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Theremin lies the rub

The Voodoo Organist’s one man, two-hand band

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Take any five of ’60s organ madman Jimmy McGriff’s songs (“King Kong,” for one) and cross them with the nightmare Tilt-a-Whirl of “Mother” off the Police album Synchronicity. Then take that demonic spawn and cross it with the charming cheesiness of Pat, the nice lady who squeezes out all your popular favorites on her organ deluxe the Sip ’n’ Dip Lounge in Great Falls. Now take the whole shootin’ match and turn it loose at an after-hours blowout in a disreputable funeral parlor where everyone is smoking weed dipped in formaldehyde and taking turns playing Prelude and Fugue in D-minor on the house organ.

Ya with me? Because that’s pretty much what the Voodoo Organist sounds like on his Witch Doctor Records album Exotic Demon Blues. Make-out music for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Music for séances, sewing grimoires and sipping High-John-the-Conqueror root tea. Carnival music with John Wayne Gacy and Stabs the Clown as the entertainment. Music to turn down the sound and watch Angel Heart by. Now you see where I’m coming from? TLC is crazy sexy cool. The Voodoo Organist is creepy freaky bitchin!

The Voodoo Organist, aka Scott Wexton, was born in Detroit, where he began playing the organ at age 10. He left the D in 1996 and bounced around from Nashville to San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he currently lives and records. He began performing as the Voodoo Organist in 2000 and has shared the stage, either as the Voodoo Organist or as a member of various other bands, with performers like Nine Inch Nails, Neurosis and Japanese noise terrorists Zeni Geva.

Technically, it sounds like quite a feat of coordination, what he does. He pre-records all his percussion tracks and plays them over the PA while cranking away at the organ and using foot pedals to create bass lines and control the volume. That’s what people who have seen him say about the show, anyway. If half of what they say is true, the guy is an eight-armed organ grinder from hell.

Best of all, the Voodoo Organist plays the theremin, perhaps the only musical instrument ever invented that you don’t even have to touch to play. Invented by Russian physicist Lev Termen (who later changed his name to Leon Theremin, hence the name) in 1919, the theremin consists of a console that looks like a speaker’s lectern with two antennae protruding from it—one from the top and one from the side. The vertical rod controls the pitch; as the player’s hand approaches it, the pitch rises. The horizontal loop controls the volume, meaning that playing Termen’s invention requires great coordination in addition to perfect pitch to get the hands and the ear to work together. The sound of the instrument, when properly played, resembles a cross between a violin and a woman’s alto.

Termen originally hoped that his invention would replace entire orchestras with its “music from the ethers,” but in fact it has produced very few virtuoso players. The most famous was Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg), a former girlfriend of Termen’s who was forced to give up a promising violin career because of arthritis. Rockmore excelled at playing Termen’s instrument and developed a very sophisticated fingering system for articulating discrete pitches without having to literally slide up and down the register in a gale of glissandi. Usually accompanied on piano by her sister Nadia, Rockmore enjoyed a reasonably successful performing career on the theremin.

The Bonzo Dog Band and other musical groups made occasional use of the theremin throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, but in spite of their efforts to revive the “music from the ethers,” the theremin is best known today as the eerie wailing sound effect in sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

RCA produced some 500 theremins during the 1920s, roughly half of which are known to have survived. One of them might be the Voodoo Organist’s, although it’s likely the demonic performer is using a later model, like the kind built by electronic music pioneer Robert Moog.

As you can tell by the first half of this article, I’m excited to see the Voodoo Organist play his crazy voodoo jive. As you can tell from the second half, I’m just as psyched to check out his loops.

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