A few years back, Dmitri SFC's studio had been robbed, his girlfriend of seven years had left him, and he was depressed.
"I needed more gear to make music again for my own sanity," says the DJ, producer, and poster child for Groove, the 2000 movie about the San Francisco rave scene. He didn't have cash for new stuff, but he stumbled upon pictures of circuit-bent Casio keyboards online and got to thinking.
Circuit bending, or modifying electronic equipment that may or may not have had musical roots, has yielded a subculture of noise -- electronic music that's largely without rhythm.
"When I came across it," he recalls, "I hadn't heard anyone doing legitimate house music with it, and that's what made me want to try it."
Soon, he was taking apart cheap and discarded electronics, relieving them of their useful parts, and recycling them into brand new instruments housed in creative new packages, like a giant Sapporo can, a briefcase, or a computer tower. These fresh instruments became featured and beloved parts of Dmitri's palette of analog tools, most assembled for free or almost nothing.I thought Dmitri was doing me a favor when he showed up at my house last week to haul away old bits of electronic detritus that were languishing in my garage. His haul included a busted Technics tape deck, a dusty boombox with long-silenced "hyper bass sound," and the laser printer that spat out the many revisions of my first book. But he was particularly excited about a dysfunctional doorbell. "Really, I can have this?!?" he asked, as if I was offering up a prized slice of vinyl. "It's all for the music and to have sounds that you can't buy," he says of his habit. "You definitely cannot make the sounds I'm making with virtual plug-ins, and you can't even go buy it, because I'm creating it for my own playability and my own needs. " Circuit bending has become a full-fledged obsession, and Dimitri recently made the leap from that to building modular synthesizers, two pursuits that he says go hand-in-hand. "Circuit bending is the gateway drug to modular," he adds. "Let's Just Go," the first song Dimitri SFC recorded with current girlfriend, house singer Elise Gargalikis, showcases the versatility of a bent drum machine toy made in the '80s by Mattel. It can be seen in the center of this video, modified with a silver set of switches: Dmitri now strikes a balance between bending and building during the week and recording on the weekends with Gargalikis for his COA Recordings label. Their recent song "Satya" has received more than 3,000 plays on YouTube. Though Dmitri still considers himself a newcomer to the modular synth world, he has gotten to the point with circuit bending where he knows enough to help others get started. He will teach a three-session workshop on circuit bending on consecutive Saturdays beginning Feb. 11 at Robotspeak in the Lower Haight. He says that prospective students need only bring a soldering iron, but they don't even have to know how to use it before getting to class. Basic bending will be the focus of the first class, the second will instruct how to build an eight-step sequencer out of a $6 LED light chaser kit, the kind that teaches little kids the basics of electronics. The final class will show how to bend an electronic device of the student's choice, whether they want to bring in a keyboard, drum machine, Speak and Spell, or an old doorbell.