Weather Warlock at St. Maurice Church in New Orleans
This Friday, a slight chance of thunderstorms will give way to clear skies in the evening, with temps hovering around 70 degrees. While that's not always relevant to club goers, studying the forecast before heading over to Bar DKDC this weekend will give you an inkling of what to expect from Weather Warlock.
The brainchild of Mr. Quintron, trailblazing auteur of the Hammond organ based in New Orleans, whose one-man shows are built around manic keyboard grooves and the rhythms of his hand-built Drum Buddy™, Weather Warlock is a custom-built synthesizer connected to multiple weather sensors. Its tones and filters are directly altered by signals from the sensors, translating the wind, rain, and sun into tonal impressions. It's innovative enough to have earned a feature in Popular Science. But Weather Warlock is also the name of the band of improvisers Quintron has recruited to enhance the synth's sonic responses with live human interaction. No two shows are alike, as each begins with the eerie, sensor-driven tones generated by Quintron's machine, then takes flight into parts unknown. It's a slightly unhinged drone-rock adventure that must be seen and heard to be believed.
Curious about the tour and this week's stop in Memphis, I talked to Quintron about making music that's wired to the sky.
Memphis Flyer: I fondly recall seeing Weather Warlock at the Brooks Museum of Art in 2016. It was a heavy, heavy sound.
Mr. Quintron: That was with a 100 percent pickup band. That was all Memphians.
It seemed very successful. You managed to draw a little thundercloud over the show. Any other experiences of affecting the weather while playing?
Last night we had a really successful rehearsal. When we opened the door to walk up to the corner store and get a beer, the sky was totally green. The sun sensors were going nuts, the wind started blowing, and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees in two seconds.
That Brooks performance was, like many Weather Warlock shows, at dusk, but this Friday you're playing at night.
As opposed to sunset, yeah. I wanted to try it. I like boundaries and rules, but I also didn't want to be ridiculous and basically ensure that this band never goes on tour. That parameter [playing at sunset] makes it incredibly difficult to get into the van and have a logical string of shows with the musicians I want to play with. These weather sensors are definitely very exciting during sunrise and sunset and electrical storms in the evening. But they're still taking weather information all night long. So it will be receiving weather info and pumping it into the concert, just not with those sunset sounds. Basically it made the tour be able to work, doing it this way. It was my choice. I wanted to do it. And if in the end I felt like it was a total cop out, well then, back to sunset-only shows.
All the Weather Warlock purists might be up in arms.
I'm fully expecting to get some shit for that.
You don't even know how catty and mean electronics nerds can get! You know, I got a bunch of shit the first time I toured Europe without my real actual thousand-pound Hammond organ. One German man in particular was extremely upset and demanded his money back. He said, "Quintron, I think you're being too convenient."
And this was one of the first shows, so it was after a super hellish flight and all the stuff that you have to go through to get to Europe. You're just totally exhausted and beaten up by life, and there's this guy complaining and demanding his money back because I didn't ship a thousand-pound Hammond Model D or whatever.
Looking at the video of Singing House, the prototype of what became the Weather Warlock, it seems like the kinds of parameters and the way they affect the synth have really changed over time.
Absolutely, yeah. That was prototype #1, and now I think this one I'm taking on tour is about up to Mark 5, and it's still developing. Yeah, it's been really refined. And my understanding of how best to tune the sensors and tune the circuit, so that they get the most variable sounds out of the sensors, has really developed over the years of building this. But that's what this kind of thing is all about. Especially with this weather-controlled thing, it's like you really don't know until you stick it out there and live with it, how it's gonna behave and what works best, and what you like best and what becomes annoying.
When you get a bunch of musicians up there jamming with the Warlock, is it a challenge to just let the Warlock speak? It seems like it would be easy to overpower.
Yeah, that's the point. We just make it go away for a while. We take it as a jumping off point, as a kind of spiritual center, to be cheesy about it. And then we just wipe it out with volume for a while. But it's always there. And then it has its moments in the set, where it's back to just featuring those sounds again. And then it will kind of inform the tempo of the next thing we go into. 'Cos it's a musical instrument inside as well. Outside, it's picking up all this weather, but I built it so you can really jam on it and play it, and change the phasing speed and move the delay around and mix the different sounds. So it's a really playable synth as well as taking info from the weather. And I've done plenty of concerts where it's just me and the synth. The new record that Third Man just put out (I just got 'em in the mail today) is a recording of just me manipulating the Weather Warlock synthesizer in Nashville during the total solar eclipse.
Yeah, what effect did that have?
The total solar eclipse of 2017
It was really great. I didn't know... It was like, "Is this gonna be kind of nothing?" It was a very boring day. It was hot and there was no wind. Nothing was really active, it wasn't raining. Thank goodness it wasn't raining, 'cos it would have been cloudy and you wouldn't have seen the eclipse. But it behaved exactly as I thought it would in response to the eclipse. It was like a sunset in fast motion. It was like a time-lapse sunset, sonically. It was really really nuts.
Does the pitch vary according to the light?
Yeah, the pitch drops. It's calibrated so that it's beyond human hearing all day long, and then when the UV gets just reduced enough, a high tone will pop in to audibility, and then it will descend in pitch until darkness, when it goes away. And during a regular sunset, that takes about 40 minutes. During the solar eclipse it took about ten minutes. And then it rose back up, so it was like hearing a full day. Like hearing a very quick sunset and then a very quick sunrise paired up next to each other. But the power went off at Third Man before we could get the reemergence of the sun.
And the B side of this record is another solo synth recording of the Weather Warlock responding to a hail storm in Las Vegas, New Mexico. And I mixed in an audio recording of the actual hail. It was called a microburst hail storm. Have you ever seen one of those? I don't know what makes a microburst storm different from a regular storm, but they're very, very intense and really focused in a small geographic area. I didn't realize until later that that's what we had been experiencing. Hail big as golf balls. You had to get in the car or you'd get hurt, for about a half an hour. And rain and wind. Crazy.
It didn't damage the sensors?
No, this thing's been through several hurricanes. The most interesting times are during an evening storm when the UV is rapidly fluctuating up and down. It'll activate the sky sensor and sort of go "whooroarrrghhuuh." It sounds like a ghost, constantly moving around in pitch, going up and down, and then lightning jumps in there and that affects something. You can hear it on this record with the hail storm.
But this tour is as much about a band and this different mode of playing and working with musicians, as it is about the weather.
So you play with different musicians in each town?
Yeah, I'm touring with Aaron Hill on drums, who plays in EyeHateGod from New Orleans, and Kunal Prakash, an Indian guitar player who's worked with tons of people, most notably Jeff the Brotherhood. He was their second guitarist for a while. And then Gary Wrong is joining us on some shows. But in every city we're gonna pick up two or three local improvisers to play with us. It's largely improvised music, though there's structure and riffs and stuff. So Alicja Trout and Seth Moody are gonna play with us in Memphis. Seth's gonna play sax and Moog and Alicja's gonna play some kinda synth.
One video featured a guy playing a mouth bow. Is he on this tour?
Cooper Moore? No. He's best friends with William Parker, who's one of the OG free jazz upright bassists. He was very active in the ’60s and ’70s and is still playing his ass off. Cooper Moore and him are partners and play a lot together in New York. I played with William down here in New Orleans, and that's how I met Cooper Moore. He played his diddley bow and I was totally fascinated with that, and he played with us the last time we went to Brooklyn. But he's not gonna join us this time. I'm trying to make it different than the last tour, and play with different musicians. We're playing with a classical sitarist in New York this time. And an Egyptian keyboardist, and Paula Henderson, who plays sax and the EWI.
Do you give the musicians any kind of parameters, like "don't play scalar music" or what have you?
I kind of conduct people in and out. Almost without exception, most musicians, if they're just jumping in and improvising, want some kind of guidance and structure so it's not just a free for all. Nobody should feel intimidated by rules or have too much to worry about. Improvised music got really structured and gamey, like the Knitting Factory stuff in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was interesting. This is more jammy, I guess, though it is very structured, and there's riffs and changes. The hardest thing to do is to not play. But other than that, there's really no rules. There's times when you need to come out, and I'll have signals for that, and times when you need to come in. In general, fly like a bird.
Quintron and Weather Warlock play Bar DKDC Friday, May 18 at 10:30 pm.