Happy birthday to Moog

Fast friends: When Eric Norlander first met Robert Moog in '97, he suggested they collaborate on a synthesizer project. "He gave me an enthusiastic ‘Yeah!,'" Norlander says. "Go for the best, right?” Photo courtesy of the musician

Tribute concert raises funds for Dr. Bob’s Sound School

Synthesist Erik Norlander first met the late Robert Moog in January 1997 at the annual National Association of Music Merchants trade show in Southern California. At the time, Norlander was the synthesizer product manager for instrument company Alesis and was designing an analog polyphonic synth called the Andromeda. “I had a green light from the CEO to staff up for the project, and so I attempted to assemble my dream team,” Norlander says. “I approached Bob at a Keyboard magazine breakfast event and asked if he would be interested. He gave me an enthusiastic ‘Yeah!’ and we talked about him working as the electrical design engineer on the synth. Go for the best, right?”

As it turned out, Moog — who would have turned 80 on May 23 — was already working on what would become the Moog Voyager, so he wasn’t able to help with the Andromeda project. But that didn’t prevent a friendship between the two synthesizer enthusiasts. In fact, Norlander and the father-son team of Steven and Drew Heller will play a tribute show on Thursday, May 8, at the Isis Restaurant & Music Hall. Proceeds from the concert benefit Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, the Moog Foundation’s core educational program.

After that trade show, Norlander and Moog kept in touch, and every time they saw one another, Moog would ask about the Alesis synth. “And very specific questions, too. Things like, ‘How did you get the oscillators to keep from locking with so many in such a tight space?’” Norlander remembers. “He had the curiosity and enthusiasm of a little kid but the brainpower, experience and wisdom of a much older man — a pretty cool combination, if you ask me.”

A similar spark attracted Steven Heller. The Grammy-winning producer and composer met Moog and his family in 1978 in Madison County and quickly bonded over shared interests. “Both families lived way out in the country, and we had the music connection,” Heller says. “In the early ’80s, Bob and I wrote some music together and traveled together to speak at a digital music conference. In the following years, Bob would come over to the studio to play theremin on projects I was producing. Most of all, we were friends.”

He continues, “Bob was a generous mentor, lending me his Minimoog synthesizer and, soon after, giving me the opportunity to learn to use a Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, which became my main tool for composition and production during the ’80s and ’90s.” Heller will open the Isis show with his son Drew, the guitarist for Asheville-born Afro-fusion band Toubab Krewe.

Growing up thinking of Moog primarily as a family friend, the younger Heller made a different connection in 2005 when Moog, then critically ill with brain cancer, played Toubab Krewe’s debut album. “Bob’s daughter, Michelle [Moog-Koussa], told us that he had a transcendent night of listening to our music that transported him into a joyful place. I’m grateful to have been a part of his musical life,” Drew says. “He’s a creative inspiration and a friend in spirit. Moog instruments continue to be my main companion to the guitar.”

For the tribute show, Drew plans on playing 12-string acoustic, nylon string and electric guitars, and a couple of Moogerfooger analog effects modules while Steven sings and accompanies him on guitar. The two have been playing together ever since Drew could hold a guitar, but the set of what Drew calls “music in the spirit of joy and sonic exploration” will be their first as a duo.

Norlander will perform his album The Galactic Collective from start to finish — similar to what he did at The Orange Peel in 2009 for the foundation benefit concert Moogus Operandi. Local musicians backed Norlander at that show; at The Isis, “I’ll have my actual touring band onstage, and so the set will of course have a different feel to it — closer to the studio recording, but still with lots of room for improvisation and sonic adventure,” he says.

Bassist Mark Matthews and drummer Nick LePar (who also performed on The Galactic Collective) and guitarist Jeff Kollman will join Norlander in Asheville. The album is a re-imagining of the musician’s 10 favorite works. “I had written so many instrumental pieces for various projects — things like intros, overtures, preludes, interludes, epilogues, finales and that sort of thing — that it reached the point where I thought they really should be represented as their own dedicated album and not a piece of some other album, even as great as those other albums are,” Norlander says.

His Isis set will primarily feature the Moog Voyager, his main lead synth at all concerts, and some tinkering with vintage devices from the Moog Foundation. The actual lineup will depend on the components’ current condition, but the plan is to include a ’60s Moog modular system, an Apollo polyphonic synth and a ’70s Minimoog Model D. “Despite their age and sometimes quirky behavior, those instruments are all so easy to play,” Norlander says. “Bob really designed instruments for musicians and that pure ethic still shines through in these original instruments more than 40 years later.”




Tribute to Dr. Bob with Erik Norlander, plus Steven and Drew Heller


Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com


Thursday, May 8, at 8 p.m. $18


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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