Australian band The Cat Empire are best known as the epitome of the party band. Their music is an often irresistible mix of latin, jazz, ska, piano rock and whatever else happens along the way. Falling, from their 2010 album Cinema, is a great specimen in this regard. Somehow a brass band, guitars, a scratch DJ, several layers of keyboards and a singer stay infectiously together. It works in large part because of their great keyboardist Oliver McGill. His merengue inspired rhythm piano is the spinal column of the song. He holds everything together and everything radiates out from there. Yet in a band with a full horn section, why does he play an electric keyboard? There aren’t any elaborate effects and the band clearly isn’t just looking for an easy piano replacement (seeing as they’re already lugging turntables). The keyboard synthesizer just provides exactly the right sound at the right time. Sometimes it’s a Hammond organ, sometimes it’s bar piano. Even better, sometimes, it’s both (well, with the second keyboard anyway).
Thanks for this kind of flexibility of sound usually goes, at least partly, to Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer*. His creation was one of the first popular electronic instruments, quickly making a mark on American music after it was demonstrated at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967.
As young teenager the quiet and reserved Moog didn’t feel at home on the tough streets in his neighborhood. “I think it was primarily my nature, the patch cords in my brain. I was just a shy, goofy, unsocial kid. I always seemed to be out of it no matter what social circle I landed in… These kids were forever beating each other up…and I couldn’t relate to it.”
To escape, he won a spot at one of the best science high schools in the US, The Bronx High School for Science. Instead of refuge though, he found another place he didn’t fit in: “here are all these super-vain, loquacious, garrulous Jews and I was out of that too because I was a shy kid and all these kids had fathers who were lawyers, they were businessmen, they talked smoothly and urbanely and I never saw my father talk that way.”
Moog’s father was an engineer for Con Edison and one of the first amateur radio operators. Solace from the social worlds in which Bob felt out of place, both from the tough neighborhood kids and the urbane ones at Bronx Science, was found in his dad’s basement workshop. It was there that he started experimenting with vacuum tubes, oscillators and capacitors. He built his first Theremin as a 15 year old in 1949 and even brought it to school to perform (see the great photo of him with it at the Moog Foundation’s site). And while he admits that first one didn’t work very well, his love for the instrument was a lifelong project that began in that basement.
So along with thanking Bob Moog and the other electronic innovators, there’s a small place to thank Bronx Science too. What if he’d fit right in? What if he’d loved it there? What if he’d found all the comfort he needed in the science lab instead of his dad’s workshop? Not to say he didn’t stick with science, his PhD in Engineering Physics from Cornell says otherwise, but the seeds of his lasting contribution to music were sown tinkering at home. And we’ll never know how The Cat Empire and others like them might have sounded without that.
Pinch, T., & Trocco, F. (2002). Analog days: The invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
*Technically, the keyboard McGill plays isn’t all synthesizer. The beautiful red Nord Electro can be played as samples of digital and analog pianos or it can be played with digitally emulated sounds. It can’t be played with a split keyboard though, hence the two layers to get two different sounds at the same time. Also, look closely at the video and you’ll see that he has modified it so it now reads Nerd Electro.