Catch the Tree Wave

Old Ataris playing music? Singing with a dot-matrix printer? For this duo, it's all perfectly natural.

It looks like the end of the world in here. Technological debris is scattered all around--stacks of computer cases, cables that would stretch for miles if hooked end-to-end, hundreds of adapters, chips and motherboards--and Paul Slocum digs through the middle of it to find a keyboard controller for his second dot-matrix printer.

"This is from an installation I did in Denmark," he says once he finds the large box, and he takes it back to his second computer room, which is much more organized but largely similar--video game cartridges, programming manuals, backup data cassettes and, most important, a rig of vintage game consoles hooked into a recording mixer. It's in this room that Slocum has hacked and programmed, from scratch, the devices he uses to make the music of Tree Wave. In barely one year, the Dallas electronic duo has already made huge digital waves, garnering attention and praise with successful worldwide appearances and the most unique local release of 2004, Cabana EP+.

Thing is, you'd never guess from a look at Slocum's world just how organic his band sounds, but his technical prowess is actually what elevates Tree Wave above its electronic peers.

"It's like another person in the band," says Lauren Gray, left, of the dot-matrix printer that provides some of the band's beats. Gray is one-half of Tree Wave, along with boyfriend Paul Slocum, right.
Sam Machkovech
"It's like another person in the band," says Lauren Gray, left, of the dot-matrix printer that provides some of the band's beats. Gray is one-half of Tree Wave, along with boyfriend Paul Slocum, right.

"My dad's a physicist, and everyone thinks he taught me this stuff. Man, he's terrible with computers. I'm going over to fix his computer in a bit."

Slocum, a Dallas native, can't figure out which came first, programming or music. He began piano lessons around the same time he first tinkered with a TI-99/4a computer in elementary school, and his first computer-music fusion came from a Ghostbusters song tribute he programmed in 1985. From there, he expanded on both fronts, learning the guitar years after he mastered Commodore and Atari programming.

"When you learn to program, the first thing you do is mess with the graphics, and then you hit the sound registers," Slocum says. "That's probably what everybody does. I didn't take music that seriously."

In the mid-'90s, his inclination toward programming, which earned him a computer science degree from the University of Texas at Dallas, turned toward larger musical projects. As he played with experimental-rock duo The Sleuths, he began incorporating samples and computer effects more often, and, in 2001, he coded the first program that he still uses for Tree Wave today. He has since sold more than 200 copies of it to online hobbyists.

Since then, Slocum has expanded and refined his musical arsenal, and today, he prepares his five-machine rig for a song demonstration. He first has to match the pre-programmed tempo of a dot-matrix printer, an Atari 2600 and a 286 DOS PC. While he waits for those systems to initialize, he connects the stereo--out of his two Commodore 64 systems. The top rows of the C64s are covered in piano keys, while the rest of the keyboard's letters switch between dozens of pre-set audio effects that Slocum has coded.

"This [C64] actually has a second synth channel. Puts everything out of phase on the right and left channel," Slocum says as he searches for a missing cable. "It's a really nice effect."

After explaining the rest of his customized rig in technical detail, he hits a button and the computers sync up while he plays the C64 keyboards. The Atari fills a nearby TV with psychedelic eight-bit graphics, and the printer spits out percussive blasts above the swelling music. There's much more than a gimmick at work here: Rather than rely on repetitive loops, Slocum writes structured, slowly building songs and uses his programming prowess to pack them with catchy, unorthodox sounds. The result sounds like the guitar-rich textures of My Bloody Valentine, a comparison Slocum is fond of.

"I try to construct the songs more like a guitar-based song," Slocum says. "I have tons of tricks that I use to make stuff sound organic. Pitch is never constant. Always fluctuating, like when you're playing a real instrument. All sorts of tricks like that."

Helping focus the sound of Tree Wave is singer Lauren Gray, whose poetry and breathy delivery have done more than refine the pop sensibilities of Tree Wave: They actually created the band. In 2002, Slocum asked Gray to contribute vocals to "May Banners," a song he'd been fooling around with, and the result, which opens Cabana,convinced Slocum to build a rig he could use to play songs in concert. Though Gray admits being overwhelmed at times by Slocum's programming, she takes the gadgetry in stride.

"If I can sing with [a dot-matrix printer], I can do anything," Gray says. "It feels like another person in our band. There are so many times I look at it and I'm about to say, 'Take it away!'"

That's easy to understand after seeing the band's complex multimedia concerts. Both printers reproduce digitally altered photos that morph depending on the notes played, and in addition to the Atari imagery, video cameras aimed at the computers turn on and off according to a given song's tempo.

"People connect with the old video game images," Slocum says. "Even if they don't appreciate it as art in particular, it's fun. I try to do everything with a fun side to it."

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