In his workshop, Tucson electronics experimenter Dave Wright can resemble a mad scientist or an absent-minded professor, leaning over his bench and fiddling happily with transistors and microchips.
All around him are electronic musical instruments that he's designed and built, a mixing board, various other jerry-rigged electronic devices and a few old organs he scavenges for parts. A MacBook sits on the corner of a table, its pristine cleanliness looking out of place.
The workshop also serves as the recording and rehearsal space for Not Breathing, Wright's longtime music project, which has spent more than 15 years on the cutting edge of the techno and ambient worlds. Not Breathing has a dozen releases to its collective name.
Not Breathing will play a rare gig in its hometown on Saturday night, Nov. 20, at Solar Culture Gallery. Also on the bill will be David Oliphant, known to electronic-music fans as part of the Phoenix-based band Life Garden, and a relatively new act called The Spokemen.
At the midtown home he shares with his partner and their young daughter, Wright is charming and gregarious as he shows off and demonstrates those custom-made instruments, most of which he has given female names. He also talks at length about his music.
"I don't know where our music fits in, really. I mean, there is an ambient element to it, but it can also be loud and obnoxious, and I think industrial and techno people like it, but that's not quite it, either. It's electronic; that's for sure. People who come to our shows are a weird bunch, I'll tell you that."
And he means it as a compliment.
"We're not really an outsider band, because we have recordings and stuff, but compared to a lot of mainstream artists, we're pretty outside that movement."
Not Breathing has toured extensively. Among the most well-known bands with which Wright and company have shared stages are Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Department, Sheep on Drugs, F.M. Einheit and Subarachnoid Space. Wright also has collaborated with artists that include Dead Voices on Air and Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto.
It was on tour with Pigface, in the 1990s, when Wright contracted spinal meningitis and lost 60 percent of his hearing.
He's also a semi-regular co-host on the electronic-music show Digital Empire, which airs from 10 p.m. to midnight, Fridays, on community radio station KXCI FM 91.3. On occasion, Wright has performed live sets on Digital Empire, accompanied by members of Not Breathing and other collaborators.
Wright, 36, has been making electronic music since the 1980s, he said.
"I had cheap gear as a kid, but it wasn't until I had an album or two out that I became—I don't want to swear, but a pure whore. I really wanted to get all the equipment I could never afford. I had some nice synthesizers, but a friend of mine and I built a kit together. That was a lot of fun, but I didn't really think about making my own instruments for a while."
A native Arizonan, Wright moved to San Francisco and then Portland, Ore., for a while in the early 1990s.
"It was while I was in San Francisco that I discovered 'circuit-bending,' which is modifying kids' toys to make new sounds from them. It's kind of a way to get into electronics without knowing what you were doing. I circuit-bent everything I could find, and I made a lot of money there for a while by selling circuit-bent toys, like Speak and Spells and things like that."
After he became adept at circuit-bending, Wright began reading every electronics book he could find—he has hundreds in his library—and started creating his own electronic instruments. "I've never gone to school for it, but I've read a lot. And I also know a lot of people in the industry who build synthesizers."
He adores the analog modular synthesizers that were popular in the 1960s and '70s. He has built several, including a Moog replica, from scratch. Wright's two main axes are a massive modular synth named Laquarto and a drum machine named Perky. Together, the two machines are the size of a refrigerator. He also used them to create all the music on his 2007 album, Laquarto and Perky.
Not Breathing has released about a dozen CDs since its beginning in the early 1990s, not including vinyl singles, cassette tapes and appearances on compilation recordings. The most recent album is Christy Cores, which was released this year by Noize:Tek Records. It's an inspiring abstract investigation of organized electronic and acoustic noise.
Wright may be something of an underground icon for fans of electronic music, but he's a voracious listener and certifiable music geek who can expound at length about his love of cheesy '80s pop, exotica, French porn soundtracks, vintage video-game music and Lady Gaga.
And he hastens to add that he never really was influenced by electronic pioneers until after he started making music.
"When I was younger, I was really into Skinny Puppy and other techno bands, in 1991 or '92. That stuff was more my inspiration than artists like Eno, who I didn't get into until I was a little bit older and dropped out of society."
To facilitate his instrument-making, Wright collects semiconductors and rare chips. At his workbench, he pulls open a drawer to reveal a bin full of vintage vacuum tubes. "I didn't pay for any of this stuff, the semiconductors or vacuum tubes; people just give them to me when they find out I am into this stuff.
"It's part OCD—I mean, I'm not really OCD, but I think I must have every transistor that ever existed. It kind of becomes a manic thing for me, although I'm worried: Basically, I'm good at '50s electronics and stuff from the '60s, '70s and '80s, but I'm not really good at digital stuff. But we have Karl White for that."
The regular core of Not Breathing includes White on digital electronics, Drew Fitzgerald on guitars and organ, and Bruce Brindamour on didgeridoo. That lineup will play the forthcoming Tucson gig.
"It's going to start out slow and ambient with David Oliphant, who is really great, and with The Spokemen, and then we'll continue that vibe—but we'll make sure to get really loud by the end."