Octant
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Octant

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE
Band Alternative Avant-garde

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"THE GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME"

There is favorite music, and then there is secret music. The kind of music that no one you know knows (or cares to know) about. and that you keep to yourself. The kind of music that you find in a used record store or pawn shop, priced to move, that you've never even heard of. But for some reason, you buy it. and because it is secret, it's all the more precious.

Though sort of false, this is the sort of relationship I've always had with Octant, one of the only glimmers of hope in Seattle's very dim, very late '90s. False because, as mastermind Matthew Steinke (who, incidentally, my ex-girlfriend affectionately referred to as "Dead Baby Head," on account of his strangely infant-like facial features and generally lifeless pallor, a likeness not fully represented in the photo to the left) is something of a Northwest staple, the frontman for two notable should-have-beens Satisfact and Mocket, the band is of some abstract notoriety. - GBOAT


"OCTANT"

Octant's core is Tassy Zimmerman and Matt Steinke with some occasional guests, Summer Mastos (piano/synthesizer) and Pierre Crutchfield (bass clarinet/turntables). Matt constructs most of their instruments himself; light sensitive samplers, an electrified stringboard, frequency modulators, a random tone generator made from an old plastic bowling ball and the robotic drum set programmed to play itself.

Car Alarms and Crickets explores both electronic and acoustic soundscapes, landing at destinations both experimental and pop. On this record, Steinke's latest version of a remote controlled percussion machine (percussion automata) creates rhythms that raise the question: can machine have a soul?

Despite it's amazing range of songs, Car Alarms and Crickets maintains a coherent theme, the interplay of modern structures and both electronic and natural chaos. Each song has an archival quality, with musical concepts layered and deepened by surprising contexts. From the groovy, witty, spacey sound of "Laquita Laquita" to the chirps and gurgles of the title track, "Car Alarms and Crickets", Octant has managed to produce charming, memorable tunes and mysterious sculptures of sound.

Steinke has played in bands for many years, most recently in the Pacific Northwest, with Mocket and Satisfact, though in 1999, he began to devote all of his energies to Octant. Steinke also produced Miranda July's record, "The Binet-Simon Test". Octant's debut record; "Shock-No-Par was praised for its instruments and its modern pop sensibility. Bill Cohen of Alternative Press called the album "a stunning hybrid of new wave pop hooks and primitive electonica".

"Octant's music has a downtown carnivalesque feeling, it's melodic and atonal sounds balanced on a tightrope," wrote Timothy Orr in Drum Magazine. Joe Gross of the Village Voice wrote, "Octant features a percussion robot, a random tone generator and even catchier songs".

Octant's instruments are mesmerizing to watch, with flashing lights and revolving, glittering parts. Steinke, also a kinetic artist, invents instruments that bear the imprint of Bauhaus and Dada artists, particularly Duchamp. When one sees Octant perform, the music takes off into another realm. Everett True of The Stranger enthused, "If I've watched spellbound he multicolored lights and other-worldly sounds emanating from Octant¹s drum-kit, I've watched them 100 times-in my dreams".
- INSOUND


"OCTANT"

Some people think the waiting rooms, elevators and corridors of hell are filled with the most insipid, white-washed Muzak ever recorded. Probably not, considering the place is inhabited by hard drinkers, adulterers, jewel thieves and all kinds of interesting types—it stands to reason that they’d at least get some hip music in the place.

If that’s the case, there’s a good chance Octant’s songs are being played in the underworld. Dark and sinister but somehow unassuming, Car Alarms and Crickets weighs heavily on listeners’ ears as it sparkles with strangely poppy glimmers. More haunting than even the typical Up release, Octant’s blend of synthetic and organic sounds isn’t quite the stuff of dreams nor of science fiction, but rather a cold, dark and hopeless world.

With Octant’s battery of home-made electronic instruments making up more than half of its texture, its swing toward robotic sounds isn’t very surprising. What comes as a surprise, however, is how smoothly the band teases its organic leanings to come into line with its colder side. With keyboards and the occasional clarinet that step in and lay down sleepy melodies that hint at either lounge or lounge music, Octant projects organic touches over a sea of random sounds, harsh back beats and craggy chaos. There’s an uneasy truce in Octant’s work between controlled and chaos, organic and synthetic in songs like "Mince Up," with a blatantly funky groove thrown over a disturbing array of faceless samples and sonic mishmash, and "Circlet," that explores deep melodies over electronic noises that borrow from heavy dub.

While Octant’s whirling compositions hint at chaos, there’s always a firm hand keeping them in line. The minute details may work on their own, but Octet holds the reigns tight enough to keep its momentum from being distracted. Like taking a Radio Flyer ride down the steepest hill in town, Car Alarms and Crickets doesn’t worry about the details of steering, instead letting the gravity of its songs take care of its direction. Finding a strange niche between the otherworldly slow jams of Tram and the harsh but enticing maelstrom of Front 242’s experiments, Octant delivers a spooky and scattered set. - Matt Schild
- AVERSION


"OCTANT"

Octant's debut album Shock-No-Par combines homespun visual and musical artistry with technological know-how. The group's idea of a "drum machine" is a homemade robot bolted to an otherwise normal drum kit; this willingness to reject conventional ideas about electronics, music, and electronic music defines Octant's unpretentious yet inventive stance. Songs like "The Move" and "Simplexity" feature sweet but somewhat distant boy-girl vocals, understated guitars, and layered synths, and, of course, the group's mechanical, percussive namesake. The whimsical but slightly menacing style of the band is reinforced by the two video tracks on the CD, which feature robots with baby doll heads roaming around techno-scapes. The vinyl version of Shock-No-Par includes two tracks not on the CD, "3/4 Nostalgia" and "Green Drop .2," a song that finds a typically Octant use for a dot-matrix printer. ~ Heather Phares, All Music Guide

Octant is characterized by weird blends of music and machines that is strangely effective. Multi-instrumentalist Matt Steinke (Mocket, Satisfact) builds much of the group's strange instruments. This record features his latest step in remote controlled percussion, or "percussion automata." Juxtaposed against these rhythm robots is vocalist Tassy Zimmerman. Her warm counterpoint to the mechanical beats is a big part of this record's success. As the commercial music universe in the early '00s followed the trend of slicker and more hi-fi electronica, Octant's primitive automated sound effects strike the listener as fresh and engaging. ~ Tom Schulte, All Music Guide - ALL MUSIC GUIDE


""F*$% the Neighbors!" - An Interview with D.I.Y. Legend Matt Steinke"

Matthew Steinke is less an artist than a mad scientist. His installations often involve animatronic critters wandering about with adorable sinisterness, while his drawings and animation include disparate, evolutionarily dubious amalgamations of the organic and inorganic bunged peremptorily together. He incorporates that kind of Frankenstein genius into his music as well; he builds his own instruments, and his current band, Octant, is perhaps best known for its use of drum robots. He lives in New York, and you can find more information about his various projects at his website.

Matt, could you give me a quick run-down of the bands you’ve been in?

Steinke: I have been in many bands since I was thirteen growing up in Austin, TX. I could give you a long list but I will start with the first band I started that made a record.

Mocket (1995 - 2000): One single on Up Records, full length on Punk in my Vitamins, full length on K Records, full length on Kill Rock Stars.

Satisfact (1997 - 2000): One single on K Records, two full lengths on K Records, and one full length on Up Records.

Octant (1998 - present): Two full lengths on Up Records, plus many self-released mp3 singles.

The Five Cents (2006 - 2009): One self-released EP.

I know Octant was on Up records for awhile. Are you independent now?

Steinke: I don't plan to go back to Up because Up is no longer releasing new recordings. The founder/owner died in 2000 right after I left Seattle. Business was slow soon after (his passing) and I guess they decided to just fill Modest Mouse orders from here on out. I think that the old Octant records will even someday be out of print.

I don't know what I will do in the far future, but for now I am so independent and D.I.Y. that it’s hilarious. It is the Octant way. Everything is home brewed, which is a big part of what I offer. I wouldn't mind getting some help in the PR department, however. That part is a full-time job and it's a hat that I have had very little time to wear. I am super busy making instruments, writing songs, practicing and recording.


I know you construct many of your instruments yourself; could you talk about how you do that, or what kind of instruments you use on your recordings?

Steinke: I have been making drum robots since I graduated from college in 1997. They seem glamorous when you talk about them, and they are often more complex than they appear and sound, but technically speaking, they are mechanical drum machines – acoustic electronically-controlled musical instruments. I have a mechanical toy piano, a mechanical bass guitar-like instrument, and a mechanically bowed zither. I use guitars that I have modified or customized, a toy guitar, a toy accordion, a music box that has magnetic pickups, and my sampler theremin watch. I also now have a homemade harmonium.

For live performances, I usually play the harmonium or piano on some songs, guitar on some, and on some I just sing or shout into the mic. I like to mix it up in the set to keep it interesting, so I don't always use the exact same setup. The size of the venue and the setup time determines what I use, as well. The robots come in handy because then I don't have to pay anyone to play with me and the crowd loves to see and hear freaky musical inventions these days. Believe it or not, that wasn't always true. In the '90s in Seattle, the crowd wanted lots of loud guitar rock or a slick DJ drum and bass dude with a laptop or expensive store-bought gear.

I am a one man band now, and I like the solitude of writing songs alone, the challenge of figuring out how to play them live, and the overall responsibility and the "rugged individualism" of being a one-person act. Somehow because Octant has had many past members, supporters, and adventures, it feels like a real band of souls or even a family when it's all going on stage. It may also be the poltergeist of robotic instruments. But it is at that point I find myself addressing the audience as members of the family or the congregation. That is very different from the older Octant where I stood behind giant machines with stage fright like The Wizard of Oz.


For my recordings, I use all the same stuff and sometimes more. I have been keeping the non-acoustic instruments and effects to a minimum. I am no longer fixated on dissonance. I don't mind it in a subtle way, but I am trying to make instruments and recordings that sound musical - which is very challenging. The percussion in particular is the most challenging because the actuators that hold the mallets are often not musical and are designed for industrial purposes. I am now designing and building my own motors and solenoids from scratch in order to minimize the "clank" sound. And even when you muffle the mechanical noise, there is still plenty to record - which is pleasant when it isn't excessive.

I decided that songwriting was the reason that I play music, and it's not just making sound sculptures and noise that inspires me. When I record a song, I consider what the song needs and then I build around it. That is when I decide what instruments I need to perform and record with.

Are you also doing all the recording, and what kind of equipment do you have to do that? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of working by yourself as opposed to working in a studio?

Steinke: Octant never recorded in a studio. The drums were recorded in a garage on the first record and in a practice space on the second. Now, I record them in my tiny Brooklyn apartment. F*$% the neighbors! For the first two records, I mixed in the studio but tracked at home. For the past two recordings, I recorded on my computer and then I mixed in the computer. I am working on a few tracks that will be recorded on cassette 4-track but those, too, will end up in the computer as all things do.

I like recording at home in my pajamas and not going outside all day. I love the mental space of a room opposed to a studio. For these kinds of songs, a room is the closest thing to my brain - my interior. A studio is a good moderator for bands with members. There you have an engineer to keep everyone focused on playing together well. You also tend not to abuse each other as much in front of non-members which helps everyone's morale. And you can drink beer and coffee – basically hang out in a hotel-like environment and party, which is nice too. I don't need any of that for Octant, however. I don't think I want it, either. This stuff is hard work that I don't think any of my friends could or would want to put up with. This music is composed and must be performed and recorded exactly the way I wrote it to keep it Octant.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing your own promotion — or how much of your own promotion are you doing? And how much and in what ways has the internet changed this?

Steinke: Right now, I am doing all of Octant's promo and the advantages are few. One that I can think of is the direct contact with fans. I enjoy emailing and talking with Octant fans very much. And once again, it's part of the D.I.Y. way and there is some satisfaction in that.

But I would be very happy to have a manager at this point who would help move things further. What would be even more sweet is a manager who has creative ideas about how to promote and sell music. I would be very excited to work with someone like that. A booking agent would be nice, too.

I know you’re also trying to figure out a tour schedule for the end of the year when your new record comes out. How are you going about doing that? Is this a new strategy for you, or something you’ve done before?

Steinke: I have booked little Octant tours here and there – the east coast, Canada, up and down the west coast. It’s a lot of work and if there are any booking agents out there who want to help out, please get in touch. The only strategy I can think of is do it and then do it again and keep track of where you play and who booked it. Go back to the same places if it works out. This is the same old indie rock strategy that has been in place since the '80s. Octant has an extra venue which is the art/performance art world. Before I even went to art school, Octant was performing at art schools and galleries all over the country, followed by a Q&A and sometimes a lecture/artist and a presentation. I like doing that stuff very much. The new Octant setup is also portable, allowing me to fly out to play.

How are you hoping to make money mainly from your music, if at all? Through touring, record sales, or some combination?

Steinke: I will make money mostly by performing, some digital music sales, some publishing, and some from merchandise. I always have hope to make money as an artist and sometimes it happens more than others. For the most part, Octant has always paid for itself plus a little extra here and there. - www.madeloud.com


Discography

OCTANT (Self Titled)
featuring Halo, Staircase, Coldspark, Forget, and more

LP: Shock-No-Par:
tracks that have streaming or radio airplay: Auto 1, The Move, Revert, Uncomplexed, and Pong

LP: Car Alarms and Crickets
tracks that have streaming or radio airplay: What it Was, Mince Up, Tink Slap

Digital LP: Ye Old Ghosts include live recordings, unreleased songs, and selections from the first two LPs

Photos

Bio

Octant's music is performed by hand-built digitally controlled and solenoid actuated instruments. Steam, bellows, and clockwork would seem to be appropriate tools for the ghostly powers directing this orchestra of homemade acoustic automata. Brooklyn-based songwriter and tinkerer Matthew Steinke created these devices to accompany himself in a musical menagerie he has dubbed Octant. Menacing clouds of reverberating discord give way to toy piano chimes synchronized with chirping melodica, booming bass drum, and mournfully wheezing harmonium, all oddly juxtaposed with Steinke’s warm guitar melodies. The songs lurch like a haunted Model T from childlike singsong to dense mechanized arrangements, from triumphal player-piano chaos to spare, melancholy chamber pop. Fractured and familiar, as full of nostalgic yearning and doomed hope as a Ouija-board encounter with a beloved departed grandparent, these unresolved gems suggest the sweet suffocation of an abandoned pawn shop crammed with all the relics that make up our shared musical imagination.

"...tender, cerebral music, aided by tiny, idiosyncratic robot companions who truly feel more like supportive band mates then automated devices"

– Benjamin Wigler for The Deli NY

"I can’t fathom how one could properly put into words the performance but it was an unsuspectingly beautiful and oddly touching experience. How is it that a show comprised mostly of a robotic band provided far and away the most intimate show of CMJ 2010?"

– Avalanche Leed AP for The Sound of Indie

Octant was created in 1998 as the ongoing solo project of Matthew Steinke, the frontman of Olympia, Washington's Mocket and Seattle's Satisfact. He produced Miranda July's spoken word album, "The Binet Simon Tests". Octant has toured with and opened for The Black Heart Procession, Quasi, Miranda July, and Built to Spill. Steinke studied art and analog electronic music at The Evergreen State College, and received his MFA in Art and Technology Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has exhibited and performed with his robotic inventions all over the country in festivals, academic institutions, art galleries, and rock venues.