Gambletron – the WL14 Interview

File Next To: Fennesz, John Cage, Gang Gang Dance
Purveyor of: Sizzllllllll…. ckrrrrrrrr…. shhhhhhh…. weuuuhhhhhhh…… dn-dn-dn-dn
Playing: #WL14 Saturday, February 15 @ Polish Combatants Hall

Gambletron is the crackling sonic manifestation of Lisa Gamble’s mind juice. A multi-talented, multi-faceted installation/ sound artist, Gambletron has flitted and glitched through countless projects and collaborations. Each performance is a smouldering heap of bricolage, combining homemade electronics, julienne-cut beats and soggy vocalizations. Witness this creature and have your mind realigned. Adam Bradley chatted with Lisa about all things Gambletron. 

You returned not too long ago from a residency in Berlin. What was that experience like for you? 

Oh it was lovely. In the past I had spent time touring and was always envious of people who had figured out a way to stay in one spot doing their art. The residency was an opportunity to develop and extend my practice into something that resembled more of an installation than a performance. I failed a lot. I learned a lot. It’s special to have a gallery and a bunch of uninterrupted time for experimentation.  Berlin has got to be one of my favourite places to visit and favourite places to live. It still has a lot of the “free for all” elements that Montreal used to have back in the day.

Tell me about the theremins you’ve built from consumer radios.

All I’m doing is extending an old DIY classic. If you Google “AM radio theremin,” you’ll see the basic project. I got obsessed with the AM radio theremin after talking to my pal Charlyne’s boyfriend. He was talking super-matter-of-fact about the whole thing, as if everyone knew about the radio theremins, but I had never heard about this popular experiment. Once I looked over the YouTube videos, I realized I had stumbled on a total beast of a concept. I was already working with FM radio transmission, so needless to say I got super obsessed. After days of experimenting and fucking around, what I discovered was that with crazy noise magic, you could add in more radios to the pile and produce a big-ass roving, giant oscillating chord. So I’ve been working with the AM theremin ever since.

What I regularly use is about 7 to 12 radios, but depending on the project, and if it’s a more of a performance installation, I have used as many radios as I could get my hands on. In Berlin, because we had a month in the gallery to prepare for the performance, I was utilizing nearly 30 AM radios, but in the end we used half of them to transmit a site-specific piece composed by my collaborator at the time, Jen Reimer. I had also built an AM radio transmitter from a Ramsey kit and thought I would have a lot of success transmitting even more tones into the theremin, but in the end the reality of that idea sounded horrible.

You’ve designed an impressive number of other sound machines as well. Could you list a few favourites and describe them?

Well, the secret about my electronic modifications is that I am a woman of function. It’s less of an art than a way to get my hands on dirty sounds without spending too much money. All the things I’ve built or circuit-bent have been very simple, because when I’ve gotten super complex with the bends, I end up breaking and destroying what I’ve been working on. I usually use the most recent thing I’ve made until I break it performing — then I sit down and build something similar. Almost everything I’ve built has to do with the utilization of a pitch bend and perhaps touch-sensitive distortion. My favourite is a circuit-bent Coleco that beeps a lot, as well as my modified 1960’s mouth mics and the Urban Outfitters voice changer that I simply threw quarter-inch jacks on.

You’ve organized something called “Experimental Noise Karaoke.” What’s that business about? Sounds fun.

Experimental Noise Karaoke was developed to make experimental, noisy music more accessible to the general public. My slogan is “Together we will re-interpret the hits.” A person has access to all the regulars of normal karaoke: a book with a list of hit songs, a screen with the lyrics — bouncy ball and all — a mic, and backing music. You choose the hit: say Madonna… The words come up on the screen, but I play the music any way I feel like, using all my circuit-bending shit and shitty synths. The music will sound absolutely nothing like the original and you should sing the song inspired by what I’m playing as opposed to staying true to the pacing of the original song. The idea is to use the lyrics as a guide to turn the song into a beast of a ridiculous mess…

I usually process the participants’ vocals as well. So that they sound like an echoeeey monster… or a tiny mouse trapped in a cavern… or whatever. For most people, this is a liberating experience. For one, you don’t need to know how to sing. For two, this process seems to pull the “performative freak” out of regular folks. For three, it allows people to experience sonic chaos in a lighthearted and friendly manner, participating firsthand in something that only me and my glitch noise geek friends usually know about. Lastly, it’s damned fun for everyone. I originally came up with the concept for the Donau Festival in Austria… but have since toured it through Europe and run it a couple of times in festivals in New York City and Montreal. I hope to release a proper Karaoke DVD in the near future.

Besides the 1,000 other notable collaborations you’ve been a part of, I understand you’ve worked with Colin Stetson and Alden Penner (Unicorns/Clues), who are both playing the WL festival this year. How were those experiences? 

I was in Clues with Alden. We made that record and toured and stuff. Alden’s my pal. As for Colin, I know him from around and we’ve only performed together once (I think…), at this monthly experimental jazz improv night here in Montreal called Mardi Spaghetti, run by Gordon Allen [a.k.a. Ellwood Epps]. He’s a pretty rocking jazz trumpet guy who I worked with in Matana Robert’s Coin Coin. Gordon billed Colin and Sarah Neufeld and myself to play and improvise with each other. It was a fun casual coming together. I always liked Colin’s work, so it was a total pleasure to interact with him musically.

In Montreal, you’ve been digging in and doing this for a while. I’m curious about your thoughts on the experimental music/art scene there and how it’s changed since you first got involved, for better or worse. 

Better… Worse… Fuck it — not good or bad — just different… an evolution. I came to Montreal in 1995. For years I never paid more than 150 dollars a month for rent. The music and art scene here was intimate, poor, off the wall, and almost undocumented. None the Internet, all the party. No one worked, everyone had massive loft spaces. No one cared about making money or even touring, releasing a tape was a top aspiration. As for experimental music — I arrived as a folk singer and have exited as a noise musician. My Montreal experience was 100 percent influenced by my friends and my scene. It was all I knew for a solid 10 years. I only owned a handful of music, so everything I was surrounded by became the things I was listening to. Even though I was a folk musician, it seems like all the genres were mixed up. I remember playing shows a lot with Corpusse.

I became a drummer for an all-girl feminist rock band in the ‘90s — our jam space was at the Hotel 2 Tango. My bandmates and jam-space-mates were organizing shows all the time, which led to me organizing shows, joining other projects like Molasses, Harvey Christ, Jordi Rosen, Hrsta. I used to go see super weird shows in old Montreal at the Constellation room — Don [Wilkie] and Ian [Ilavsky]’s show space early on. It seemed like everything I was surrounded by was super weird and awesome. Progressive and experimental, although more rock instruments and not so much electronics. I learned how to drum by watching my friends drum. (Thank you Aiden Girt and Bruce Cawdron!!) Howard Bilerman became a close friend and was responsible for shifting my artistic outlook by giving me a reel-to-reel machine, a splicing tool, and some tape. He taught me how to use them. I started making loops and performing folk songs using the tape machine as a rhythm machine.

For me, this was the beginning of where I am now. A lot of what I was experimenting with soundwise back then points directly to where I stand now. I would say this is true of the whole scene. One thing simply led to another… It’s always been exciting!! Experimental was definitely a norm back in the ‘90s and eventually because globally popular, which directly led to our thriving mainstream music scene here now in Montreal. I think our pop music is more creative as a result and crazy music still exists, but music seems more segregated. The underground is vast. Thanks to the Internet, people are more in touch with their global artistic community, and the sub-genres of the music scene are more specific now. Like glitch noise and noise rock… blah blah — you know what I’m on about…

Your style of performance is pretty eclectic and erratic. What can people expect for the festival set?

I’m working with performance/visual artist Johnny (Forever) Nawracaj to bring Toronto a unique Gambletron performance experience. The short and the long of it all is that I’ll be bringing lots of radios to perform with a big AM radio theremin. We will extend the antennae into these large crocheted sculptures (that Johnny made) that will be on stage with me. There will be an exciting video (that Johnny made) and a lot of dance music references. 

Gambletron opens night three of Wavelength FOURTEEN, Saturday February 15 @ Polish Combatants Hall (206 Beverley St.).