Bones and cutlery, a saw blade, a gas can and a drum pedal topped with an old beat up baby shoe.
These are not items you'd imagine being useful in a band. And then there's Suitcase Junket, a one-man band carefully constructed by Matt Lorenz and his junk — performing at Evening Muse on May 24.
Lorenz, who currently resides in Leverett, Massachusetts, where he also plays music in Rusty Belle, formed the side project for economic and creative purposes.
After touring with Rusty Belle, a trio comprised of himself, his sister and another member, he examined the band's finances and quickly noticed that they hadn't made enough money to justify being on the road for as long as they had been. Though he seesaws between the two projects, Suitcase Junket is now his primary focus.
While similar to other one-man acts along the lines of Shakey Graves and David Ford, who import vast elements of sounds and instruments into solo sets, Suitcase Junket adds an extra buckle to the niche.
Lorenz attributes the rise in performers of this type to economics, but he admits that working out the kinks of being a one-man band isn't as easy as it sounds.
"The one-man band thing can have some pitfalls in that it can be easy for all the stuff to start sounding the same and then also there's that kind of Dick Van Dyke pitfall of hookiness," he says. "But I think a lot of people are getting around that and making really interesting stuff and I think it makes the whole cultural landscape richer."
For Lorenz, part of the reward of flying solo is in the creative reign. "There's this sort of freedom to be as wild as you want to be at any given moment and you can change any of these songs at any point, either mid-song or mid-tour" he says. "You can decide to do different takes on them and get sort of brash with them in a way that would be disrespectful if you were playing with other people and having to go 'Ok, no, we're not doing it that way anymore.'"
That being said, his method of trading conventional instruments in for repurposed objects might also require quite the persuasion for other potential musicians to join Lorenz on the road.
"I've always been a bit of a tinkerer and a bit of a visual artist as well," says Lorenz, who was introduced with the idea to construct instruments out of unconventional objects when Rusty Belle's drummer grew jaded. Rather than set himself behind an intricate drum set, Lorenz used a simple wooden box to serve as a Cajon; attaching two bass drum pedals to that and using it up until it was no longer playable.
From there he grew more adventurous – a suitcase being the next apple of his eye. Not only could it serve as an instrument, but he could also fill it with foot-drum instruments, making for light travel on the road.
"I was really interested in the sound of castaway things, especially in our culture where we throw away so much stuff that going to a dump was like going to the candy store in terms of sound. You can go and find all sorts of really interesting tones," says Lorenz.
"I think it was probably listening to a Tom Waits record that I learned this idea that as artists and musicians were constantly recycling each others ideas and forms. There's not much new that's happening in terms of that and so the way to sort of find your own style or create something that feels new is to change the tone of these things, and my favorite way to do that is through these trashy sounds."
Some of these sounds come at the mercy of objects as small and seemingly insignificant as a baby shoe. While in the studio, Lorenz found himself struggling to get the sound he wanted out of an old gas can turned drum, assembled with a sock-laden pedal. But when an engineer recommended a baby shoe, Lorenz jumped at the idea and ran with it.
"I was like 'Are you kidding me? That's creepy and great,' so I went home and asked my mom if she had any of our old baby shoes," he says.
The shoe, surprisingly durable with a strong, hard sole and leather stitching, continues to serve as part of the Suitcase Junket ensemble. "I think it's on its sixth piece of metal. It just keeps playing through these pieces of metal and its not falling apart yet — knock on wood," says Lorenz.
And then, there are the bones — deer and sheep bones mostly, to be exact. Lorenz found the pieces in the woods and in compost materials when he worked on a farm. After collecting the bones for years, he'd filed them away with discarded silverware that was saved for potential visual arts projects. Then one day, during a move, he dropped them on the box — and he liked what he heard.
"I loved the sound of it and I thought I want that sound with me more" he says. "I figured out a way to rig it up to the hi-hat stand so that I can get all these bones and silverware hanging above the box, and then every time you hit the pedal they drop down and there's this great kind of crunchy jangle to it."
The sounds are hard to pinpoint, making the process as interesting as the result. But not all of Lorenz's object-turned-instruments have been successes. He recalls a time when he made a one-string can fiddle with a broomstick for the body and a can for the resonator.
"That sort of blew my mind, as to how simple instruments can be. But in that family, there were a lot of failures," he says. "I actually just found a whole little family of instruments that are definitely wall pieces. They look like they sound interesting and they just don't."
While Lorenz's guitar may look like the only normal object onstage, it's got a backwoodsy history of its own. Lorenz found it in a dumpster and regards it as one of his biggest treasures.
"I owe that guitar a lot. It gave me all these songs and it gave me all these ideas. And the limitations of it are one of the things that made it so prolific creatively," he says.
Lorenz credits part of its unique sound to the fact that it was missing parts. He replaced its missing saddle with a nail and its nut with a piece of steel. Initially they were put there as a stopgap, but seven years later, they seem to be there to stay.
"[The guitar] was filled with mold, which I guess is why someone threw it away, but white vinegar beats mold every time, so it wasn't too bad cleaning it out," he says.
Lorenz's resilience to music and instruments begs the question of whether he ever steps foot in big box music stores. The answer? Sure.
"I'm not opposed to going to the music store and getting stuff," he says. Yet he has a minimalist approach. He mostly just hits music shops for new guitar strings and if he's in for a tuner, he prefers used over new.
This DIY-approach is reflective in the branding for Suitcase Junket. The album cover for 2009's Sever and Lift features a pair of scissors with wings; 2011's Knock it Down features a hammer with wings; 2015's Make Time features a baby shoe with wings; and Dying Star, his most recent EP, released in March of this year, features a wrench with wings.
For Lorenz, the album artwork came unconsciously. As he looks back at the covers, he finds new meaning in the concept he had when the idea was first conceived.
"I really like old objects — a lot of people do, that's why antiques are something people like — because there's a story behind them. Value goes up if there's a story that can be told, regardless of if it's true," he says. "If you put a picture of a hammer on a page nothing really comes across, but if you put wings on a hammer or pair of scissors, then all of a sudden they have a story, the life of the object."
For his latest album, Dying Star, Lorenz featured songs that didn't make the cut for Make Time.
"Thematically, it was kind of a salvage job," he says. "Like, I don't want these songs to go by the wayside and I want to save them and get them out there."
On the album's first track, "Dying Star," Lorenz ponders the science of what happens when a star dies, which lends itself to a examination of what happens when humans die.
"It's about the death of your heroes and what that looks like when they kind of explode into a thousand pieces and what it looks like when other people start playing their songs," he says.
"I remember thinking after Prince died, 'How dead can you be when your song is on half the world's lips?'"