Which of these is weirdest:
- Being the conservatory-trained son of a jazz musician who then sets aside bow and bass in order to write weirdly convoluted songs about weasel potpies and meat raining down from the sky?
- Cobbling together a Frankenstein-style instrument that measures 7 feet tall, weighs hundreds of pounds and is largely comprised of steel plumbing pipes?
- Or, perhaps most disturbingly, moving from San Francisco to Las Vegas, voluntarily?
No one is more qualified to tackle these questions than Mike Silverman, an occasional Buckethead collaborator who relentlessly tours under the stage name That 1 Guy. On any given night, you’re more likely to find him onstage than off, racking up as many as 200 shows per year over the past decade.
One of his prolific stops this year will be Friday, July 19, in Houston, Minn. for Galactic Get Down, the outer space-themed music and camping festival taking place July 18-20 at Outback Ranch.
“The royalty checks don’t come flying into the mailbox, and what I do is really a live-driven thing,” said Silverman, whose most recent album was released back in 2014. “Also, life is better for me when I’m out here touring, just in terms of my health and everything. Because I’m working so hard, I’m always in better physical shape and my energy is higher. Although lifting the gear can be a little bit hard on the back.”
The reason for that, of course, is the aforementioned contraption he calls his “Magic Pipe.” Most of the instrument’s components are reasonably lightweight: the dozen or so trigger sensors that attach to the pipe itself, a classical bass string that runs down the front of it, a couple of contact microphones and a bunch of effects pedals. The problem is in the plumbing. “Everything together,” he says of its steel pipes and fittings, “is hundreds and hundreds of pounds.”
So why not just go with plastic?
“I really can’t, I wish I could,” he said. “I talked to somebody about experimenting with carbon, but everything flexes a little bit unfortunately. Whereas this one has a lot of sonic integrity, I also use it almost exclusively on records, although I do like to add some layered cellos and some percussion.”
During his conservatory years playing double bass, Silverman was nearly always required to use a bow, but the Magic Pipe has moved him in the opposite direction. The contraption enables him to access a remarkable range of sounds and textures, while his conspicuously convoluted displays of dexterity make him a kind of one-man-band equivalent to Les Claypool’s band Primus.
Like Claypool, Silverman places Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Dr. Demento high on his list of influences, which helps explain why his lyrics are so surreal and goofy.
“I’ve always written lyrics like that,” he said with something resembling pride. “I tried to write pop, love song-y things, and I just couldn’t do it. They were so bad, so terrible. So I went back to writing in a crazy stream-of-consciousness style, and then a couple years later I heard Captain Beefheart. That was the first time when I was like, “Oh you can do that, this is totally legit.”
All of which leaves the Vegas question. Was it for the gambling? The stage shows? An ill-advised wedding presided over by an Elvis impersonator?
No, said Silverman, it was simply due to a budding interest in sleight-of-hand magic.
“I didn’t really get into magic until my early 30s, when I started going to Vegas at the end of tours,” said Silverman, who is now 47. “I would go to the magic shops, hoping to talk to magicians, but I couldn’t find any. They were mostly just those Houdini magic shops, more like novelty shops that sell rubber dog poop. It wasn’t like music at all, where I could hang out and talk shop.”
But, like Dr. Strange, the would-be acolyte eventually found his own Tilda Swinton.
“I went into this really cool magic shop called Denny and Lee’s, and the guy there was so nice,” Silverman explained. “He’s like, ‘Hey, come back tonight, we have a lecture.’ So I look around this tiny little shop, and I’m like, ‘In here?’ And he goes, ‘No, in here.’ And he pushes on the bookshelf and it opens up and there’s a whole theater in the back of the place. I just lost my shit and, that night, I met my teacher, who is really one of the best in the world when it comes to sleight-of-hand. I’m like ‘I’m never leaving this place, I’m just going to move here right now.’ And I did, I literally found an apartment the next day, and I actually drove home to get some of my stuff and came back.”
These days, Silverman has been known to show off a few magic tricks during his show. He also employs it on the rare occasion he travels to a show by plane, in order to slip past those attendants who stamp boarding passes and confiscate oversized luggage.
“The eye always goes to where the movement is,” explained Silverman. “So I put my rig with all my electronics on my back, and I position myself so that they can’t really see it. And then I’ll do things with my hands while I talk to them. It’s worked every single time. The whole idea of what misdirection is, and how it works, is just super interesting to me. I mean, it’s everywhere in life, it’s constantly happening all the time.”
Silverman even goes so far as to do it while playing his instrument onstage, and doesn’t care if nobody else notices.
“A lot of the time, I’m triggering stuff with a different appendage than I’m making it look like I’m triggering it with,” he said. “Like I’m making sounds in different ways than it looks like. And I just love doing that! I think it’s sort of an inside joke to myself more than anything.”