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Broken Spindles: For the Faint of Heart

story by tim mcmahan




Lazy-i: October 2, 2002

Broken Spindles
w/Now It's Overhead, Azure Ray
Tuesday, Oct. 8
9 p.m.
Sokol Underground

13th & Martha

The creation of Omaha's newest synth-driven instrumental project, Broken Spindles, is really the story of how a long, Chicago winter changed the life of the project's leader, Joel Petersen.

Broken Spindles is Petersen, who also happens to be the bassist for Omaha synth-rock band The Faint. He told his story during a break in sound check via cell phone from The Black Cat in Washington, D.C., last Friday, where Broken Spindles was slated to open for Azure Ray and Now It's Overhead as part of a tour that brings all three bands to Omaha's Sokol Underground Oct. 8.

The project began at the end of 2001. The Faint, which had already gained national attention as thee up-and-coming electronic indie band to watch, had just finished a tour in support of its latest Saddle Creek Records release, Danse Macabre, and was taking a break before hitting the road again, this time as the opener for No Doubt. While Faint lead singer, Todd Baechle, chose to discover the mysteries of Thailand, Petersen set off for a land just as foreign in his mind -- Chicago.

"It was really the first time we as a band decided to take a month or two off, and I spent it with my girlfriend (Geraldine Vo) in Chicago, which was a new city and a new environment for me," Petersen said. "Somewhere in the middle of that, a friend of mine in L.A. asked me to put together an accompanying track for a skateboarding video."

Within a week using a laptop powered by Reason, a music-making software that mixes sound effects with synths, samplers, drum machines, loop players, and a sequencer, Petersen came up with three pulsing tracks.

"It was relatively easy and fun to do," he said. His filmmaker friend ultimately never used the tracks, but with more time on his hands and nothing to do while his girlfriend was at work, Petersen forged ahead to create an entire CD's-worth of music inspired by the Windy City and its stark winter weather.




Could the tracks have been used fodder for new Faint music? "I think it has similarities to The Faint," Petersen said. "I could have brought it to the band, but it would have been changed quite a bit after five heads had altered it."

Instead, Petersen took the tracks to Mike Mogis, who operates Lincoln's Presto! Recording Studios with his brother, A.J. Mogis. Mike traveled with The Faint on the No Doubt tour, running the band's sound. "Even before then, I had wanted to do a project with Mike," Petersen said. "Music created on a laptop can sound cold and sterile. It's a challenge to bring it to the real world and make it sound like real instruments. I figured the songs would have more depth if I replaced my sounds with music played by humans."

Mogis and Petersen sat down and outlined how to recreate the recording using real instruments, including hammered dulcimer, glockenspiel, vibraphone and electric guitar, most played by the more versatile Mogis. Petersen then reworked the synthesizer sounds, and the final result is Broken Spindles' eponymous debut CD, released in September on TIger Style Records.

"Broken Spindles is the name for an improvisational project that I was involved with quite a few years ago with a group of people," Petersen said, adding the he got permission to use the name for the CD. "I tried to capture the spirit of being relatively free using a laptop. In my mind, it was a continuation of that old project."

The CD is pure electronic disturbance, a cacophony of click-clack doo-dads strung together by visceral buzzings, teeth-jarring static, tiny (and not so tiny) digital explosions all cut nicely with the non-digital human sounds of throaty bells, chimes and glockenspiel.

Petersen has crafted a riot of synthesized tones and brutally fused it with glass-breaking dance beats, urban bass lines, and freewheeling guitar riffs to create a sound that exists somewhere between a sweaty dance club and your headphones.

When he goes for the darkened dance floor, like on the irresistible "Downtown Venues," he works every throbbing beat for peak rump-shaking intensity. "Connection in Progress," with its bone-breaking rhythm track, hard-on bass line, white-knuckle guitar, and the usual battery of whizzy synths, most resembles something that could have been turned into a Faint song. It rumbles forward at a gallop-pace like watching a white stripe flicker in the headlights as you fly down the middle of a deserted road at 110, lightening glowing in the distance.

For every rump-shaker, there's a weirdo track, like the club-footed "A Dinner Party Ambiance" that lays organ tones and glockenspiel over a series of fuzzy synth-powered explosions; or the snap-crackle-pop insect march called "Gamey" that could be the soundtrack for a plague of metallic locusts.

The ultimate head trip comes at the end. The first three or four minutes of "Twitching and Restless" are characterized by the most striking melody on the disc, a beautiful tone play reminiscent of a soundtrack to a grainy 1970s European film. As the song stumbles forward, Petersen insidiously adds more and more buzzing synths, first as a counter melody before giving way completely to an electronic cloud of distorted noises that sizzle atop a thump-thump-thump rhythm track, finally devolving into pure, unbearable chaos that lasts for eight or nine minutes before finally dropping off into a quiet static rhythm. At just over 14 minutes, Peterson says "Twitching…" had to be on the CD.

"I've always been interested in the moods and textures that noise creates," he said. "To put a 9-minute noise texture on the end of that song was a weird decision, but it was important to the album. It sums up what I was going through being in a different city and the process of writing and working with Mike."


"I figured the songs would have more depth if I replaced my sounds with music played by humans."


"This is a visual thing. It's not about people jumping around and getting sweaty."


For Petersen, that brief time away from his band in Chicago was a turning point in his career. "It was the first time that I really had to myself to figure out what I wanted to do as an artist and musician," he said. "I've always been performing with people, and that's extremely valuable to me, but this kind of proved that I can finish something on my own."

And the rest of The Faint couldn't be happier. "They're all extremely supportive," Petersen said. "We're all supportive of anything that any one of us does creatively and artistically."

Before reworking the tracks with Mogis, Petersen had sent the laptop-powered demos to a few labels. Tiger Style Records, which has put out a number of instrumental-only CDs by the likes of Tristeza (and Jimmy LaValle side project The Album Leaf) The Mercury Project and The Letter E, immediately took notice. "They thought it was great in demo form," Petersen said. "They were completely blown away by the final product."

Ah, but with a label commitment comes the challenge of promotion, and Petersen had never intended to recreate Broken Spindles live. "I've seen guys perform with laptops and never thought it was a great form of expression," he said. "I knew that I couldn't put a band together, either."

Instead, Petersen decided to turn Broken Spindles into a multi-media project.

"I figured that I'd play bass and have sequenced beats and music, and then invite Geraldine on tour and have her play accordion and keyboards. It would be just the two of us with the main focus being the video."

Shot using a portable Sony DV camera and edited with a Macintosh computer and Final Cut Pro 3.0 software, the support video is a reflection of what was going on in Petersen's head when he created the CD. "It's about finding my niche in a foreign environment," he said. "The footage was shot in Chicago, some in Lincoln and some existed nowhere."

He called Broken Spindles' live performance "the complete opposite" of a Faint concert. "I'm used to playing punk bars where the emphasis is on performance and energy," he said. "This is a visual thing. It's not about people jumping around and getting sweaty." He added that so far, the crowd response has been very positive.

So what comes next for Petersen? The Oct. 8 Sokol Underground date is the last with Now Its Overhead and Azure Ray. It's followed by a performance at the Nov. 1 Tiger Style CMJ Showcase in Brooklyn. Then it's back to The Faint.

"The Faint will tour Europe during the latter half of November and early December, then come home and work on redoing our live set with some new songs and some different technology, hopefully in time for a U.S. tour in spring 2003," Petersen said, adding that there are no plans for a new Faint CD in the foreseeable future.

As for Broken Spindles, "I'm interested in continuing the visual things as well as the music," Peterson said. "Now that I have this figured out, I want to work on the video and music together as a united thing. If it doesn't work, there's no one to blame but me."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly Oct. 2, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.