Doc Mabuse, a.k.a. Mike Murphy, is a St. Louis native and founding member of that city's HEARding Cats artists' collective. He makes a living designing software and hardware ("wares, soft to firm to hard," as he puts it) but spends most of his time building synthesizers, which he uses to make wild and entirely left-field improvised music. The instruments, which he labels either "modules" or "electroniums" (meaning "a synthesizer that acts suspiciously like it's broken"), have names like The Jackelope, The Feminine Prerogative-Based Control-Voltage Generator and il Viaggio di Marconi, the last of which is a gorgeous object built from a box of chocolates he once received for Christmas. Murphy will be in Little Rock Sunday, June 22, presenting a night of free improvisation at the Oxford American Annex alongside his fellow HEARding Cats co-founder Rich O'Donnell (a former percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and music director of the St. Louis New Music Circle), Davey Williams (an avant-garde guitarist and co-founder of The Improviser, a journal of experimental music) and the jazz pianist and North Little Rock native Chris Parker.
How did you get the name Doc Mabuse?
The nutshell version of it is that I got involved in a band in St. Louis called The Tory Starbuck Project, where Tory used stage names for everyone. Are you familiar with the character Dr. Mabuse, from German Expressionist cinema? Well I wasn't, I had no idea. What I knew was that there was a band in Los Angeles called the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band, who did things like marching band arrangements of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." And on one of their records, they introduced this face-shredding tenor sax solo, which sounded sort of like a guy feeding a tenor slowly into a wood-chipper, and then they introduced him after the solo as "More golden tones from Dr. Mabuse." I wasn't used to using stage names but I thought of that and in the spur of the moment I said I'd be Dr. Mabuse.
Very soon, more people knew me as Dr. Mabuse or "Doc" than knew my driver's license name.
How did you get into building synths?
I was a NASA fetishist as a kid. This was Kennedy era, I'm old. And the coolest stuff in the world to me was spaceships. The closest thing you could get at the time was electronic equipment, that was what you saw those guys at NASA doing. So I had an erector set, and I was a science nerd. Then I learned about HAM radio: God bless Radio Shack. I have nothing but gall and vinegar for Radio Shack now, because they've changed from being the gateway for kids into electronics to being just another place trying to sell you a cell phone plan. But between Radio Shack and Popular Electronics magazine, I got closer and closer to realizing that I could actually build radios and use them, and eventually be the kid who was trying to talk his mom into letting him put a 50-foot antenna mast on his house.
I insisted on building my own gear. And when you build your own gear, you don't really have the commercial restrictions on how powerful you can make it. And I was a 13-year-old boy, the testosterone was just coursing, so I just made it as big as I could afford to make it. I didn't understand that in between the legal bands for HAM radio, there are other users, and that Belleville, Ill., my hometown, was home to Scott Air Force Base. According to them, I blanked their radar three times tuning up a homebrew transmitter for the first time. They found me within 20 minutes. They had triangulated my position and showed up on a Saturday morning, three guys in Air Force gray asking for the "radio operator at this address." My mom hauled me out there by the scruff of the neck and they claimed my license right there. Thirteen years old. They weren't dicks about it.
I will like to ask this question before i go straight to my public announcement…