Duluth native makes music out of junk

Click here for more information about the Duluth music scene. Tim Kaiser calls this the "Anti-Guitar" because it has no neck or fingerboard. It has three tune-able strings that can be plucked or bowed. Photo Credit: Ethan Walker

Nestled in the low-level ceiling basement of the house where his wife grew up, Tim Kaiser sits on a short wooden stool behind two trunks with various little boxes strategically placed on top. He is surrounded by what would seem like useless junk to most people. Shelves filled with batteries, telephone parts, and even little kid toys line every wall of the long and narrow basement. But this is not junk to Kaiser. It is his workshop and music studio.

Kaiser, a Duluth, Minn., native, has been producing experimental music and playing in shows all over the world for the past 35 years. Now, at age 50, he has yet to slow down his inventive and artistic lifestyle. He is always searching for different sounds to work with.

“Sometimes I actually think of a sound first and then figure out, okay, how can I get something to sound like that,” said Kaiser. “And then other times I discover something that already makes a sound that I like.”

Kaiser makes his experimental instruments with whatever he can get his hands on, whether it is a used metal rake, a candle holder or his son’s broken Nintendo DS.

“I have this rule with my kids,” said Kaiser. “When they break toys I get ‘em.”

He finds most of the pieces for his instruments at thrift stores, garage sales, from his neighbor’s old piano or sometimes even on his front porch.

Tim Kaiser used the guts of a modified Gameboy DS to make this instrument. It is played with a stylus. He calls it the "Hollywood" because of the cool metal tag mounted on the box. Photo Credit: Ethan Walker

“They come across weird stuff and think, ‘Oh Kaiser will want this,’ which is good and bad,” said Kaiser. “It means you come home and find interesting things on your porch, and sometimes I use it and sometimes I can’t.”

Most of the electric housings that he uses for the majority of his instruments are made out of old industrial test equipment. The old test equipment is obsolete technology that people throw away all the time and anyone can get for next to nothing. But Kaiser finds this equipment to be very useful and full of parts that he can then take and create something that sounds good.

A lot of what Kaiser does is circuit bending of various electronic devices. These may include his son’s old Fisher Price toy piano or an old telephone. He took basic electricity when he was in junior high school shop class, but the rest of his electric experience is self-taught.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Kaiser. “I know enough to be dangerous and really the bulk of what I do is battery operated anyway, so I’m not going to get electrocuted.”

Kaiser first got into music when he learned how to play the guitar at 14 years old. He then started to play in a few bands.

“I kind of got to this point where I either had to get phenomenally good at the guitar, or think of something else,” said Kaiser.

Before putting the guitar aside, Kaiser played in a punk rock band. Their band did not have good equipment so he would always have to tinker with it and fix it.

Tim Kaiser's basement workshop is full of things he finds at garage sales and salvage yards or that people simply leave on his porch. This is where he builds his instruments. Photo Credit: Ethan Walker

“So I got pretty good at fixing things and then that led to building things,” said Kaiser.

Nowadays, Kaiser headlines for other experimental gigs all over the country. His music is not improvised, like most people hearing it would think. He has a music code and a timer to tell him when he has to go to the next instrument and make the next sound.

“It’s just like if you were playing Beethoven’s piano sonata, you would want to play it pretty much the same every time,” said Kaiser.

Kaiser has played shows in Chicago; Nashville; Cincinnati, Ohio (his favorite venue); and even Hong Kong, just to name a few. He rarely plays gigs in Duluth.

“First of all, Duluth people would get sick of me,” said Kaiser. “I love this town. I grew up here, and the music scene is very big and vibrant but not terribly experimental. I don’t think I have the audience here.”

However, this year he will be playing in the Homegrown Music Festival. He will be at Pizza Luce at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 8.

Experimental Sound Studio

Tim Kaiser: Live @ ESS - October 30, 2010 from Experimental Sound Studio on Vimeo.

Tim Kaiser: Live @ ESS - October 30, 2010 Video Credit: Experimental Sound Studio

To read more about Kaiser, the instruments he makes, and where he is playing next, visit his website.

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