Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

David Michalak

An Itch to Skatch
Date of Interview/Article:5/27/2013
An Itch to Skatch by David Michalak

“His name is Thomas Skatchit an inventor of an instrument or two. He made himself a “Skatchbox” out of cardboard, nails & glue.”

I clearly remember my first skatch experience. I was visiting Tom Nunn’s workshop and I just picked up the combs and began to play. It seemed so instinctive. Tom sat sipping a glass of wine, listening to this first performance on his new invention - The Skatchbox. Built out of cardboard boxes and played with combs, this recession era wonder conjures up sounds previously unknown to man. The mere sweep of the comb across the box creates a new universe of sound. “…The wind rustling through the trees, croaking frogs and stinging bees.”

One skatch led to another and soon we formed T.D. Skatchit to spread the skatch throughout the land, performing with other traveling minstrels at carnivals and sideshows or wherever people would listen. The T.D. Skatchit mythology had begun.

We decided to make some “skatch” recordings. My idea was this. We would invite different guests, some of our favorite musicians, to play in trios with us. We would be T.D. Skatchit & Company! I turned my dinning room into a studio and a “booth” was created for the guest right outside the studio’s glass door so we could have eye contact. Each session could be up to an hour. There were no rehearsals. Tom always liked to play free while I’d throw in the occasional theme or idea to work with. The guest was also free to suggest a path. Later I’d listen back and work with the tracks that had a memorable character and name them accordingly.

The sessions started with The Gongwoman - Karen Stackpole and then Aurora. Aurora’s voice wrapped itself around the skatch sounds often causing us to wonder, who was who? The sensual “Insectual Love”, and “Gargoyle” with it’s jacuzzi vocal were highlights of her session. Chris Brown’s 4 channel electronics produced multiple, distinct scenarios that became “Disembarkadero”, “Your Brain On Skatch” and “Forbidden Revisitation”. The session got a little spooky and I felt more than a few shivers during the recording of “From Beyond” our tribute to the late Toyoji Tomita. Chris used samples of his trombone making it seem as if Toyoji was in the room! David Slusser showed up with an invention of his own, The Slussomatic, and added his industrial sounds to “Drill Bits.” Jon Raskin’s alto and baritone saxophone gave us the nagging “I Told You So”, the rhythmic, bubbly “Popcorn Skatch” and “Twilight Skatch” – a somber and reflective piece, awash in 78 record surface noise-like skatch. The trio idea was working and as Tom descended the stairs after that final session for the first CD he turned around and shouted.

"I want to see a Skatchbox in every American home!"

It became a tradition to start the CDs with a Skatchbox duet. Tom & I conjured up, “Voodoo Skatch”, hoping to cast our spell. Our first CD, T.D. Skatchit & Company was released in 2009 on Edgetone Records. The front cover features Tom in his workshop among his tools and skatchboxes, the back cover reveals yours truly wheeling the boxes out the garage door.

“He’d walk the street on garbage nights, looking for a box that would work just right.”

Tom continued to make different boxes, some worked better than others. One was about 6’ x 2’ and was called “Track and Field”. I dubbed it “The Coffin”. Tom re-dubbed it, “The Big Orange”. The Big Orange gave me an even bigger idea for a surround-sound piece called “Ear of the Storm”. Using this huge box, Tom and I recorded some strictly wind-like sounds which I arranged into a skatch Tornado, with quiet intervals. As we recorded our second CD, Skatch Migration, each guest would add to this storm piece at the end of their session. I asked Kyle Bruckman to play a thematic English Horn part to help tie the piece together. Each musician was double and triple miked for flexibility in the high resolution surround mix.

With Skatch Migration, our playing improved. Tom would say, “We’re the 2 best skatch players in the whole world.” This CD opened with a skatchbox and squeaky chair duet called, “Chairman of the Skatch”. The fantastic guests kept coming. Bruce Ackley played clarinet on “Skatch Bopin’” and soprano on “Catchin’ Up”, trading phrases with the skatch. Bob Marsh – reached demented vocal extremes on “Pagan Angel” and “What Did it”? Doug Carroll dedicated his emotionally charged cello piece, “Marilyn”, to his wife. I wrote several what we called, “hybrid skatch” pieces for Aurora. ”Tip of My Tongue” was the first. It’s operatic and proclaims, “The words erupted, un-conducted. Now the tip of my tongue needs filing.” Gino Robair brought his “energized surfaces” to the proceedings and was greeted by our Persian cat Rufus who sat very attentively through all the sessions. In between takes I noticed Gino’s face was beet red. I thought he was sick, about to pass out, not realizing he was allergic to cats! Somehow Gino made it through the session. I named the pieces, “Puffin’ Up”, “Gasping Bow” and of course “Rufus”. We recorded some interludes with Scott Looney playing the insides of the piano. These were all emotional states, like – “Regrets”, “Quiet Terror”, and “Despair”. The electronics of Tim Perkis took us back to some Twilight Zone summer with “Memory Arcade” while Kyle Bruckman’s oboe offered an antidote with the quiet resolve of “Morning After Skatch”. Each new guest brought new musical excitement. We were building a library of skatch recordings featuring a wide variety of instruments! Sometimes it became very comical – all this beautiful music inspired by “cardboard, nails & glue.”

“To invent something one needs a good imagination and a pile of junk.” - Thomas Skatchit

Skatch Migration was released on Edgetone Records in 2010. The cover featured portraits of us both with skatch materials replacing our usual features. One could say the skatch was taking over.

“There ain’t nothing sad about it. If the Doctor says, “you got ‘em”, Talkin’ about the Skatchbox Blues.”

Our first live performance was at a beat poetry reading, at Café Greco in North Beach. Phillip Hackett presented T.D. Skatchit. We invited Bob Marsh, who worked the crowd, singing and joking in Italian. We began our skatchbox duet, our first performance ever, but after what seemed like only 5 minutes we were pulled off the stage. Thank you T.D. Skatchit!
“It may be an invented instrument but it ain’t music,” my wife heard one audient say. Afterwards, Tom and I sat silently facing each other. After a couple of minutes Tom said sadly, “They hated us!!!!” We cracked up laughing for quite awhile, knowing there’d be plenty of skatch ahead.

“Hey! I made a skatch box, you can make a skatchbox too!”

We did several workshops demonstrating how to make and play the Skatchbox -Touch the Gear as part of the Outsound Summit, The Exploratorium and a spot on the CSNBC Rachael Maddow show via the Thingamigigs Festival.

By this time we had done a lot of recording but still were interested in exploring skatch with different instruments. Some musicians sent private messages to us about the new sounds they were hearing, hoping a conversation would ensue. Soon a secret society of skatch was formed to celebrate the wondrous sounds of the Skatchbox and covert arrangements were made to meet and record a 3rd CD to be called, Skatch Surveillance. Jonathan Segel played the title piece on violin, wonderfully capturing the sounds of surveillance, wire tapping his own violin melody and voice. Someone was surely listening. Rent Romus on alto sax blew some jazzy skatch that became “Detective Skatchit” and also contributed the noir sounding, “Stakeout”. Karen Stackpole blended her “flipper metal” with the skatch, to create the cacophonies of “Confined Canary”. Tom Djll played trumpet, never sounding like one, forming sonic sculptures with tracks like – “Dreampipe Debris”, “Gurgle Surge” and “Valve Check”. During this time Tom Nunn’s dog, Luke, died suddenly. It was quite traumatic. Tom had just come up with a new invention which he named, The Lukie Tubes after him. Beautiful, ethereal, gong like sounds were produced by pushing a cardboard “Lukie Tube” on a metal plate. I suggested an arrangement we could do for Luke incorporating the new instrument with bass flute. “Still Walkin’ Luke” was recorded with Polly Moller, her deep bass flute harmonics matching the Lukie Tubes perfectly. The piece is very transcendent. It lifts the listener through and over the experience, the skatch barking sounding like…Luke. Teardrops did fall. Polly’s session also gave us, “Surrounded by Eagles” and the lost song of “Sirena”.

Skatch Surveilance was released on Edgetone Records in 2012. We used our newly developed skatch photography for the cover. The embossed CD face looks like a coin, a skatch coin. It reads, “In Skatch We Trust.” We hoped someone was listening.

I wrote a song called “Skatch Box Blues”, a tribute to the instrument and its inventor. Mike Knowlton played guitar. It’s a jump blues, has an old timey feel with great lead and chorus vocals from Aurora. We released it as an EP (extended play), old school style hoping it would bring attention to the skatchbox and our recordings.

“So when you wake up in the morning feeling half passed blue, make yourself a Skatchbox out of cardboard, nails & glue. They could vanish in an hour for just a couple dollars, talkin’ bout the Skatchbox Blues. Treasure’s in the trash.”

Also on the the Ep were “The Runaround”, and “Nurse Skatchit” with Aurora as the nurse and Thollem McDonas playing piano. Aurora admonishes T.D Skatchit for playing the Skatchbox, quoting lines from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Now gentlemen! Aren’t you ashamed? Explain everything.” By coincidence the film was on TV at the same time as our session.

The guests continued to add their instruments to “Ear of the Storm” and eventually 22 musicians had created 75 tracks that were mixed for stereo and surround sound. The listener is in the ear of the storm, where music is born out of the elemental noise only to be whisked away by the wind. Multiple musical scenarios, characters and abstractions present themselves within the different phases and sonic locations in the storm. This turbulent piece was so powerful it took over the concept and became the title of the CD/DVD, the remaining 13 tracks becoming, After the Storm. The skatch had expanded past the trio idea into a large ensemble as well as the more traditional, bluesy, “Woman Who Laughs”, a skatch hybrid where the skatch acts as page turner, commenting, weeping and laughing along with Aurora. Miss A also growls, woofs and meows though the bi-polar, “Caline Fenine”. Another track, “Doorways”, presents 3 different skatch avenues and includes Tom’s old instrument, The Crab, as well as my old faithful lap steel. “Funkin’ Skatch” started as a time filling jam between Tom & Gino while I was fixin’ things. I later dropped in Tim Perkis’s funky electronics right in time along with some skatch. Jacob Felix Heule returns on cymbal, tom and brush with the graphic, grumbling voices and snarling skatch of “The Last Rhino”, a distant cousin of his earlier piece, “Elephant Skatch”. The last track is called, “Twee” – a ceremonial, reflective skatch benediction featuring the warm voice of Ron Heglin.

Our 4th CD, Ear of the Storm, was released in March, 2013 on Edgetone Records. Tom helped me create a tornado image for the cover by swiftly stirring an egg beater in a pitcher of water, acting like an Atmospheric Vortex Engine operator. The surround sound DVD of Ear of the Storm will be released this summer with a live surround performance to follow in the fall. A million thanks to all the musicians who were apart of this project!

The scope of thrift is limitless. Thomas Skatchit