Paul Malmstrom Plays a Giant Instrument

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Paul Malmstrom perhaps is best known for his work as a creative, having co-founded Mother, New York and before that, making lots of noise out of Fallon, Minneapolis, where he and former partner Linus Karlsson created famous campaigns for Lee Jeans ("Buddy Lee"), MTV ("Jukka Brothers") and Miller Lite ("Evil Beaver").

When he's not busy creating advertising, however, Malmstrom can be found playing music, as a member of the band Pepe Deluxe. His first encounter with the Finnish outfit was on a job. In 1999 while at Fallon, he and the team had been searching for music to put against the Buddy Lee campaign. "We found this crazy group from Finland called Pepe Deluxe," he says. "They'd just released an album and helped us with some new compositions for the campaign."

Since then, Malmstrom couldn't shake Pepe--or the band couldn't shake him. "We quickly discovered we had plenty in common aesthetically," he says. "I'd been composing and playing music on the side for many years and was eventually asked to write for their upcoming album."

After that he worked his way up to joining the band as an official member, although most of the original musicians later went their own ways. "I hope it wasn't my fault," says Malmstrom, who is now the band's main composer, along with Jari Salo (aka James Spectrum, pictured below, left) who serves as producer, lyricist and is what Malmstrom calls the "overall brain" for the now two-man outfit.

As a duo, the band's lucky that Malmstrom is a man of many instruments. His repertoire includes guitar, bass, synth, piano, flute, tambourine, triangle and now, what's billled as "The World's Largest Instrument," the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Located in a massive natural cave in Virginia, it consists of a keyboard hooked up to multiple rubber mallets strategically placed throughout the cave--perhaps not unlike David Byrne's "Playing the Building" installation, but way cooler. The giant music-maker played a small, but significant role in Pepe Deluxe's latest album, "Queen of the Wave," adding about six years to its development.

Here, Malmstrom talks about the new album and his adventures in cave-playing.

Tell us about Pepe Deluxe's latest creation, the concept behind it. How did the Great Stalacpipe Organ come into the picture?
Yep, it is indeed something as outdated as a "concept album." We figured, as most music today is consumed as single tracks, why not make a full album that hangs together as a whole in a feeble attempt to protest the conventions.

The album is based on the legendary island of Atlantis, or more specifically, the tales written in "A Dweller On Two Planets" from 1886 by 17-year-old Frederick S. Oliver. This book tells quite an astonishing story, and according to the author, it was channeled by a spirit named "Phylos the Thibetan" via "automatic writing."

You can check out the end result if you want, we call it "Queen of the Wave – An Esoteric Pop-Opera in Three Parts!" It's a mad mix of musical influences, sort of a Majestic psych-rock-retro-space surf-folk funk- karate-chop kind of a thing. It's on iTunes. Or you can get it on vinyl, of course.

When you first listen, you hear the music being performed on conventional pop and rock instruments, but infused in this tonal paella you'll also discover musical machines like the only working "Chromatic Gusli," as well as a "Pneumatic Percussion Machine," an utterly dangerous "Singing Tesla Coil" and, the world's largest instrument, "The Great Stalacpipe Organ," for example.

How many other albums with Pepe Deluxe have you worked on?
I've worked on three of the four albums; this last one has by far been the most consuming.

So what's the organ like and how did actually get to play it?
The Great Stalacpipe Organ is something out of this world. It's a mind-blowing contraption built in a gigantic natural cave in Virginia. A genius scientist named Leland W. Sprinkle came up with this mad thing in the 1950's, and he spent several years underground bringing it to life.

The instrument is basically a keyboard console where you activate mechanical rubber mallets placed throughout the cave. The mallets strikes perfectly tuned stalactites, and they produce a tone like nothing you've heard before.

Six years ago we started to negotiate and sweet-talk the owners of the cave, convincing them to restore the now seriously deteriorated instrument. The keys were restored one by one, and I finally had the honor to compose, play and record the first original composition on this crazy thing. It's like playing a mountain.

How does it fit into the concept of the album?
The Pepe Deluxe approach is a mix of rigorous pseudo-scientific studies in the universe of sounds and strange shit you just happen to bump in to. This is a pretty good example of that.

The instrument is like a sonic window to 10.000 B.C., so when you make an album about Atlantis, this is the thing you want. Getting the instrument to a working condition only delayed the album two years or so. Clearly worth it.

Was the recording process complicated?
The recording involved a stereo microphone, an old Nagra tape recorder and a white tuxedo.

The most complicated bit was there were still a few keys not working. I had to add a few manually hammered stalactites. That, plus the recording day happened to be a public holiday, which meant groups of tourists were in the cave. They tended to linger around wondering what the hell was up with the Swedish man in the dinner jacket and bow tie.

How many songs in the album is the cave organ a part of?
The tune is simply a one-and-a-half minute interlude between Act 2 and Act 3 on the album. Six years of work for less than two minutes of music may sound like something is a little off, but in the Pepe Deluxe universe, The "ROI" is totally on track.

The biggest challenge in making the rest of the album, which essentially is like a very long game of musical tennis played between two continents, is to retain a sense of spontaneity and energy. A lot of melodies, harmonies and sounds are being sculpted tested and tweaked, passed between Helsinki and New York, eventually also encompassing other parts of the world. A singer here, an instrument there. It's easy to get lost and for things to get stale.

With music, everything is of course very subjective, will someone actually listen to this? It's like you've learned how to knit a perfectly shaped sweater with your toes, using fine yarn made by baby monks. The person you're giving it to may still hate the color.

You're a multi-instrumentalist, right? What other instruments do you play? What is your favorite?
Good Lord. I play a lot of stuff on this album. I use some kind of "method acting" when I play to get the right sound out of the instruments, I may pretend to be a drunken samurai who plays guitar instead of chopping someone's head off, or a flamboyant piano player with perfect posture, or maybe a bearded bass player who sleeps in his rehearsal space. The fun part is to "become" that character. Sometimes you bump into funny ones.

The instruments I remember from the top of my head that I'm playing are electric and acoustic guitars, electric and upright basses, a lot of drum programming which we replace later with real drummers, various old analog synthesizers and modular synth systems, Hammond organ, Farfisa organ, piano, harmonium, flute, recorder, lap steel guitar, glockenspiel, string and horn programming also to be replaced later, crazy screams, shakers, tambourines and, of course, the triangle.

How do you balance your music and your agency time? How many hours a day do you play music?
I've always been pretty good at creating on command, probably a bit like a porn star's ability to perform exactly when needed. I'm also a very early riser, so I manage to squeeze in an hour here and there. With weekends plus various vacations over the two to three years it's taken to compose and record the main part of the album, it has worked fine.

I have a decidedly different and very fulfilling "day job" which of course takes up a lot of time and brain space, but one job seems to inspire the other somehow, and as a result my brain has expanded about 7% .

Are you going to play the organ again?
Ha! Thanks for teeing up an easy parting joke.

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