At the helm of a monstrous, modular synthesizer buried under a vibrant, noodly mess of audio patch cables stood Jeremiah Fisher in a brown bug costume with Panicsville in 2002, next to bandmate Andy Ortmann, dressed as a black spider with long, dark tentacles extending from his arms and neck. A friend of Fisher screamed out “WHAT THE FUCK,” as distorted, squishy static filled the small Chicago venue known as “The Office Space.” The girl then yelled, “Catch me with your tentacles!” before throwing a glass of water at the spider-octopus. In a swift and fluid movement, Andy leaped over his synth and tackled the girl, as the lights went out.
Fisher recalled thrashing in audiences with Ortmaann at other shows in Chicago and Baltimore, and took his behemoth modular synthesizer, which he sometimes calls the “$3000 Synth-fart,” to the C-U area about four years ago. He’s spent eight years putting the instrument together, which has seen its fair share of the midwest DIY noise scene. Fisher has worked with a few other Chicago-based bands over the past decade, such as Ga’an and Oakeater. Lately he’s joined up with the local C-U psych noise drone act Kakuru, who will be playing at Error Records on Monday, along with his solo act and Falter, Plagues, Clear Or Death, and Polypsis. I spoke with him at his home and got a closer look at his custom modular synthesizer.
Smile Politely: What brought you to Urbana?
Jeremiah Fisher: My wife was accepted to grad school here, and then ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ So I went and enrolled in school and tried to get acclimated to the music scene here. I’m working on my undergrad [in Cinema and Media Studies].That ten years I took off living in Chicago, I really pursued that musician dream wholeheartedly. It’s a good time to get my degree. I’m in a college town; let’s finish up.
SP: Do you ever try to sample or capture any specific sounds in your music?
Fisher: I don’t do that too often. On this new release that I’m working on, there are two over-dubs that are actually video recordings. But I don’t just pull things from movies or audio. I don’t do a lot of sampling at all, actually. I would like to get into it, but I’m just not at that point. But then you become like a librarian, and you have a whole library of sounds to go through. You can pick out different sounds, and you can spend forever doing that. Right now, my approach is to build sounds from the ground floor and see if I can get something that sounds close to a real instrument, or something totally abstract, and go from there.
I think that’s what I really enjoy doing with this modular synthesizer, just trying to recreate acoustic sounds. If I can get a cello sound, I’m really ecstatic about it. “Wow, I made a cello, how the heck did I do that again?” Then I have to look and see how the cables go, to see how I made the sound. Sometimes I can’t recreate the sound even if I wrote down how I did it.
Jeremiah Fisher: “Phantasie for Cello Patch”
SP: Do you ever have trouble with this at live shows?
Fisher: Oh, all the time. Live shows are so unpredictable. Analogue synthesizers take fifteen minutes to warm up before they even track at the pitch they’re supposed to. Sometimes you don’t even get fifteen minutes to let it warm up if you’re playing a house show or a punk venue; you don’t get sound checks and all that. In the time you get from your house to the venue, sometimes a lot of stuff can happen. I’ve gotten to shows and have not even had a cable plugged in and not realize it until about halfway through the set and I’m like, ‘You know this sounds a little different, what’s going on?’ Then you take a look at all the spaghetti, all the patch cables, you start tracing through and you find the one, the key to the whole puzzle, the needle in the sonic haystack. Then everything’s good again. I think a lot of time it just lends itself to improvisation because of that. It’s not a meticulously tuned guitar or piano. It’s like a rodeo; you just ride it and see where it takes you.
SP: Why is your synth set in a army case?
Fisher: I had a nice synth case, and it was blown up by a M80, literally. I played with a wooden case set with Panicsville in Chicago, we did the set, and there was another power-electronics band that played later in the evening, and they were throwing around M80s. I didn’t put my [synth] in the car; it was stage-left somewhere. My stuff wasn’t the only thing that was damaged. This dude’s drum kit was destroyed. From there I said, I’m gonna get something more indestructible.
SP: Does your DIY-electronics experience help you with repairing your synth when things stop working?
Fisher: Definitely. I have been able to repair a couple things of mine when something happens to it. It’s kind of nice. I’m not an engineer, where I can troubleshoot everything, but I’m a little handy.
SP: What kind of mood are you trying to establish within your music?
Fisher: One of the sensations that a person can experience that appeals to me the most is discomfort, which, as far as music goes, that’s the oddest thing to think about. Who wants to hear a song that makes you feel uncomfortable? Music is usually something that you put on when you’re stressed out. But I like when you kind of have a captive audience and you can play with their expectations. Some people don’t like it, and will walk out of the room of course. The people who stick around are the people who I’m trying to appeal to. People who want to go on a sonic exploration of their own tolerances and what they think music is.
For me, noise comes out of punk rock. It says, ‘Screw you, I don’t need anyone to tell me how to make music.’ Noise is even more degenerate than that because I don’t even play a guitar. Give me a microphone and an amp and I’ll turn it up so loud that your ears will bleed and I’ll scream into it.
Fisher will be performing tonight at Error Records, joining Falter, Plagues, Clear Or Death, and Polypsis.