Published Jan 01, 2006From Harry Partch to Tom Waits, to name but two, musicians have been fascinated by the possibilities of found objects and home-made devices. Toronto's Ryan Driver is an especially talented exponent of this tradition. Playing rulers, balloons and cell-phone speakers, he has created rich, tuneful vocabularies from each instrument. Gigging with seven bands, Driver's musical output ranges from psychedelic lounge to alt-alt-country, always performing with a sincerity and musicality that negates any notions that he's just putting us on. A frequent performer in projects associated with Toronto's Rat-Drifting label, he works with a number of fellow DIY-ists who aid and abet the homemade deconstruction of music in all its recognisable forms. He's won the respect of a wide cross-section of fellow musicians; one of Canada's foremost jazz bassists, Rob Clutton, marvels "He's my favourite musician on the planet! When he plays quasi-ruler bass, it's like, why do I even bother?"
And a quasi-ruler bass is? "It's like a ruler on the edge of a table. I put a contact mike on the edge of the surface, I just amplify and turn the bass up as high as I can. Most of the time I use a bristle from a street sweeper because it has the most sustain of anything I play. I also use a metal ruler and a prong from a leaf rake. Those two are much more bassy but they don't have as much sustain. I only started playing ruler bass when I started playing with the Reveries about three years ago because I thought there was a need for a bass, just to keep it in the jazz vein." The resulting sound is remarkably tuneful; similar to an acoustic bass but punctuated every so often with a telltale "thwack" of, well, ruler on desk. He's quick to remark that he hasn't actually invented this instrument, but he deserves full marks for turning it into a sound that never wears thin over the course of an entire set.
Make the music with your mouth.
Of all the projects Driver is involved with, the Reveries are the most original. The combination of marble-mouthed falsetto harmonies, unusual instrumentation and glacial tempos render their otherwise faithful covers of old jazz chestnuts into dreamy, mind-bending listening experiences. Their defining feature is their use of "mouth speakers." These are an original invention of Rat-Drifting main man and guitarist Eric Chenaux, wherein cell phone speakers are waterproofed and put inside the mouth. Driver explains "they're powered by a Honeytone amp so we run a signal through them, like for instance, the signal from Doug [Tielli]'s saw will be running through one of those into my mouth, so if I'm singing, or even if I'm not singing, there'll be these bizarre wah sounds." The ability to sing and drool over other band-mates' signals ends up sounding like a collaborative version of the Frampton Comes Alive talk box, except it sounds more like Frampton Goes To The Dentist.
Rubber: is there anything it can't do?
Another tool in Driver's arsenal are thumb reeds. These derive from another activity most people can relate to placing blades of grass between your thumbs and blowing, creating a kazoo-like sound. "Everyone plays blades of grass, but I started taking thumb reeds seriously probably around 17. The thumb reeds are almost always made out of pieces of balloons. I used to play blades of grass, but balloons are more versatile, durable and flexible." In his hands, and with the aid of amplification, the balloon sounds like a muted trumpet. This works especially well in the context of a horn section, as with junkyard jazz band St. Dirt Elementary School.
Driver plays a wide variety of more conventional instruments such as guitar, bass, drums (often simultaneously) and lo-fi electronic keyboards. His ability on analog synth is especially noteworthy. Whether in an ensemble like St. Dirt or roots re-arrangers the Silt, he will often go for extreme, continuously modulating tones, but play musically demanding passages that speak to years of formal musical training on piano and flute. Driver explains "Any of the training I've had is just a way to build my ear. There's a lot more timbral opportunity with a synth. I like to think that a solo doesn't have to be about specific pitches. I like to keep a certain balance [between pitch and texture]."
Driver's final word on the virtues home-brewed instrumentation is this: "One really good thing about these instruments is they don't cost anything, you can just put in your pocket and go out and play a gig. Of course there's other gear in the band and there are wires everywhere, but if something makes a wonderful sound it's just a matter of having the discipline to go through and push it to whatever potential you see in it."
The Reveries album Blasé Kisses was issued last year on Rat-Drifting. The Silt's new album, Earlier Ways To Wander, came out in September on Rat-Drifting. Driver celebrates the publication of his first book, Jokes Of Toronto, on November 19 at the Tranzac in Toronto.