Experimental electronic performers Burnkit2600 were at Maker Faire New York last weekend, and every time I walked by, they had a rapt audience. At one point, I stopped and took a video of their performance — above. The Connecticut-based group consists of Justin Emerson, Brett Marshall Lefferts, and Thom Uliasz. Since Brett’s wife just had a baby and he couldn’t make it, their friend and collaborator Noah Vawter joined them at the Faire this year. “He creates homebrew digital guitar effect pedals and really cool handmade synth projects,” Thom says of Noah.
I was curious about the group, so I asked Thom a few questions. Here’s our exchange:
Laura: Do you have a collective workshop?
Thom: Not currently. We had a fantastic studio space. It was this dilapidated Oddfellows ballroom. Big enough to have huge jam sessions and allow ourselves to spread out and everyone had enough room to do their thing. That’s a great climate to work in. Nowadays, we’ve each got an area in our homes just large enough to be out of control. Less social, but more focused.
L: How did you get started with circuit bending?
T: Necessity! Justin and I met in the late 90s and became fast friends when we realized we were just about the only two guys in the small town of Danbury, Conn. that were interested in making live electronic music. We were on a quest for crazy new sounds that were just not available — even on expensive synths, and we wanted to incorporate them into our music. It was at that point that we were looking at toys as an untapped source for sonic potential. I remember Justin had added a couple of jacks to a YakBak sound FX toy, effectively turning it into a pitch shifting guitar pedal. We had already cut our teeth with electronics, building synth kits from PAIA and doing minor repairs to our gear — so this wasn’t a huge leap. But the magic happened when Justin accidentally brushed his hand against just the right part of the circuit board which caused the pitch of the tone to change! So for like $5 we had a truly unique effect pedal in our arsenal with a touch interface unlike anything else we had access too.
That’s it! We were hooked.
Soon after, the internet really started to become part of our lives, and we saw that there was a burgeoning underground circuit-bending scene with veteran experimenters like Reed Ghazala leading the way. So we turned our band website into a repository for info on the stuff we were building and bending to help grow this new community.
L: Had you been to Maker Faire New York before?
T: This was our third and best year at the Faire! We were set up at ground level right at the edge of the Hackerspace area. We had a huge number of folks really taking the time to see what it was we were up to. We spent the days jamming and demoing our devices, and we invited the audience in to try out our instruments as well. It was a nice interactive and transparent experience; Kids especially got it.
L: What were some highlights/anecdotes from Maker Faire New York?
T: There was this moment in the middle of the second day where it was clear we had lost control of our table. A swarm of at least seven small kids had taken over, mashing every button on every instrument we had hooked up. Total unbridled noisy chaos! And where this would normally stress us out, we just took a step back and cracked up at the cacophony these kids were making. It was a strangely perfect moment.
L: How would you categorize your sound?
T: More often than not, we are thematic and frenetic, with a heavy and chunky rhythm section and percussive melodies peppered with elements of noise, toys and video game textures whirling about.
L: Who are your maker and/or musician inspirations?
T: In the first column: Reed Ghazala, Nic Collins, Forrest Mimms, Craig Anderton, Jeri Ellsworth, Limor Fried, Robert Moog, Leon Theremin, Nikola Tesla and Mr. Wizard.
In the second: ALL the electronic and studio pioneers like John Cage, George Martin, Kraftwerk, Grandmaster Flash, The Bomb Squad, Jack Dangers, Richard D. James and Bruce Haack.
L: How would you describe Maker Faire to someone who’s never been to one?
T: Imagine if a lifetime’s worth of projects that you might want to tinker with for months at a time had been made real, fully actualized and were all sprawled out in one giant carnival and you had 2 days to take it all in.
L: What is your next project, either as a group or individually?
T: Drum machine mods have become our calling card. But we’re also working on these little analog synth experimenters sets called the Bleep Kit. It’s a beginner friendly 6 oscillator project box that’s robust enough in complexity to keep an expert coming back for more. We’ll be blogging about how to make different sounds with the kit and working toward modular enhancements for it as well. You can check that out here.
Plus we’re really excited to develop some of the jams we messed around with at Maker Faire into fully fledged songs. We hit on some strange new territories there, must’ve been the atmosphere! Here’s a collection of live recordings culled from the 16+ hours we played at Maker Faire. Please share!
L: Thanks! I hope you had a great Faire. I’m glad the rain didn’t stick around too long on Saturday. : )
T: Yea, it looked pretty iffy most of the day. We had a tarp at the ready since early that morning. I was really surprised with how quickly the crew was able to clear several inches of rain from our performance area on Sunday morning. Top notch production!
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