Outside the lines

For her latest column, roving A&E columnist Allison Frank highlights Bob Moog. While the synth wizard’s contributions to our modern soundscape obviously require no electrification, many might not realize that Moog is based right here in these hills. For more, read on:

When I was in college, my grandmother dragged me to see Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, because she couldn’t get any of her friends to go with her. As we emerged into the blinding Florida sunlight, she astutely observed, “This is the future.”

It was the music she meant: The movie’s soundtrack, as Clockheads know, was vital to the picture’s desolate futurescape — exemplified by young Alex’s bizarre love affair with Beethoven and “ultraviolence.”

Making the carnage annoyingly palatable was the brilliant juxtaposition of the first-ever all-electronic soundtrack. The entire score was performed on a Moog synthesizer by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos.

“Other people were designing synthesizers, but Carlos happened to use mine for her million-seller album Switched-On Bach — which propelled the Moog synthesizer into public consciousness,” begins Moog in our recent interview.

Gruff but articulate, Moog chronicles his Herculean career with carefully worn precision — obviously not for the first time. Thoughtfully crafted to downplay his celebrity, his business card reads “Grand Poobah,” and his Tercel is painted in cartoony vignettes, including a lopsided illustration of a theremin on the front bumper.

But there’s no denying his status as music royalty.

“I started building theremins at age 14, when I bought a kit from a hobby magazine. It was oddball, a weird thing, but I have been building them ever since,” he recaps. (For those not familiar with the instrument, it was the love child of a 1920s-era inventor named Leon Theremin. The theremin is “played” without being touched; one positions oneself in front of the instrument, evoking its unearthly sounds by moving one’s arms and hands through its variable frequencies).

The theremin’s unique sound is perhaps most instantly recognizable in ’40s and ’50s-era sci-fi films like The Lost Weekend, in which it played a key role. But thanks in part to a documentary highlighting the instrument — and the efforts of Moog’s local company, Big Briar, which still makes them — the instrument has enjoyed a big comeback in the last decade. As recently as last week, Moog received a phone call from the equipment manager of hard-techno giants Nine Inch Nails.

“They use two of our theremins on stage,” he says nonchalantly.

And while the theremin is inarguably an important predecessor in the world of electronic music, it was Moog’s 1964 analog synthesizer that forever reconfigured the industry.

“In 1964, my fledgling company started making synthesizer-type ‘stuff,’ but we called [them] electronic-music modules, because at that time there was no such thing as a synthesizer,” he points out. (It wasn’t until 1967 that the word actually popped up in the vernacular.)

“The late ’60s was a time of great ferment in our culture, and one of the things that was fermenting was pop music,” Moog remembers. When he built the Minimoog — a second-generation instrument pre-wired together so it could be used on stage — the rock world glommed onto the new technology like white on rice.

Immediately showcased by the Moody Blues, The Beach Boys, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Beatles (on Sgt. Pepper), these sound-effect devices exponentially escalated both performance and recording capabilities. And the momentum never stopped.

A lot of folks might think that someone like Moog would prefer to live in a more accessible, metropolitan area instead of out here in the boondocks, but the advice of longtime friend (and master violin-maker) George Kelischek led him to Asheville in 1978.

At Moog’s immaculate factory on Riverside Drive, analog products are still made. As he holds the famous Mooger Fooger (an analog effects module) in his beefy hands, he explains: “Everything was analog until the ’80s. Then digital became important, and now analog is experiencing a nostalgic kick. With an analog instrument, there are knobs that you can turn, as opposed to digital, where you have to push buttons and go down menus to make effects.

“Nobody makes [products] exactly like ours, but every musician who plays live or has a little studio owns a collection of devices like this,” he continues. “Factories in China that make cheap effects boxes compete with us for the same consumer dollars. But ours is more expensive — and,” he pauses, “better!”

Asked about today’s music scene, Moog lets it fly: “Hip-hop is fun, good techno is really interesting, but music itself seems to be blowing apart now, crumbling. Although something could rise out of the ashes, there are all these factions. No one listens to anybody else and, with every day that passes, we have less of a unified popular culture.”

Today, Moog’s business has come full circle. Later this year — and for the first time in decades — Big Briar will trot out a new product line under the Moog trademark (messy legal issues in the ’80s caused the name to fall into disuse).

Unfortunately, at that time, Moog was “having a food fight” with his ex-wife, and missed the boat when his name went up for auction. When he came up for air, he discovered that a guy named Don Martin was left holding the trademark.

“I thought he had to get my permission [to use my name], so I instituted a lawsuit against him. Only last month did we settle the case, when a federal court ruling gave me back my name,” Moog says. “Technically, I am entitled to use my own name and persona — and I’m lucky I prevailed.”

Hear, hear!

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