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Thoughts Detecting Machines Finds Inspiration In Legendary Disney Animator

Rick Valentin's "Thoughts Detecting Machines" plays Nightshop Thursday night
Rick Valentin's Thoughts Detecting Machines plays Nightshop Thursday night

Poster Children vocalist and lyricist Rick Valentin said his one-man project Thoughts Detecting Machines allows him to flesh out ideas not necessarily a fit for Poster Children.Though he did say the electronic, layered, looped music he makes at home has base elements similar to punk outfit he founded three decades ago at the University of Illinois.

“Even in Poster Children, a lot of our music is a single riff played over and over again,” said Valentin ahead of his show at Nightshop in Bloomington on Thursday night.

“So when I work with Thoughts Detecting Machines, it’s really about building up something. So I’ll have one little loop or riff, and then I just layer. So it’s really about stacking and stacking and stacking. Then pulling bits and pieces out of that giant stack,” said Valentin.

He uses a what he describes as a “beat-box old Yamaha band-in-a-box type of thing” where he can create drum and synth patterns from pre-sets and build from there.

“If you’ve ever seen video of Kraftwerk playing 'Pocket Calculator,' they do their normal synthesizer act, but then they have these tiny devices and they play the whole song on tiny hand-held devices."

Hearing Valentin describe the recording process for TDM doesn’t do justice to how he performs the music with a laptop, guitar, and three video monitors that show his face, guitar, and feet. He said the initial performance was sans monitors.

“People said, ‘Well I can’t see you play guitar, as the laptop/suitcase was blocking that view.' So I cut out the front of the briefcase and put a screen in there with a camera pointing at my guitar, so you could see my guitar through the screen,” said Valentin.

He continued to tweak the visual.

“OK, I figured I could put a camera on my head and feet. And so if you can see what I’m doing with my feet, you get a little more of a hint about what’s going on. It’s like a puzzle, so having those three screens, you get to see my face singing and see what vocals I’m putting into the microphone as a loop. Then you get see how I’m playing guitar, and my feel with how I’m controlling everything,” said Valentin.

"Sound Noise & You" comes in one package as vinyl, CD, and cassette.
Credit Rick Valentine
"Sound Noise & You" comes in one package as vinyl, CD, and cassette.

Back to the album, where Valentin shared that the song “Oskar F” from the new album “Sound, Noise, & You” came right from plugging his guitar into that “tiny little beat-box,” from which he was able to create the entire song.

Oskar F is an homage to the German-born abstract animator, filmmaker, and painter Oskar Fischinger, whose work with Walt Disney still captivates him today.

“In 'Fantasia' you see the abstract animations tied to music, so he was an early animator that did musical animations by converting sounds into visuals in an abstract, moving way using paper cutouts,” said Valentin.

The name Thoughts Detecting Machines came from early web conspiracy theory, where according to Valentin, came from either early email or a blog post theorizing either the CIA or North Korea was building a thoughts detecting machine.

“The very idea of a thoughts-detecting machine … I just liked how that phrase sounded,” said Valentin, who said this project allows him to write bass and drum parts, unlike in Poste Children, where the songwriting is mostly collaborative, and where he said he acts more like a director.

“I do write the lyrics and melody so I’m able sculpt the music in Poster Children, but if I come up with ideas that aren’t right for Poster Children and also aren’t vocal or guitar based, this is kind of an outlet for that,’ said Valentin.

The 12 songs on "Sound, Noise, & You" are sequenced so that instrumental and vocal tracks alternate. Valentin said the lyrics for “It’s a Mad, Mad, Madman’s World” (which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Poster Children album) is essentially his message to women to not let themselves be defined by dysfunctional people (read: men).

He concedes that as a white male he may be on the wrong side of this plea but hinted that his difficulties with difficult men give him some sensitivity to the issue that has especially boiled over in the past two years.

“I think it’s a message that’s not just gender specific,” said Valentin. “There are these people, and they’re predominantly men because they’re in positions of power, who kind of want to define you and then you feel you have to define yourself on their standards.”

Just one component of the #MeToo movement that women have been bucking.

“And that’s the thing, I don’t feel I’m an aggressive, evil man, so I felt like I gave myself a pass,” said Valentin. “But it has sunk in lately that I’m a contributor to the problem because I’m passive in a way. I’ll sort of cringe when somebody says something awful, but I don’t actually say, ‘Hey, that’s awful.’”

Rick Valentin as Thoughts Detecting Machines plays Nightshop in downtown Bloomington Thursday night. The music begins 7:30 p.m.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.