Whirled of Sound
Rob Halverson is something of a mad scientist. Positioned in front of a digital eight-track workstation, surrounded by computer equipment, monitors, and a meticulous disarray of keyboards and other musical apparatus, the local musician is completely absorbed in the mixing of a bellowing saxophone track onto a thundering peal of music and voices, the scene lacking only lab coats and brightly flashing electrodes as his huge grin breaks into a slightly maniacal laugh and the music reaches a rushing crescendo that evaporates in a final ringing chorus of "Freedom!" "Yes!" he shouts. "I love that fade! What do you think?"
What do I think? I look around his close-quartered living/studio space: bed, a good five feet off the ground positioned under a glass bubble of a window; a wall of stringed instruments, some of them intricately and mercilessly carved into the discomfitingly organic curves of the human ear; lots of computer equipment; an ancient-looking Hammond organ; a sci-fi-ish theremin; stacks and shelves of books, tapes, records; and finally the sizable bank of recording machinery being subjected to Halverson's constant manipulations. Why sir, I think you are mad!
And -- this music is great.
A swirling, writhing progression of powerful, teeth-gritting blues with the voluptuous depth of rock & roll and the heart and voice of a gospel choir, this is music you feel.
In fact, with the exception of the impeccable production, it sounds a lot like his own live music venture, Robinson Ear Machine, a huge collection of local singers and musicians that have been playing out irregularly for the past year and a half. The formation of the band, like his brand new CD, Robinson Ear's Little Whirled of Sound, is the culmination of a dizzying ramble of musical events in Halverson's life.
Though the cast of contributors in the album's credits is extensive and varied from song to song, the majority of the sounds on Robinson Ear's Little Whirled of Sound come from Halverson himself, using a spread of instruments that includes ocarina, theremin, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, bowed jazz bass, magnus organ, Hammond organ, fiddle, kazoo, and wine glasses, among other things. And guitar, of course. The center of it all, the Robinson Ear Machine itself (so named for its lifelike curvature), is a well-loved and wonderfully played guitar.
Though the guitar has been a constant in Halverson's life since he was in the fourth grade back in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, circa 1970, the road from minor guitar parts in his church band to first official solo release is a long and convoluted route to say the least.
Halverson's childhood sounds like that of many who were raised happy in the rural Midwest, full of fields to play in and family drives. Getting his first guitar sounds like something right out of A Christmas Story: He wanted a guitar for Christmas more than anything else in the world, but even after all the presents had been opened and there was no guitar to be found, he didn't cry or complain; he was happy with what he got. That's when father Halverson spoke up.
"What's that, over there in the corner?"
One last hidden gift, of course: an old, slightly beat-up acoustic guitar. That was all young Rob needed. As soon as the holidays ended, he was asking Sister Jean, his music teacher at St. Paul's Catholic Church, to teach him a few chords.
"She was my inspiration," says Halverson. "Sister Jean would sit in front of the class and play songs on a guitar, and we'd sit in front of her and sing the songs. It just fascinated me that she could make that sound happen and we could sing to it."
The folk movement of the early Seventies had its place in the Catholic church, Halverson and band playing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" during services. Things were going great for him, until devil adolescence crept in.
"I never really got any positive feedback from my peers," he sighs. "I remember thinking to myself, "Why doesn't anyone ever talk about it?' No one ever said anything about it ever, so I thought it was maybe a weird thing to do. So I stopped. I got to the eighth grade, I and didn't do it anymore."
In high school, an overwhelming wonder at exactly how Jimi Hendrix was able to do the things he did got the better of Halverson, so he turned back to music with renewed vigor and dedication. A couple of high school bands led to a couple of college bands, as he moved on to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a school and a city not unlike a smaller Austin. There he played with Green Eggs and Sam, a group that featured former James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield on the kit. That band led to another called 500, an experimental pop band, which lasted considerably longer. After receiving a degree in cartography that proved fascinating but ultimately useless, Halverson migrated to nearby Chicago to pursue the life of a rock & roll musician.
During this stint in the Windy City, 500 was pared from five members to three, and after some two years of playing late at night and commuting to work early in the morning, they'd had enough. He and bandmates Dave Adler and Sam Shneidman decided to move 500 from Chicago to Austin -- sort of. Originally, the three were set to move to New York, but their promise of accommodation fell through at the 11th hour. Plan B, San Francisco, was next on the list until the massive Loma-Prieta earthquake shook the city to its core, and frightened the three Midwesterners right out of that idea and onto the road for Texas. Austin, that is: third choice. 500 hit town on Christmas Eve 1989.
"We had this old school bus, but it was illegal for it to say "School' on it, so it became the "Cool Bus,'" laughs Halverson. "We rolled into town with this bus and these Wisconsin plates, and we lived together on campus in this $100 apartment. We were doing it here, like you used to be able to."
The Austin incarnation of 500 lasted for about a year of intense and prolific songwriting, as well as cramped living conditions and near-poverty. They were well-received locally -- the Chronicle's Brent Grulke naming them band of the year -- but gigs at the Cannibal Club and Showdown were barely enough to cover the rent, and discount, end-of-the-day chicken fried rice and eggrolls for every meal every day can get to anyone. The band called it quits when Adler returned to Chicago to go back to school.
"For the first time I felt like I was on my own musically," says Halverson. "I'd been in the band for a long time, in all kinds of different forms, for about five years. So here I was with a four-track in a city that I didn't feel like leaving. I didn't know a lot of people then, so I put an ad in the paper -- something I thought about doing and finally gave a shot.
"Man. I got the whole experience of people answering the ad; coming over with their instrument, saying, "Ohh, I'm your man blah blah blah.' I just wanted competent people with imagination, which I assumed I could get, right? But then they'd come over, and you'd see it in their eyes -- this is not gonna be a stable relationship."
One person who answered the ad and stuck around was Tawnya LoRae, guitarist for the recently defunct Morningwood and songwriter and solo artist in her own right. They hit it off right away.
"We started recording together, and we did that for a very intense year," remembers Halverson. "We wrote a lot, four-tracking like crazy throughout '92 and '93. I tried to start the band with Tawnya, but it just didn't work out. So I started Ya Ya Stuff, which was me, [DiverseArts head] Harold McMillan, Thor [see accompanying story], Dave Boyle, and Gemma Cochran. That was a really great experience for me to get out and play and learn. We did that for a while, doing some of the songs I'm still doing now. We had solid songs and a really kick-ass rhythm section that was dedicated to being topsy-turvy -- Harold and Thor -- and Gemma, of course, was an immaculate co-singer. We had a great time playing."
Halverson is still actively working with all the aforementioned, whether through his new CD or his other other band, the theremin project known as Stevenson Mouth Apparatus (also with Thor, McMillan, and Boyle), but it was wanderlust and the search for more and more information that led Halverson to abandon Austin in favor of greener (and swampier) musical pastures: New Orleans.
"I had been here for four or five years, and I didn't want to get too attached," explains Halverson. "I wanted to increase my pool. So I left and went to New Orleans and had a crazy roommate there who knew a guy on Bourbon Street playing country hits in this Cajun cafe. I went, and he said he needed a slide guitar player. Within three days of getting to New Orleans, I had a paying gig.
"The place I was working was the Cajun Spice Cafe or something like that, right between a strip joint and another strip joint. We played from 2pm till 3am. It was rough. I was dreaming in C, waking up in the middle of the night like, "Aaagghh!!!'"
Halverson hits an ear-piercing C note on the organ for dramatic effect.
"I couldn't even write. The last thing I wanted to do after work was pick up my guitar. I did it for a couple of months, and it was during that time that I met some amazing people -- right off the bat -- people who were really talented. Before I knew it, I was playing with a whole mess of other people."
Two of those people, Neti Vaan and Bart Ramsey, introduced Halverson to a guy from Switzerland named Andi Hoffman who was in New Orleans making records with his band B-goes. Halverson helped out with the recording and promotion of the release, and when the Swiss/Australian/Scottish collective left New Orleans for a tour abroad, he was asked to go along as the band's "token American."
Before he knew what was happening, Halverson had embarked on a six-month tour of Europe, the first three of which were spent playing electric and slide guitar in B-goes. The tour led them throughout Northern Europe as well as long stretches in Glasgow, London, and Bern, offering an endless supply of fresh stimuli to the ever-eager guitarist from Wisconsin.
"I got to witness all these completely different ways of life," he enthuses. "I wasn't scrambling for work and returning phone calls, so I was also able to scrounge around and watch things -- think and write. Being in different places seems to clean my windshield, and I see things clearly that I might not be seeing back at home."
When the tour was over, Halverson kept going, staying with friends of friends and playing any time he could. Through an acquaintance, he sat in a number of times with a large band of Scottish acoustic musicians who played gigs ranging from weekly pub gatherings to the largest European music festivals. Halverson's asset was the slide guitar; the Scots were familiar enough with it, but it was a rarity in their community. He quickly proved himself worthy of a chair and a pint, and the musical lessons he gained he considers invaluable.
"The fact that I was immediately let into that, through a friend of a friend who had a number that I called and was told, "Yeah, just come down to this bar and play, you know, we'll have a good timeí' just blew me away. That there was this community that was very old, but brand new to me, reminded me of how fun music was and how the purpose of music is not only for a career and for artistic expression, but also social activity that's good for your soul and good for the world. Good for people who are exposed to it. People that are in that place, that are around that energy, are benefiting in a really cool way. They're feeling a very old part of what it means to be human."
For a change off the magnitude Halverson was experiencing, the capper came during a long bicycle trip through the Scottish Highlands. Staying at a series of traveler's cottages until he came to the rocky beaches at his journey's end, Halverson says reaching the sea was like coming to the end of the rainbow.
"It was amazing," he exclaims. "There was this beautiful beach and no one anywhere; I felt like I was on the world by myself. The only living soul. After this weird five months of never really knowing where I was, suddenly I was here, and it was mine. There were seals out in the water, and I could do stuff like sing and whistle and they'd jump up in the air and clap. Like I had this weird connection with them. That's when I decided I was coming back here. I felt like I could get back to my life then. I didn't know where -- I didn't live in Austin, New Orleans, or Chicago."
As it turned out, Halverson returned to Chicago and stayed with his older brother, wading through piles of material he had put on four-track over the past few years. For the next few months, he was a librarian, filling notebook after notebook with phrases and titles from the tapes until he knew exactly what he had and where he had it. The bits and pieces were coming together and he couldn't wait to start recording again, so he came back to Austin.
Whether by good luck, good karma, or fate, when Halverson returned to Austin, his friend Thor was out on tour, which meant there was room for him out at the Pharm. A communal cluster of farmhouses seven miles east of town, the Pharm suited Halverson just fine; nothing but the sounds of dogs, horses, and growing grass out in this beautiful pastoral setting. It's cheap, the other residents are pleasant and happy people -- no reason for Halverson to do anything but settle in, which is exactly what he's done. Standing out on his porch, peeing into the uncut grass of his front yard, there are more stars than you'd see in Austin proper, plus it's quieter, the darkness thicker on the skin.
"Stars out here shore are purdy, ain't they?" he clowns, still peeing. "And now that I put that there addition onto the house, I can even see them when I'm laying in bed!
"How cool is that?"
It's true. Halverson not too long ago found some perfectly good lumber discarded, and took just enough to build another three walls onto his house -- the small one, next to the big main Pharmhouse. The existing fourth wall was swung out and upward from the rest of the building and turned into a roof. A circular window on the former wall is now on the ceiling above Halverson's bed: a veritable window on the night sky. Which says a lot about the way he sees the world: from a slightly different angle, and probably a lot clearer than most of us. And whether it manifests itself in an animated conversation about the virtues of the theremin or in his own music, the energy is infectious. Especially in the music.
When "She Cares," from Robinson Ear's Little Whirled of Sound, swells to an oceanic crescendo of strings and voices, your emotions soar with the song. Over the course of his first year back in Austin, Halverson has recorded approximately 35 such songs onto eight-track. Considering the breadth of sounds and sources that go into one of his songs, that's no small feat.
"I really enjoy making a bass drum out of an ice cream container, or stringing guitar strings on things that shouldn't have guitar strings on them," he says. "I've stringed guitar strings across a bedpost to a butter knife on the other side to come up with a sound. Also, blowing blades of grass -- you know? -- trying to control that, finding the pitch of the blade of grass and then recording three of them in harmony with each other so that maybe you could make a reed section out of blades of grass. Fucking around, you know."
When he finally decided that this was to be more than a massive library of recordings -- namely making a CD and trying to sell it to people -- it came time to rein it all in.
"At that point, I felt like a farmer -- like I had all these plants and they were all coming up. I was working on them all at the same time. Water here, prune here, and I had four CDs worth of music. So that's when I started showing some of that stuff to friends, to Neti and Bart in New Orleans, who have a small label, Jumping Man Records. They decided that what I was doing really fit into their idea of what they were doing."
In the meantime, Robinson Ear was born. Who is this Robinson Ear, anyway?
"Robinson Ear is kind of a fictitious character," explains Halverson in his trademark half-serious tone. "I find that when I'm working on stuff and talking technically with whoever I'm working with, I refer to my own part or anyone's part as, "That's the bass doing that, that's him singing that, the guitar is doing that, the banjo player is coming in here,' even though I am usually playing a lot of it. That's just kind of how I think about it. So, as long as it wasn't me anyway --"
The actual band, Robinson Ear Machine, was born of Halverson's collaborations with LoRae. The songs they put together during their heavily creative period after his return from Chicago were the catalyst.
"When I got back here, I was really happy to have a little hole in a tree where I could put my stuff," recalls Halverson. "All my own shit. It wasn't until I was here for almost a year that Tawnya and I started getting together and singing again. We realized that we knew all these people who played, so we decided to call all our friends and go to the Victory Grill and play these songs. All the people there sort of knew each other, and that felt a lot like what I was involved in in Scotland.
Fictitious or otherwise, the leader of Robinson Ear Machine is quite the ringmaster, somehow keeping between 15 and 20 singers and musicians on track while letting them run loose as they dare. They usually sprawl across the floor in a circle, as they did for a time at the Victory Grill and Electric Lounge, ringing themselves with seats and even putting seats on the stage for people to watch. A mingling of sorts.
The songs, many of which have calmer translations on Little Whirled of Sound, aren't complex, but neither are they boring. Filled with cycles of tension and release, most are free-form enough to allow plenty of room for improvisation inside and between the lines. And big choruses -- always the big chorus. With two guitars, electric and upright bass, fiddle, two horns, keyboards, drum kit, a plethora of percussion, and at least four singers in addition to Halverson -- plus any number of people who show up to sit in -- there has to be room to wander. Then there's the choir. The joyful, shouting, singing voices that lends the Robinson Ear Machine its most immediately noticeable characteristic.
"My voice is a bit tattered sounding," chuckles Halverson, "and I feel a whole lot better laying that big old crusty shovel on a nice velvet bed."
Robinson Ear Machine does play in public still, but infrequently, and almost exclusively at Ruta Maya. Now, with the release of his very different-sounding CD and all the attendant responsibilities that go along with that, it may be a while before they resurface. Especially since Halverson has plans to tour with the Little Whirled of Sound. Not here, of course. That would be too easy. In Australia.
"I've been asked to produce a record over there, and I'm gonna do that for a few weeks," says Halverson. "The people who I'm gonna do the record with, Nick Hanlon and the Goddesses, are good musical friends of mine from Glasgow, so their band is gonna learn my songs, and then we're gonna tour with my songs, and I'm gonna be a guy in a band called Robinson Ear. That's exciting to me. It's way more exciting than going over to St. Charles, or taking a van up to Oklahoma City. I'm more interested in making records and helping other people make their records than going out in a van without support. That was nice long ago, but ..."
Having recorded on his own for so long, gaining the knowledge he did with Jumping Man in New Orleans, and mixing his CD with local guitarist/producer Mitch Watkins on state-of-the-art mixing software, Halverson feels he's found his niche.
"My ambition, which I share with Jumping Man, is to build music and record it, but I really like recording it," he emphasizes. "It's what a lot of people call producing, but really, it's plugging in the wires. When I look at what I want to be doing, that strikes me as way more appealing than smelling last night's beer on the carpet from up onstage and knowing I have to smell that to pay for tennis shoes, or whatever. So I'm really drawn toward producing.
"As much as anything, it's overwhelmingly satisfying -- a never-ending sea of activity. There are so many places to draw from to try to accomplish something. Trying to really get the feeling that's happening between you and the people you're working with to actually happen on record, to transfer that to the recording, I really enjoy that."
He wore the producer's hat recently working with longtime collaborator Thor, helping the percussionist with a sold-at-shows indie release, Fields of Innards. Before he can get back to the warmth and comfort of a recording studio, however, or to the safety and solace of the Pharm, he has to go out as Robinson Ear, as Rob Halverson, to share his library full of music with the world.