Feature Stories

Instruments of Creativity: Meet the Maker of "Noise Toys"

Darcy Neal had her musical awakening the first time she disassembled a piece of electronics. After reading an article about circuit bending, Neal and a friend decided to experiment on an old Speak & Spell handheld computer. After dismantling it and tinkering for a while, the Speak & Spell stopped making any sounds whatsoever. The experiment appeared to have failed.

She went to sleep, and then a miracle occurred: "It woke me up in the middle of the night because it had turned back on," Neal says. "It was spitting out this gibberish at me, all in this broken dialect ... It was like a message from the devil. This is what I'm supposed to do!'"

As an adult, Neal pursued this combination of art, music and engineering. Six years after throwing herself into building electronics, she started a collaborative called Lady Brain Studios with her friend Haley Moore, whom she'd met at the Dallas Makerspace. The pair specialize in creating one-of-a-kind electronic gadgets, the most well known of which are Neal's "noise toys": objects like an electronic theremin with light-responsive photo resistors, or the Wayne Brain, a sculpture with a micro computer inside that responds to music, which was commissioned by Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

Thanks to her fascination with electronics, Neal is more and more on the vanguard of noise music in Dallas — a genre of music that doesn't often intersect with cutting edge technology.

"Originally I got started doing pure circuit bending, taking old instruments from the '80s and hacking them apart to do new things," Neal says. Her background was in the fine arts — she was a painter and sculptor, and studied ceramics in college — and at first she was resistant to the technology. "I realized that basically the machines are taking over, so if I want to stay afloat I need to run this machine that's going to take my job away from me. So that's what I started doing."

Now Neal is completely immersed. Moore has a computer chip embedded in her hand, and Neal says she can't wait to do the same. "Haley is a cyborg. I'm a future cyborg," she says with a laugh. "I want to get magnets installed in my fingertips. I can't wait for this [technology] to take over. I want video contact lenses."

While the tech has gotten cheaper and more accessible, Neal admits that — between parts and labor — it's probably a wash financially. But that's not the point. "I've always just had a really strong DIY mentality with everything," she says. "The process of tearing apart a piece of electronics and putting it back together, that's where the satisfaction comes from. Getting on stage is the after effect of showing that work to the world."

When she first started making the noise toys, Neal wasn't using them herself; she would give them to musicians instead. She'd been trained as a pianist and cellist for 12 years when she was younger, but it wasn't until about five years ago that she started playing her own music again in bands like Ulnae and Bludded Head.

Now her cello has electronics glued all over it.

"It's an electric cello running through a signal chain. I have a little synthesizer playing along with it to keep the repetitive sound loop going," Neal says. "I was trying to be a one-man band so I could play two instruments at one time."

Neal also makes it a point to try passing on her knowledge to other people, via electronics workshops that she runs under the Lady Brain banner. Ideally, she says, she'd find a way to go on tour, running workshops by day and playing shows by night. The courses do attract musicians, but her aim is broader than just making music.

"The whole point is to teach people how to read schematics. If you can figure out how to decipher the schematics, that's like unlocking the key to do anything you want," Neal says. "Once you understand the language, you can go look up designs online and build anything you want."

Five Venues for Freaky Musical Instruments

The cOoompound
Dallas' DIY venue options have thinned out a bit since the start of the year, but The cOoompound is still keeping things weird in North Dallas. And really, somebody has to do it: Cramming into a hot, sweaty living room is the best way to take in experimental music. Evan Gordon Weaver, who runs the space, is frequently on the bill himself with one of his bands.

Crown & Harp
Crown & Harp is out of step with the ever-changing landscape of Lower Greenville businesses, and that's a good thing for Dallas music. Under former booker Moody Fuqua, it earned a reputation as a haven for experimental music, long being the home for the Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions. That hasn't changed under new talent buyer Lily Taylor, herself an experimental musician, who brings in all different varieties of noise, be it with full bands, one-man projects or electronic artists.

As the new home to Stefan González's weekly Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions, RBC had to be on this list. Every Monday, González brings in the best and weirdest of Dallas' noise and experimental musicians, and often out-of-towners as well. RBC also hosts ambient music nights and recently held Vice Palace's two-year anniversary party.

Texas Theatre
When Texas Theatre isn't hosting screenings of old art house movies, they're bringing in bands that often border on performance art for their Behind the Screen series. Bands play backstage ­— literally behind the screen — and usually come equipped with light projections or smoke machines. Even the dance parties, often DJed by Bryan Campbell of George Quartz fame, make a habit of keeping things firmly in left field.

Three Links
A sign inside Three Links proudly boasts, "We Never Sleep," and that nonconformist streak runs deep in this Deep Ellum club's DNA. A core part of festivals like Spillover, Elm St. Music and Tattoo Fest, Three Links is a home base for punks and misfits of all stripes. But they regularly bring in out-of-town weirdos as well, with acts like Peelander-Z and Bob Log making a habit of playing there when they come through Dallas.

(Be sure to read the rest of our counterculture guide to Dallas.) 
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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage