the hum of the Lothars
by Brett Milano
One doesn't often find a band with three members who own theremins, much less know how to play them. The unwieldy electronic thingy was first marketed in the '20s and used for sci-fi sound effects; it was briefly revived during the height of psychedelia (the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" remains the biggest hit to feature one), and then by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. But the new wave of respect for the instrument, spurred by the recent documentary film Theremin, comes to its logical conclusion in the Lothars -- Boston's first, best, and only (nearly) all-theremin band.
Theremin wielders Jon Bernhardt (also a WMBR DJ), Kris Thompson (also of Abunai), and Dean Stiglitz were all inspired by the film, and they concluded that the idea of a theremin orchestra was too good to resist. The folks who produce the Terrastock festival felt the same way, booking the as yet unrehearsed band last year on the basis of the idea alone.
"I'd be the first to admit that we initially got shows because of the novelty aspect -- but people started seeing us and liking it," says Bernhardt. "It's a hard instrument to play -- it can be used in a more classical way, to replace the voice or the violin. But my feeling is that you should use those instruments if you want to hear those sounds. I'm more interested in the different voices that a theremin can generate."
The Lothars, who play the Middle East with Luna on February 20, are now circulating an album-length tape they recorded titled Meet the Lothars. The tape isn't quite the cacophony of electronic bloops you might expect. Instead they get into some muscular psychedelic jams, with Ramona Herboldsheimer's guitar and bass acting as a grounding mechanism. She plays the band's only conventional instruments, giving the theremin players basic rock riffs to swoop around. Producer David Minehan also helps to bring out the songs' structure. That said, you wouldn't mistake the Lothars for a boogie band. The Beatles reference in their album title may be a joke, but imagine an outfit whose style starts with the last 30 seconds of "I Am the Walrus" and works outward from there.
The theremin remains an odd instrument to build a band around: you can't play chords on it, and melodies are also a challenge. You could probably program a synth to get a lot of the same sounds. Then again, the theremin looks really neat on stage, particularly when it's in use. You don't touch it -- instead you alter the pitch by hovering your hands over it. The instrument certainly has a little space-age mystique.
"There's an old-fashioned appeal to them, the way there is with analog synths," Bernhardt says, "And you don't need to develop calluses to play them."
At this rate, it can't be long before the Mellotron makes a comeback.
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