The Garbage Art and DIY Instruments of a Swamp Yankee

Craft & Design Music
The Garbage Art and DIY Instruments of a Swamp Yankee

Editor’s Note: After seeing and hearing the unique musical output of Matt Lorenz, “The Suitcase Junket”, we were enthralled. We asked him to explain a bit about his background and how the act of making has influenced him and he delivered this wonderful piece, which we decided to publish in its entirety. 

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The first time I heard the term “Swamp Yankee,” I was being asked if I was one. I remember thinking to myself, “I really hope I’m a swamp yankee…but what the hell is a swamp yankee?” I dutifully googled it, like a good modern human, and found that, in its broadest terms, it simply means a countrified northerner. OK. I grew up in a small town out in the wooded hills of Vermont, so I guess I’m in! Since then I’ve started carrying it as a banner for my work. When someone asks me what kind of music I play, I tell them “Swamp Yankee music,” as though it is a long agreed upon genre, but beyond the style I have come to see the term as both a guide and a label to my creative pursuits; a kind of ethos. Take what you have and make it into what you need, gather what’s around and transform it into what you want. Use that famed yankee ingenuity and fierce independence to muster your material world into things of functional beauty.

When I was a kid I convinced the babysitter that I was allowed to take apart the telephone and give myself a haircut. The phone was never put back together and I looked like a 6 year old Phil Collins for a few weeks. I continued taking things apart over the years: radios, phones, TVs, organs, watches, insects, books, bikes, boilers, relationships. I’m not always interested in putting them back together or fixing them. Sometimes I like to see what makes a thing how it is, and then mess around with the component pieces to build different stuff out of them. Deconstructing those objects as a kid led me to realize that everything in my world (nature excluded) was made by people. Since I was people too, I should logically be able to make everything. It was a simple realization, but a powerful one. My childhood mantra was “I’ll do it myself.” I think it still is. I also still cut my own hair. Sometimes poorly.

My long and loving relationship with buckets and cans began back when I had no money. I wanted a cello and there was no way I was going to get my hands on anything that nice. I was farming and painting houses and writing songs and all my money went to food, rent, and debt (The American dream!). One afternoon at the dump, I was perusing the scrap metal bin and fell into a kind of manic creative state. I think I took more stuff home than I was dropping off. I scrapped together a whole little family of one-string fiddles, including a bass made out of a crutch and a medicine cabinet. They sounded great – rough, but with a strange, haunting beauty. All I really needed was a sturdy stick, a string, a tuner of some kind (usually an eye hook or a real tuner scavenged from a guitar), a can or box to amplify the string tone and something to act as a bridge to transfer the sound from the string to the can resonator. I was in heaven. It was magic.

I started making wind instruments with old copper pipe and a garden hose, bottleneck mouthpieces and coffee can bells, a kitchen sink tuba, megaphone style amplifiers for the voice, and, of course, drums; lots and lots of little drums all over the place. Making my own instruments, rudimentary as they were, was a primary creative pursuit for a few years and I made a whole slew of very strange recordings during this time that perished on a hard drive after a colony of ants moved into it. Easy come, easy go (Can’t mess with the ants. They outweigh us.).

This project alerted me to the amount of great materials that are discarded daily and I quickly became a bit of a dump rat. That summer, I found a discarded bike pile. Mostly badly bent crashes from a community bike operation. I scavenged what gears, chains, brake cables, rims, forks, and frames that I could and spent a couple weeks putting frankenstein bikes together and selling them to my friends and neighbors. I think I actually just sold two and gave the rest away because I got bored with that project. I used some of those parts later on when building an apple grinder for pressing cider.

Another good transformation was the old 50 gallon drum that my friend and I cut up and welded into a fire box to hold a maple sugaring pan. This mentality became all consuming. I hated watching things go to waste and collected a lot of raw materials during that time. Some might say I hoarded them, but I had a vision for each pile of refuse, a project in mind to make them into a thing of beauty, a useful tool, or, if possible, both.  

Those days of hand to mouth living also started me down the path of making my own booze. I mostly made meads and country wines, metheglin, melomel, and the occasional beer. There may have been a stove-top still, maybe not (Is that still illegal? How is that still illegal?). I would go out in the woods and pick a bunch of berries or flowers, and then save up what money I could to buy sugar or honey. Sometimes I’d get friends to chip in with the promise of future hangovers.  

This process fed the part of me that wanted magic and mystery and transmogrifying. I felt like a pseudoscientist standing over my bubbling batches of booze, setting into motion a very simple process that drastically changed the state of water into the flavored sweetness of wine. It was the same magic as making junk instruments – a discarded can or bucket bound for the heap, tweaked and twanged into life, a melody coaxed from the mute mouth of a tin cylinder now pulling heart strings and songs and thoughts out of the ether. That became my worldview; find a thing and make it sing.

Nowadays, I have turned my main focus to a musical project called The Suitcase Junket. It’s a one-man-affair in which I play homemade can-drums with my feet, a guitar pulled from a dumpster, a little box of bones and silverware, (which sounds just like it sounds), a circular saw blade, and a crappy little keyboard. I travel the country and the world coaxing songs and sounds out of my pile of debris, gathering thoughts and thimbles, cans and cadences, worries and wonders.

I like to be playful and curious. I still make maple syrup in the late winter, boiling it in the driveway over that retrofitted steel drum, and press apples in the fall with that grinder I scrapped together from old bike parts and barn wood. When there’s time, I assemble large winged sculptures that use old plaster lathe that I’ve saved from construction sites. Also, once a year, I teach a junk instrument building workshop to 2nd graders.

I try to look at the potential of every object (and when writing songs, every concept) before transferring it into someone else’s hands. I gather what is dropped, transform it, and push it back out into the world. We live in a culture of continued consumption and waste, and I am certainly a complicit contributor to the system. This is simply my way of drawing attention, both my own and others, to the idea that we have enough. All we need is all around us.  

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