(A Music Subseries: 003)
For years I compiled similarity between Joy Electric and the sound of early 1990s G-Funk, but only in terms of the contrast in lyrics and content between gangsta rap and synthpop as being irrelevant, and only in terms of whatever was going on in my own head. But plain and simple; Dr. Dre drenched The Chronic with Minimoog, and the reason he sold seven-million copies of that record is because he knew how to plant involuntary musical imagery. Okay so even though Dr. Dre chose to stick with murder, misogyny, and general violent theatre as opposed to fairies and trampolines, his analogue sound of monophonic fantasy has stuck with me since I was twelve.
Ronnie Martin wasn’t influenced by this genre regardless of the fact that Orange County is only a thirty-minute drive to either Compton or Longbeach, and never mind the idea that Melody came out within one month of the Murder was the Case soundtrack being released. I want to go on this limb and I want to suggest that although I’m sure somebody somewhere has mentioned the similarities to Ronnie, he probably hasn’t sat down and listened to The Chronic. At this point it’s probably for the best.
With regard to myself, the truth is, looking back to before Doggystyle was ever recorded and Deathrow Records was a glimmer in Suge Knight’s eye, I was encapsulated as a youngster with NES and SNES gaming soundtracks like the Mega Man series and games like F-Zero. The tunes from Hard Man and Needle Man implanted in my young skull like an electric bug burrowing, plugging in its circuits, bypassing no transistors until it was time to remove, and blow on the next cartridge.
Not to mention the only other musical influence I had was my dad unintentionally, in passing, exposing me to 1980s radio hits in the car. Marvelous tunes like “Axel F” from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. I didn’t know what a synthesizer was but during those kindergarten car rides, when that song came on I envisioned a robot like Jonny-5, alive, programmed to forge dance melody.
The 8-bit synthesized sound chip vibe of my Nintendo Entertainment System was and is really glued to me and I now have to pinpoint the genesis of my pulse wave interest in various electronic subgenres to the hours and hours of vintage gaming I have under my belt.1 Time spent building up to TKO’ing Tyson without Game Genie, and beating Contra sans thirty-life cheat code, for me, only came with an absorption of brilliant, saccharine-sweet, catchy ear candy. With the caveat and acknowledgement that there is an extremely thin line between catchy and irritating, personally no matter what other genres I would get in to throughout my life, this type of sugary core is where my heart lies.
I am Made from the Wires of my Synthesizer.
I didn’t truly discover Joy Electric until 1999 when I was nineteen. I owned MXPX On the Cover and though I had never actually heard Joy Electric before, MXPX’s rendition of “Drum Machine Joy” was an infinitely and imperatively better song that anything MXPX has ever aspired to write, or would ever dare dream to think of writing.2
I bought Melody used at Record Bar/Bed$mart from the gangly, chain-smoking proprietor, Scott, who ran it. Though he definitely made most of his income from VHS pornography that he moved out of the back room, it was a great cover to have walls and stacks of used CDs towering over his desk station, and locked behind impenetrable chicken wire.
The first play-through of Melody wasn’t the type of epiphany that made me go, “whoa, where has this been all of my life?” No, it was more the once-in-a-lifetime model revelation where something just fits perfectly and makes too much sense. Like an infant taking her first breath of oxygen, I immediately understood it. The music just locked in to me and kept me coasting from there on out.
Electricity frogs croaked, unleashed from the lily synth-pads, the forest their home, with bloops and sweeping cloud whirs galore. I full-heartedly grasped the magic and whimsy coupled with Ronnie’s complete self-awareness. Teacup boats and saucers afloat, as the years pressed on from that point, I came to find I was ensconced within a lonely Venn diagram intersection with just a few other people I’ve met along the this gumdrop-studded, butterscotch river cruise.
“It sounds too computer-y”
“Yeah. Well. I don’t know why that’s bad in the first place, but moreover, Joy Electric is the antithesis of all things computer. There are literally no computers involved”, I would recite, slowly and painfully learning to adapt over time, compartmentalizing my infuriation.
The drum machine that kicks in at the end of Analogue Grand Diary reminded me of when Smashing Pumpkins took an electronic turn to the tune of “Pug”. Of course I had been listening to everything Billy Corgan all along…but Melody came out four years before Adore and I was just then establishing this parallel.
I had to forget definitions like “techno” or “Europop” or “breakbeat” or “electronica”. I stopped attempting to define those early on. At age 19 I dabbled around with Eiffel 65 and Alice Deejay but it never took. True one-hit wonders really do in all actuality have horrible albums. I’ve done the work. The Prodigy sucked. I really tried with Nine Inch Nails, but Trent Reznor just…doesn’t write songs.3 I liked Daft Punk and I still do. Admittedly the repetitiveness ultimately created a diminishing return for me. I wanted electronic pop songs. What I wanted was candy-coated, melancholy. Analogue new wave synthpop drowning in a haze of beautiful sadness, but I didn’t even realize this. I didn’t realize one actually could be more interested in keyboards than guitars until I slipped Melody into the flip-down face CD receiver of my ‘93 Nissan Sentra.
We’ll Last So Long.
In that era, I was so infatuated with Melody, I bought a second copy of it and I gifted it on Valentines Day to a girl who I was as equally infatuated with. Along with some flowers I felt the Melody CD, aside from being the ideal Valentine’s Day gift in its own right, blanketed in soft synth and Roland Juno 1 flute effects, it also felt like the perfect Valentine’s Day card itself, incorporating the classic color distinction of red and white and containing some of my very favorite Joy Electric love longs like “The Girl from Rosewood Lane”, and “The Melody Book”. I only assumed we’d be spinning golden hay and baking gingerbread boys together for all the world to see.
Instead of falling immediately into a buttercup fairy jamboree of love for me, she actually, oddly didn’t say much about my present. A few weeks after I gifted it to her, I was in her bedroom and I saw the Melody CD cover on her dresser. I was agitated that the candy cane album insert was outside of its cherry chapstick red case so I picked it up to return it to its home. I saw she had apparently used the white cover art background to thoughtlessly scribble-start a blue ballpoint pen. Crushed, I knew right then and there, that not only did she not appreciate my beautiful gift, but also she was just inconsiderate enough to not shield this horrible mistake from my feelings. None of this mattered of course, because I immediately arrived at the conclusion that if she would contain the gall to deface such a timeless work of art, it was obvious she was in fact a wretched beast, simply incapable of love. I could only look away.
C Minor Miners.
Discovering the first Joy Electric record five years after it had been released, allowed me the positive fortune of spending the next year or two getting acquainted with everything else Joy Electric had released since then, as well as other projects of Ronnie’s. The treasure hunt of backtracking for records of an artist you’ve newly discovered is one of the highest gifts you can be handed from the Greek god Completest, the deity of obsessive collecting.
Five Stars for Failure, Rainbow Rider, Dancehouse Children, We Are the Music Makers, Old Wives Tales, Robot Rock, The Land of Misfits. I didn’t really have the Internet until about 2003 so I don’t even recall how people knew about anything in life, let alone artists’ back archives, not to mention some of the more esoteric extended play singles and remix albums one had to mine from the backs of bookshops and paper mailer catalogues.
One album at a time, on a trail of Hansel’s ungobbled breadcrumbs I found my way back, piecing together the chain, devouring every keyboard solo and every electric joy toy company bass line I could gather. The drum machine was abandoned for a full on commitment and sole reliance on monophonic analogue synthesizer and analogue sequencer to create every sound including drum tracks. Joy Electric would soon open the doors for me in terms of so many other revelatory electronic artists like Depeche Mode, Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. New Order and Sheffield Youth new wave bands like The Human League, influenced Ronnie – and I soon was exploring them as well. All of this triggered a serious interest in Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby and Pet Shop Boys. I started buying all these Yes and Rush records just so I could hear all the Moog solos and vintage modular synthesizer effects, spending the wee early 2000s piecing together entire abandoned discographies on vinyl from the Salvation Army. Switched on Bach, Switched on Santa, Tomita, Camel, Starcastle, The Buggles, all sorts of bands and oddities would follow.
Unelectric was the first album Ronnie did that I was able to purchase in release date real-time, in the year 2000. I was sort of baffled because my twenty-year old brain equated “unelectric” (which I don’t think is a word) with “acoustic”. I went in thinking it was to be an unplugged Joy Electric album, when in actuality “unelectric” was a nuanced way of conveying the album would be “Joy Electric songs recorded in a very un-Joy Electric-like fashion”. Programmed drum machines and synth strings were in abundance and fast songs were slowed, and stripped of all things bleep and whistle. There is some piano and (I think) acoustic guitar. Half of the songs I had never heard which compounded mystery since I was under the impression I had compiled everything to date. I discovered two of the songs were recorded new for the album:
“These Should be the Good Times”, a pining desire to extract the most out of life’s cursory, transient moments, and “Losing Touch with Everyone”, which honestly – I’ve still never heard a more sad song. To me it always conveyed either a fear of the inevitable or a partial self-reality. Aging in to a world of the boring and mundane; the unimaginative. A giving-up of hobbies and interests for the sake of apathy in a life melted toward an inescapable schedule.
In altered context, it fares well twenty years later in global pandemic times where insular bubbles make for keeping-in-touch an extremely intentional act, and where one can find himself writing a twenty-five page thesis on some guy who is just trying to live a normal life. You just have to hope most people you know and love aren’t forced to live in the past…for too long, the only hope being social media. It all ends in loneliness.
Some of the other tracks I’d never heard before on Unelectric, “Disco for a Ride”, and “True Harmony”, I came to find, resided on an entire additional full length album I didn’t even know existed(!): CHRISTIANsongs. I had become so accustomed to the versions of these songs on Unelectric, I was jarred to hear the original up-tempo synthpop iterations, which to me were the alternative takes to Unelectric and I know, this makes no sense. It’s not unlike going back to witness to David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” for the first listen after hearing Kurt Cobain perform it an infinite amount of times.
Up to the point where I was listening to CHRISTIANsongs on a regular obsessive basis, I had never truly established, at least specifically, that music can sound happy on the outskirts due to electronic bubbly dance feelings, yet while peering through the pink fog of kick drums and synth layers, actually feel sad and contemplative, bordering on the woebegone. There is a lot of nuance to certain chord changes and songs played in minor keys, to say nothing of the lyrics. I feel like I remember this additional idea as a reveal and as an auxiliary bond, further adhering myself to Ronnie’s songwriting craft.
Apples of Gold.
My awareness of release dates for some independent albums was shockingly low. I knew Jay-Z The Blueprint was coming out 9/11. I definitely knew when Jimmy Eat World Bleed American was being released, and I picked both of those up, the former at Circuit City, which is sort of hilarious. The White Songbook was released in 2001, as well, but I didn’t know about it until I saw it in an oddball bookshop called God’s Little Lighthouse, sitting next to a Joy Electric B-sides compilation called The Art & Craft of Popular Music…in Summer 2002. Most of the time I would just stumble upon new indie releases in the actual record stores. I didn’t necessarily get to pick things up the very day they came out, but I’ll be honest, due to my curiosities and such, I didn’t miss much.
In terms of Ronnie’s B-side track collection, it still wasn’t fully registering what was going on. It didn’t make sense to me how good the record was. The Art & Craft of Popular Music is better than most bands average, proper albums. It’s like a Pisces Iscariot level of B-sides album, where it’s confounding – this idea that most of those tracks aren’t on regular albums, let alone better known across the genre-respecting crowds here and abroad. “Dance to Moroder”, “The Matterhorn”, “Such a Beautiful Thought”…the list just continues. To me it’s coplanar to Substance, any day of the week.
I needed to fully digest The Art & Craft of Popular Music so it actually took me a bit of time before I got to The White Songbook.
But then I finally heard Ronnie’s hymnal.
Legacy Series: Volume 1 – The Songbook Tells All.
At the time I was doing work as a construction materials tester, driving from job site to job site, coasting around in this unnaturally low-riding beater that someone actually gave me for free. Never fully knowing if or when the thing would simply die on the highway, all I had was my Sony Discman and an adapter that actually fed through the AM radio waves back into my car stereo.
Sometimes you do what you can for the love of music, even if it means taking an album recorded on to analogue tape machine, that was transferred to a digital medium like a CD, then funneling it back through outer space via analogue radio waves, into my ears. Sifting through static at 6am while munching on a McDonalds Spanish omelet bagel, I allowed myself to be encapsulated into the lush, layered, epoch, rain forest of synth-goodness.
Day after day I swear to god I would order Coca-Cola that early in the morning because I wasn’t yet interested in coffee. With my morning popbuzz and my forty-five minute one-way commute, day after day (besides that one static-y patch of white noise by the radio tower), my twenty-two year-old self got to explore the vast landscape that is The White Songbook.
The White Songbook, among many things, is a nuanced beef record with both CCM and emo and it has landed itself in my top ten albums of all time.4 The frustration felt with the CCM industry was not lost on me, though maybe Ronnie’s theme varied a bit from my own. Growing up in conservative Christian churches, during my preteen years I was not only expected to, but also told I had to listen to music that was specifically “Christian”.
Being ten or eleven I lacked the wherewithal to grasp the twelve-sided di of ethical paradox which is the CCM industry. Selling prescribed music with preset themes about purity and Jesus, someone they did claim to follow, in order to turn profit, without specifically using those net profits to enrich communities and individuals in need. Depressing combinations of spirituality, art, and commerce. I went along with Carman and Steven Curtis Chapman until, you know, I discovered Dr. Dre.
Stylistically, at least in the 1990s, most of these artists were derivative of mainstream music. I used to be forced in to attending these youth conferences, which featured b-list Christian bands, or off-off-brand music. This is not unlike Hydrax, the off-brand version of Hydrox, the off-brand version of Oreo.5
It’s like ya know: “We can’t get Michael W. Smith, but here’s Al Denson. Not as much charisma or talent, but every bit as much ambition”. Which, on some socio-experimental, unintentionally comical level, has always been my favorite combination. At one conference they gave us these big poster charts for reference between which Christian bands we should be listening to by way of comparison with their counterparts they ripped-off: i.e.; real musicians with their complicated shoes.
“You kids rock out to Nirvana? Well wait ‘til you hear Bleach! No, no not the Nirvana album Bleach. We…didn’t know that was a thing. But here’s a one-off ‘Christian grunge’ band…Bleach!”
I kind of think Ronnie just thought most of it was bad.
By that point in 2002, emo was already starting to nose dive for me, so I also felt some sentiment for Ronnie’s disdain for the entire subgenre. Even though I still liked it I did feel embarrassed about a lot of it. I remember at Cornerstone in the early 2000s, seeing a Dashboard Confessional tee shirt that was a play on the AC/DC logo. Even in the midst of my self-imposed emo phase I felt myself involuntarily cringe.
The tee shirt harkened right back to the Christian pop stuff of the extreme youth worship conferences where people would walk around with “Dr. Jesus” tee shirts spoofing Dr. Pepper, or God’s Gym/Gold’s Gym, etc. None of this stuff was funny or clever, and again, at certain developmental stages of my psyche, I couldn’t have articulated “why” the weird branding stuff was horrible. The overarching spirit just felt gross to me.
Anyway in terms of emo in general I was in love with the genre from about anything-Braid, all the way to Something to Write Home About. But I began to find myself wincing at certain phrases from most of the bands I was listening to. I began to notice the lack of accurate vocal pitch, mass whining, and general emo trope stuff like ballyhoo and tomfoolery. I’ve been able to contain a few bands’ early releases to my heart shaped box where I can make excuses for them, but aside from Braid, I don’t think I’d die on that hill.
I kind of think Ronnie just thought most of it was bad.
A Frog in the Pond.
All four chapters of The White Songbook, as a whole are a brilliantly progressive mesh of thoughtfully intertwined inventive melody and fascinating counter-melody, all played by hand, one delightful note at a time with metronomic precision, recorded to tape with zero polyphony, and patched in with warm Roland System 100 swishes of passing wishes of the boy who never forgot.
Plastiq Musiq 015: Black & White Series Pressings 01.
At the time, if something wasn’t on MTV2, it was all just word of mouth or a serendipitous record store stumble-upon. Your co-worker playing Jeff Buckley Grace at work, or your friend popping the silver streaky Amnesiac CD in to his Jeep Wrangler console. I now merely clutch my faint memories of dialing-up on my roommate’s desktop and getting on some sort of chat room to establish my education in Joy Electric and all things Plastiq Musiq. In the relatively brief window before being booted off, whether by modem or roommate, I would come to find myself on the Joy Electric message boards, poring over information about obscure demo releases and clicking on links to interviews, and extremely poor reviews of extremely underrated albums.
Most importantly, one at a time, I got to secure my role as an owner of the entire collection of Joy Electric record companion piece EPs. Almost every single one of these contains some of the best Joy Electric songs ever put to tape.
Starcadia would become the first of many Joy Electric EPs I would obtain through the postal system. I was intrigued by the loosely held concept of old run-down theme parks and vintage Disneyland rides, as well as the ideas that Starcadia was not only a sidekick to The White Songbook, but also held additional B-side tracks, that did not appear on The Art & Craft of Popular Music.
Legacy Series: Volume 2 – The Confectionary.
By 2003 I had an abundance of anticipation for the issue of The Tick Tock Treasury. Audiotaped at the Electric Joy Toy Company, with mixture assistance Sprinkled by Aaron, and cover art baring unicorns forging the gateways to the green and wondrous mountain walls of Roolundria – fashioned by the mysterious artist behind the caterwauling of Training for Utopia.6
The Tick Tock Treasury, in some ways a 180-degree pivot from The White Songbook, but in every direction, a contrasted compliment, mechanically sparse yet somehow not minimalistic at all, and in some perspective, chilly, but altogether a pristine transition from one magical land to the next. Ronnie would bring me from a patchwork of marvelous, layered warmth to the inside workings of a meticulous giant Silver Clock, shiny, sequenced arpeggios, workers proud; metallic flows harmonious.
To me, “The Chronometers of Switzerland” a Roland Space Echo 201 precursor to The Tick Tock Companion EP, symmetrically divides the album and ushers in the gears for second half of the record, morphing to “(I Am) Made from the Wires”, in a reflection of “Treefingers” transitioning to “Optimistic” in beginning the second act of Radiohead’s Kid A.
And what of all of these Moments?
The second time I saw Ronnie play live was at Olivet Nazarene University warming house in Bourbonnais, Illinois during this era. I really hated Olivet Nazarene University, and if you attended there, I’m sorry. Not for my rude expression of disdain, but because you now probably require as asterisk on your resume. I have no idea how Joy Electric ended up being roped in to playing there as I’m assuming everyone’s taste at Olivet Nazarene University was more heavily weighted toward whatever incestuous version of Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline was popular at that time. Look, you weren’t even allowed to wear shorts on campus there.
I sauntered in to the warming house solo and noticed I was there with four people. They weren’t from around the area, and the fact that all five attendees were clearly not Olivetians is the biggest compliment that Joy Electric could own.
One bopper had a giant safety pin through his ear lobe and they all were illustratively darkwave, frolicking henceforth from a Depeche Mode music video, just exuding a level of pure coolness I could never obtain. They were dancing to Ronnie’s tape machine as if tomorrow was the end of the world. I admired that. It was certainly something I didn’t have had the gumption to do, although I wish I did.
Between songs, I remember Ronnie talking about some of the new music he debuted at that show. Songs that were to appear on Hello, Mannequin. Themes based on ideas that no matter what you do in the schematics of life, there are only a relative handful of people in the full timeline of Planet Earth who will be written about in history books. It was a self-reflection, and a bit revelatory – the facts of my insignificance. The profundity never decreasing that my motions will literally never equate to sealing history, yet my small actions affect those around me quite intimately.
I was intrigued by some of the upcoming song narrative that touched on inventions that had high expectations yet never fully materialized or made huge waves, like the AT&T videophone and the major breakthrough it was supposed to be in videotelephony. In the previous years I had found myself fully integrated to thrift store culture and I came upon a laserdisc player. I began collecting laserdiscs in some sort of a nostalgic collector’s nod to a 1980s retrofuturist, dilapidated vision of what was supposed to be the norm in home theatre systems of tomorrow.7
I got to talk to Ronnie after his set that night, where I picked up The Magic of Christmas. Recorded at the North Pole Division among the giant starlite mints, where the abominable snowman roams, the song “Lollipop Parade (on Christmas Morn’)” is a staple holiday traditional now, which I play on repeat from Thanksgiving Day until the last neighborhood church manger scene is taken down. My conversation with Ronnie in that warming house is a haze, as is most of my life during that time. Just a general drifting around town randomly, not knowing what was going on or what I wanted to do. Music has always been my standard. I do recall talking to Ronnie about the first Mars Volta record, which feels random, but I know came out that same year. Deloused in the Comatorium had a profound effect on me, and it meant worlds to connect with one of my heroes about it.
Legacy Series: Volume 3 – The Phonograph Plays, Part & Parcel.
Aside from refracting the light through new and old musical projects, over the years, Ronnie indirectly introduced me to Nikola Tesla, and M.C. Escher. I’d say most importantly, Ronnie showing me the magic of Dr. Robert Moog has been the biggest monument. A brilliant creator and engineer and obviously a trailblazer by way of electronic music, Moog was more than just an additional tangent in the long tunnel of inspiration this guy has revealed for me. Through Ronnie’s sporadic blog postings on the Joy Electric website message board I learned about Dr. Moog, and I long to one day visit the Moogseum in Asheville, North Carolina, a museum devoted to Moog’s work, including synthesizer prototypes, documents and modules, along with Theremins of rarity.
Very early in 2004 I bought a Moog Prodigy just because it was on the album cover of Robot Rock. I wanted to record melodic sounds like the liquid synthesizer on “Such as it Was”, which is still my favorite Joy Electric song on The Tick Tock Treasury.
I found romanticism in the idea I had to wait about fifteen minutes after switching on the Moog in order to allow the oscillators to warm up before I could play the keyboard. There were no presets. Just single-cycle waveforms, looped to match specific pitches. This was so long ago, if I liked a synth sound so much that I wanted to recreate it later on, I had to sketch the Moog settings in terms of where the dials and sliders were set with regard to filters and envelope generation, not to mention what position the pitch wheel resided in. Now that I think about it, a Polaroid camera would have pushed the romance through the roof. I probably should have used one.
The Fifth Point of the Compass.
The tiny hole-in-the-wall Christian bookshop, God’s Little Lighthouse, was shining beacon in the sea of grey drabble-rubble and abandoned malls and Taco Johns.8 I had learned to count on God’s Little Lighthouse to supply me with my copy of each Joy Electric album, as they would come out periodically. I might have gone there once a year for three or four releases and, well, literally nothing else. On the release date of Hello, Mannequin in 2004, I scurried off, God’s Little Lighthouse in my rearview, a happy human having secured my new and mysterious Joy Electric CD with pink neon signage on the cover, not realizing, as I began listening to 001, that when I would pull back in to the parking lot one year later to retrieve my copy of The Ministry of Archers, God’s Little Lighthouse would be defunct, awash in the waves, replaced by some sort of roast beef sandwich joint.
For work, I was placed a nightshift project for about six months at the time I received Friend of Mannequin in the mail. Weekends in that era were spent maintaining my pm work schedule by staying up all night by myself, alone in my house watching the Jonny Depp/Paul Ruebens film Blow, over and over, eating chicken fried rice from Great Wall and drinking vanilla Pepsi.9 I also spent a lot of time isolated in my makeshift studio at 3am, recording drum tracks with reverse snares and tr-808 effects from a bootlegged, glitchy download of Fruity Loops pirated over Limewire, and over-dubbing basslines with my sunburst Fender jazz bass, melody lines, fluid via vintage Moog Prodigy.
I had a long-term girlfriend, and I had friends. As I write this I wonder if it would have been beneficial to be at the bars, conversing with other humans, meeting up with acquaintances and learning of new friends’ histories. Texting didn’t exist and I barely knew how to use AOL instant messenger. Vanilla Pepsi and Chinese takeout were just so easy. Some nights I would sit there at my alley-salvaged table and black Dell desktop until the pink sun would show itself over my lawn of chives and violets, warming the studio like the oscillating saw tooth harmonics in my synthesizer, buzzing all along. When I heard the blue birds begin to chirp out in creation, as a natural, reverse alarm clock I then knew it was time for bed.
The synth effects on “Hello, Mannequin Part 2” were highly reminiscent of the loops I was trying to create on FL Studio those hours of darkness and whenever I play the Friend of Mannequin EP disc I’m immediately cast back to those nights at the witching hour, alone, recording hours of syrupy soda pop music on to the hard drive of my Roland 8-track machine.
Kraftwerk. Numan. The League. Their posters on the wall give me the ideas, I need.
Legacy Series: Volume 4 – Moog Dynasty (Year 1), Rickety Trickery.
By the time I received my CD copy of The Ministry of Archers in the mail, my address had been switched back to my parents’ place. By my own hand, my life had been intentionally dumped sideways, having made the decision to go back to college and rent my house out to tenants, to fully embrace a career change head on. Why not – I had neither dependents nor anything which could resemble any level of accountability and I had spent entirely too much time leisurely chomping burritos and watching Office Space on repeat. I wanted to move to Chicago and while I saved up money, I figured I might as well make myself a full-time student and a landlord man-child, simultaneously collecting rent checks and deducting mortgage interest along with crashing in my mom’s basement rent-free.
The Ministry of Archers began with a mystical shop drawing in pristine purity and an intentional nothing-but-Moog devotion to monophonic recording and early electronic music preservation. With Ronnie reciting sacred text from the manual in a hushed temper, from heart, quite quieter than a spider, Dr. Moog became the oeuvre of labyrinthine poetry.
Ronnie is and was the auteur and the channel. The vinyl, I quickly anted up for as soon as I learned of it’s pressing existence. Orange sorbet-with splatter mint green like a melted saltwater taffy treat, I make the highest effort to not begin licking the record when I pull it out of its paper wrapper. My di-colored disc yields a pair of additional gems: Bears in Hibernation and Octuplet Down.
Archery as Anomaly.
The plot continued to thicken the further down the path I was to tread. I bought and e-auctioned enough thrift store-spun gold to purchase a brand new MacBook Pro from profit, pure as the driven snow. I also picked up an Alesis Ion, a massive analogue-modeled synth that looked like a spaceship from the netherworld, which I jankily attempted to operate as an alien hijacker without a pilot’s license.
I took a free class in circuit bending and I began to open up, solder and manipulate children’s toys like a psycho Geppetto, blending circuits, installing knobs and buttons, and twisting the well-intentioned and educational functionality in to the possessed and demonic. I even added quarter-inch outputs so I could plug the toys in and squeal the horrid Frankenstein tongue-speaking screams through amplified vacuum tube compression.
I bought a vintage Apple IIe computer and a dot matrix printer with attempt to code my own drum tracks to floppy disc and record the physical sounds of the printer via lapel microphone. I liked the philosophy of combining new and old…of transferring the army of tics and dashes from the dot matrix printer, generation from an original Apple to the Garage Band software in my most current, sleek silver Apple, adding in the sounds of warped, unnatural toys and polyphonic chords from my Ion.
I got made fun of on the JE Message boards for asking how to pronounce “Montgolfier”. Come to think of it I got made fun of for quite a few things I would post there. Some of the individuals enjoyed the pretense of the idea of being elitist, and I don’t think I’m imagining that. It has to do with a niche interest in something obscure…something that the cool crowd in high school was not in to, and something that establishes a peculiar sense of power-in-snobbery. The conundrum was, due to a slight lack of social etiquette, I don’t believe anyone there was doing this on purpose.
The JE Message boards were a helpful precursor for me in preparation for a future life in the craft beer nerd community. I was not taken aback when I established that a lot of craft beer social media conversation contains outlandish, yet nuanced and well-articulated attacks. I once talked to a guy from the JE Message boards at a horror movie festival. I knew he lived in Chicago and I wanted to be friends with him. When I approached him, the look in his eye made me feel he was a microsecond from straight up running away from me. Look, people interested in synthesizers and people interested in horror films, on average, are both going to be super awkward. You combine those two passions? Well…that is just going to make for devastatingly uncomfortable interaction bordering on the problematic. If that one guy is also in to craft beer nowadays, man, with a trifecta like that, I have to hope and pray he is leaving his mom’s basement at all at this point.
Archery as Philosophy.
On an uptick, in 2005, I found myself discovering new electronic music. I saw a Pontiac commercial on television, which featured an atmospheric, live drum-driven shoegaze-y tune and I had to get online to figure out it was a French electronic project called M83, and the song was “Don’t Save Us from the Flames”. Oddly the song is about people violently dying in a fiery car crash – such a bizarre decision for an auto advert that I have to believe the branding team was in on the pun. I tracked down the M83 CD and I was hooked.
I also began to develop an interest in another French act called Justice, arguably, this house project along with M83, were accidentally the pioneers of synthwave. I also found myself interested in companion projects of the electronic arc like Headphones by David Bazan, The Postal Service, and MSTRKRFT. My collected memories of that time reflect a newly found and inspired interest in some contemporary electronic efforts, after discovering a passion sparked by Joy Electric.
Legacy Series: Volume 5 – Moog Dynasty (Year 2), The Memory of Alpha.
Coinciding with the cadence of The Otherly Opus, 2007 was shown a mending and gathering year for me. A splicing of my wires with gears toward picking up – and launching. I saved enough to move to Chicago, thus out of the parents’ cellar. I sold my house and I had wrapped up my first two years of school before transferring to a university in the big city. I broke it off with my girlfriend of five years, something I should have somehow done before I ever met her. The only grief and soul suffering was when I figured out that I never got back my Otherly Opus tee shirt from her. Welcome to heartbreak.
I took the midnight blue Malibu Maxx hatchback to Autobahn, an electronic music festival that year at a place called Java Joe’s in a town called Wilmington, Ohio. I played The Otherly Opus on repeat all the way from Point A: South Suburban-area, Illinois.
Some of the standout acts at Autobahn, for me, aside from getting to see Joy Electric, were Flashlight Party, a precursor to The Drums and Elkland, and tangentially a project called Cascading Slopes (all of which I would come to adore), and Travelogue, where the guy had an analogue drum machine made from wood, if you can believe that. Wood clocks play songs by instinct. I also enjoyed a project called Cut the Red Wire. It was just one dude up there in cut off jeans and bare feet, with a laptop, Fruity Loops, and a Moog Prodigy. He was mostly performing live oil painting to preset electronic loops and every once in a while he would play a melody on the Moog.
But most importantly it was at Autobahn where I discovered The Foxglove Hunt.
I saw the name “The Foxglove Hunt” on the flier of course, but going in I had no idea what it was. I even remember seeing online they had a 3.5-inch floppy disc available with one demo track on it. One of my life’s regrets is that I did not purchase that floppy disc.
Foxglove was collaboration between Ronnie and this chap Rob from a band called Fine China. Set live, it was just Ronnie on drums and Rob’s songs, to a Stratocaster and an Alesis Micron. I very rarely use the phrase “life changing” but that set was honestly an event that altered a few things. For starters as soon as I got back home I sold my Ion and in terms of Alesis I bought one of their variables; the Micron.10
I stopped over at the merch table to after building up my courage and I bought the Foxglove demo CD and showered some praise.11
From Unknown Books come Printed Discoveries.
Ronnie Martin is a man of great patience and of high restraint. These are virtues many do not grasp and will never obtain on any significant level. He has an audience and a platform, yet he keeps a lot of thoughts inside, and over the years I’ve been inspired and I’ve had to painfully learn to strive to do this as well.
During our exchange at the Autobahn merch table, I pulled from my pocket this Joy Electric postcard from The Tick Tock Treasury promo era, for him to autograph. I handed it to him and asked if he’d sign it. He obliged and began to sign his name on the card. I interjected, (please feel free to queue low, dopey, slow-witted-sounding voice here), “um sorry would you mind actually signing the other side?”
Ronnie hesitated for a split second. I felt it. I felt the restraint. He graciously stopped signing his name halfway through, flipped the card over and signed his name on the reverse side for me. Looking back I feel he had every right to just hand the thing back to me without even finishing the first signature. I don’t think there is any world where he would have done that, but I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for calling out the ridiculousness of my awkward interruption.
Though I now feel I took advantage of Ronnie’s accessibility, it’s not that I didn’t have a high reverence or a sense of awe for him. It’s the opposite; he’s the only person in the universe who would have the right to scribble-start a ballpoint click pen on the Melody CD cover. I had been holding on to that post card for four years by that point and I had a big plan to piece together what is basically a framed shrine. Unfortunately I lacked the judgment to just ask him right-out specifically which side to autograph, or just wait until the next time I saw him, and bring the same card back again. Either one of those actions would have saved me the embarrassment.
“Controlling your tongue is controlling your life, so that you can be a life giver to others.” – rm
Measurements of Magnificence: Moog Dynasty (Year 3).
I was lucky enough to see Joy Electric perform three additional times. Originally, I saw Ronnie and Jeff Cloud perform at Cornerstone Festival in 2000. I recollect an enormous, exaggerated and caricaturized synthesizer that was crafted to look cartoonishly amazing, and I hark back to thousands of balloons slow-falling from the vaulting of the tent which covered, in my estimation, at least one thousand fans and randoms ready to bat them about the canvas pavilion.
In early 2008 I drove from Chicago to University of Wisconsin, Madison to see Joy Electric play in a small café.12 I didn’t keep a blog or journal back then, and no smart phones existed on which to snap shots. I wasn’t a photographer so I didn’t think to carry my crappy eBay sales digital, and social media, well, the way it is today, was not a thing. All methodologies with attempt for documentation of things performance based and event driven were supposed to be thought of well ahead of time. My evocation of most showcases past is merely memory-inscribed.
During the café set, a Jonny Randomboy yelled, “play Unicornucopia!” to which Ronnie just chuckled, knowing full well he only had X amount of songs stored on his tape machine, and any request which was not in cache at that time, wasn’t to be played13, yet he also knew that trying to explain this to this particular Jonny Randomboy would take up more time than even stating the title of the song to be performed next: “The Ushering in of the Magical Era”.14
After his sequence, I sat boothside to Ronnie and his crew and he told me he recognized my name from my email address. Okay, so I had sent him a few emails in the past with some Joy Electric related questions. It was then I realized that a restraining order against me might be in the works.
Also, per the magic of chance, only a few months down the trail, I got breeze that Ronnie was performing at some dive bar in a Chicago suburb of which I cannot remember. It would be the final time I got to see Joy Electric and the experience would land squarely in my top five shows of all time…
I walked in to the blue collar pub located just outside the city limits. Maybe Berwyn…definitely South Side. The working class area seemed its hustle and glimmer might have peaked in the 1970s, diminishing to grit. This particular dive joint was not a place I would typically ever have found myself drinking if I had to spin the bottle. The facts of the case are that I’ve gone through a lot more to see Joy Electric play than just simply crossing over the city line after work on a weekday. Truthfully I was ecstatic that he was performing even remotely close to Chicago.
I sat at the bar and probably ordered a Guinness or a Sam Adams or something else that I thought was really interesting at the time and I paused a minute, scanning the place, asking my self how or where they would even have a band play, just assuming there was some mistake. I was too good at directions to think I had the wrong address, at least based on what the flyer said, but I also knew the flyer could have been wrong. You replace a simple “N” with an “S” locale on a Chicago grid system address and please trust me reader, you might not want to see where you end up.
Since I believed the scenario outlandish, coupled with my error estimation feeling so definite, I almost didn’t even inquire with the man tending bar. Of course, I couldn’t walk out without query, and sure enough just as my hope was approaching zero, that publican altered the course by waiving, with a stroke of magic hands, sending an invisible dove aloft toward the “back room”.
In the cavernous “back room” which was set ablaze with pink and sea foam neon signage reflecting from the shuffleboard tables, I found Ronnie setting up his synthesizer and tape machine. I stood, gazing in awe with a wired reverence for knobs and gliders. When I heard the initial test squeal of the pitch-shifted Moog Rogue, I nestled in the warmth like a hushed nocturnal marsupial, taking in holographic moonbeams with childlike wonderment.
I experienced wizardry as he set in to “Such as it Was” and to this very day I can’t fathom the enchanting possibility of singing and playing that gorgeous melody line at the same exact time. Absolutely spellbinding.
That show was the first time I got to hear “Rudimentary Animation” from the then-forthcoming record My Grandfather the Cubist, which I had already preordered from Reckless Records. That gem in that cruddy pub built my anticipation so high for that final album in the Moog Dynasty years, and it never relinquished. It’s my favorite track on that album, but every other number on there is arguably just as exemplary.
My mind was blown that night and as mentioned above, I still to this day consider that exposition among the superlative of my witness, wedged somewhere in between seeing M83 at Empty Bottle, Braid playing at Fireside Bowl, and Pedro the Lion performing Control at Metro.
Lost in the Ether Between.
Over the decades I’ve secured all things Ronnie Martin, one at a time. I obtained the record by The Brothers Martin (as well as a handful of Starflyer favorites), Ronald of Orange, digital B-sides, authored books, Shepherd, Tooth & Nail compilations, Favorites at Play. I held out high hope for Daphne Oramics, and continue to piece together the sporadic Said Fantasy collection of EPs which I come across on the dusty and seldom-maintained Plastiq Musiq website.
The Foxglove Hunt album Stop Heartbeat finally came out and I was just obliterated, as it was a magnetron directly to my heart. It was one of those records that I had to show everyone I came across. It further emphasized my relationship with 1980s synth-driven pop songs and it contributed to my appetite for the sparkly yet downcast. The Cure was not far behind.
I delved deeper in to late-aughties projects and albums like M83 Saturdays = Youth, and subsequently, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, gathering up shiny pebbles along the way like Active Child, and chill waves by Neon Indian, Washed Out, Small Black, and Toro y Moi. I felt smart because I understood Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, having studied music featuring the Roland TR-808, and realizing immediately that he covered a Tears for Fears song on that record.
Notes from a Chapter.
An entire volume of my life was bookended between Joy Electric proper albums. I met my ex-wife the week after My Grandfather the Cubist came out and we were separated a few weeks before Dwarf Mountain Alphabet was released in November 2012. I would never attempt to minimize that era of my life to record release dates, but these albums always bare the memories of these two various, polarizing times for me.
I needed extra income at the time so I sold the Micron. Having pulled every possible sound I could potentially extrapolate from that miniature space beast, I was able to rationalize away a reason for selling it. I said my apologies to the machine yet things will never be settled or okay. It’s not okay that I traded it for money.
The main regret in terms of all things synthesizer was that I just wasn’t in the headspace or at the pocketbook level required to give to the Dwarf Mountain Alphabet Kickstarter. I mean of course it was heavy on my radar, but the time frame was so rocky I just couldn’t even consider devoting money toward it. Even though I should have. As it stands the only Joy Electric release I do not own is the B-sides 7” that was given out to Kickstarter contributors.14
“Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood”
– William Shakespeare
Time moves on and on and it’s been almost ten years since my divorce and almost ten years since the last Joy Electric record. My interest in electronic pop music has only grown in to a genre known as Synthwave or Outrun. Really what it is, in essence is a group of artists producing 1980s music, but doing it even objectively better and on an even more ambitious and voluminous scale than the actual acts of the 1980s.15
A few years back I received my copy of the Melody LP twenty-year vinyl pressing, a double-disc gatefold eye-catching record of accord on vivid red wax and more; 180 grams to spin at 33 revolutions per minute, assuming the magnetic drive on my Technics SL-1500 is cooperating. It included a book of notes and song stories and lyrics by Ronnie called The Melody Book which graces my mantle alongside Bradbury, Salinger, and homebrewer of the gods, Randy Mosher. I saw a return address for Plastiq Musiq, the label that Ronnie started and ended up selling, which produced the vinyl version of the album. The location was not only in Chicago, but also a mere few miles north of my then-apartment, also known as the Sad Men’s Commune.
I took a drive to the address with low ambitions of actually discovering a storefront, but established it was, in fact, some dude’s apartment. Though I did conjure some energy forces with colliding worlds in the knowledge that Plastiq Musiq headquarters now shares an alleyway with Maplewood Brewing & Distilling, which not only produces some of the best beer in Chicago, but was also named after the very street I resided on.
Those shepherds of the northern pastures guard the rights of all things melodic and craft and I sense light waves and particles from things yet created from this duality. Though I long for a double disc white vinyl pressing of The White Songbook, a green 180-gram offering of The Tick Tock Treasury, and a collaborative Russian Imperial Stout release, perhaps in tribute to Hello, Mannequin sealed in pink wax, I understand none of this may never be.16 It is one of the bitter hardships of being a Joy Electric fan.
But seeing the locale of Plastiq Musiq in the heart of Bucktown, nestled within the confines of three flats, one-way streets, and dirty snow…this marked some happy territory on my heart. I drove on.
Footnotes and Such
1 I know I made a Sega pun back there somewhere, but I never owned a Sega gaming system so don’t get it twisted. “Nintendo 4 Lyf” tatted on ma chest.
2 Look, to weigh out that statement, honestly, I think Life in General is a perfect pop-punk record. It’s definitely not like I hate MXPX. I still own Teenage Politics, Life in General, Pokinatcha, On the Cover, Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo, AND the one that came out after that one. As if anyone who reads this blog post will actually be offended in the first place.
3 I understand this is a rather quick dismissal of a respectable musician, and this is a conversation I’m no longer open to having. I’ve really tried with Nine Inch Nails. I’ve owned The Downward Spiral, With Teeth, Year Zero, and The Fragile. I hate it all and what’s worse is I hate that I don’t “get it” since so many respectable people in my life do.
4 My top ten is an oscillating bunch. The lineup never really changing now, with the most recent entry being 2012 Nocturne by Wild Nothing, which is almost 10 years old already as of this writing. Not much can break in to that top ten, and any day of the week, depending on my mood, any of these top ten albums could be my favorite album of all time. Melody and The Tick Tock Treasury are in my top twenty, which is also pretty hard to break in to.
5 This is a reference to the American version of the show The Office.
6 Training for Unicornucopia
7 I also really like the enlarged cover art as well as the fact that laserdiscs spark conversation and also fit right on my record shelf next to my vinyl.
8 I want to re-emphasize the importance of Record Bar/Bed$mart during that time in my life. There was also a goldmine called Granny’s Attic and it was next door to a used bookshop called Paperback Reader. This is all in the city of Kankakee, Illinois. I needed to get these acknowledgments out because I have such little tie to that city now, and who knows when or where I’ll ever be able to talk about these places again.
9 Look, I was still slowly evolving out of conservative Christian brainwash culture at age 24 and I wasn’t yet interested in alcohol. It’s hard sometimes, man.
10 The Micron is a very minimal, analogue modeled, scaled-down kid brother to the Ion. Some might compare the Micron to the MicroKorg.
11 During the set performed a cover of “Love my Way” and I swear to you, although some covers just in general are truly sacrilege, their rendition of this particular song is better than the Psychedelic Furs own version. At the time they seemed uncertain if they would include the cover on the full, upcoming album, but I assure you it is on there.
12 Freezepop was “headlining”. They should have been opening for Joy Electric instead of the inverse. God I hated Freezepop. So much.
13 Plus most songs on The White Songbook are so complex one has to really picture how Ronnie would be able to pull it off in a live setting. I mean he could do it but the time and energy required might defy the mathematics of mortal man.
14 I also do not own The White Songbook miniature promo CD, or the Electro-Cured covers album that contains a Joy Electric song. I also don’t own Robot Rock on vinyl (only on CD). Aside from the above-mentioned Foxglove floppy disk, I’m pretty positive I own every other release on every format possible. I’ll even mention I own doubles of some CDs that I’ve come across in thrift stores and just didn’t have the heart to leave them behind. I’ve never claimed to not have some sort of mental illness.
14 Which he felt silly stating, and also didn’t state.
15 Tears for Fears had, what – three albums in the 80s and then moved on to the 90s? The Midnight has like eight albums beginning in like 2015. Timecop1983, Robert Parker, Duett, saxophone solos as far as the ear may hear. It’s to a point where it’s not even ironic to me anymore and I am great with that.
16 None of this will ever be.