Jacob Roske and Bianca Pettis want me to understand that they're "not trained electricians." I bet the same could be said of most bands I interview. But most bands I interview don't pop open the back of a Casio keyboard and then hand me a piece of wire with an attitude of cheerful hospitality that would be equally appropriate for serving a slice of birthday cake.
"Here, try it," says Roske. Pettis looks on, smiling encouragingly, and adds, "Just stay away from where the main power is."
Roske and Pettis, who perform together as Beatrix*JAR, are circuit benders. They make electronic instruments by tinkering with the insides of old Speak & Spells and synthesizers. The goal of circuit-bending culture is to create experimental music out of thrift-store booty and self-taught know-how. As a couple, Beatrix*JAR not only craft their own gizmos and record albums, they also teach workshops on their art. At museums around the country, they encourage class participants to pry open toys and unleash the sounds held captive by preprogrammed buttons.
Neither one has a background in conventional music. When the two met at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Pettis was taking a film class, and "I was playing AM radios and disposable flash cameras," explains Roske. (Please don't just let that sentence float by unexamined. I bothered to ask Roske what on earth he meant by asserting that he played "AM radios and disposable flash cameras," and was rewarded by a demonstration of how the presence of a flash can bend and squiggle the sound emitted by a pocket radio.)
As their romantic and creative passions entwined, they became inseparable. The center of their universe is now a shared loft in St. Paul, although Pettis reveals with a laugh, "People don't ever think we're a couple." She's taller, older, and just generally more of an African American boho chick than Roske, a mild guy with the pallor and build of your average indie record-store clerk. But together, they collaborate and encourage one another in a life where play has little distinction from work, and work has no distinction from following your dreams.
In 2006, they released their first record, I Love You Talk Bird, a mix of created sounds and found bits collaged together. It was gently paced, an ambient haze of brushed beats accented with their own vocals, sometimes singing, sometimes moving jazzily over the tracks. On their latest effort, Golden Fuzz, they've temporarily abandoned the singing and accelerated the tempo. The result is a more energetic flow of machine hiccups and space-signal broadcast oddities, as familiar-but-alien echoes ripple over currents of drum loops and electronica samples.
At a live show, Roske tinkers with the circuit-bender's bank of modified toys and juiced-up drum machines while Pettis controls the steady rhythms and loops. "The beat, what we call 'the road map,' and some of the sounds are the same," Roske explains when I ask him about performing the songs on Golden Fuzz. "But otherwise, it's improvised."
The unconventional mix of the Beatrix*JAR project means they're never quite sure if they should build their home in the art world or in the music world.
"It's hard for us to know where we fit in—do we belong in the club? Do we belong in a museum?" wonders Roske.
Right now, they belong in a loft with a Christmas-morning-in-1984 stockpile of toys and a map on the wall that Pettis uses to plan their next jaunt out on the bending circuit. And it is here that they teach me how to lure a twisted sound effect out of the little green board inside the eviscerated Casio. Touch the end of wire to Point A: nothing. Touch it to Point B: nothing. Touch it to Point C: There it is! An unexpected electro-giggle, a sound this board made just for me, a secret spilled out at my command by the ghost in the machine.
- Sarah Askari, City Pages