Catch the Tree Wave

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.

"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."

Tree Wave's live experience has lent itself well to museum installations and digital art festivals in Denmark, London and New York, where Slocum and Gray's potent take on electronic music has been given much more praise than in Dallas. It's a fact not lost on the two, who've said in passing they've considered moving to New York. Until then, their next goal is to complete a full-length album.

"That's what everybody wants," Slocum says, "which is hard. I'm a perfectionist. I throw out a lot of ideas if I don't think they work, so it's probably going to take awhile."

This attention to detail is the essence of Tree Wave. Slocum could just as easily buy hassle-free synthesizers at Guitar Center, but his love for electronic tinkering, which also keeps him busy with non-musical programming projects at all times, makes the customizable game systems perfect. When asked what instruments he'd want in a dream studio, he couldn't think of anything he didn't already own. He just wanted more time.

Despite his claim that he's "not really trained in hardware," Slocum's still busy making customized sonic gizmos. He's developing a sampler that would pick up both ambient audio and video to be manipulated at will--a steroid-pumped TiVo of sorts--and also wants to generate an e-mail program that makes music, if only to amuse himself. His biggest tech-noise fantasy is even more mind-boggling, but that's perfectly natural for Tree Wave.

"I want a room full of Sega Genesis systems, each one with a speaker on top," Slocum says. "They're all networked. You'd have a keyboard, you'd play, and each one would have its own idea about how it interprets what you're playing. The pitches are all different. Sometimes they play; sometimes they don't. Have you been to a casino? You know what it sounds like with all the slot machines going? I want to play that sound."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
sam Machkovech