Most musicians start out as unwilling piano students or bedroom guitar shredders. But young Joseph Raglani's passion for sound didn't come through an instrument at all: It came through his family's Dictaphone, a bulky black box intended for voice recording, note-taking and dictation.
"I can remember the first time we got one of those as a kid, and I recorded my voice and listened back to it," recalls the 36-year-old Raglani, who uses electronics and synthesizers to record amorphous, largely instrumental pieces. "You know that whole thing where you don't believe it's your voice, like it just doesn't sound like you? For days I sat in my bedroom trying to figure out how they changed my voice."
This love of sonic experimentation has led the musician through fascinations with punk, psychedelia, art-rock, confessional songwriting and, finally, to the synthesized soundscapes that have brought him great acclaim. Last year Raglani rereleased his five-song album, Of Sirens Born, on the well-respected indie label Kranky Records, making him one of the most high-profile St. Louis acts in recent years to gain such exposure.
Raglani records a style of music that is normally relegated to small-batch releases on cassette and vinyl — in the past he has released music on tiny but influential labels such as Ides, Gameboy, St. Louis-based Kvist and his own imprint, Pegasus Farms — so having his disc available in record stores across the country (and beyond) is no small feat. But with the thrill of success comes heartbreaking agony. On May 16, as Raglani was beginning his first U.S. tour at Brooklyn's experimental-music festival No Fun Fest, his van was burglarized and all of his electronic gear — synthesizers, effects pedals, speakers, merch and more, all valued at nearly $10,000 — disappeared while Raglani stopped for dinner.
Any musician or artist can sympathize with the devastation that accompanies such a loss; the sentimental value of losing, say, your first electric guitar or a journal full of sketches is normally as great as the financial hit. But for a musician like Raglani, who uses vintage analog synths alongside newer (and pricey) boutique gear, these instruments can't be replaced with a trip to Guitar Center.
Among the treasures stolen were a Sequential Circuits Pro-One monophonic synth from the early '80s that he interfaced with his recently acquired pièce de résistance: a Moog Voyager Old School synthesizer. This keyboard is a modern update of the classic Minimoog, which many consider the quintessential analog synth. (Of the Moog, Raglani says, "it just blew me away" when he first bought it.)
The robbery's sting is especially severe, because Raglani had finally assembled his optimum live-performance rig after years of experimentation with different pieces. At a pre-theft gig in early April at the Billiken Club, opening for the Baltimore duo Beach House, Raglani performed on a low-lit stage behind a bank of synths and modules. Bearded, bedheaded and bespectacled, Raglani looked right at home behind his racks of gear, tangled in the rat's nest of patch cords and coaxing out sheets of sound with equal parts scientific method and artistic intuition. Although he triggered sounds and accompanying tracks from his iPod, he created much of the set on the fly. He has a bit of a mad-scientist quality to him in his performances, with the constant tweaking and manipulating that goes into each piece.
In conversations after the theft, he talked in a soft-spoken manner, oscillating between enthusiasm for future projects and a kind of bemused depression at the prospect of creating music without his beloved equipment. But the loss of his gear has forced him to ponder the importance of technology in his music — and raises larger questions about the relationship of the artist to the tools of his trade.
"The instrument itself is what directs me," Raglani explains. "With an acoustic guitar, I probably wouldn't spend too much time doing something crazily experimental with it; I would probably use it pretty conventionally." Indeed, he came of age playing Sonic Youth-inspired punk rock in high school and has an unreleased album of acoustic-guitar-based, singer-songwriter fare that he recorded under the title L'avventura. But it's electronic music that has captured his imagination the most.
"I've always been completely blown away by electricity," he explains. "Maybe that's why synthesizers are such an interest to me. With control-voltage synths, they are infinitely more expandable or tweakable. You can get the craziest stuff out of them by patching them into the wrong outlet or whatever."
In 2009 the idea of playing the synthesizer and playing the keyboard can seem interchangeable. For the most part, that's true — beginning in the late '60s, most synths came with piano keyboards to provide an easy-to-use, universal interface for the average musician. But when pioneers like Bob Moog and Don Buchla were first building the synthesizers that came to bear their names, they were huge, unwieldy monoliths filled with knobs, patch bays and matrices that recalled nothing so much as a telephone switchboard terminal. Synthesists sought to create music outside the strictures of the twelve-note scale, so keyboards were initially thought of as relics of Western music. Sound was a science, and the synthesizer was the lab that created, coddled and unleashed that sound.
Much of Raglani's technique hearkens back to the knob-turning experiments of early sound synthesis — it wasn't until recently that he began using keyboard-based synths. Instead, much of his early work consisted of modulated sound waves fed through a modern, portable approximation of those monstrous analog machines from the '60s. In fact, the mere use of the word "synthesizer" obscures the type of music Raglani releases — listeners are hard-pressed to identify the sources of the sounds on his songs, and there are few traces of the spaced-out bloops and beeps that are normally associated with the instrument. A record such as Of Sirens Born feels a million miles away from the dark-wave synth rock of the Faint or the proggy keyboard odysseys of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Which raises a salient question: Just what kind of music does Raglani create? It's too involved to be ambient, too beat-deprived to be anywhere near what passes for electronic music and too coherent to be considered experimental.
"I just use 'noise' as a blanket term," Raglani says. Of course, all genre tags have their drawbacks, and "noise" is one of the more troublesome, whether it's a term of affection or derision. Raglani recognizes its shortcoming. "Of Sirens Born isn't really 'noise' either. If you talk to someone who is a fucking noise purist, they wouldn't consider that in the noise canon whatsoever." When asked why not, Raglani responds, "Because it's too tonal, it has too much melody, it references music too much. I think most noise purists are more concerned with anti-music, or music that totally stays away from any kind of scale or tonality."
It may be oversimplifying Raglani's musical goals to say that he's working to bridge the gap between noise and pop music, but a love of loud, vibrant, three-chord rock & roll still rings inside him. As a high school skate-punk growing up in St. Charles, he practically wore out his cassette copies of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols and U2's The Unforgettable Fire. In fact, the combination of those two albums — the raw but focused punk of the Pistols and U2's increasingly lush post-punk landscapes — provides a good glimpse into Raglani's sometime brusque, sometimes bucolic movements.
"I cannot escape the pop-music bug — my version of pop music being different from anybody else's," he says with a laugh. His fascination with nostalgia and the collective subconscious overlaps with his abandonment of pop-music forms, but the permanence of melody and harmony — what Abraham Lincoln termed "the mystic chords of memory" — is driving Raglani's future projects.
"I want to make an album that you can listen to over and over again," he says of an upcoming release for Kranky, which, given the theft, is most likely a long way off. "A lot of noise stuff that I have is not like that. You listen to it, and then you process it, and then you feel like you get the information out of it over two or three listens. So I've started to try to figure out in my head how you can make an album like The White Album, but in this frame of reference."
So Raglani is at a crossroads: His first record on a wide-release label gets good press (Pitchfork gave Of Sirens Born a favorable 7.4 out of 10), but now, he has to start over from scratch with new and/or different gear. While he plans on continuing to record and perform live, Raglani admits to being at a loss as to taking the next step. He's working to straighten out his finances and to begin rebuilding his arsenal, though he's already been helped by his friends and fans (a benefit party at White Flag Projects netted about $900). Given his wealth of ideas and crafty sound manipulations, it's likely that Raglani will once again begin making noise — or whatever you want to call it — sooner rather than later.
"I want people to find out who I am, and I want to be able to make a living off music," he says. "I'm interested in pop music [as well as noise], and I want to make this bastard album that is the crossover between the two. We'll see if I'll be able to do it or not."