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Musical Inventions

November 24, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who knows what strange beauty lurks in quiet suburban neighborhoods? From the outside, Chas Smith's longtime abode in Encino is distinguished mainly by the presence of old Cadillacs, including a bulbous model parked on the lawn.

Smith's real claim to fame, however, is more cultural. He's a pedal steel guitarist who plays in traditional settings. But left to his own devices, he is a new-music maker and experimentalist. Using his natural inventor's tendencies, skills in welding and machining, a sculptor's eye and a search for new sounds, he also has created a fascinating menagerie of instruments.

What must the neighbors think of those odd tones wafting over the fence? Whatever they think, the rest of the world can now listen in.

"Nikko Wolverine," Smith's newly released CD, could be called long-awaited.

In the early '80s, Smith released an EP of ethereal pedal steel music on the Cold Blue label, which specialized in California-based composers. He later appeared at the New Music America festival in Los Angeles. Cold Blue went under but has recently been revived, and Smith's recording is one of three new releases.

After that early recording, Smith began in earnest his practical art form of inventing instruments. He also has worked as a welder in the film industry and has performed on film scores by Thomas Newman, including "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Horse Whisperer" and "American Beauty." And that's his pedal steel in the background in David Lynch's "The Straight Story."

His own music is a sound apart. Other than the familiar otherworldly twang of pedal steel guitar on the final two cuts, "Nikko Wolverine" is full of sounds both exotic and meditative--even when the timbre is harsh.

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A series of photographs in the CD booklet reveals his elaborate and visually beautiful instruments. They are mostly based on the act of bowing or striking metal rods, motorized spinning metal plates, strings and saw blades (with and without teeth--you don't want to get too close to the saw-toothy instrument called Adkins).

He also has created maze-like constructions made of hunks of titanium from Lockheed salvage.

"Titanium is the most musical metal," Smith said, coaxing ringing tones with soft hammer blows on the instrument called Lockheed.

Also in his home studio in the backyard are elegant sculptural instruments, such as the mutant Bass Tweed, combining elements of a guitar, a pedal steel frame and a wild brocade of rods of various length and pitch.

His hypnotic-sounding Copper Box blends carefully pitched rods and a large, resonating box creating a built-in echo chamber. The materials are found objects recycled from other uses but assembled with a sense of surreal elegance.

The purest dose of pedal steel on Smith's new CD is the final track, a beautiful little tune called "Near the Divide," unlike any of the more abstract, textural stuff that comes before it. It acts as a coda, or an amen cadence for the record.

"It sort of erases what happens before, in my mind," Smith said. "You start off going into another world, and then get to the end and it's a transition back to where we are. You don't hear solo steel guitar much."

He says the pedal steel "is easy to get seduced by." Yet his own musical history is a tangled one, with pedal steel arriving deep into the saga. A Massachusetts native, he played guitar in rock 'n' roll bands in the '60s and studied jazz piano at Berklee in Boston before coming west to the newly opened CalArts.

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At the Valencia campus, he studied electronic music with Morton Subotnick, and other musical studies with renowned composers such as Mel Powell, James Tenney and Harold Budd. His epiphany came when he heard a Waylon Jennings record with pedal steel player Ralph Mooney. He was hooked.

Smith recalls his conversion in the '70s: "I used to do tape music, and the last tape piece I did was at the Vanguard down on Melrose 25 years ago. I was thinking that sitting in a dark room, listening to a tape, boy, that's a lot of fun."

He laughs. "Fast forward. I'm playing in a western swing band with people dancing and having a good time. That was fun. So I did that for a while.

"I played with a couple of rockabilly bands and honky-tonk bands. The music that goes with that instrument, I happen to like."

He has played with the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters for 15 years, as well as stints with heavy metal bands and contemporary-music gigs.

Pedal steel players belong to a fraternity verging on a subculture.

"You don't take up the instrument. You join a cult," he said. "The thing about the pedal steel guitar is that, when it was really in flux, in the '40s and the '50s--the people who made all that happen are, for the most part, still alive. So you can hang out with your heroes."

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