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Potato Sounds

Adi Gelbart is an Israeli-born, Berlin-based musician who builds his own instruments out of vegetables, kitchen utensils, and, well, anything else he finds lying around his studio laboratory. The songs he makes with this assortment of musical crap...

  INTERVIEW BY AVI PITCHON
PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPH VOY

Adi Gelbart is an Israeli-born, Berlin-based musician who builds his own instruments out of vegetables, kitchen utensils, and, well, anything else he finds lying around his studio laboratory. The songs he makes with this assortment of musical crap-paratus sound like epic analogue Care Bears-meet-Rick Wakeman bleep journeys, punctuated by obscure Star Wars droid sounds, which sum up his ingeniously silly albums. Although he publishes under his own name, on most songs he’ll also enlist the help of his fictitious psychedelic teddy-bear backing band, The Lonesomes. Now, all this might well make him sound every inch the electronic musican cliché of mad scientist, sound explorer and complete wanker, but actually, Gelbart hates these people as much as we do. We met him one rainy afternoon and spoke about the mind-numbingly generic nature of modern electronic music and why what he does isn’t that. 

Vice: When did you first create an instrument of your own invention and why? 

Adi Gelbart:
I was a fan of Joe Zawinul’s 60s analogue sounds but I could neither afford nor get hold of any analogue instruments, so the option of building some on my own came out of necessity. I liked being able to determine how the instruments work and sound, as opposed to being dependent on what the manufacturers think is interesting. 

My father had an academic engineering and electronics background, so I had someone to turn to. I asked him whether building such things is complicated or not. The next step was buying one of those electronic kits for kids that included instructions for building an oscillator. I’m still using it live today by hooking it up to antennae, or potatoes. 

Did you say potatoes?

Yes.

That’s very analogue. How does it work?

I connect two electrodes from the oscillator to the potatoes. The pitch of the oscillator is determined by the amount of electric resistance in the potatoes, so whenever I poke them they make a different sound depending on the size of the potato and where I poke it. 

Aren’t you upset that you are surrounded by so many charlatan laptop musicians? They aren’t really musicians—their agenda is often mainly scene-related. They exploit the nerd-as-chick-magnet trend but it’s a lie. You actually know how to play. 

Oh, I’m very passionate about this issue. People recreate sounds, beats and whole tracks that were already done a thousand times, in the push of a button. This perpetuates a style instead of allowing it to evolve. It’s hard to find electronic music that is creative and imaginative today. Take the amazing Moog records by people like Dick Hyman, Piero Umiliani and Raymond Scott. It is a point in history I feel a need to return to. Where would electronic music have gone if it hadn’t taken the direction of techno and dance as a result of certain technological changes? 

Who knows. I guess you’ll be accused of prog snobbery, and of being opposed to some fundamental emotional impetus made expressable thanks to punk’s DIY revolution. But is this division still relevant?

Even if you play punk, you need to know how to play. I don’t mean you need to be a virtuoso like Joe Satriani, but you have to develop a connection to the instrument and find your own language playing it. There is an initial commitment you invest in finding yourself in relation to an instrument. That’s why I listen to more guitar music. In electronic music, you can hop to some friend’s house and come out an hour later with a track. There is none of this process of discovery. So in that sense it is not equivalent to punk at all, it’s just charlatanism and laziness.


Mass Hypnosis by Proxy is out now on Defekt Records