dennis Havlena, he was like open-source before open-source was a term. He used to make all these wacky instrument designs and then post them online and show people how to make them.And I guess The Blue Man Group was around the same time too, but Havlena was the one who posted those designs online and was like “Here’s how you do this for yourself,” and so that’s where I got the design for the propane tank hang drum. Dennis Havlena is insane, because he uses a sabre saw with a shaved down blade or something, and which is just scary as hell to me, because he says he shatters those blades, and I’m not into shattering saw blades, so I just use the Dremel with the cut-off wheel.
 


MFT: That might’ve been what scared me off at first, I saw him using that sabre saw.



RF: Yeah yeah, dremels are a lot less intimidating and a lot less expensive now, Dremels are like 30 bucks now. I actually just made another hang drum. All my stuff got stolen, my car got stolen in Austin, so all my drum hardware and my propane tank were gone, so when I moved back here I made one. I just made it one my porch.

 

MFT: I don’t think I ever saw you perform with your full rig, but I’ve seen pictures. Tell me how you got into building your own stuff? Did that grow out of building the hang drum or how that came about?

 

RF: Yes and no. That first set up came about because Dylan Ettinger, I was working on a tape for his label, and he called me one day and I was mowing the lawn and he asked me to play a show and then he told me Peaking Lights were playing, which that was my favorite album of 2009, so I just said yes, and then I had no idea what I was going to do. At that point I only owned a computer to make music, a midi controller, and a drum set. I was like, there’s no way I’m taking my computer to--do you remember the Clinic in bloomington?

 

MFT: I do remember the Clinic, yes.  

 

RF: I was like, “There’s no way I’m taking my computer into that basement.”

 

MFT: Yeah yeah, I get that. Do you remember Found Objects? I saw them one time at the Clinic and they had a laptop with them and I was like, “Guys.”

 

RF: (Laughs) Yeah, those guys were great. So I knew I wasn’t bringing a laptop, and also wasn’t going to play drumset in front of people solo, so I decided to start making some percussion stuff. So the first show I played, I think it went over well, but the set up was awful. I made my own table for whatever reason, and instead of having a rack of stuff, I would turn bowls upside down when I wanted them, and they moved around everywhere. It was pretty bad. But then, shortly thereafter, I had a gong stand I had made, so I just drilled into the gong stand and made the rack for like the four bowls, and that’s pretty much how it stayed for a couple of years, and when my car got stolen in Austin, that was in there too, so I built a new rack.

 

I was in St. Louis at one point and I was talking about this one pot lid i had found which was like aluminum and it rang forever and I was really in to it, and they said “Oh yeah, we’ve got hundreds of these, you should come with us to Goodwill.” So I went with them to the Goodwill outlet and found a bunch of these things, and I drilled them all out, and that’s how I have all the extra stuff on the new rack. I’m thinking about building some more stuff now too. I mean eventually, some time next year, I want to do a gallery show with all glass percussion. That would just be totally different and a lot more dangerous in certain ways (laughs).

 

 

MFT: Would you blow the glass yourself?



RF: Oh no, probably not. And I feel like if I even went to a glass blower they’d probably look at me like I’m crazy just because of the structural issues. I guess they do do it with bongs, but I’d probably be better off using re-purposed glass, or like scientific glass, like Pyrex or whatever. You can get sheets of glass rom industrial supply companies. I was actually thinking of making some gongs out of glass, which actually sound really nice with the right mallets. I mean they’re not super commons for obvious reasons, but they’re really weird- mellow sine-wave ish type stuff. So that’s a project that’s way in the background. I’ve been gathering ideas but nothing is physical yet, mostly because I need the space for it--I can’t have all this glass around my room.

 

MFT: How did you come to making this more experimentally inclined type of stuff like this? With someone in a garage band or a punk band, I think it’s super easy to imagine how they came to that sort of music, but with more out-there music, the paths are often more circuitous.

 

RF: It’s weird. Thinking back it must have been borne out of percussion stuff. Becuase percussionists tend to be really experimental. Like, they’ll do anything. If you put it on the score, they’ll figure out how to do it even if the composer is insane. So that definitely had a lot to do with it, but a lot of it also had to do with the fact that I wasn’t really part of a scene as much in Richmond growing up, so I took music recommendations from my drum teachers, anybody I could. It ended up being this weird mix. I had like two sets of music I listened to back in high school. There was all the stuff you’d expect, but then I got in to stuff like George Crumb and Steve Reich and those guys. George Crumb actually visited Richmond once when I was in high school--super nice guy. He was another one of those guys who would say “strike these cymbals and put them under a bucket of water” and it actually makes this crazy sound.

 

But also, like just in isolation the kind of music that I wrote was really strange. I didn’t know Brian Eno existed, so there was one point in high school where I thought I invented ambient music. I sent it out and it actually got put out on a small label in California, and somebody reviewed and they were like “Sounds like this kid has been listening to a lot of Brian Eno,” and I was like, “Who’s that kid?”

 

MFT: Moving back, what’s your impression of the Indianapolis scene? Are you working to get more involved?  



RF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean one thing that, as an example, when I first moved here I got here on the first of August and I fell asleep, so I wasn’t really awake until the second, and that was the First Friday in August, and within an hour and a half of just walking around, I had a show booked at Westgate. So the mentality here is really just perfect. You can get stuff done if you’re nice and willing to go out and meet people. In that regard, one thing, actually my friend Francis put it really well. He says that in a lot of cities, people are just fighting for their own piece of the pie, whereas here we’re just trying ot make that pie bigger. So we’re not really competing, we’re just trying to make good stuff happen as far as I can tell.

 
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