When a club owner handed Mike Silverman fifty bucks for his band's set, he knew he could do better. Rather than find another place to play he asked the club owner if he could come back the following week by himself and keep the entire $50. The owner agreed and That 1 Guy, Silverman's new stage name was born.
Silverman, a classically trained bassist, was not content with being just another singer-songwriter - he wanted to fully replicate the sound of a band by himself. So he started bringing different effect pedals and experimented with looping and sound processing to see what he could come up with. After a while he began bringing his upright bass to the mix - singing on the body like a drum and doing a lot of improvisation work. Sometime later he removed all of the strings from the upright except for one. It was at this point that he started to realize the potential of using just one string.
All of his various experiments back then led to the creation of his Magic Pipe, an instrument literally created from parts found at Home Depot stores. The Magic Pipe takes Silverman's music and stage act to a level that really needs to be seen to be understood. Standing nearly seven feet tall, The Magic Pipe is a chaotic collage of galvanized steel, duct tape and electronic gadgetry, run through an array of samplers and effects boxes. He'll be bringing his unique act to Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park on Saturday, March 3rd and to the North Star Bar in Philadelphia on the 4th.
"I had never built an instrument before and I really had no idea how I was going to do it," explained Silverman. "The thing that I had going for me is that I knew what I wanted it to do. I just didn't know how I was going to do it. It took me a few trips to the hardware store just pulling things off the shelves - just trial and error and going for it."
Unfortunately for Silverman, the heightened security at airports since 9/11 has made touring abroad much more difficult when you're traveling with suitcases of plumbing supplies. He says he's getting used to negotiating with the airport security and staff, but it's still a hassle for him.
"It's getting harder and harder which is a real drag because as musicians we don't have a choice, we have to travel with our equipment," he said. "I carry on my electronics and my real fragile stuff. They're not very big, but they're super heavy. It's really a strange thing because none of the rules are new, they're just enforcing them now."
It's amazing just how much sound Silverman is able to create with the use of just one string. When people imagine the idea of a one-man band they inevitably conjure up an image of a guy playing a guitar with a ton of strings - maybe a 12-string guitar modified to have even more strings - rather than to go the route Silverman chose.
"It seemed really insane at the time, like what am I going to be able to play with just one string?" he recalled. "What I essentially did was take all of the strings off my electric bass and started out that way. I found out right away that it actually opened me a lot. There's a lot of harmonic stuff I couldn't do, but it forced me to focus on real important notes. Rhythmically it opened up a lot more possibilities because I didn't have other strings to get in the way so I could just kind of wail on the string and play it a lot more aggressively.
"It was hard because I put so much time and energy into the upright bass. I went to school for it and had developed a lot of styles on it and was able to cover a lot of ground. Taking the strings off of it was kind of tricky because it forced me to give up all of my riffs. I had to kind of go back to square one and start all over again stylistically."
Silverman's father was a professional jazz bass player who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and for a long time it looked as though he would. He was in promising ensembles, won a Dave Brubeck Jazz Scholarship competition and studied classied upright at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and jazz bass at Los Medanos College. But he never quite fit in with the lifestyle or his school.
"I always had this really unorthodox way of playing," said Silverman. "And people were always teasing me about it. I did really percussive, slappy stuff. I didn't have much place there at the Conservatory! I didn't go there to study weird techniques, I went there to study the classical stuff because I really liked the discipline of it. But by the time I actually left school I was totally going off the deep end with this weird music. I was sort of the black sheep over there!
"My advisor told me that less than 20% of the people in the school end up having a career in music. He said, why don't you just go off and do your weird stuff? He was actually very supportive of it."
One person that didn't quite understand what Silverman was up to was his father. When That 1 Guy first came about, his parents pretty much avoided going to the shows. But his father's interest peaked once the Magic Pipe was added. He was curious to see what was going on and now, his father is his biggest fan. The uniqueness of That 1 Guy is something that Silverman had to overcome and still struggles with a bit when booking shows.
"When I started booking this thing I called these clubs and tried to explain it to them and they were like 'You've got to be kidding. I have no idea what you're talking about. I can't book this.' They just didn't get it. I'd say just let me play, you need to see what it does. So I'd play and they'd say 'Wow, that's really cool' and they'd hire me back and it would build from there."
With a giant Magic Pipe, song titles like ""It's Raining Meat" and "Weasel Potpie," and a man flinging his body around while playing at light speed, Silverman's right - you really do need to see it to understand. Whatever you do, do not miss this show. It's our pick for the month.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.