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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Overcast
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From New Wave to brain waves with Chris Bocast
UW grad student merges art and science
Bocast: In the New Wave days, anything seemed possible.
Bocast: In the New Wave days, anything seemed possible.
Credit:Russell Park

There are thousands of doctoral students in Madison at any given time, but few of them have the claim to fame that Chris Bocast does. While some Ph.D.s-to-be were still learning to crawl in the mid-'80s, Bocast had already made a name for himself as guitarist in the California New Wave band Tokyo Vogue.

Since then, he's produced records and served as touring bassist with the Mission U.K. He's also reinvented himself as a composer and performer of ambient music, as evidenced by Stratagem, a hypnotic album of electronica, released earlier this year, that falls somewhere between Boards of Canada and Martian ocean sounds - or perhaps Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. It's the kind of thing that summons both the mystical history of ancient ruins and the magical futurism of space.

After orbiting around San Francisco, Austin and the mountains of Colorado, Bocast landed in Madison about a year ago when his girlfriend chose the UW for her doctoral studies. Pretty soon he found himself doing the same.

"My girlfriend studies dildos, and me, I'm making 'strange' sounds. What more could the university want?" he says.

Bocast's strange sounds belong to the field of acoustic ecology, which uses sound to investigate the relationships between living things and their habitats.

Sometimes this involves installations of "sonic environments" to raise people's awareness of the sounds that shape their lives - and the health of the planet. At other times Bocast designs sound samples for Julia Wilbarger, a kinesiology professor and occupational therapy expert who's studying the physical and emotional effects different sounds create for people with neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism.

Bocast explains: "If the researchers say, 'I want the most irritating sound possible: What have you got?' I'm the one who says, 'How about a cat in heat?' and creates it for them."

But re-creating the screeches of fingernails on blackboards and colicky babies isn't all that Bocast has set out to do. In addition to installation work, teaching and perhaps producing a few albums here in town, he'd like to rock out in the near future.

He's got a solo gig at the Crossroads Coffeehouse in Cross Plains, where he showcases ambient guitar works and songs with a classical bent, but he's looking for a few partners.

"I would like to start a band that's really, really professional, with solid musicians who know where they're headed," he says. "The best band regionally. I'm not sure if that exists here."

Bocast also wouldn't mind setting Madison straight about the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink in the wake of John Hughes' death.

"'Pretty in Pink' isn't even the Psychedelic Furs' best song," he says. "But New Wave was really fun around the time that song came out: It was the other side of punk rock, and new technology was coming out every year. First it was synthesizers, then drum machines that actually sounded like drums - anything seemed possible."

At the same time, Bocast insists that the music-tech revolution of the current decade is more about distribution practices than innovation in instruments, sounds or even genres. He just happens to be toting around a New Yorker article outlining how live shows and merchandising are the top ways for musicians to turn a profit nowadays - a sea change from the way the biz used to operate.

But Bocast isn't making much New Wave anymore. He's traded mod hairstyles and choppy, poppy melodies for wordless meditations on the void.

"What kind of T-shirt should I make for that?" he asks. "And who would buy it?"

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