As a 9-year-old growing up in Great Falls, Dave Johnson would memorize his violin homework so quickly he'd get bored and start experimenting with sound. He'd forego the bow and wildly strum the strings instead. He used the violin to learn "Pushing Forward Back," a song by Seattle rock band Temple of the Dog. At 17 years old, he bought a Del Ray Teisco guitar—a Sears Roebuck special—with his birthday money and that same night recorded his first noise album, Torch It With Oxygen. He made 50 copies for his friends. Under the moniker Bridgebuilder, he experimented with other musicians, at one point touring with a cello player and, later, a percussionist. The line-up of the band has changed over the years, but Johnson's always been at the center, experimenting with the sounds of sheet metal, radio broadcasts and feedback loops. This week, Johnson celebrates 12 years of Bridgebuilder with the release of his new album Solemn Hymnal to the Ancient Ones, a 12-song retrospective (with the sci-fi subtitle 12 Years of Pre-man, Post-human Rock in 12 Parts) that includes a mix of Johnson's personal favorites from his 16 previous albums and EPs. Johnson says he'd hoped to do a 10-year retrospective, but by the time he got around to mining his material, he'd missed the moment. Still, that means he was able to include songs from The Garuda (2008) and Lay Waste the Siege Perilous! (2009). He wasn't, however, able to salvage songs from the first recording.
"The degradation on the first tape was so bad," says Johnson. "I tried mastering it, compressing it and everything. I just couldn't get much out of it."
Johnson prefers sci-fi subject matter. Song titles—"The Lure of Light" and "Grey Winter Dawn Forever," for instance—hint at the apocalyptic and space themes that inspire him. He sings about trapped space demons and stars going supernova while everyone's asleep. "While I definitely don't have the keenest mind for science," he admits, "I'm a big fan of scientific exploration. I love science fiction—things that happen once humanity goes extinct, because every species eventually does."
Beyond themes, sonic experiments inspire him. He's enthralled by a project in which a man recorded the sounds of Beijing for a year on a microphone hanging off a skyscraper.
"There was a rhythm to each hour, each day, each week and each month," Johnson says. "And the year had its own cycle. He quantified all that into musical notes. I like to think about what happens when you combine so many disparate elements."
Johnson has played with six line-ups over the last 12 years. His newest collaborator, Rachid Abdel Ghafour, joined Bridgebuilder in August of 2009. (He also released Johnson's new album on his record label, Kapustin Yar Records). Ghafour, like Johnson, has a one-man music project, Zebulon Kosted, which he's worked on for 10 years and describes as "crazy, dark, ambient, electronic ritual." He plans to give audiences a sample of his sound in between Bridgebuilder sets, but he insists on maintaining the integrity of Bridgebuilder itself.
"I'm basically leaving the songwriting up to Dave," he says. "I don't want to change Bridgebuilder into some black metal band."
Onstage, Johnson and Ghafour switch up between drums, bass and guitar, all the while also manning other unconventional instruments. Percussion elements include sheet metal, railroad spikes, an oil drum and pots and pans, while synthesizers, radio frequency signal and a hyperactive drum machine add ambient and melodic effects.
Unlike most bands, Ghafour and Johnson don't practice—at least not in the conventional meaning of the term. Instead, they map out their songs on paper. The map indicates silent passages. It describes what the bass should be doing in each section, what beat the drums play, which effects will be on for each instruments and where the vocals fit in. Beneath, they sketch out riff charts and pitch clusters for each section.
"We basically study it like it's homework," says Ghafour. "We basically sit and talk about it for an hour and say, 'Okay, we'll play this and then we'll play this,' but we don't actually practice it. And then we get on stage."
"And it works," adds Johnson. "It's pretty well guided. We know what the core riffs are but each time there are definitely different harmonics and tempos going on."
Even if it's well guided, however, unpracticed songs played on a profusion of electronic devices ensure an element of surprise. During their last show, Ghafour says, he taped down notes on the keyboard to created a wall of sound, but when he pulled them off during the next song, the keyboard created a pulse beat and feedback loop. It wasn't part of the plan, but the duo adapted, changing the rhythm of the song in a way they'd never played it before.
"We rolled with it and nailed it," says Johnson. "Sometimes we'll set those things up and all the electronics will be grounded, everything will be fine. And then, out of nowhere, we'll get these weird Christian ministry AM broadcast frequencies picking up on the instruments. And so we'll play with those."
Johnson plans to record another album in January and he says he'll continue to dabble in new instruments and the art of offbeat sounds. If you listen to his 12-year catalog of songs, you'll notice how much he's also experimented with style. Hardcore follows sweeter, acoustic numbers. Sludgy metal preludes angsty folk. It's all part of keeping a balance, he says.
"I love sound, you know," he says. That's what matters. I'll probably be like 80 years old and a hunchback with bolts in my spine and I'll still be hitting open mics with an acoustic guitar, singing some old-man songs about, 'I'm burnt out, I'm an old guy!'" He laughs. "Someday I will sing that song. And I will have earned it, damn it."
Bridgebuilder plays its CD release at the Palace Sat., Nov. 28, at 9 PM with This Band Kills Fascists and Modality. $5.