RPM Orchestra is a dieselpunk band staffed by futurists and dadaists who take the sounds of the past and filter them into the heads of today's audiences. Speaking with me today is Pete Petrisko, the head warden of this musical asylum.
Timeless moments and distant memories.
RPM Orchestra began as a personal recording project in early 2008, then expanded into live performance as of June 2009.
Studio recordings remain a solo endeavor.
However, the live orchestra (of rotating members) is typically balanced between those whose own musical output tends toward Americana or folk-punk, like Jim Dustan & Jocelyn Ruiz-Dustan (World Class Thugs) and Sean-Claude Bonnette (Andrew Jackson Jihad), with musicians utilizing DIY electronics and electroacoustics (Dan Montes, Jenna Moody, Rocky Yazzie).
To these proceedings, I'll bring some assortment of dusty and heavy objects (typewriters, gramophone/record players, shortwave radios, etc) and/or homemade/non-instrumental "instruments" to play.
The live orchestra varies in number, from between three and seven members (myself included), depending on the performance and musician availability.
In a world of digital music, your live performances are very analog; dusty records rotate on old needles, typewriters are clacked, and whatever else can possibly make noise is recruited into the Orchestra that night. In your mind, is it a controlled chaos like a fireworks display, or do you enjoy shaking all of the pieces together just to hear what happens?
It's a little bit of both. A musical score (using graphic notation) precedes every live show, but it's purpose is more to note instrumentation included and the overall "ebb and flow" of the performance.
Details like melody, or even musical notes, are then left up to the orchestra members. There's usually one rehearsal before a performance, so everybody involved feels comfortable working together and has a general sense of what to expect.
Tell us more about how the idea grows and how you decide when it's ready to be born.
A surprising amount of it originates from auditory-only dreams I've had. I'll make some graphic notations, then later find (and manipulate) sounds and recordings to match that as closely as possible.
I'll expand beyond that first notated structure, adding other elements, until it feels done.
Where are some of your favorite places to hunt for new sounds, and do you have any particular finds that you're especially proud of?
A favorite for creative-commons sourced material: freesound.org
For old public domain 78rpm/wax cylinder recordings: archive.org
And, more and more lately, I've taken to making field recordings whenever I'm out and about - wherever that may be on any given day.
My "particular finds" are more real-life. I'm particularly vulnerable to such finds while in thrift stores that carry 78rpm records and manual typewriters. I rarely escape unscathed, as my one hundred (or so) 78s and seven manual typewriters can attest. I'm proud of the fact I still pay my bills despite such financial vulnerability.
From a few articles I've read online, the sound of the RPM Orchestra is just one part of the experience. There's a flash mob mentality where the location is an integral part of performance. Can you share a little bit about your philosophy behind this idea? Do you have any favorite performances that hit the closest to what you were shooting for?
Every place has untapped sound potential. Anything there that can be brushed, banged, moved, scraped, or otherwise made to make noise (with or without contact mics) is considered fair game for use in a live performance.
I also like the idea of blurring the line between "observer" and "participant" with the audience.
The most successful, in that regard, would be our "Laundromusik" performance, done at an actual laundromat in downtown Phoenix.
The laundromat was unwitting host to a monthly music event featuring local acts, and RPM Orchestra was invited to play. The bands always started at 9:15pm because the last employee left at 9pm, so the whole thing wasn't exactly business-approved.
Unlike other bands, we took an invitation to play the laundromat quite literally.
Our performance began with a Butoh dancer emerging from a spinning dryer while a percussive cacophony rose from the rhythm of rubber mallets striking washing machines. Other orchestra members played didjeridoo, banjo, and flute, while an old 78rpm record faded in and out and I worked over the shortwave radio bands (when not tossing out balls of flame, courtesy of bunched up pieces of flash paper). At one key point, I set off a few (small) firecrackers in a covered metal bucket, which was later followed by somebody else tossing a handful of pennies into a empty, but active, dryer.
Once all that died down, the audience was invited to participate in the next song, as our horn section - in the parking lot outside. Those who drove would find their horn somewhere on the car steering wheel, while others were given toy horns. Small white envelopes were handed to twelve people, with instructions to open at the end of the one-minute parking lot horn recital.
Horns blared, roman candle fireworks (coordinated prior to the show) burst into the sky from across the street, and, when the envelopes were opened, live ("painted lady") butterflies emerged from within and flew into the night.
As an added bonus, somebody became irate enough by our orchestral performance to call the police. They showed up a while after we had finished though, so there were no repercussions other than the show promoter being asked a few questions. But it was an inspirational moment nonetheless.
In some performances, you're experimenting with some late '1960s - '70s mind-altering devices, such as the dream machine and binaural sounds. While this is certainly a different arena from music, subtly changing the mindset of your audience still seems to be an integral part of RPM Orchestra. When you turn on these devices, where are you hoping to take the audience? How does the audience usually respond?
I'm fascinated by the use of light and sound to temporarily displace the "here and now" of the audience's surroundings.
That's nothing new for live concerts in general, but I do like pushing that into some less explored avenues as much as possible.
I don't know that there's a usual response, but more than one person has said it brings back childhood memories, nostalgia for a time prior to their birth (mostly 1930s-40s), and sometimes - as one person put it - "almost feeling hypnotized".
Part of the dieselpunk appeal of RPM Orchestra is your reconstruction of sounds and soundscapes from the diesel era. What initially interested you in this time period, and what has it done to expand your musical philosophy since you discovered it?
Some of my own earliest childhood memories involve visiting the grandparents, where big band swing and old country music had a regular home on the record player.
I've had an obsessive interest in the period for as long as I can remember, whether it's the music, old-time radio, style of dress, Vaudeville and traveling carnivals, or Noir in film and print.
The technical imperfections heard in sound recordings of the era provoke my playful rebellion against the digital age.
With the dieselpunk community finally coming its own, and more dieselpunk communities popping up, how has this affected your work? Now that you know there are others around the world with a similar taste in music, do you feel inspired by, constrained by, or indifferent by this new audience?
It has affected my work by inspiring me to continue doing more.
It also gives rise to discovery. Between networks like yours, the dieselpunk community-at-large, and related steampunk sites, I've had the opportunity to learn about a whole host of interesting subjects that I might not have been motivated to explore if left to my own devices.
Speaking of inspiration, I hear you've been busy creating a new album. What's the title, and is there an overarching theme or idea to this new piece?
I've just released a 6-song digital EP (4 studio recordings + a 2-song live orchestra performance), free for download at http://www.archive.org/details/RoundaboutRpmOrchestra
It's titled roundabout
and, like last year's afterglow
CD (available at http://onewordlong.com
), it also tells a story.
Either collection might be considered a foreign travelogue - with the listener as translator.
For the keenly interested, I also use soundcloud (http://soundcloud.com/rpm-orchestra
) if you'd like to sample my own field recordings and to hear whatever I might be tinkering with at the moment.
Is there anything our members at Dieselpunks can do to help you and the RPM Orchestra?
Enjoy the orchestra's music and share the music you enjoy.