Now Playing: Deep Drone (potpie interview)
by Michael Patrick Welch,
Recently, while "performing" at Mid-City Lanes, DJ PotPie was
posed this timeless question by a young girl who'd come to dance:
"Do you play any real songs?"
"I ignored her completely, as she deserved to be ignored,"
says Potpie, aka 36-year-old Mike Karnowski. New Orleans is
known for its frequent indifference toward non-traditional music
-- and that inhospitality definitely extends to a "musician"
who dares grace a stage armed with only a sine-wave generator
and some guitar pedals. But that's what PotPie's been trying
to pull off for seven years now.
After what he considers his misspent heavy metal teenage years,
Karnowski picked up the guitar and began learning the traditional
musical language of the blues. "I liked the drone of the blues,"
says Karnowski. "I've always been interested in the drone: Celtic
music, Indian music, bluegrass are all based on the drone."
Guitar now mostly put aside -- unless it's in Karnowski's lap,
where he coaxes big whale-like hums out of it with an Ebow --
Karnowski sees other, more provocative similarities between
the blues and his current improvised ambient work: "People who've
never met before can all sit down and do it together, and they
don't need to know much."
Karnowski's hunger for drone soon overpowered his tastes,
pushing him away from the blues. "I began looking into other
drone instruments," says PotPie, admitting to a brief but intense
affair with the didgeridoo. But, Karnowski says with a sigh,
"[The didgeridoo] got a little too popular, so I gave it up."
After several locally released "albums" based on effected
tape-loops, feedback, turntables and Ebows, Karnowski finally
found the most current Garfunkel to his Simon: the sine wave
"It's actually used just to test for problems in electronic
equipment," Karnowski explains. His almost humorously limited
instrument of choice is a small metal box like a battery charger,
with one big knob in the middle and a handle on top. "It just
produces this one real pure tone that's used mainly just to
check the lines," he says. The knob changes the note of the
generator's tense, Moog-like tone, and echo pedals layer it
on top of itself until it becomes a shifting and writhing drone.
"A computer could easily generate these same sounds, and actually
that would be a lot less effort," Karnowski admits. "But this
feels more like an actual instrument -- of which I am the undisputed
master. And unlike the wave generator, I can't find a computer
for $20 or $30 on Ebay."
His last two years exploring and meditating on this one tone
finally culminated in PotPie's latest record (his 11th), Black
Panther Coloring Book, which Karnowski describes as a
"psychological study" in tension. It features only two tracks,
each utilizing just one effected tone-generator, the knob turned
and the pitch adjusted at a nerve-wracking slowness. Or as Karnowski
himself puts it, "One song goes up, the other one down." But
the total effect is powerful, an ominous menace, building like
a classic horror movie -- which makes sense given Karnowski
claims the low-frequency drone of the Eraserhead soundtrack
as his second biggest musical influence. The first? "Putting
my head under the water and rubbing my ears with my hands."
Karnowski admits that his sine wave-generator era is coming
to an unofficial close in favor of "more mellow, pleasing feedback
with acoustic guitars; it's exciting, after seven years, to
go back to the guitar." But he'll still present it on occasion,
sounding like some musical act on the Merry Pranksters' bus
-- or rather the psychotropic sounds one might have heard leaking
out of Dr. Timothy Leary's mansion.
"With me it's all set and setting," declares Karnowski, identifying
his art with Leary's brand of controlled, subdued environments.
"I can appreciate listening to a ceiling fan. It's just the
way you approach it, the state you're in."