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Think one-man band: cymbals on the elbows, drum on the back, horns under the arms, and tambourines on the knees creating a cacophony of sound designed to annoy passersby. Now, try to envision That 1 Guy, a.k.a. Mike Silverman, as he takes the one-man band concept to a whole new level with the wide-ranging sounds created on his homemade Magic Pipe.
In fact, this 1 Guy sounds like a handful as he drifts through prog-rock overtures, funk dance grooves, avant-classical passages, and mind-melting free jazz expressionism. Though Silverman does have structured songs, his background practically dictates a need for improvisation and "going off on sonic adventures."
A double bassist classically trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Silverman developed his chops as a jazz and funk bassist for hire when not performing with orchestras. Though he played with a plethora of "amazing musicians," Silverman never felt satisfied in role of sideman.
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"The idea of being a one-man band was always in the back of my mind," Silverman says. "When it finally came time to give it a try, it was basically me just figuring out how I could do it as a bass. I had a very percussive style on the upright bass beyond what the instrument was normally capable of. I pushed the boundaries of the instrument itself, but I wasn't satisfied with the sonic range I was getting out of it. I wished I could build an instrument that covered more ground and allowed me to be more dynamic and have a greater sonic range."
That led to numerous trips to hardware and plumbing supply stores, where he aimlessly wandered the aisles in search of the parts to piece it all together.
"I didn't know what the materials were going to be. It was very much a crapshoot," he says with a laugh. "The guys at the supply stores were not much help. They could help a plumber because they knew the specific application that a part was for, but I couldn't even articulate exactly what I wanted to do. I just had to experiment and try stuff."
Silverman eventually settled on an almost seven-foot length of pipe to which he's attached electronic sensors for one-shot samples or loops, and a set of bass strings. The pipe doubles as an instrument of unearthly sounds, complementing the bass and the kick drums that Silverman plays with his feet.
On stage, Silverman earns plenty of quizzical looks. Typically dressed with flat-brimmed black hat and long, raking sideburns that nearly meet at his chin, Silverman, with Magic Pipe in hand, looks more like a character in an Amish horror film than cutting-edge musician. But once he starts playing — slapping the strings and pipe, stomping on the drums, and dropping samples — the power of the music mutes the brain's need for answers.
"People just stand there and stare. It's very deceptive," he says. "When I first started doing it, there was a lot of explaining because no one really got it. But I try to let the material explain itself. That way it's like giving a lecture on the instrument without having to say anything. It's like art. It should explain itself without being obvious.
"It's rock, but experimental. It's contemporary classical; it's jazz. And even saying that doesn't help because it's all over the place," he adds. "The best gigs are when people are so confused they don't even try to worry about it but just enjoy the music. That's when it really works."