That 1 Guy is more than happy to lay some Magic Pipe

Mike Silverman, a.k.a. That 1 Guy, takes the tradition of the one-man band and hurls it into the future. The Californian musician, whose latest album is titled The Moon Is Disgusting, is the inventor and master of an astonishing metallic contraption he has dubbed the Magic Pipe. With this technologically enhanced instrument, he creates songs and soundscapes rich in tribal beats, dance grooves, and percussive rhythms.

A former jazz bassist, Silverman spent three years designing the Pipe, and another year painstakingly building it from stainless-steel tubes and an array of electronic components. The two-metre-tall instrument bears some resemblance to a harp, with a single bass string running down the long front section and a lighter-gauge tenor string attached to the rear.

“I slap, strike, pluck, bow, and slide along the strings for melody and rhythm,” explains Silverman, reached at his home in Berkeley, California. “In addition, there are 13 trigger sensors placed all over the Pipe that activate samples I’ve made. Every one of these is operated by a different configuration of effects pedals and has its own unique sound, so each song will have a different set of textures.

“Two contact mikes pick up the resonance of the strings slapping, which adds a high-end attack,” he continues. “I also do some loop sampling, and have lots of distortion boxes and other devices to keep things interesting. It’s pretty complex. Playing the Pipe can feel like juggling. As a one-man band, you want to have as much variety and sonic density as possible.”

Above his mesh of industrial-sounding techno-funk and electronica, Silverman delivers rapid-fire lyrics penned in a darkly humorous and surrealistic vein. Songs like “It’s Raining Meat”, from That 1 Guy’s 2004 album Songs in the Key of Beotch, recall fellow Californian avant-gardists Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, this thanks to lyrics like: “No stars up high/In the midnight sky/Just falling flesh/Meaty sheets/’Cause the rat’s fart/Stinks like wheat.”

“I think of the words as another part of the instrument, rhythmically and sonically,” Silverman says. “I always like the way they sound along with what I’m doing with the Pipe. I’m still trying to be a storyteller with the lyrics, but at the same time they’re so crazy and abstract that they fit right into the grooves—which are pretty crazy and abstract in themselves.”

Despite the edginess of most of his writing, Silverman also displays a mellower side. “Rainbow”, from The Moon Is Disgusting, is a 14-minute instrumental in which he surrounds a shimmering version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, played on musical saw, with layers of gently mesmeric, Middle Eastern–flavoured melody.

“That song takes people on an inward journey, something the Magic Pipe can do so well,” says Silverman. “It’s full of discoveries and surprises for everyone, myself included. Even when I have specific sounds in my head, the way they come out on the instrument is always different, which is really cool. There are always elements I can’t foresee. The Pipe seems almost to have a life of its own, and the sonic and rhythmic possibilities it opens up are limitless.”

That 1 Guy plays the Railway Club on Saturday and Sunday (April 5 and 6).