By David Grad
There was a time when being a geek was something you tried to overcome. Then indie rock was born and geekiness became a virtue. Certainly Jon Bernhardt has no problem with it; he has gone beyond merely cultivating his geekiness and turned it into a career.
When he is not hosting a morning indie rock program on MIT's community station WMBR-FM, Bernhardt is an actuary. You know, one of those guys who sits around insurance companies figuring how much they have to pay out to survivors after the meatwagon has collected all the loved one's parts. And lest you miss the implications of his job, Bernhardt tells a little joke: "They say actuaries are people who don't have the personality to become accountants."
What kind of musical instrument would appeal to an actuary? For years Bernhardt was plagued by the question. He mucked around on guitar but never became a "competent" player. It seemed he was doomed merely to enjoy underground culture from the sidelines.
Then, a year and half ago, Bernhardt saw Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, the critically acclaimed film documenting the life of Leon Theremin and the instrument that bore his name. The future flashed before Bernhardt's eyes: he would not only become a theremin maestro, but someday he would lead a theremin orchestra.
Asked why the theremin, Bernhardt replies modestly, "Because it's trendy. And since it's a new trend, I'm on equal footing with everybody else."
Before Bernhardt could start developing his chops, of course, he had to acquire an instrument. This turned out be easy enough --- a mail-order company had also picked up on the trend and was now offering theremin kits for sale. At the mention of his actually building himself an ax, I tell Bernhardt I'm in awe of his manly technical prowess. But before his geek credentials are hopelessly compromised he stops me and explains, "I hadn't really built anything before. The electronics took an evening to assemble. It required a little bit of soldering, but most of the work was in sanding down the casing and shellacking it --- to make it look really nice."
With his new instrument in hand, Bernhardt was ready to implement stage two of his master plan. At a barbecue last July, he casually mentioned to his old friend Kris Thompson that he had just built a theremin --- and was amazed to hear that Thompson had just built one, too. It was at that moment that the guys made a solemn pact to form a theremin orchestra. But Bernhardt still had his duties at the radio station and actuarial functions to perform, and Thompson was busy making a name for his band Abunai!
Then, last December, Bernhardt heard about Terrastock, the April psychedelic music festival in Providence, RI. He got the organizers to book his orchestra. Now he only had to form the band. The call went out for theremin players.
Though pleased by the immediate response, Bernhardt soon found out that most of the candidates had so perfected their geekiness that none of them could make rehearsals. In desperation, Thompson cajoled his bandmate Brendan Quinn into joining, so that, if not exactly an orchestra, at least the idea of massed theremins would be maintained. Being a pop sort of guy, Bernhardt figured the band would need a back beat, so he enlisted his girlfriend Ramona Herboldsheimer, an old vet of the Boston scene, who currently plays drums for a band called Orans. This proved an unfortunate decision: the sharp sound of the drums, when added to the screech of the theremins, produced an unbearable cacophony. It was soon decided that Ramona would provide a little structure to their songs using a guitar instead --- an instrument that she had only been noodling around on for a couple months.
The question of material remained problematic. As a disciple of the learning-by-doing school, Bernhardt might've been expected to go DIY punk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Regarding the theremin, he is a true classicist. He cites former theremin maestros with reverence, and joins them in mourning the way the instrument was traditionally confined to making cheap sound effects for horror movies and sci-fi soundtracks. And he scoffs at the posers the theremin has attracted --- a point he drove home by naming his new group Lothars, an bitingly ironic reference to Lothar and the Hand People, the nearly forgotten 60s pop band. His voice dripping with contempt, he explains that they "made a big deal in the liner notes to their album about having this theremin called Lothar. But when you listen to the record, it's no place to be found." [Please read the webmaster's note at the conclusion of this article]
Lothars only had four months before their first gig --- and still had to learn how to play their instruments --- so Bernhardt's notion of playing Bach seemed out of the question. "The theremin is really hard to learn," he says, "because it's such a sensitive instrument. It responds to any motion that disrupts its electromagnetic field. You wiggle your index finger a little bit, and you're talking about the pitch changing by a major third. Holding a steady pitch is really hard. Your body tends to move, so it takes intense concentration. One way to get around that is to do music that doesn't require exact pitch."
Lothars persevered, wrote songs, and by April were ready to meet their first audience. Even if they didn't have perfect pitch, their efforts at Terrastock were compelling. A demo tape, Meet Lothars, documents three of the compositions performed that day. "The Cat and The Mean Old Man," which contains some pretty credible animal sounds, and "Cowboy's Lament," an Ennio Morricone tribute, are sort of like Shonen Knife doing Merzbow covers. The haunting "The Coronation of King Lothar," on the other hand, sounds like a traditional English folk song emanating from beyond the gates of hell.
This combination of naive electronics, self-conscious humor and gothic horror will no doubt incite a horde of imitators. Geekotronica might just be the next big thing. If so, what about Bernhardt's career as an actuary? Having met his muse, can he still find happiness in figuring out ways to cut corners on the meager settlements paid out to widows and orphans?
He seems shocked at the question. "You don't understand. I'm on the retirement plan side of things. Around here, we're happy when they die."
Jon wishes to state for the record that his voice did not "drip with contempt". "Disappointment" or "frustration" would have been far more accurate. The name "Lothars" was not chosen with "biting irony", but rather as an homage to "Lothar and the Hand People."