Trying to fit That 1 Guy’s music into a preexisting category is like trying to hold a snake prisoner in a shopping cart. Simultaneously cutting-edge and rustic, it’s a quirky, inventive, utterly fascinating Primus/Beck/Ween/Frank Zappa/Reggie Watts/Keller Williams conference call. At the heart of it all is a Dr. Seussian contraption called The Magic Pipe. Approximately seven feet in height, this imposing pair of aluminum pipes is equipped with orchestral bass strings and buttons that trigger samples and loops. That 1 Guy (a.k.a. Mike Silverman) bows, plucks and picks The Magic Pipe’s strings while singing and playing percussion by way of an electronically rigged kick drum pedal, a snare drum and a foot-controlled cowbell. His other homespun instruments include The Magic Boot, The Magic Saw and The Magic Flute. Also a dedicated student of stage magic, he frequently starts his performances with a magic show before launching into his musical set.
Silverman, who has collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits and Buckethead, honed his chops at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before launching a career as a freelance jazz bassist. Eventually tiring of the limitations of the double bass, he constructed The Magic Pipe from parts that he purchased at hardware stores. Now a one-man band, he comes to Moe’s Alley on Thursday, December 10th to make balloon animals out of audience members’ brains.
Local Santa Cruz: Do people who know you through your work tend to expect you to be a twisted person?That 1 Guy: I think so, actually. I definitely have heard over the years when I meet folks and become friends with folks: “God, you’re such a normal dude! I kind of thought you’d be a total psychopath!” [Laughs] It is a very broad, crazy mix of stuff [that I create], and I definitely spend a lot of time alone working on this stuff—I mean, I live a freak’s life, in a sense. Not to me! [Laughs] To me it feels normal, but I’m in my van by myself for basically four months straight on this [tour]. In Phoenix, I was talking to a club owner, and he just couldn’t believe that I travel alone. He just couldn’t get his head around it. I was explaining, “I really like the solitude, ’cause when I get to the shows, it’s such an intense social atmosphere.” He was like, “Man, I live two blocks from the club, and when I’m in my car just for the two blocks, I go crazy.” He hates being alone. I guess everybody’s different.
It really is a completely different personality type.
Yeah! You know, I’ve got to say, this way of being is probably a little more of the abnormal, or just less people are like this, in a sense, but I have discovered as I’ve met more folks over the years that they’re definitely out there. It always is nice to meet other people that think that way, ’cause it makes you feel like it’s actually okay to be this way! [Laughs] For a while, you almost think that there’s something wrong with you. But then [you see that] there’s other people that are doing it that are normal and totally into it, and then you start looking at your friends that you grew up with and going, “I could never live that way. I could never do what they’re doing. That’s really hard to me.”
Are you at a point where you’re completely happy with your playing, or do you feel like you’re constantly striving to get to the next level?
Oh, I’m never really happy with my playing. I mean, I’m very happy with where I’m at. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived by any stretch, but I definitely feel like I’m making the best music I’ve ever made. But I definitely feel like I have a ways to go. I think with anything in life, if you’re ever just happy with the way everything is, you’re in trouble. [Laughs] I think every day is supposed to be a fresh challenge. It’s not always supposed to be fun, either. Life is an ass-kicker a lot of times. I think we do our best work when we’re challenged, and it’s the most rewarding when we figure out creative ways to get around these difficult situations.
It’s both. I studied the double bass for quite a long time, and I was real serious about that instrument. There’s no frets or fret markings of any kind on the double bass. There are some landmarks, like where the shoulders and the body meet the neck. If you have good hand position, you can find the octaves really easily from that point. But for The Magic Pipe, there’s no landmarks; it’s just one giant pipe on each string. There’s no way to guess, even. So I have little markings that show me where the notes are. I still have to use my ear—I’m really into trying to play in tune and having good intonation—but you have to have little landmarks, so I have my own little system of notation. They look like little hieroglyphics or something. I just thought it would be fun, because the way I think about music these days—my own music, anyway—is that it’s very based on intervals. Being a bass player, you don’t think chordally as much; you’re thinking more about counterpoint, single lines, walking basslines, that kind of thing. So my little system of notation is based on intervals.
It’s sort of similar, in a way, to the Nashville number system, which is a weird system of notation that they read over there. I did a session over there about 10 years ago. They never know who’s going to be the singer for these sessions, so they never know what key they’re going to be doing the songs in. And so they’ve invented this system that could easily transpose instantly to any key, and the music would read just the same. It’s really fascinating.
I sort of think that way with this stuff; it’s sort of similar. The intervals have different sorts of shapes and colors in my mind—like the way a minor sixth sounds versus a major second or a perfect fourth, or when you get to an extended harmonies: the 13s and the 15s and everything. So I’ve invented these weird little symbols that look kind of like the intervals themselves, but they have their own shapes and things. I actually thought it would be really funny to put out a music book of my songs, but with my weird system of notation that nobody knows but me.
Tell me about the light show that you’re controlling while you play your music onstage.
I started the tour with a pretty minimal setup, and at this point, I have a huge setup! I’ve been buying more lights as I’ve been going. I have these big moving headlights—two in front of me and two behind me—and then I have this whole array of these little miniature beams that are on the sides of me, and I have two different smoke machines! [Laughs] And I have this whole array of LED lights—I have this one that’s above me that’s more traditional stage lighting. I’m controlling all of it. As sections of songs move, I can drop these things in. I have them all networked in with my software that I’m using for my music, so when I hit a certain trigger, like a certain kick drum, it’ll begin a scene, and when I hit a snare drum, it’ll activate a different scene. It’s just really dynamic in a way that it could never have been with a guy doing lights for me, because I’m literally playing them. It’s just a gas.
Since you play several instruments, I was wondering if you feel there’s any sacrifice in spreading your talents out in that way, as opposed to putting all of your time and energy into one instrument.
God, I could make strong arguments for both, definitely. I love the idea of trying to do everything on one instrument. I think to truly be a master of something, you’re going to want to give it its proper energy, time and focus. That said, there’s so much to be learned from jumping around and doing different things. And science is proving that about the human brain: it turns out that people who try to do different things are, at the end of the day, smarter and more advanced folks. I think your brain gets used to carving different neural pathways, and your ability to learn new things [increases] as you do it more and more and more. And then of course, I think putting in the time on that one specific thing and truly trying to master it is a very important thing to do. I think that’s something that everybody should be doing. But at the same time, it’s like, master something and then also try to pull in other elements and really make it happen.
That 1 Guy: that1guy.com.