“Off on a Wander”: An Interview with Child of the Machine

Stillwater-based experimental solo project charters otherworldly homebrew voyages with an eclectic assortment of sounds.

With evocative song titles such as “Starships Waltz Around the Station” and “A Blinking Indicator Heralds Your Imminent Doom,” This Beautiful Planet is an experimental ambient sci-fi soundtrack until it isn’t. The debut album from Child of the Machine, aka Oklahoma State University electrical engineering doctoral candidate Brenden Martin, is three parts Brian Eno star-charting to one part Daniel Johnston heart songs.

We spoke to Martin about his philosophy and his “partner in crime” the Machine, a conglomeration of synthesizers and other instruments. This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Did you get into music through electrical engineering or did you vice versa?

Brenden Martin: Oh you know I think it’s been a tangled mess my entire life, but music certainly came first, you know. My dad played piano, so I took piano lessons. But that made me attracted to the synthesizer, and my mother was a civil engineer. Now she teaches art because she decided all the bridges in Oklahoma were too similar and got tired of that. But she always did electronic projects with me just to teach me about science. So eventually I realized, well, these things are really no different.

Music is just a different kind of math. … I love math. Growing up, of course as an electrical engineer, you would, wouldn’t you? But anyway, I would always get frustrated with things that didn’t quite line up. I didn’t like it when time signatures didn’t reduce down, you know, like fractions should, things like this. So I was always questioning the way it was. But I did get a lot of classical stuff.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Speaking of time signatures, let’s talk about the sense of rhythm on this album.

Brenden Martin: Oh, or even the lack thereof. …  I wanted to make a beautiful mess, and play sort of a sound more than a rhythm, and just create atmospheres. And so yeah, I guess I threw rhythm to the wind, and part of that is for my own convenience. … It wasn’t a stylistic choice, technically, but it made it a lot more fun to just play goofy little things and hope that it sounded interesting in the end.

I definitely hear things in the music that are probably not entirely there, because I know how to anticipate it. I have some imagination of how the song is supposed to go. Actually this is something that is constantly, constantly on the back of my mind. I have no idea what any of these songs sound like. I mean, I know what I think they sound like, but that’s based on whatever imagination they started with. So it’s very interesting to have people listen to it. You get a kind of an idea about what it really is.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Let’s talk about what musical instruments “The Machine” comprises. 

Brenden Martin: One of the definite prominent go-tos is a Korg MS-20 Mini. It’s just a wonderful synthesizer. It just really speaks. I feel like it’s got a good life of its own, but it also complements very well the Eurorack I have set up underneath … There’s a mixer it sits on, although that isn’t technically all that necessary. I just like it because it’s old and has a good spring reverb to add character. The Machine has a big glowing green eye, and that one is a spring reverb.

Then, of course, plugins, guitars and other things to talk. There’s plenty of other ones to cycle around, but those are sort of main fixtures. It sits on a 1951 television cabinet, and the television tube was broken, so I had to replace it with a new one. It’s color, which, you know, I kind of frowned upon that at first. It’s so much easier to wire things in than having to actually design and wire up some digital-analog converter for the whole stupid old vacuum tubes business, so that’s the way I went–although I love those tubes.

I just like to be involved in music at all points in time, so I really like to play a movie or something like that, just to set the mood. I don’t like LED lighting particularly, so I have to do it in a bizarre way, but I’ve got a makeshift box attached to a floodlight. I like to switch out binder folders to change the color of the light, so I like to just set up the mood of the room to fit whatever the song is of the night. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Are there any plans to play live?

Brenden Martin: I would like to start doing some more stuff live. I’m moving in that direction, trying to think of minimalizing the setup, and getting some more musicians around. Now I have to play everything, and it really just doesn’t work all that well for live. …  I’ve got some friends that I’m trying to coerce into being better musicians. I’ve got to be a better musician too, if I’m going to play live, but we’re working something up. Stillwater is a college town; surely I can rustle up some musicians.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Do you feel like this is your debut album?

Brenden Martin: You know, I suppose, that’s probably true, yes. I have made more or less albums. I was never so official.

When I started working on the electronic stuff, it was in high school–I think sophomore year, maybe junior but 2015 anyway–and I was making music to listen to in the car because I got this notion of, “Well, I like music, I’m making it, and no one’s going to make music I’d rather listen to than me.” And so I was just making car music, so there’s a number of albums that I just have on my phone and basically don’t exist much anywhere else. But I think we should call this one the debut, yes.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How long did you spend on this album?

Brenden Martin: I took the better of the year off and on living it, and so actually, it’s changed quite a lot. Obviously, the last part has singing, and then none of the others do, and that’s just kind of the mood that I got in. So, really, most of that time, I think it was the first, and I say a year I’m thinking more of the school year really. I spent probably 10 months — the first five months of principally making music and then the other five were just editing things and just feeling miserable that stuff doesn’t sound the way it’s supposed to, and then eventually giving up and saying, “It’s close enough. You can make it better some other year.” Sometimes you just have to be finished, and finishing is the hardest part of art. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Do you live by yourself? 

Brenden Martin: I did for that time. Which is very good when you want to play music at three in the morning.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: I take it from what you were saying earlier about the vocals toward the end of the album…It sounded like you were not expecting to do that.

Brenden Martin: No, not really.

With This Beautiful Planet, I wrote the one that is the very last one, and on the day school ended–and it was all that evening–it was just a nice jam session. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, well, I can either have just the very last song afterwards, or maybe that’s just the flavor of this part of the album.” And I decided, that’ll be fun. I love the Beatles, and I got to sort of play on things they inspired me to do. So that was good.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: I think it’s really cool that you called the recording session a jam session.

Brenden Martin: They almost exclusively are. I don’t know if jazz is an appropriate term because it’s not really jazz, but it was playing maybe in a jazz kind of way — late nights sitting around feeling little licks and going there and that sounds pretty cool, so you stick that in, and then you go play something else.

I think it was maybe some kind of space jazz for a different century. … Some people sleep at night and dream. Other people stay up and make them happen, so that’s my goal anyway. I’m certainly dream inspired. I find that as I go to sleep I like to imagine music and listen to it and my songs are more or less products of that.

A lot of it comes from me wandering around the campus trying to see the world in different ways and observe pretty things. And I love listening to the album while walking around Stillwater because you listen to bugs or a clock goes off or something. To me the only grandest way to listen is with earbuds in, off on a wander in the middle of the night making people wonder what the heck you’re doing.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: It seems like there’s sort of a concept and a story being told.

Brenden Martin: I love records, and it’s not because I fooled myself to think the audio quality is better or something. I just enjoy interacting with the music I like that I have to get the thing out and put it on the thing, and I gotta set the volume right. You got to wander around. You go back to bed, you say, “Ah, great, that’s, that’s too quiet now.” You gotta walk over and turn it up again. It’s a hassle, but it makes you think about it, and I think especially when people make music. But it’s worth a thought because it takes a lot of time to make and not all that long to listen unless you’re careful.

So, the idea, I wanted to be very involved. With someone listening to it, I hope that they use it to think of a story or to try to relate to what’s going on in their life as they’re walking around and let the music inspire what they’re doing that day or something.

Yes there is a, there’s a loose story. …  Essentially it’s metaphorical for dealing with loss, and then trying to see the world in new ways as a result because things have changed. The times of introspection and then finally when you’re done with all that being able to look back and say, “Well, some things I’ve seen are beautiful, some things worse, but overall a pretty good trip, pretty good life.” 

Jeremy Martin
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Jeremy Martin writes about music and other stuff in OKC. He's also the less funny half of comedy duo The Martin Duprass and the proud father of two delightful baby turtles (pictured).

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