It is difficult to say who might have more passion for their vintage objects of affection: car enthusiasts or keyboard/synthesizer devotees. Both groups are fanatical and tend to collect their treasures to the point of bursting through the walls and needing to put an addition on their homes.
For keyboardists, vintage synthesizers by electronic music pioneer Robert Moog (1934-2005) are perhaps the most beloved to collect and play. That’s how Hamilton native and keyboardist Jim Smith feels, anyway.
“My (music) room is Moog-themed, with Moog keyboards, old posters, old sweatshirts. I’m such a nerd,” says Smith, who is the composing and performing face behind the multi-instrument solo project TEEEL. “The last piece Robert Moog worked on before he died is like the Holy Grail. He was very influenced by nature, and he’s a true hero to me. If it wasn’t for Moog, we wouldn’t have a lot of (contemporary electronic) music.”
Taking the stage with an arsenal of synthesizers, guitars, computer controllers, and effects, TEEEL will be performing at Grounds For Sculpture’s Artists in Action 2014, Saturday, March 29, in the Motor Exhibits Building (MEB), from noon to 3:30 p.m. The afternoon of hypnotic vocal synthpop, dreamwave, and dark electronic rock is part of GFS’ annual opening of the MEB, where numerous resident artists create year-round in a variety of media.
During this time GFS invites visitors to enter and experience art-in-the-making, as professional artists demonstrate the process of creation. Patrons are encouraged to ask questions and learn about the different techniques. Viewers can observe demonstrations in glass-fusing, plaster waste mold, finishing ray-shooting terrazzo, concrete, and 3D printing, to name just a few media. The day of art and music is GFS’ unofficial “opening day” and celebration of spring.
TEEEL has more than three hours to showcase a range of influences and electronics.
“I’ll do a mix, starting with some DJ-ing electronic music, then I’ll incorporate my own music in the playlist,” Smith says. “I’ll play some covers — which could be by a whole lot of different musicians and sub-genre. They’ll be a lot of dreamy, 1980s influences, like Vangelis, New Order, Depeche Mode, but with more of a contemporary twist. You’ll hear EDM (electronic dance music) with hints of rock and movie soundtrack scores, so many influences, but I keep it all very ethereal.”
Born in California but raised in Hamilton, Smith, 33, first heard 1980s new wave and synth pop from his stepfather, a devotee, who is an executive with Chanel perfume. His mom is also a life-long supporter of Smith’s passion for music and art.
He credits his sound to marathon movie-watching and absorbing the all-synthesizer soundtracks to such 1970s and 1980s futuristic films as “Tron” and “Blade Runner.” However, it was a dark masterpiece from 1971, and its soundtrack, that roused Smith to explore and create electronic music.
Smith had found a VHS tape of director Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” with the soundtrack that was a combination of classical music and electronic compositions by Wendy Carlos (who had undergone a gender reassignment and had previously been known as “Walter Carlos.”)
“There was this mystique about the movie, which was the first to use a synthesizer for the soundtrack,” he says. “I love the art direction of the film, which is beautifully shot, but the sound is also incredible.”
Smith graduated from Mercer County Community College and attained two degrees, an A.A.S. in computer graphics (2001) and an A.A.S., advertising/graphic design in 2003. Smith began DJ-ing at the MCCC radio station, then in clubs, and then began running a mobile DJ business, all the while playing guitar in hard rock bands.
“I ended up combining all of the interests into my TEEEL project,” he says. “After years of discovering different genres of music, I naturally returned to my early influences (new wave and synth pop). I still listen to all different types of music, from electronic dance music to classic rock. There is good music in any genre. I like to take my influences from everywhere.”
“Playing in bands, touring, and trying to bring everyone’s schedule together for practice, etc., got difficult, so I started this solo project right in my bedroom, and it’s been very successful,” Smith says. “I have my own label (Synth Records), and I work with other indie artists in a similar genre. There are some 15 or 16 bands on the label, from the United States, but even from Argentina and Italy. Through the Internet, social media, and whatnot, it’s been amazing to meet all these people; it’s been really fun. This started off as a hobby and now it’s taken off.”
Last year was an especially favorable year for TEEEL and included an appearance at the huge South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Smith’s original piece, “Marx on my Heart,” was recently used in a Carmelo Anthony spot for the Jordan (Nike shoes) brand. His continued success has led to playing more live shows and recently working with guitarist Stephen Chladnicek to elevate his live performances.
TEEEL’s critically acclaimed debut album, “Amulet” (Moodgadget Records, 2011), generated quite a buzz in the blog world as well as being featured on KEXP radio. A compilation of remixes and singles, the second album, “University Heights,” was self-released in 2012 and received avid praise.
Smith also writes the iheartsynths.com blog, where fellow keyboard aficionados share their ideas and show off their collections.
Smith has now dedicated the TEEEL project to the aforementioned 10-foot-by-10-foot Moog-centric room, which is painted the color teal, and stacked with synthesizers and guitars.
“That’s my favorite color; there’s just something about it,” he says. “It’s majestic and special, and reflects different moods, which are conveyed in my music, so it was natural to name my project TEEEL. It’s a soothing, calming color, and I spend so many hours in this room. It adds to the mood, whether I’m designing or writing music. No matter where we live in the future, I’ll have to paint at least one room teal.”
In addition to TEEEL, Smith is art supervisor for Cline, Davis & Mann (CDM), a pharmaceutical advertising agency based at 210 Carnegie Center. He has worked as a graphic artist for many years, and years ago acquired Rats Restaurant, located at GFS, as a client.
“It’s funny how things come around full circle,” Smith says, reflecting on his upcoming performance at GFS. “About 10 years ago I waited tables at Rats for about a week. It didn’t work out, but I told the manager, ‘I do design for a living,’ and I got to work on their printed materials, wine labels, menus, napkins, matchbooks, etc. They were an amazing freelance client for me.”
GFS founder J. Seward Johnson Jr. had already created mascot “Ratty,” but it was Smith’s idea, he says, to put a wine glass in Ratty’s hand.
“I just made him a little nicer,” Smith says, noting that his influences in visual art are Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, and M.C. Escher. Musical influences range from “oldies” such as A Flock of Seagulls and Gary Numan, to contemporary artists that include New Division, Empire of the Sun, Tycho, Com Truise, Tesla Boy, Future Unlimited, and Daft Punk.
He lives with his wife, Dana, an elementary school teacher in the Ewing school district, along with their dog, Peanut, and crested gecko, Neo.
Smith reflects that he has never formally studied keyboard, music composition, or theory, but he has worked out his technique and compositional style through playing live with different friends, studying their styles, and adopting tricks and tips.
“I’ve also learned a lot from the Internet and YouTube, from reading books and online tutorials,” he says. “I’m not a great keyboardist, but I’m very good at composing and mixing — it’s addicting, pure, and intuitive. As much as I’d like to study music, I think it would take the fun away. Some nights I’ll come home and play with a certain instrument. It’s a very inspiring stress reliever. A lot of my equipment is from the late ’70s and ’80s — they’re analog, so you have to let them warm up.”
Which brings us back to Moog: Smith says that in the early years of the Moog synthesizers, it was only universities and superstars like Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer who could afford them.
“Emerson took several of them on tour in case one broke down,” he says. “A vintage Moog synthesizer is hand-built and expensive, and can cost as much as a house. The older ones take five to ten minutes to warm up, and then you tune them, and there’s something to be said for that. Some people like to use this old equipment. I like to find something in the ‘junk’ and bring it back to life.”
“I look for old gear and use the sounds in my work — the Moog, drums from Prince in the early ’80s, certain sounds in Vangelis compositions — I combine all these elements and make my own sounds from all of these,” Smith says.
TEEEL, Artists in Action 2014, Motor Exhibits Building, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Saturday, March 29, noon to 3:30 p.m. Special demonstrations, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free with park admission, $8 to $12 (children under 5 free). 609-586-0616, www.groundsforsculpture.org, or www.teeelmusic.com.