That 1 Guy Performs at Alchemy
Musicians usually play one of four instruments. The assortment of guitar, bass, drums and piano is common, not discounting the high school band geek who can play a mean horn. Then there are the musicians who think outside the box. One of those is Mike Silverman, also known as That 1 Guy. He performs using his homemade instruments and they’re aptly named The Magic Pipe, The Magic Boot, The Magic Saw and The Magic Duck.
Silverman will be coming through Providence’s newest music venue, Alchemy, on Valentine’s Day with Mike Baker from Sgt. Baker & The Clones and The Cosmic Factory kicking the night off. He will also put on an early evening exclusive magic show. Ahead of the show, I had a chat with the man behind That 1 Guy about the inspiration behind his unique style of music, Dr. Seuss being a musical influence and hanging in the studio with Tom Waits.
Rob Duguay: What made you want to play music in such an unconventional way with these homemade instruments?
Mike Silverman: It all started with the duck, and it all kind of spiraled out from there, that’s how that goes. Nah, just kidding (laughs). I was an upright bass player, it all started from that and it all evolved from that. I had a very percussive approach on the bass, I would bang on it with my hands like a drum and it sort of turned into this idea. The technique inspired the pursuit of more sounds and more possibilities than I could get out of regular instruments and here we are today.
RD: How long did it take for you to build each instrument, and is each one the original or are they modified and updated versions of them?
MS: They’re all modified and updated. The Magic Pipe took three years of just thinking about it, it was a pretty rough idea initially. I didn’t know how I was going to do it or what I was going to build it out of. Then I started tinkering with it and the pipes solved a bunch of problems for me in terms of materials, how I was going to manipulate them or modify them. The pipes were pieces that I could do anything with.
I played the prototype that I made out of the Home Depot pipes until 2008 and then I rebuilt it with some help from a machinist because I wanted to update some of the components. I rebuilt it again in 2011 with the same concepts, but refined it even more. The same could be said for the boot. I wish I had the original boot, but it disappeared. I had to rebuild the boot out of a different boot. With the saw, I have a lot of saws and I actually collect saws. I have a bigger one that I’ve been meaning to change into this tour. It’s a baritone saw, and I’ll probably get around to doing that soon.
RD: When you built The Magic Pipe, did you have any how-to books on how to create it? Did you take any welding classes?
MS: There’s a really great book called Magic Pipe for Dummies that I found (laughs), I’m just kidding. I was totally flying by the seat of my pants, I had no idea what I was doing. I sketched out the idea on a paper plate. I went to a lot of different places, I started at a plumbing supply store, which supposedly had everything, and the guy at the counter didn’t even want to talk to me. They want to talk to a guy who is going to buy $10,000 worth of stainless steel for some plumbing job, not a dude wanting three pieces of pipe for an instrument.
I’m asking him advice and he said, “I don’t know what to tell ya man, I’ve never talked to anybody who wants to build musical instruments before.” After that I stopped asking around and I just started perusing Home Depot. I didn’t pick anyone’s brain, but I started going there because they had giant, open, sweeping aisles. I would just walk up and down the aisles and look at everything while figuring out different parts. I started thinking with minimal modifications of how I could put this thing together.
I just went for it. I cleared a whole month of my schedule. I was playing 50 gigs a month with my bass, and I wasn’t leaving myself time to do anything. So I cleared a month to just build and I set a deadline and booked a gig. That’s kind of how I do things, I book a gig and that’s my gig.
RD: One of your musical influences that you listed is Dr. Seuss, I guarantee in a lyrical sense. What is your favorite book of his?
MS: The classic for me was One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Then Green Eggs & Ham for sure.
RD: Another classic.
MS: I was in New Orleans now that long ago, and there was a pop-up museum of a bunch of Dr. Seuss’ paintings. It was really heavy stuff. Really dark, awesome, interesting stuff. Stylistically it’s what I love the most, just the shape of everything. Everything is stretched and exaggerated and it has a lot of life to it. I just love it.
RD: Another influence of yours is Tom Waits, and you got to play saw and bass with him on an album of his back in 2006, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. What was it like working with Tom? Is he as weird as he makes himself out to be?
MS: Weird is so subjective. I was blown away with how efficient and on top of things he was. He’s totally himself, he was making all of the sounds that I was expecting him to make (laughs). I got there really early and I was really nervous about the session. Karl Derfler, who was the engineer and also got me into the session to play saw initially, told me to hang tight and I had no idea what was going to happen.
Karl said, “Sometimes he’ll show up just to do vocals and then other times he’ll show up with 20 people just to bang on trash cans.” I was just like, “Oh geez.” I just hung tight, he showed up and said, “We’ll just do this, I’ll record vocals and see where the chords go.” Initially he hired me just to play saw and then the day before the session he also wanted me to play bass. I hadn’t practiced bass in a long time and it was crazy. One of the greatest things was on the way out of the session.
I couldn’t tell if I did well. We tracked and he was just like, “Alright, that’s good,” and then we’d go on to the next thing. It was very low key and at the end of it I talked to Joe Gore, the guitar player, and I’m a big fan of his, too. I said to him, “Aww man, it’s really great to meet you! I guess that went well?” and he goes, “That went perfect. That was a perfect session. So many times he’ll just send everybody home and he’ll have to rethink this.” I then said, “Oh, then that’s a good sign.”
RD: That’s great that you had a good experience with Tom Waits and you earned his respect.
MS: Yeah. It was really intense, it was amazing.
RD: I can imagine. After the Valentine’s Day show at Alchemy, what else do you have planned for the year? It’s only February so you probably have a lot going on.
MS: This current tour goes all the way to April; it’s a serious four-month tour with no breaks. It’s pretty much no days off practically, which is kind of the way I like it. After the tour, I have a couple of festivals popping up here and there. That’s how summer usually is, but I’m also trying to finish this recording too. That’s high on the list, when I get back I’m going to try to find a space where I can set up my studio and really get going on some recording. It’s a full plate with lots going on.