A post in our occasional series which could be subtitled Lucky Frame: Origins
Jon and I have known each other for about ten years now, we met at Carnegie Mellon University where we were both studying and I believe our first conversation was about the Casio SK-5.
Before long we were hanging out pretty frequently, together with a whole crew of equally geeky friends. We started playing music together, forming a trio with Alberto Almarza. We would get together in my tiny apartment and make crazy noises with Alberto’s latest miniature saxophone or drum or shakers and experiment with electronic software and hardware. It probably sounded awful, but it was loads of fun and in the process Jon showed me a world of music software I had never seen – Ableton, Reason, Reaktor, Buzz, and more.
Eventually some friends of ours moved into a house near the CMU campus, and to their astonishment discovered that the previous tenants had abandoned a Ludwig knockoff drum set and “Premier” tube bass amp in the basement. The gear must have been at least 50 years old and was completely falling apart, but we saw an opportunity. Around the same time, Jon had started making music using a Nintendo Gameboy, using tracker software called Little Sound DJ. I bought a bass for $5, Alberto decided to play drum kit for the first time, and Handface was born.
We started out by using a somewhat forced model, where Jon would write a song on the tracker and Alberto and I would play along with it. It worked fairly well, and we recorded our first album in my living room. Here’s one of the tracks from “Handface Album!”
We even managed to get a show at the cafe on campus, so we burned a bunch of CDs and spraypainted a logo on them. We decided to package them in ziplock plastic bags and sell them for $5. The day of the show I heard about a charity sale at a church where you could buy clothing by the bag, $1 a bag. I gave Jon a garbage bag and told him to pick up as many shirts as possible. He did so, and we spraypainted our logo on them too. $5 per shirt.
We played the show, which through some odd coincidence was attended by a large group of local high schoolers. They loved it. We sold every single one of our CDs and shirts. I’d like to say we learned some sort of business lesson from that, but I’m not sure what it would be.
In any case, it certainly encouraged us onwards. As we began to play more shows, we started having to play longer sets and the song-based approach was less and less viable. Add to that the small problem with writing music on a Gameboy – the memory was extremely volatile and every few days we would lose all the songs. We thus began to develop a fully improvisational system, where all three of us were reliant on each other as equals, with the roles constantly shifting and developing. I ditched the bass, and started to play “guitar?” with a question mark. It was a $15 guitar I picked up from a yard sale, together with a system of pedals and cutoff buttons for sonic mangling. I would split the signal from the guitar and run one instance through a pitch shifter to bring it down an octave, with a cutoff pedal for switching it on and off. The other instance I would send to another amp but send though distortion, ring mods, flangers, etc etc.
With this system we recorded an epic 17-song album in my apartment, entitled “Handface…and you”. Immediately following the recording of the last song, the Gameboy (true to form) erased all of the stored material, and we were never able to perform them again. We had the recordings, however, and we even made some packaging (which included our faces pressed up against the library photocopier).
We continued to play shows and our popularity grew in the underground scene in Pittsburgh. We had some devoted fans, including that amazing group of high schoolers who came to every single show we played.
The dynamic of the group is really fascinating to me. Alberto definitely came from a very organic musical background, he was interested in traditional drumming techniques and folk instruments from around the world. Jon’s background was electronic music, techno, and obscure digital techniques. Traditionally the drums are seen as the timekeepers in the band, but in Handface this did not apply, since the tempo would normally be set by the unforgiving digital clock of the Gameboy. Alberto’s musical character, then, was not to be the metronome but a new type of meter we called the “emotionome”. He crafted and guided the rhythmic emotion of the music. I often saw my role as the bridge between these two worlds – a bridge that was represented by my odd hybrid two or three stringed guitar running through a collection of digital manipulation devices. In the snippet from the radio show below you hear Jon referring to it as the “Mellow Machine”.
This is from a one hour show we recorded live for WRCT. At the beginning you can hear our surprise at actually having a caller for our giveaway – the prize was a signed broken drum head.
Handface is a project that I am extremely proud of – and I hope I don’t sound too pompous when I say I think we were ahead of our time. The chiptune sound hit the mainstream (Beck was one notable example) a year or so after I moved away from Pittsburgh and Handface was forced to come to a close. It’s also hard to imagine that, though this was not long ago at all, this was before bands had any sort of standardized presence on the internet…we had no myspace page, no facebook page, youtube wasn’t even around yet. Internet marketing is so crucial to bands now, and a group like Handface would have really benefited from that.
Nevertheless, we did have a certain degree of success in the underground music scene in Pittsburgh. We managed to play some pretty decent venues like the Warhol Museum and the Rex Theater (that gig is a whole story in of itself, it was booked by a man named Wolf Snipplechips and we dressed up as a set of cutlery for an audience of vampire goths), and most importantly managed to create a performance and composition style that was a true fusion of our musical and personal characteristics. Most of our shows were in basements and living rooms, with sweaty dancers jumping around us and shaking the floor. One guy showed up at a show having spent the day in a boxcar from St Louis, and was planning on hopping the next train out of town after the set.
The spirit of Handface lives on in Lucky Frame, even if Alberto is now a sensible family man in Pittsburgh. Maybe the Lucky Frame ideals were created in cramped Pittsburgh basements, with Jon and Alberto and me crowding into each other, heads bobbing to an electropunk dance beat.
To celebrate this nostalgic look back at the origins of Lucky Frame, please enjoy these full Handface albums:
Handface and you!
Handface – Did you mean Hand Face?
Handface – Dinosaur Farm
Handface – Live in Budapest
Handface – [not actual size]