I’ve had many different effects pedals, amps, processors, drum machines, and wacky, funky units that had to be programmed weirdly, their functions guessed, with maze-like interfaces to navigate, lead to better sounds than expected. A lot of the work I’m proudest of came about while unintentionally experimenting with difficult and bizarro devices—but I set myself up to be in those situations all the time. You should try it, too!
I admit I’ve been a bit of a gear hoarder in my time, having owned more than 50 guitars, 50 amps, and probably close to (if not more than) 500 effects units over the years. Have you ever tried the Electro-Harmonix Crying Tone Wah? There’s a switch that changes the direction of the wah from toe treble to heel treble. This turns the wah (and all those years of whacka-whackin’) on its head, because it doesn’t work the way you’re used to.
Bought any Soviet-built effects units and can’t read Russian? Or perhaps you bought some effect where the control labels are rubbed off? I’ve got this MXR Bass DI distortion unit, a few Soviet pedals, and enough boxes I built where I didn’t label any of the controls. You end up turning the wrong knob at the wrong time and, voilà, you’ve got a radically different sound than what you intended to make, which can actually be cool! I’ve got a fuzz-wah with a bad pot that adds all sorts of explosive feedback sounds that are hard to control but drop in and out at the most natural times.
Ever played a fretless guitar? An out-of-tune monosynth? Out-of-tune guitar? Sometimes doubling up your tracks with something a little bent is the dementia the doctor ordered.
Some of my worst pitfalls have spawned the coolest sounds. Once, when I broke all the strings on my guitar, I started waving one of the broken strings over the pickups and it created the most incredible sound. It was tough to get the right pitch, but, oh, what an incredible sound—and I’m flailing the strings like a maniac! Exciting. I’ve even broken my guitar to the point that I could only tap the top of the pickup to make percussive sounds. It was way more interesting than whatever foolish riff I was going to spit out anyway.
I’ve thrown guitars and amps in the air and, holy moly, the sounds are great! Once, at a basement show, I was swinging my bass around and it pulled a whole string of Christmas lights out of the socket, which made it more difficult to play our instruments but caused some of the songs to take strange, wild sharp turns into something even cooler than what we had planned. I have this 12-string drone board with a metal bar you can move to make anti-chords. Trying to play in pitch with this thing is insane, but it creates chords and harmonics that would never be present if I knew what I was actually playing. When recording the A Place to Bury Strangers song “Drill It Up,” we had this idea to record a washing machine, a door, and a piece of metal hitting the floor—and to use those samples for the drums. It gave the track such a mechanical feel it wouldn’t have had otherwise, without that upside-down interface and those “instruments.”
When playing live, I’ll always have a piezo, some electromagnetic force like a strobe light, and—if I want to throw a wrench in the whole operation—I’ll pick up the strobe light, and there you go. At our studio, I have all sorts of crummy amps, broken cables, guitars with bad action, fire, car batteries, and strange instruments ready to facilitate something crazy. At the pedal workspace we have all sorts of torn-up circuits, bins of wild old parts, and hundreds of solderless breadboards so we can make whatever insane ideas we have. The mistake becomes the master and the freak becomes the friend.
I don’t mention all of this just to show off the stuff I’ve collected or done as a musician. All of these experiences—which on paper seem like set-ending disasters—bring about something truly magical. When you’re doing things unintentionally, there are surprises and moments that are truly natural and untouched by human hands. Try it and see what you come up with. It’s something fresh and interesting and completely unique compared to all the precise, practiced, and quantized music being made all the time.
Take a chance. Thrust yourself into the unknown. Moments of true wonder will expose themselves to you. Go create the unimaginable.