Photos: Michael Portanda
It’s a rainy summer afternoon in South Salt Lake, and I step into the home of Joe Greathouse, a man mostly known as the human behind the glitchy, technical sound of VCR5. The epitome of the term “DIY music,” Greathouse produces and performs from a stack of old VCRs rewired to work as instruments. Before our talk, he showed me his VCR collection and recording gear that he uses both in-studio and onstage. After discussing the procedure of making electronic music from five VCRs and a few controllers used for triggering various sounds from the tapes, Greathouse shows me an example: He inserts a videotape into one of the VCRs and flips on the equipment. The video tapes can be anything from old movies to recorded songs that he can sample and mix from a mixer that sits on the floor. Among the many artists playing at the Craft Lake City DIY Festival this year, VCR5 will be delivering a one-of-a-kind performance just for the festival. SLUG talked with him about everything from the concept of his music to his live shows, which are unlike any other.“The VCR5 was originally just two circuit-bent VCRs. Basically, circuit bending is just when you go in and rewire the guts [to be able to make music],” Greathouse says of how he originally created the music. “[With VCRs], it was a logical step, for the most part, because you can get audio and video,” says Greathouse. He got the idea while staying in a hotel on a work trip. He decided that he wanted to listen to music, but he had no outlet to do so, so he rewired the electronics in his hotel room to be able to make electronic music. “I worked as an appliance repairman for a long time and learned how to rewire little stuff. You just learn the basics of electronics that way,” Greathouse says of how he gained experience working with electrical parts. Regarding his background in music throughout his life, Greathouse says, “When I was little, I learned how to play the piano, and I hated it. So, as soon as I stopped taking lessons, I was able to learn the drums, which is what I wanted to do.”
His musical inspirations are a surprise, as he listed movies and old video games as how he sparks ideas on what to create. “Other music is obviously inspiring, but just any art in general, [too]. I really like old cultural music and old movies like old John Wayne movies and things like Clark Gable and Ethel Barrymore as well as Marilyn Monroe’s stuff,” says Greathouse. Though he’s strongly inspired by video games and lists them as an influence in his music, he’s not a chiptune artist. With a sound that varies greatly, it can be anything from an electronic track with hip-hop elements and glitchy sounds to electronic video game–like songs with accompanying visuals. Greathouse incorporates old sounds and film audio into his music by sampling anything from old movie lines to traditional Irish music to video game soundtracks. One of his more recent albums, a split with IH86335 (pronounced “I hate bees”), prompted me to ask about how he feels about working with a lot of locals and other DIY music acts. “I’ve collaborated with a lot of local artists, and it’s kind of par for the course. It’s important to work with other people and get help when you start,” Greathouse says. His other local collaborations include work with groups like Palace of Buddies and even his group project with Justin Chouinard of Kinematic Suite 5, an electronic collaborative that does live shows around the city and incorporates audio and video into their sets.
In regard to what he plans to do for his show at the Craft Lake City’s DIY Fest, Greathouse explains that no two shows of his are the same. “The thing with VCR5 is that a lot of it is visual—the music just kind of goes with it … With every show, I try to do something completely different, so this will be the first show where I do all Nintendo music,” he says. He explains that because the music goes with the videos he uses, he shapes his live shows to go with what he wants to create at that time and would pair well. For a festival that focuses on the concept of completely handmade crafts and other forms of art, VCR5 captures the idea completely—everything down to his instruments is handmade. VCR5 will be playing at 7 p.m. on the 90.9 KRCL Stage presented by Beacon Audio.