Flint’s water crisis has been a dark cloud looming over the city for the last few weeks. The national news reports are finally catching up to the everyday struggles that residents of the Michigan city face for something as simple as clean, drinkable water. But even in downtrodden times, the resilient people of Flint continue to make due with the resources they have. Tucked away in the Mott Park area, with affordable housing and just far enough away from the really rundown parts of town, Ryan Gregory is a shining beacon of bizarreness the town is capable of producing.
Ryan and I began a friendship a decade ago when our local bands played around Flint in basements, coffee shops, churches and our homebase, the Flint Local 432. He was young and eager, like the rest of us. As adulthood began to drag us into our different paths, I went on writing conventional pop song structure music and turned my band into a business while Ryan was one of the few who really became submerged in his art without compromise. I’d see his one-man band (including this pieced together pedal contraption that could play a whole drum kit while he played guitar), his annual Halloween performance as Mr. Creepy (garage full of masked people playing junk instruments), and other traces of his art around town. As a jaded musician, I was still continually impressed and made it my mission for close to a year to sit down and find out more about how he worked.
“Man, I actually went to a grocery store the other day. It was so weird. There were so many choices of bread. Like, why would you need all of those options? That doesn’t weird you out?” Ryan once asked me, perfectly capturing his essence—a neo-hippie, living in the wrong time period.
I walked into Ryan’s home for the first time in a few years and everything seemed to be much cleaner than I remembered. It no longer appeared to be a hoarder’s domain, but a concentrated creative hub. Two cases of water delivered by the National Guard and local police sat in the kitchen. The house had the expected aroma of lentil soup courtesy of his girlfriend Hannah’s cooking.
The kitchen table was covered in containers full of miscellaneous parts and a stack of blueprints and schematics. The prototype sketches ranged from a traveling bubble machine to a project simply titled, “Moon Bike.” The endearing, innovative weirdness of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia comes to mind. The wacky and sometimes nonsensical art installations I heard about in the past began to turn into focused ideas that I knew were now feasible. Representatives from around the city and even Burning Man festival began to show interest and reach out.
As the tour continued I noticed right off the bat the familiar theme of thumb pianos and guitar pickups attached to everything. Before I could crack a joke, I was shown how a small wood slab, a rack of screws, and the ends of a rake were the simple components for making a perfect thumb piano. According to our dumpster diving protagonist, the ones sold in stores that are around $80 are garbage but ones made from literal garbage were free and somehow better quality.
The basement studio was as much of an art museum as it was a jam space. The instruments included a few of his signature thumb pianos, but it got weirder the more you looked. We played with a tea pot containing a little bit of water that plugged into reverb pedals, pieces of broken guitars, and a door Frankensteined together to make a cello, cassettes of whale sounds put into a tape player and scratched like a turntable, and my favorite item: his weirdo junk guitar that looks like a prop from the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. Apparently there was one just like it before that had an unfortunate end.
“I had a cheap Japanese Tesco guitar so I added bicycle brake levers, reel to reel wheels, and random stuff so I can bend the strings. I had a circuit bent Barbie toy drum machine inside of it with contact so I can change the speed and beats with different buttons. I had thumb pianos all over it.”
After making a demo video on YouTube of his new prototype guitar, Ryan received messages from interested parties, including one seemingly promising offer.
“One guy wrote me and said, ‘I make caskets and I’m a professional furniture builder. I want to make this guitar come to life. Draw up a design, find out what parts you need.’ I drew up all these blueprints, got the parts and sent it to him. I sent him a neck, pickups, pots, electronics and switches.”
Without proper patenting and legal action, builders are easy targets for businesses trying to capitalize off of them.
“Basically that was the end of it, he never contacted me again after that and I couldn’t get a hold of him. I had to re-order most of it to do this again, other than the tuners.”
After this story, Ryan remembers to give me a heads up to not write about a few of the blueprints and demonstrations shown to me.
Ryan is a musician at heart and wanted to use his new creations for more than art shows. For the last few years, a neighborhood in Flint has been throwing massive shows and house parties. The community spectacle reaches its peak during the annual Halloween celebration and performance by Mr. Creepy.
“My birthday is on Halloween and years ago I dressed up as this random character. I don’t know, I was probably just drunk, but I called myself Mr. Creepy. I had this idea to make a crazy junkyard band to play on Halloween. I made these big head masks out of junk and my friends and I wore them. It starts out with a lot of noise, these big horns start playing, a crazy light show is going on, and it’s this crazy junk jam band. Well, I hate the term ‘jam band’ so let’s say it’s more like Tom Waits.”
This year’s Halloween party became DIY Fest. Those in the know of the Flint music scene are invited by word of mouth to detract from drawing attention to local police.
“We wanted to get everyone who doesn’t know how to play music to pick up a weird instrument and start going. No one feels threatened and you get comfortable and have fun. A band called Sadie Lee next door does house shows so they had bands in their basements, another neighbor had bands in their garage then we had our backyard set up with a haunted house entrance. My thought was the cops wouldn’t duck down into this strange hole and climb in to see if we were doing a party in the backyard.”
After showing me around the house and all of the wild homemade instruments, I was handed a box full of assorted pieces, knobs, and a children’s toy drum machine on top. It was the kind many of us had as kids, circular with assorted shapes on top and when pressed, each provided a different sound.
“Have you ever soldered before? Do you want to?” Circuit bending is a trick most noise musicians use to create new instruments out of already existing toys and electronics. I was already overwhelmed and confused, but Ryan assured me if I watched, he could explain it in simple terms. We were going to tweak with the circuit of the drum machine and create new sounds. I’ve seen people do it, but I had no idea how. We went into his makeshift office, which was really just a table in the middle of a room surrounded by piles of drums, keyboards, and anything else he found in dumpsters, or was given to him by friends, or he purchased at thrift stores.
I was instructed to screw off the bottom of the toy. Inside was a simple circuit board with a few wires and I watched as Ryan began tapping around with pieces of metal. The stock drum beat would play from regular tempo to a quick high pitched squeak depending on where he touched. He got the solder gun out and went to work, soldering two wires to the tiny resistor and a guitar knob he pulled out his collection to control the speed. We would tap one of the buttons to start the beat and mess with the knob to make some really strange sounds.
Then Ryan showed me a handful of huge buttons he found in the Guitar Center dumpster worn by employees to promote a sale. He buffed out all of the print on them and connected those to wires which were then connected to the drum machine. “I did a really cool display for kids, like what I’m about to show you. They went crazy with it. They were playing music with their flesh.”
“I can take something that’s conductive like graphite from a pencil, but it also works with your skin,” he said as we pushed down on the button and the beat started to distort and speed up or slow down depending on how much pressure we placed. Instead of a dial or switch we were using our skin to change the sound. It was pretty awesome.
After teaching me how everything worked, he went into his control room and got a new session ready in his recording program. I was instructed to go into the other room and start playing the table of weird instruments I mentioned earlier through a loop pedal and reverb. I created this strange soundscape as Ryan got his one man band setup ready to go. Once we got a groove going, I ran from my station to the other drum kit which had bowls and other unconventional percussion. We jammed and it sounded like a strange mix of Black Keys, Tom Waits, and Stomp. You can hear the results below:
We listened back to the recording and agreed it was just weird enough to use. It’s funny how different we were after the years, but there was still this unspoken chemistry when it came to music. My conventional mind mixed with his out-of-the-box thinking was a good pair. I told him how I was envious of being able to build things. I was like most people, paying more for something I couldn’t do myself. I’d start things and never finish. What Ryan said really stuck with me and feels like a good ending note.
“It’s different. You wrote albums and toured. When I build something new and start jamming on it, I think of something new to build. We both love building in different ways. Life’s too short to not create something new.”
Jonathan Diener is on Twitter - @jonodiener