Seeing Ken Butler live is an extraordinary experience. The Brooklyn-based artist and musician recently played to a packed house at Berlin’s Cyberfest, where he stuck a small microphone in his mouth and started knocking his forehead with his knuckles. Giggles swept through the crowd as he hinged the mic to his jeans and voraciously played his zipper. He combines tennis rackets, knives, toothbrushes, and umbrellas into D.I.Y. masterpieces, handcrafted instruments that transform common objects into the extraordinary.
Since making an instrument he calls the Axe Violin the late 1970s, Butler has been making his own lightweight, practical and unpretentious musical instruments. Described as "Duchampian Dada meets hybrid Hindu Hendrix," his work has been featured in highbrow museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (with one performance on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show). And to think this all began at art school; a combination of visual arts and a passion for music – and an eye for the surreal, his Hybrid Instruments include a machine gun violin and a metal detector cello.
Don’t read too much into it, however. Butler is not the type to wax philosophical. Having created over 400 instruments in the past 30 years, he brings a refreshing clarity to the whys and how’s of what he is doing. The legend himself talks to us about his instruments, touring and what he thinks of regular guitars.
Ken Butler plays his hybrid string instruments made from ordinary stuff.
Noisey: How did you get into experimental music?
Ken Butler: I had played the viola as a kid and picked up the guitar after I heard Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix live when I was 20, though I was always more serious about my visual art. At one point, I was told I needed to choose between the two disciplines, but I was determined to fuse them together and building sculptural instruments seemed to satisfy that desire in a direct way. The timbre and unique character of the instruments pointed me in a musical direction. Later, as a result of some good press, nearly 300 people came to my very first Hybrid Instrument performance, also including elaborate projections. I got a standing ovation and was hooked.
What was the first instrument you built? Do you still play that one today?
I created my first instrument quite by accident in 1978, by adding a fingerboard, tailpiece, tuning pegs, and bridge to a small rusty hatchet which I then played as a violin. The Axe Violin was both my first sound piece and sculptural object and it sounded decent amplified with a contact microphone. So the first hybrid was a work of art first and foremost and I had no real concept at the time that it would ever be used for performance. Eventually, I played it in over 100 performances although later replaced it with the Hammer Violin which sounded better and weighed less.
Where does your interest lie in the idea of the hybrid?
After the Axe Violin worked so well and was so relatively easy to assemble, I started looking at what available objects might work as string instruments with as little modification as possible, often combining several of them together. It is perhaps the path of least resistance to building an instrument: no sanding, carving, finishing, just cut and paste, or screw together various parts. Transformation, recycling, re-purposing, assemblage, and the like was my motivation. Hence, the term "hybrid" which I began using in 1978 to describe them.
The tennis racket has been a base for your instrument for years. What do you love most about it?It’s not that I love tennis rackets, or hockey sticks, canes, etc. It’s that they have the parameters that fit the bill for building a hybrid: head-neck-body configuration, relatively light weight and made of laminated wood or aluminum, and are flat, stiff, strong, durable, and cheap and readily available.
The machine gun violin is gorgeous, but scary. What was the motive behind this one?
Well, the great Man Ray, a hero of mine, coined the Violins/Violence idea, and there’s the old machine gun/violin case gangster thing, but interestingly enough you could barely find another object that is closer in shape to a violin body, wider on the ends and thin in the middle, for the bow to pass easily over the middle, and the chin rest on the back handle is a natural fit. That one dates to about 1990.
The metal detector cello is equally fascinating. How much are the materials a statement?
Again, it is often only about the shape, weight, and “practicality” rather than a conceptual statement about the object, although I accept random association as a compelling idea and relate to the Surrealist notions about that. Oddly enough, in the case of almost all the instruments, the sound is an accidental by-product of the iconographic ergonomics of the “body” of the instrument. All the hybrids require a contact mic and guitar amplifier to function.
I can't image you taking this on tour through customs.
The guns don’t travel on planes too well, although, believe it or not I once walked on a plane many years ago with the Axe Violin after playing it for the security guy. Can you imagine?
How have your instruments changed over the years?
More than 30 years of building – I could say assembling – have taught me some tricks and some clues about what will work well, and I have honed my skills, but there is still a similar outlook and pattern, the idea of “bricolage,” using whatever is “at hand” and keeping it pretty simple. In addition to the nearly 400 hybrids, there are also about 7 “grand piano” sculptures that project images and the like and interactive installations, video, lots of collages, assemblage works, and other artworks in addition to the instruments, so it has expanded, but still maintains the same sensibility as the first one. There are well over 400. Needless to say, it is a bit of an obsession.
During your live shows you do all sorts of things. At what point did you start attaching a mic to your zipper and playing that as an instrument?
Well, there is a particular piece where I start out playing a large hybrid as a bass, then a guitar, etc., then loop a rhythm and continue to play others over that groove, reducing them in size down to the palm-sized ones, and finally it’s just me. A zipper is simply the most obvious, accessible, and interesting object left other than your own body to amplify. To me, it just seemed logical and direct rather than funny or edgy, which is funny.
How much are you influenced by Marcel Duchamp and the idea of the readymade?
Duchamp is a big influence in many ways, most specifically for his readymades, although I have turned the ant-utility aspect back on it head by transforming selected objects to (re)function as something else. I don’t really consider myself to be a conceptual artist and don’t share his minimalist “visual indifference” notion as there is a strong formal and “practical” aspect to my object-making. Think Schwitters perhaps. I would have to say I am very influenced by the Dadaists, Cubists, Constructivists, and Futurists… a time when there was amazing invention, discovery and transformation in the arts. Oh, and DaVinci was no slouch as an inventor.
How do you make sure your instruments stay durable, especially on tour?
I continue to be quite surprised how well they have held up over the years considering the often humble nature of their construction. I can pack up to a dozen of them in a single guitar case or gig bag without any real problems. One key is that there are often only one or two strings per “neck” so the tension levels are much lower compared to a guitar or bass for example. Most importantly, for the solidarity, they are extremely small and light compared to other string instruments, and essentially solid bodied without fragile resonating chambers. In addition, they are made with screws and nuts and bolts that can be tightened and therefore also repaired quite easily. Most of them are no more than an inch thick.
How do you use the toothbrush in your performances? What about the paintbrush?
Well, unlike a screwdriver, pliers, a pencil, scissors, cell phone, or hundreds of other common everyday objects, a toothbrush has the desired flat head-neck-body configuration for adding a single string, a flexible yet stiff handle for bending the string, and stiff bristles which sound great when amplified, as does the paintbrush. It has thick, dense fly-fishing line as the single string which can be stretched to change pitch and when slightly rosined can also be bowed like a violin. What can I say, it sort of works. Oddly, only a select few objects of that size really work well for my purposes, although everyone thinks the opposite is the case.
Yikes! And the knife?
The knife handle is the same thickness as a standard guitar headstock so a tuning peg fits perfectly, the blade is slightly bendable but stiff so I can change pitch, and it is rather dramatic and enters into the realm of performance art perhaps when I put it to my neck as a violin. I am pushing up on it to bend it and the tip and blade have been filed a bit so it’s not as edgy as it appears – that is a nice double-entendre, no?
What do you have upcoming? What is next for you?
Currently I have been making a group of collage/assemblage works that are not functional as instruments but use parts of broken guitars and other string instruments as compositional elements for an upcoming exhibition and performance at a venue near me in Brooklyn. I am also seeking a large venue for my large-scale installation project called “Tilted Picnic” which involves a very playable cello made from a fiberglass Tuna Fish repro and many other objects. And, quite oddly, I have been playing (and buying or trading a few), dare I say it, um, regular electric guitars. Wow, they really work well as musical instruments.
Wow. That was intense. Follow Nadja on Twitter at @nadjasayej