Matthew Regula's Homemade Synthesizers Prove DIY Is Still Alive
Who says you need a big budget to create a synth orchestra?
Matthew Regula in his studio and workshop.
Sitting at his workbench beneath a six-foot-wide Madonna banner, Matthew Regula proposes a maxim. “My motto would be, 'If guitars had as many words on them as synthesizers do, rock and roll would have never happened. If guitars said shit all over them, people would be like, 'This thing isn't sexy at all.' And good music is really sexy.” During the couple of hours that we spend together at his apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the ambient musician and electronic luthier couches sage wisdom in good-natured shit talk. At this particular moment, Regula is riffing on the fact that unlike the majority of modular synthesizers, the ones he builds leave the plethora of knobs and jacks unlabeled.
No instrument looks more like arcane laboratory equipment than the modular synth. It is a primitive type of analog synthesizer in which various sound sources and modifying circuits are arranged in inter-changeable units, hence modules. Daft Punk's is the size of four small refrigerators, and Keith Fullerton Whitman's would fit overhead on an airplane. Such synthesizers typically lack keyboards, data displays, and preset sound programs. Take a look at the multitude of controls and holes on a synthesizer that Regula has built and you may consider his denial of visual instruction downright maniacal.
Daft Punk's 'Modcan'-Synthesizer-Set (used in 'Giorgio by Moroder').
Perhaps on paper, Regula can seem like an impossible nerd. He took the effort to email the mathematician who devised the particular multi-stage, multi-mode filter he likes to build, suffering the man's complex discussions on chaos formulas. Regula also–thanks to a light Ohio accent–tends to pronounce “module” like “mod-jew-uhl,” which lends the impression that he would simultaneously be pushing his glasses up his nose were he wearing a pair.
Visit Regula's apartment when he's teaching himself video editing software, and you realize he's an addicted auto-didact. Listen to him unpack his complex and dually informative theory that links pleasure to creating sound patches by way of plugging banana cables into synth jacks, and you realize that his technological obsession is rooted in the same spiritual sense that guides his long-term study of American occultism, his skepticism of the post-9/11 US government, and perhaps the know-how to turn even a tenured geomorphologist totally stupid for around a half hour.
It is not nerd elitism that informs his declaration that “I don't label the controls on my gear. I've come up with a way to lay out the individual modules that, to me and the people that have my synths, makes perfect logical sense. You don't need to [ask] 'oh where's the square wave output?' The square wave output is where it's supposed to be.” Simply, Regula is fighting for a more intuitive synthesis, driven by an unstated but apparent belief that abstract music can and should be more accessible. This is a man who glows when he says that a friend's new album sounds like the soundtrack to a new age DVD.
Because of this ethos, Regula readily notes a “weird barrier” at noise shows. True to unfortunate stereotypes, these events can attract an array of grumpy, stoic males and performers who assume an alienating attitude which Matthew sums up as “I'm over here being an awesome noise guy. Check out how awesome I am.” His solution during solo performances as Mr. Matthews is typically to set up his gear on the floor, turn up the venue lights and talk to the audience throughout his set. During Telecult Powers shows, Regula's performance outfit with Steven Slane, Slane “goes and anoints people with oil on their heads and stuff.” The only times audience involvement is lacking is when Telecult Powers unites with trumpet-drone duo Grasshopper to form Hexbreaker Quintet. The performers seem too intent on sharing a zone with one another to worry about who is watching.
Matthew Regula reckons that he and Steven Slane have been bandmates for 20 years, friends for five more. If you notice an occultish thread running through these project names, good luck getting much information from Regula about it. He'll defer that “We're just really deeply involved in the things that we like and just get oodles of enjoyment out of it, whether anybody else does or not.” Admittedly, Slane is the more vocal occult obsessive: under his Witchbeam moniker, he purveys a combination of abstract synthesis and ritualistic beats that he brands “Hoodootronix" in promotion of destroying all rational thought. Regula will admit, though, that they got the name Telecult Powers from a self-same titled book that one was once able to find in a supermarket or a drug store. “It wasn't like 'yeah we're gonna start this band and wear hoods and burn candles.'” But indeed they burn candles.
Growing up near Cleveland, OH, Regula took to synthesizers precisely because he was never had a proper music education. Sparked by a teenage obsession with Throbbing Gristle, electronic music offered him a way in, so to speak. “As a non-trained musician, it gave me the ability to make acceptable sounds without any training or ability from the beginning.” Miming the twist of a knob, his eyes light up and he adds, “Oh wow, that does that.”
“Oh wow, that does that,” may be a more apt maxim for Regula than the sexy guitar thing.These five words explain the root of his intense dedication to esoteric hobbies so well, so simply. Consider the origin of the craft that now sees him labor for 16 hours straight, forgetting to eat. “I had gotten some books out of the Cleveland public library in '93, '94, that were like 'build a better synthesizer!' but it was all just schematics and no information, and I had no background in that kind of stuff at all.” Never truly deterred, he was inspired by seeing Fluxmonkey perform in Cleveland while visiting Slane. Flux Monkey's gear was homemade, providing proper flint to once again spark Regula.
This was 2005. He took to the internet and found plenty of information for beginner builders. “From the start, things just worked.” When Slane moved to Brooklyn, they started Telecult Powers and resolved to only play gear that Regula had built. In a telling analogy, Matthew likens the ensuing building frenzy to the Pentagon's war machine. “Once they get a taste for war, they just go 'we've gotta have better, stronger, more powerful devices at our disposal.' You gotta do it yourself, so you have DAARPA and all of that stuff. I can't say that I was our DAARPA because I didn't design this stuff myself.”
Matthew Regula with rig on top of trash can at Saint Vitus.
This is a fact that Regula will go to great lengths to remind you of. He refuses to start a traditional company because he gets all of his designs and circuits from the internet. The service he offers is more so one of a contractor, devising a specific group of modules based on the needs of the person buying it. He prides himself on making sturdy machines that look good (sexy, even) at about half the price that a company with a recognizable name would. Actually, his endeavor has no name. This refusal to self-identify is not the norm in the synth world. It implicitly says a lot about the maker at hand, especially considering the musical instrument industries liberal approach to intellectual property.
Check out analoguehaven.com and you will see around 90 individual brands of Eurorack modules–the most common style of synthesizer module on today's market–with prices all over the lower half of the triple digits. The Eurorack industry is a personality driven one, with all manner of differentiating minutiae which would baffle any outsider. We're talking pedantry on par with industries like craft beer and small batch bourbon. Matthew Regula's operation is roughly the equivalent of moonshining with recipes found in the back of your uncle's cabinet.
Regula has built and fixed synthesizers for “nobodies and somebodies and in-betweeners.” The only customer that Regula has not consulted with face to face is also his highest profile one, a prominent experimenter beloved by Pitchfork and a sometimes opening act during arena tours. In a cosmically bizarre turn, Regula also put in a very brief stint with beloved indie rockers, Diiv. It's hard to picture Regula on stage with hair down his back (he cut it last summer) surrounded by a group of boys so pretty.
Perhaps my favorite Regula-as-wiz story that makes the rounds involves a local ambient musician and cassette label head. This musician was having a problem with his synthesizer, so he brought it to Regula's apartment. As payment, Matthew asked for a six pack and opened the machine up on the workbench beneath Madonna. By the time the owner had returned from the corner bodega with said beer, the synth was in perfect working order. Word to the wise though, you may have to offer a lot of beer to get him to build you a synthesizer.
If you're interested in buying or just chatting about synthesizers, you can get in touch with Matthew Regula by email. He has a new cassette coming out on 905 Tapes soon, and you can hear his music as Mr. Matthews on Bandcamp.
[cables.png]Mr.Matthews (solo project).