Tattoo artist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was a poet, a prankster, and an innovator, who picked up the art form while hopping freight trains across the US. He became a legend for his dedication and creativity — traits mirrored by the musical acts featured today by Sailor Jerry Presents. Scott Biram, who performed in the series on November 8 in Aspen, Colorado, plays guitar and harmonica, sings, yodels, and, in the blues tradition, stomps his foot. Using a stompboard, he sends that sound through two giant 18-inch subwoofers. Biram is part of a tradition of musicians who, with their innovation and freakish talent for performing on multiple instruments (often simultaneously), carry forth the spirit of the one-man band in new ways. We got together with him to compile this list of our favorite “one-man” acts.
“I kinda evolved into the one-man band thing,” says Scott Biram, aka the Dirty Old One Man Band, who began his career playing in punk and rock bands before developing a side solo career. “I started out just stomping my foot on the stage, then I started stomping on my mic stand. I just kept adding speakers, and experimenting with different stomp-board setups. I’ve gone through about five different designs over the years.” But even for a seasoned one-man band, Biram noted the challenges of going it alone. “After my other bands broke up, my solo stuff started to need more bang. I wanted to keep touring. I wanted to play in rock clubs still, but as a solo performer it was hard to get any gigs like that… I needed to build more of a presence.” Despite the challenges he’s faced, Biram has got it down. “Nowadays, if a four piece opens for me, there’s a good chance I’m just as loud as them, if not louder.” For the Sailor Jerry Presents show, Biram performs with Molly Gene: One Whoaman Band.
Click through below to check out all of our one-man band picks.
Bob Log III
Carrying the torch for the offbeat brethren of one-man bands, Bob Log III performs in a full-body cannonball suit, with a pilot’s helmet wired to a telephone receiver. Formerly one-half of Doo Rag, Log broke out on his own warming up crowds for Franz Ferdinand and Ani Difranco, and has toured with Biram. Known for his “guitar dance party,” Log builds his songs on a system of instruments comprised of his Silvertone archtop slide guitar, telephone-microphone vocals, and a kick drum and handmade foot cymbal, which he custom-outfitted with a kick pedal of its own.
The Legendary Tigerman
The Legendary Tigerman performs on guitar, harmonica, and drums, all live on stage. The Portuguese blues performer also known as Paulo Furtado has also appeared on Torch Songs for Secret Agents, by instrumental hip-hop producer Bullet. While he is the lead vocalist in the rock band Wraygunn, Furtado continues to perform under the name of his one-man band, as well.
Photo credit: Barry Feinstein
The simple pairing of a harmonica and guitar popularized by Bob Dylan is a streamlined image of the iconic one-man band with the drum on his back and bells on his arms, but not by much. The chronicler of social unrest became a reluctant hero to the counterculture and a musician who revolutionized the perception of the limits of popular music. However, his guitar/harmonica combo is now used so ubiquitously by musicians that it’s no longer considered to be a defining quality of the one-man band.
Hasil “The Haze” Adkins
Legendary West Virginia rockabilly singer Hasil Adkins was an American original. Playing guitar, drums, harmonica, and the toy horn simultaneously, Adkins claimed a repertoire of over 7,000 songs, with recurrent themes of heartbreak, decapitation, hot dogs, and aliens. His music was championed by John Zorn and Joe Coleman, and his cult status as an extraordinary outsider artist was sealed with his role, playing himself, in the film Die You Zombie Bastards! It all started at the age of five with an unusual instrument: a tin milk can.
For his debut album, A Sun Came, Sufjan Stevens played all the instruments — piano, electric guitar, oboe, banjo, sitar, and xylophone. He also wrote the melodies and lyrics, and recorded the album himself, on a four-track cassette-tape recorder. He gained renown as a composer and songwriter of incredible depth with a sound that was both novel and harked back to his folk predecessors. Raised in a run-down Detroit neighborhood by parents who both belonged to the Eastern religious sect Subud, his early exposure to the anarchist ethos on the streets could be partly responsible for his varied and complex musical stylings — his albums range from electronica (Enjoy Your Rabbit) to lo-fi folk (Seven Swans) and symphonic orchestration (Illinois).
Photo credit: Yana Paskova
Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards proves that the phrase “one-man band” may be a bit outdated — or at least develops the notion somewhat from its historic roots, while remaining true to its musical sensibilities. The first album from this one-woman outfit, Bird Brains, was quirky enough, with its self-made, DIY sound, incorporating and layering a variety of sounds — African beats, soul, and cabaret vocals — over the rhythms of reggae, folk, and hip-hop. Following her built-from-scratch ethic, Garbus has performed with a tom to her right and a snare to her left; and for each song, the rhythmic backing is developed to loop a drum beat or vocal pattern using effects pedals.
The classic tag on a Prince album reads: “Produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.” It was first used on his album For You, released a couple of months before his 20th birthday on April 7, 1978. According to the liner notes, Prince produced, arranged, composed, and played all 27 instruments on the recording. It was also was written and performed by Prince, with the exception of the song “Soft and Wet,” the lyrics of which were co-written by Moon. This one-man band has been ranked by Rolling Stone at No. 27 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Jesse Fuller, also known as the “lone star,” was born in 1896 and best known for his song “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Fuller’s instruments included a 12-string guitar, a harmonica, a kazoo, a cymbal, and an instrument of his own creation, a fotdella. The fotdella is a foot-operated percussion bass that consists of a large upright wood box, shaped like the top of a double bass with six foot pedals, each connected to a padded hammer that strikes the string. The contraption’s name was coined by his wife, who took to calling it the “foot-diller” — as in a “killer diller” instrument played with the foot.
Drainolith is the noise-rock, one-man project of Alex Moskos of Canadian band AIDS Wolf. For a live performance, he might be behind a contraption composed of primitive electronics, analogue synthesizers, and digital sampling, but exuding a quiet sensitivity that belies his macabre sound. Moskos has been honing his coarse lo-fi aesthetic since his first band in high school, Kubelka, which gained a fan in Thurston Moore. For a sample, listen to his September performance in Brooklyn here.
Molly Gene: One Whoaman Band
The gritty blues and bare country sound of Molly Dyer, aka Molly Gene: One Whoaman Band, have given this singer/songwriter a place among the notable musicians in the male-dominated underground ranks of the one-man band. Her bottleneck-slide technique harks back to the blues greats, and her raspy vocals have the grit and fire of the backwoods of the deep South. Gene performed with Biram at the Sailor Jerry Presents show on November 8 at Belly Up in Aspen, Colorado.
Film still from Stroszek (1977)
Bruno Schleinstein is best known as the actor/musician in Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek, about an alcoholic street performer who goes to prison, and is released only to be humiliated and beaten by a bunch of grisly pimps. Often beaten as a child, and having spent much of his youth in mental institutions, Bruno S. was, himself, a self-taught musician, who learned to play the piano, accordion, glockenspiel, and handbells. He would play in back gardens, performing 18th and 19th-century style ballads. In one memorable scene of the film, the diminutive Bruno S. gives a touching performance on the glockenspiel and accordion.
Dustin Wong, like Drainolith, causes us to question what constitutes a one-man band in the digital age. Wong takes inspiration from a statement by John Fahey: “I was playing guitar, but I heard an orchestra in my head.” He creates a lush orchestral sound using an assembly of pedals — an octave, distortion, loop, envelope filter, and a couple of delays — to effectively create many melodic layers with one instrument.
The Evolution Control Committee
An experimental-music band based in Columbus, Ohio, the Evolution Control Committee (ECC) is the outfit of Mark Gunderson (aka TradeMark G.), founded in 1987. The ECC uses uncleared and illegal samples from multiple sources in an effort to protest copyright law. He also produces a variety of audio experiments, including disfiguring compact discs at live shows, known as “CDestruction,” and has done video work too, from re-edited ’50s corporate shorts to Teddy Ruxpin reciting the works of William Burroughs. The song “Rocked by Rape” features samples of Dan Rather’s voice describing atrocities over looped riffs from AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” marking the ECC as one of the pioneers of the mash-up.
Joe Buck Yourself
Photo credit: Stephanie Colaianni
Kentucky punk-rock musician Joe Buck (born Jim Finkley) played all guitar, bass, and drums for the 2003 album Cockadoodledon’t when he was with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. He became infamously identifiable as the snarling upright bass player in Hank Williams III’s band, and was also part of his punk-metal project Assjack. But it’s as a solo artist, under the name of Joe Buck Yourself that Buck carries on the hellbilly punk-rock heritage of the one-man band.
Have a one-man (or one-woman) favorite who we missed here? Let us know in the comments!