di Giulia Sarno
[Robert K L Wheeler joined Pere Ubu in 1994, and has played the theremin, synthesizers and a variety of electronic tools with them since. As great-great-grand nephew of Thomas Alva Edison, he has been President of the Edison Birthplace Association in Milan, Ohio, since early 1980s. We met him in Bologna, while he was setting up for a Pere Ubu show at Locomotiv club on April 1, 2016, and got him to talk about his gear. Photos by David Matteini]
What kind of equipment do you use today with Pere Ubu, and how has it changed since you joined the band in 1994?
ROBERT WHEELER: I started off with big samplers, [Ensoniq] ASR-10s, and my EML-101, which is still a major part of my sound, even though I don’t use it live anymore. They got too heavy, too bulky. For a while I went with two iPads, and those were very convenient. But they just don’t have the sound, and they just don’t have the… analog. I had gone digital for a while, especially with the samplers and such. Now I have this little box, a BOSS Dr. Sample SP-303. Allen [Ravenstine, whom Wheeler replaced in the band] had tape recorders, I use this instead of that. It just plays little samples.
So I got rid of the iPads. I use one iPad just because I need an organ blast, and I need a really spacy, airy sound. Otherwise I use analog, like this Gakken SX-150 Mark-II: this is a wonderful little box, 35 dollars including shipping.
And I’ve got the Korg MS-20 (mini), I got that about two months ago, brand new. This has considerably different architecture than the EML, the way the filters filter is really cool, but the EML has four oscillators and this has two. It has got different filters, how you put stuff together is completely different. I don’t find these as playable, they are great for setting up a sound and hitting the sound, and changing filters, but you can’t make them, like, explode, you know?
For that I use the theremin, because this gives me the most versatility. Mine that I flew over with got broken on the flight, so I had to buy this one in England. My antennas are different than most people’s antennas. The first theremin I built had copper triangles on the top, and depending on how I approach the triangle, from the side, up front, or flat on, it gives me a different feel. When you have a straight chrome pole it means nothing, no matter which direction I approach it, it doesn’t do a thing, it’s all the same. I got used to touching the copper, you just bring your sweaty hand along the edge and it crackles beautifully. And I use another volume antenna for the pitch antenna because it gives me a little more variety than a straight chrome pipe, more ways to jump into the sound.
This is called The Box, this is the only one of these ever made, it’s a prototype. Dean Batute of Kyron Music made it, apparently it was given to The Edge and he didn’t want it, it made his guitar sound too hard, so I have a friend in Toronto who said “Robert, I have this very cool box, would you like it?” and I was like “Yeah!”. You know, theremins are always making a noise until you put your hand near them, but this one keeps it quiet, I have to step on the pedal to let the sound out. And I have filters to filter the theremin sound with. So it gives me another oscillator, speed and depth and three different ranges, cut-off… when I really rip it up it gives you that “wah-wah-wah-wah“, it really accentuates it much more. I don’t use the resonance very much, I just never did. It’s a wonderful box, it’s also called Fish killer because once they used it at a party, and there was this big fish tank, they went really hard on the filters and resonance, then they turned to the tank and all the fishes were floating on the water surface, dead…
[And this is what all this looks like on stage]
img: Robert K L Wheeler © David Matteini