Behind the Beat: The Cat's Pajamas

For Northampton tape collagist Joshua Vrysen, music is as much about process as it is about sound.

Performing and recording since 2001 under the name Tumble Cat Poof Poofy Poof, Vrysen has made every album and live show unique. Each project is inspired by environment and personal events, and includes elements ranging from a reprogrammed Nintendo Gameboy incorporated as an instrument to interpretive accordion playing to the spontaneous onstage creation of a pair of skis out of rope, a block of wood and four jars of peanut butter to accompany a skiing-themed song.

"I feel like when you're playing the same show over and over again, you're fighting against what you've already done," says Vrysen. "Where you're constantly repeating this thing that has already happened—you can go back to that moment, and you can do it again, but why would you do the same thing over again when you can try something different, or grow upon it? And even if it's falling apart, or decaying, that's more interesting to me than being this stagnant thing. It's just like you're looking at a photograph constantly if you're doing that."

Tumble Cat was borne out of a need to tell stories and vent some "big, strong feelings." To facilitate the process, Vrysen conceived the idea of creating shows and recordings comprising a multitude of ordinary boom boxes orchestrated to do extraordinary things.

"I definitely had the idea back then, and I feel like it's still in process now, of doing this type of tape collage work where each cassette tape would be playing through a different boom box," explains Vrysen. "So the idea was pretty much to have an ensemble of boom boxes, each one playing different parts, and I would use basic mixing style, using the volume and the equalizer to bring in and bring down certain parts. There would be all these tapes that would start and play, and maybe not all be playing at exactly the same time, but they would come in and out."

The individual cassettes' sounds were initially arbitrary, but as Tumble Cat progressed they became more personal. Some are from Vrysen's expansive music collection, while others include found sounds and field recordings. "I usually have some sort of personal attachment to whatever the sound is," Vrysen says. "When I started out there wasn't as much thought into where the sounds were coming from. It was more just me experimenting with sound, and finding sounds that were interesting to me. Then it switched to the live shows having a kind of story to them. Sometimes the story is actually presented, but at other times, for me, the different parts of the show represent different things. So the sources for those parts took on more personal importance."

Vrysen offers a few examples of the more immediate environmental influences on his work: "I have a bunch of recordings from this ice pond that formed behind the house that I was living in—the sounds of being back there, with the ice cracking and sliding around, that I recorded myself. And then I have sounds from the cutlery and kitchen things from inside that house, so that story is about that particular time in my life, and where I was living, and the people that were involved with it."

Just as the personal nature of the sounds are important to Tumble Cat, so are the machines themselves. "It's important to me, too, that pretty much all the boom boxes that I have and use are discarded ones," says Vrysen. "Ones that I found on the street, in free piles, or just given to me from friends. The main one, the one that I still use, is the same one that I had growing up; I've listened to music on it since I was 12. That one's been in every show."

Once the tapes are fed into the devices, each acts as an individual instrument to be manipulated by Vrysen. "Each boom box has its own voice," he says. "Each has its own characteristics and sounds, features that it can do and perform with, based on the speed that they play back on, how the speakers are—some of the speakers are totally blown, but it creates a different sound depending on what speaker is blown, and how it was damaged. And all those sounds are important. You'd still hear those just playing back one recording, but you wouldn't see where it was coming from, what was making that sound. It's more mysterious, and maybe that's just for me, but I think it still comes across."

Does he feel like a conductor when performing?

"It's more of a conductor-type feeling, for sure," Vrysen says. "There are times where it's more that I'm just playing them and letting them go and do their own thing. It depends on the show, because a lot of it is interacting with the boom boxes on stage. It's also just an in-the-moment performance: it's very specific to where the space is, and what the sounds are and where they're coming from, since the sounds are not just coming from one speaker."

Everything is in flux for Vrysen with Tumble Cat, and that goes for the audience as well. "The idea of it being this kind of puzzle, just trying to figure it out—making it interesting and just putting that puzzle on people—it becomes this personal experience between me and the people in the room. It's not just them watching me. We're having this moment together where I'm like the honored one that gets to lead us in this thing, in a ceremonial type of way, and it's just as much a listening experience for me as it is for anyone else."

Author: Matthew Dube

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