Grooving to the stars

Talking with The Flashbulb in advance of Adler shows

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Benn Jordan

Benn Jordan plays the bass guitar while his dog Lucy walks around his home studio Thursday, (Rob Hart/Chicago Tribune / September 26, 2013)

Benn Jordan's first thought was to get into a traditional music school. His audition tape earned him acceptance into a classical guitar program, but then the University of Montana found out Jordan, a lefty, had taught himself to play "upside down," with the lower, thicker strings on bottom.

"And they're like, 'Nope,'" Jordan recalls, telling the story while guiding a visitor through the instruments — from a first-generation Nord Rack synthesizer to a Jordan-modified, modern player piano — that fill his Bridgeport home.

The school said if he wanted to come, he'd have to learn to play with the more traditional stringing method.

"I was like, 'I guess that's it,'" he says. "It made me realize that I'm not a formal musician at all."

But rather than a roadblock, the decision just made him change roads.

"I was going to be a musician one way or another," the now 33-year-old says, "so instead I just toured and searched couches for change for a couple of years."

Jordan has created a lot of music — cinematic, ambient, electronic, pulsing, often surprising — under many different names, but it's as The Flashbulb, his most common musical pseudonym, that he is best known. It's as The Flashbulb that he wrote the score for the Adler Planetarium's current show, "Cosmic Wonder," in the showcase Grainger Sky Theater, and it's as The Flashbulb that he'll play a concert in that theater Friday night.

The two shows will feature Jordan's music, the Treefield visualization system that he designed to accompany his performances, and a showing of "Cosmic Wonder," with cocktails and cafe items available.

The tradition of planetarium dome music involves lasers and recorded music from a big rock act. This won't be that, but it is "like an electronic and contemporary version of that," Jordan says.

In the coach house where he lives with dog Lucy — behind the storefront of the building he owns, which he's turning into a performance space called 3240 — Jordan sat in his creative cockpit, surrounded by synthesizers, computer screens and guitars, and talked about the Adler show, other shows and his DIY musical aesthetic. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: Why "The Flashbulb"?

A: I should really make up a story: "It's because he saved this child ..." No, the first Flashbulb album was a side project, and I was taking pictures of an old flashbulb and for some reason I said, "Let's just call this project Flashbulb," thinking it would never take off. And it actually ended up getting picked up by some decent labels, and then that ended up sort of encompassing what I do, literally, 15 years later. I hated the name for a long time. For the first couple of albums, I hated it. But then, reading music writers, the way they utilized the name The Flashbulb in things — "it flashes from here to there, and it's very diverse," and things like that — I actually was like, "Yeah, this is a good name." They made it sound cool to me.

Q: Kind words for critics are rare from someone on the creative side.

A: What I really love reading — it's almost like poetry to me — every now and then you'll run into a review that doesn't use examples of any other artists, and it's really amazing to hear somebody use the English language to describe what they heard, without saying, "It's a mix between Nirvana and Pink Floyd." They'll actually describe every single emotion they felt. It's beautiful, really.

Q: Your concert Friday at the Adler lists the "Treefield Visualization System" almost as a co-headliner. What is it, and why such prominence?

A: Last year around this time, after many many years of not having any sort of visual system that I was happy with, I decided to design one, and do all audio-reactive visuals for it. It took eight months to build. ... It's like a transparent screen in front of me. To the audience I show up at different points. I disappear at certain points. It's a couple of projectors, a couple of computer-controlled LED light rigs, things like that. It's essentially just a really deluxe, customized visualization system. There are scenes I've created through programming or 3-D design, but they're audio reactive. It's just sort of what fits the music in my head, what I want to see.

Q: Are there fields and trees, or fields of trees?

A: They definitely are in there. It's not only that, but, yeah.

Q: People usually think of planetarium domes, musically, as a place for laser-accompanied Pink Floyd. How do you fit into that tradition, or not?

A: I've been inspired by Pink Floyd a ton in my life. I feel like some younger people would laugh at the comparison, you know, would say, like, "Ha, ha, Pink Floyd," but I think Pink Floyd is the coolest thing in the world. I went to (lead singer and writer) Roger Waters' last show and it was the most immense visual experience I've ever seen. It was incredible. This is like an electronic and contemporary version of that. My budget isn't, like, $100 million per show. But the thing I love about Pink Floyd shows and even Roger Waters shows is I was never bored. You know? And honestly, as much as I love music, and as much as I appreciate it, and as much as I analyze it, when I go to a concert I'm usually bored at some point. At a show like Pink Floyd, I was never bored, not for a second, and when it ended I was sad.

Q: You played the Grainger theater last year too. How and when did that first opportunity to play there come about?

A: I think it was last October. They were asking me for a while to do Adler After Dark (the institution's nighttime event series). And just lately I'm kind of "meh" about shows, you know? And then finally I just got to talking to them about doing one on the big screen. It was basically them being, "You should do Adler After Dark," and me being, "Eh. Yawn. I would rather do the big screen if I'm going to be bringing my gear to the Adler."

Q: What did you learn from that?

A: The first thing I walked away from that show with was a bunch of tour dates coming up that I canceled because I thought, "Why? Why do I want to sit in front of a bar and stand in front of a can light and call that entertainment after playing at the Adler?" That was a bad side effect of it. And that's why I went and designed the Treefield thing. I was like, I need to bring something more to the table if I'm playing a show.

Q: So it kind of spoiled you?

A: In a way, yeah. It motivated me to make things more entertaining for the audience.

Q: I go to a lot of live music. It's striking how little innovation there is.

A: You know, it's that. In a lot of ways, I'm always kind of angry when I go to shows, and I'm always thinking that. But at the same time, it's really striking how little innovation there is in what's available for musicians. You really have the option of, like, a projector of an LED light or like a laser, or you can spend, literally, $350,000 to go the step beyond that. There's just a huge gap between the guy who plays music for fun, and, like, U2. Those are your two options.

Q: There's no middle class there, either.

A: Yeah, there isn't. Yeah. It's funny, when I was researching all this stuff, I was like, "I'm not spending $80,000 on a computer that has a projector port on it." I ended up using my know-how and taking stuff apart and building my own.

Q: So give me the 60-second biography.

A: Of me?

Q: No, of Douglas MacArthur. I'm not actually timing this.

A: I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. I lived with my grandparents, and I pretty much just always wanted to be a musician. When I was 5 or something my grandfather bought me a little toy guitar at a fair in Wisconsin, and from that point on I was just like, that's all I want to do.

Q: Did you have aptitude right away?

A: I don't think I was "talented." I don't think anybody can just pick up an instrument and play it. I just think some people are really determined and psychotic. That happened with guitar. Instead of hanging out and playing football with my friends, things like that, instead of having friends, I had guitar. I sort of did that throughout grammar school. In high school I got a little more serious. By high school (Marist), I was already recording and multitracking and things like that.

Q: Were you in bands and such, or in the school band?

A: I have no formal training. I was in a bunch of different rock bands, usually with 18- or 19-year-old kids. I was almost always the lead guitarist. In one I was a singer and lead guitarist. That's what got me started producing music. I loved guitar, drums, singing, and the other guys weren't really motivated, and I kind of realized I can play the drums better than the drummer, I think, and I can play the bass better than the bassist. So why am I just not doing this at home?

Q: What's the most memorable — for good or bad — name of a band you were in?

A: I had one, the name was 96 Octane. We just saw like 93 octane at a gas station, I think, and decided to call it 96. Maybe it was 1996, I don't know. That was a pretty terrible one. And, um, for some reason, I released an album as Christpuncher. It was just kind of abrasive electronic music. I still at one point will release another album as Acidwolf.

Q: How do you describe your music when, say, a sibling's friend asks?

A: It's, like, the worst possible question. I would rather have them ask me about my sex life. ... For a long time I would be like, "Have you ever heard of Aphex Twin?" And now I pretty much avoid the conversation. I say, "It's cinematic and it's instrumental mostly," and that's about it. Because if I say it's electronic, they're like, "Oh, so you're a DJ?" No. Then I have to have that conversation. If I say it's jazz, they're like, "Do you play sax?" And I'm like, "No." Usually, I'm just like, "Go, get your smartphone and search this and listen for five seconds and you'll understand."

Q: How is your sex life?

A: (He laughs.) You know, I have a lot going on here so, um ...

Q: Your albums have pretty strong titles. The new "Hardscrabble." "Opus at the End of Everything." "Soundtrack to a Vacant Life." Is there a special burden to be interesting in the titles of instrumental music?

A: Hardscrabble is named after this neighborhood. That was the original name of Bridgeport. Immigrants would come here and work and send money back to their family and then never be heard from again because they got worked to death. So. ... Yeah, I always try to come up with an interesting title, but especially now, I'm more interested in writing music and releasing it the way I felt and wrote it. I think earlier in my life I was concerned with what people thought and album sales and things like that, but now that I do a lot of composing work for different ads, TV, things like that, it's actually taken that burden away. And I don't have to worry about what people think, which is awesome.

Q: When did you first start having some commercial success, some renown?

A: It was with "Soundtrack to a Vacant Life" in 2008. That was the first time I got something in the mainstream media, first time I had sold-out shows. Until then I was very obscure. Probably the thing that makes me feel the best about my career is, you'll see the audience, and you'll have one guy who's like an accountant, one guy who's a weightlifter, and one guy who's like a raver and one guy who's like a punk guy. I don't have "an audience." They don't all dress the same.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter@StevenKJohnson

The Flashbulb Live

When: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive

Tickets: $20; 312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org

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