HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (6/14/13) - It is not too often that I get to conduct an interview with someone who is in a bathtub. I can now officially check that one off of my bucket list.
However, this was not just your run-of-the-mill bathtub interview, but a sonic adventure of epic proportions. Not only that, but this particular sonic adventure was being conducted while my interviewee was relaxing in a Sonic Lifestyles bathtub outside, beneath beautiful maple trees, on a warm summer day. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
You are probably asking yourself; how this could possibly be an adventure if those in question never left the yard they were relaxing in? My answer—music can take you anywhere, and when sonic vibrations are coursing through your body, all you’ve got to do is close your eyes and let that music transport you to another place, another time, or maybe even another dimension.
The Sugg Street Post recently had the pleasure of interviewing local light and sound engineer extraordinaire, visual artist, and Glema Mahr Center for the Arts Technical Director, Robert Blumrick. This man literally doesn’t go anywhere without a large, shiny Texan belt buckle and a huge, easygoing smile.
While I’ve known Robert Blumrick for a while, heard the fabled tales of his musical bathtub making capabilities, and seen his talents when it came to making a large lighted sign of a moose’s butt for a play I was in, I truly didn’t know the scope of his technical background or his ability to create such a wide variety of things that I never knew I needed until I saw them. One of those things being a massage table that not only played music of your choice, but allowed your body to feel the beat of the music as you were listening to it. Couple that with a decent back massage and you’ve got yourself set.
Rob is the founder of Sonic Lifestyles, a local company that pairs music with technology to create a wide variety of different products that will dramatically improve your lifestyle. From beautifully colored musical light boxes, acoustic guitars that literally are speakers, pianos that house televisions, sonic massage tables, and yes, even sonic bathtubs. Rob allows his creativity to guide him as he expresses his world visually with the talents he has developed over the years.
So, how did Rob develop these talents? What brought him all the way from Texas to the great city of Madisonville, KY? What caused him to develop his first sonic tub? And what quirky products is Rob planning on developing in the future?
To uncover these mysteries, myself, as well as Sugg Street Post writer Luke Short and photographer Jessi Smith, came along with Robert Blumrick on our mystical journey and now we will never look at seemingly ordinary household fixtures the same way again. The results of our sonic adventure are as follows:
Jessica Dockrey - Tell me a little bit about your background?
Robert Blumrick - I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. When I was in the 5th grade, my dad brought home this four track recorder and said, “Don’t touch it.” So, that began my audio career. [laughs] The best way to get kids to learn anything is to say, “Stay away from this. This is an expensive piece of equipment. Don’t touch it.” I used this little four track recorder to mix for his band and stuff. Totally the wrong piece of equipment to do it but it worked. I was doing live stuff and then my friends would come over after school, or on the weekends, and we would lay down stupid tracks with the guitars and stuff like that.
Jess - So your father was in a band? What instrument did he play?
Rob - My dad has always played guitar. He has played ever since I can remember. Here’s a photo of me with my dad jamming on a mandolin that I didn’t know how to play. My dad has been in a million bands. For a long time he was in a band called Moby and the Whalers. It was these two big ole’ fat guys—This guy named Jim and his son. They were very “Weeble-like” people, they were fun to watch live, and they could really wail on stage. They were a party band and they played covers. It was like a 900-piece band. They had horns, five or six keyboard players, and two or three drummers. [laughs] It was a lot of fun. I think they fired their sound guy because they knew they could use me for free. So I was going into bars and stuff with my dad. I’m not sure what he told my mom. I almost got beat up by a biker once because his old lady was trying to dance with me. I was only 15! But anyways, it was a lot of fun and it kind of corrupted me for good, I guess.
Jess - How did you come to move to Kentucky?
Rob - When I was 18, I joined the army, left Texas, and came to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The army is what brought me up north here. I got married, had a kid, got divorced, and went to college at Murray [State University]. I took classes at Murray from 2000 until 2005. I was a business major my first year and a half until I saw [the movie] Office Space. [laughs] I decided I couldn’t be a business major anymore. I said, “No, this isn’t going to do it.”
Jess - What direction did you take your schooling after you decided being a business major wasn’t for you?
Rob - I think I changed to a theatre major in 2001 or 2002. I can’t remember. I had this Intro[duction] to Theatre class with David Balthrop. I went up and talked to him one day after class and I said, “Hey man. What do I do to get into sound?” He says, “Well, we don’t have a sound program but you can just be a general theatre major and that’s probably better anyways.” So I did that and now I’m in theatre.” [laughs]
Jess - What were some of the main stage shows that you did while you were there? Did you work on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead back in 2000?
Rob - That was actually right before I changed my major. The first main stage show that I did was Oklahoma and I mixed for that. I did sound design. Here’s something that I’ve noticed in the field of sound. If you’re moderately good at it, you’re better than everybody else—at least around you immediately. So, because I was moderately good, people started asking for me, specifically, to run the sound and do sound design. I look back on it and I’m like, this was not very good [laughs] but it was audible. I did the sound design for Our Town at Murray. There were several others I worked on. I did lighting and sound design for The Woman in Black for the Krider Performing Arts Center in Paris, Tennesse. That was college so I don’t remember all of it. I could look through my records and figure it out but I just never do.
Jess - So what degrees did you finally graduate with?
Rob - I graduated from Murray in 2005 with a theatre major and journalism minor.
Jess - Were you also working at the time?
Rob - I had been working for WKMS [91.3FM], and again, if you’re moderately good at doing anything in sound you still stand out above everyone else. I was good at editing with the program that they were using back then so they wanted me in there all the time. Around that time, the Carson Center [in Paducah, KY] opened and while it was being built somebody suggested that I apply there. So, I sent them my resume and never heard anything. I didn’t really expect to because I was still in college at that time. Regardless, they called me up about a week before the first show, which was Vince Gill, and asked me to be a part of the crew. So, I start working there on whatever crew they put me on for the first couple of shows. Most of their equipment was foreign to me. This was the pro world! I didn’t even know what I was doing sending in my resume! I don’t know what I would have done if they’d hired me because I didn’t recognize any of that stuff. [laughs] This was like going from guitar center stuff to touring stuff—real stuff. But I was a fast learner and by about six months in we had a Jars of Clay show. Well, the resident engineer was better at making enemies then she was at running sound. So they pulled me aside and said, “Hey man. Do you think you could take over today if we let her go?” I was like, “Yeah. Sure. No problem.” So from then on I was their sound guy and so I got a lot of great experience doing that before I even graduated college. After I graduated, I got a job at the Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tennesse doing lights and sound there. It was not a good gig. I learned a lot about some of the state-of-the-art lighting stuff but it quickly turned into a 70 hour-a-week thing. We ran the same show three to four times a day. They wanted me up in the booth running lights and sound and then, in between shows, get up and fix the lights that would break or whatever.
Jess - You were probably salaried too so they were abusing that privilege. [laughs]
Rob - Oh yeah. I was salaried. When they told me I couldn’t train my spotlight operators to do that job so that I could come in and fix the lights instead of running the entire show every day, I just knew it was going to get worse. So I put my notice in there and went back to the Carson Center. Dixie Stampede was kind of like a summer gig and that was during the Carson Center’s slow time, so I didn’t really miss anything.
Jess - So how did you end up in Madisonville?
Rob - Retha Tarter, Patty Lutz, and Glema Mahr had come to a presenters network meeting of some sort in Paducah. They had told one of the guys who worked there that they were looking for a technical director at the Glema Mahr Center for the Arts. He knew that I was looking for a fulltime job, so he came up and told me, “Hey. There are these people here from Madisonville.” I’d heard of the name from working at WKMS. He introduced me to them and they encouraged me to apply. So I did and now I’m here. I’ve been working there now for six years.
Jess - How do you like working there?
Rob - I’ve enjoyed working at the Glema Center. It’s a great job. It’s probably one of the coolest jobs in Hopkins County. In a lot of respects, it’s the holy grail of theatre work. You don’t have to tour. It’s a full-time job and you get benefits. That being said, it is kind of lacking in the actual money part. At first, it’s great. But, after you’ve gotten that experience, you start to feel like you deserve a little bit more. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no advancement and no chance at that. So, there are tradeoffs. That’s why I was trying to get something else going on the side. Trying to do the signs, trying to do tubs, or whatever I can do. I can use my knowledge, and whatever weird stuff that pops into my head, and do it professionally. The problem is, the weird stuff that pops into my head is not typically the stuff that people think of as stuff that they’d want to pay me to do. [laughs]
Jess - The first thing you made, the sonic tub, how did that all go down?
Rob - Beer. [laughs] Let’s see. I had ordered some transducers and I hadn’t really told anybody about it. My buddy Mike Coke was over here and—it’s funny how after a divorce you’ve suddenly got all this time on your hands—so we were just kind of sitting here one day when a box got dropped off on my front porch. I was like, “Cool! My transducers came!” and he goes, “What?” [laughs] So I showed him what I wanted to do with them. He went out to his truck, grabbed his sawzall, and we went down to the basement and cut some holes in the floor. I said, “Now my bathtub isn’t going to fall through is it?” He was like, “No. It’s good, probably.” [laughs] It hasn’t fallen through yet. But we turned it on and it was amazing. It wasn’t the best sound but it was sound nonetheless. It sounded even better when there was water in the tub. So I started experimenting with different transducers. I did one in Neil and Katie Vowell’s bathtub and I did a something a little different with theirs. Instead of using a home audio receiver, I figured that, because of space, a car stereo or a boat stereo specifically, would be better to use. Theirs actually has a command module that is wired through the wall and just suction cups to the bathtub. You can change radio stations from the bathtub and everything.
Jess - How much do you charge for something like that?
Rob - I typically charge $30 an hour for labor and then just parts on top of that. I started with the tub. The piano was next.
Jess - It’s such a great way to save space!
Rob - I don’t feel like the TV should be, visually, the center point of your room. It should be an accessory that you use. A lot of people are going to laptops now because they don’t want the computer to be a fixture in their house. They just want a computer to use when they want to use it. People are using iPads and tablet a lot more now. You can stick it in a basket underneath your coffee table, or put it on an easel and use it as a picture frame until you want to use it. There are so many ways now that you can conceal this stuff. You can have a TV drop down from inside the ceiling if you wanted to. They make mounts that come down and they make mounts that go up. Nowadays, kitchens have a lot more cabinet space. People will put little 13 inch TV screens in there. I’ve seen some of these lifts be used to be put down underneath a kitchen counter. You can bring your bar up through the counter top. Hit the button and there’s your [Jose] Cuervo.
Jess - How did you get the piano?
Rob - The piano was given to me and my ex by her dad. It’s just a piano that had been taken out of a house he had purchased at an auction. He bought the estate but he didn’t want to have anything to do with the piano. For one, it’s a piano. [laughs] It’s heavy and it’s tough to move. Old pianos are not worth anything unless they are particularly worth something. This is just a standard consumer model piano that was made in 1951. There isn’t anything remarkable about it at all. It’s a Chicago Victor, which sounds kind of remarkable but it’s not. It was unplayable. Eight of the keys stuck and it was horribly out of tune. It would have cost a thousand dollars just to make it playable. There would be no point spending a thousand dollars on something that was unremarkable in the first place, when it wouldn’t be as good as something I could go to the store and buy for a thousand bucks anyway. The finish was all cracked and gunky. We took the entire thing apart and refinishing it. It took a week and a half to strip it and then another week to refinish it.
Jess - Weren’t you going to create some sort of art piece with the pieces you removed from the inside?
Rob - The inside parts are still in my garage. I had a couple ideas for them. I could put the playable parts back together because it’s not that hard to do that, even outside of a case. Then, I could either give it or sell it to a children’s museum so they could show how a piano visibly works. However, I think the more likely scenario is for me to take the keys and the harp and do something artistic with them. But, again, it’s finding a market. That’s the toughest part. All this stuff doesn’t sound like it costs a whole lot of money but I was surprised at how fast I blew through a ton of money working on different projects.
Jess - Tell me about this beautiful dragonfly light that you made.
Rob - I made it with a fluorescent fixture instead of LEDs, so it’s bright. The colors are, I think, a lot more beautiful and vibrant. You actually get a whole lot more of the color spectrum being emitted from florescent lights, whereas with LEDS, the very thing that makes it possible for them to change colors like that is what limits how vibrant the colors are. They emit just a tiny, tiny fraction of the visible spectrum. So my advice, don’t get LED headlights for your car. It’s a bad idea. They are just not good. You’re getting a very limited piece of the spectrum, so even if it seems bright it’s not. Even if it looks white, it’s not white. It’s a very pale blue.
Jess - And you made this for your wife?
Rob - Yes, I did. I made this for her for Valentine’s Day. I got married on February 23, 2013.
Luke Short - Was there a certain reason you went with a dragonfly?
Rob - Well, I had been drafting some different ideas. One of the things I had sketched out was this sailboat [referring to another colorful piece on a nearby wall], which actually started out as a pair of lips. But, after I drew the lips I thought they didn’t look very good. [laughs] I like it as a sailboat better. Tanya had mentioned to me before how she liked dragonflies and stuff, so I sketched out what I thought a dragonfly would look like if I just used simple lines that don’t connect. She really likes it and it is my favorite one too. I made another one that is decorated with butterflies for my grandmother. That one is in Houston. It’s a small pyramid and it’s like that one [referring to another large triangular piece], except it has three sides. It’s meant to stand alone or you can hang it on your wall. They all began with the Moose Paddy sign.
Jess - [laughing] Yes, let’s talk about the Moose Paddy sign. You created that for Almost, Maine, a play put on by the Glema Mahr Center for the Arts in Madisonville. Now, were you asked to make it or did you just decide to do it on your own?
Rob - Steve [Hudgins] asked me, he said, “Man, we really need a neon sign for this bar [the Moose Paddy].” I said, “I can’t make neon, dude. I don’t know how to do that. It’s out of my skill set. I don’t think we can buy a neon either because those are expensive.” [laughs] So I set to work figuring out what our options were. I tried to project it against the side of the bar, but then I thought it’d be so much cooler if I could actually make a neon sign. I had seen people create shadow boxes before and so I decided that might be worth exploring. So, I Googled pictures of moose and I found this one that was the backside of a moose. [laughs] I thought it would be funny. So, I did a simple outline and put the words Moose Paddy across it.
Jess - I remember it being a huge success. [laughs] Now, tell me about what you are doing with these massage tables.
Rob - I bought a really nice one from Pat Ballard. He had purchased it back when he had grand dreams of becoming a masseuse. He went to massage school but it didn’t quite pan out. [laughs] Ask him about it some time. Yeah, I bought a really nice one from him and I outfitted it with four of these small transducers. I tell you what, it’s nice. I can set it up so you can check it out. The amplifier I use for this is the same one I use for the tub. There is a higher end version of this massage table over at James and Debbie Gibb’s house. It’s amazing. That was the first one I ever made, actually. Generally, I try to make a less expensive version. They are really good tables and they are portable.
Jess - Now, let’s talk about the tub. I really want one of these things. Is there any way to shock yourself in one?
Rob - Not unless your bathtub leaks, which means it’s time to get a new bathtub anyway.
Jess - Could you do the same thing with a hot tub?
Rob - It’s tougher in a hot tub because a hot tub has so much insulation around it. It almost has to be manufactured that way. I did look into that.
Luke - I would just chill in the tub all day.
Rob - That’s the danger. You get one of these and then all of a sudden every bath is three hours long. [laughs]
Jess - Does Sonic Lifestyles have a theme or a motto?
Rob - The problem I’ve found with my company name being Sonic Lifestyles is that it’s not all about sound; it’s all about whatever I tinker with. So, most of the time that winds up being sound related, but frequently, it’s lighting. Frequently, it’s just stuff. The piano, for example, has nothing to do with sound and nothing to do with lighting. It’s just something that I had an idea for. I’m thinking about changing the name, but Sonic Lifestyles just sounds cool. I want to call that thing [massage table] the Wave Table. This [bathtub] could be the Wave Tub, Sonic Escape Pod, or the Sonic Tub.
Jess - Why do you think it’s so important to mix music with technology?
Rob - Music is technology. Music drives technology. Technology drives music. People invent instruments that are not instruments. Back in the 80’s people would say, “Well, you can’t even call these people musicians because they are just programming a computer.” Well you know, that’s an instrument now. A computer is an instrument. If you’re doing nothing but programming it, what are you doing? You’re at least composing. That’s musicianship. Along with the different types of technology available to make these new instruments and to make these new musical sounds. Music changes because of it. I mean, now people can come up with some cool sounding music, produce it all themselves, and they end up with this studio quality CD that sounds awesome.
Luke - Well, if you think about it, the electric guitar wasn’t around until the turn of the century and then Bob Dylan got booed off the stage for playing electric guitar. Then, a year later, everybody’s on the bus.
Rob - Exactly.
Jess - Why is art and being creative so important to you in your life?
Rob - It’s not important to me. It is me. Artist is not a term I would self-apply. It’s up to other people to give to me if I’m to take it. But, artists don’t sit around and try to think up a picture to draw or something. They see the world in a certain way and they try to express that somehow. Carpenters, people who remodel homes, they look at a home and that’s their canvas. Art is not necessarily about a skill that you have. It’s about the way that you see something. Whatever skill you develop is based on the way that you see that. If you see pictures and you want to express your world visually, then you’re going to develop a skill that helps you do that—such as painting, photography, graphic art, something like that. If you see pictures in the sound, then you’re going to develop a skill that helps you express that. It’s kind of like learning how to talk. You talk based on what sounds you are able to make as a child. Not everybody can make the same sounds. The way that you talk is shaped by the sounds that you are physically able to make. It’s the same way with art. What you’re able to see is going to determine how you express yourself.
Jess - Who in your life has influenced you or supported you the most?
Rob - Of course, my parents. They always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, really—to figure out the world on my own. They guided me, obviously. They didn’t just throw me out and say, “Figure it out buddy!” They didn’t limit me from anything except that which would be harmful to me physically. As far as support goes, the people who generally are attracted to hanging out with me are pretty encouraging. Once I stopped worrying about what other people wanted to think of me, and once I stopped worrying about what I wanted other people to think about me, was when the people who would be supportive of me started hanging out with me. Those are the people who wind up being your real friends. They aren’t going to judge you for what you think. If you start getting a little too off the wall, they might say, “Hey you’re getting a little too off the wall here!” But those are the moments when maybe you need to step back and say, “Ok. Maybe I am getting too far off the wall.” [laughs] But yeah, for the most part, the people who will be naturally attracted to hanging out with you are going to be the people who are supportive of what you’re doing. Those are the people who are going to be a positive role in your life.
Jess - What are the future goals of Sonic Lifestyles and what are some different products ideas you have for the future?
Rob - I’d like to create something for some people to do. I would really love to be able to employee people. I feel like, periods of economic down aren’t necessarily a problem. I see that as a shift. Either people are tired of buying the same old crap or money is not being circulated in the same way it was in years past. So, it’s up to us to figure out how to get it circulating in a different way. There are people who have money and they’re going to hold onto it unless they see a reason to let go of it. If you can convince them to let go of it, then you’re doing your job, then you’re stimulating the economy. If they don’t have a reason to let go of it then why should they? This business is an experimental thing. I’m trying to make odd products that just haven’t been thought of before. I’m trying to make stuff that just hasn’t been widely thought of, at least. Even if what I do isn’t completely original or completely creative, at least it’s different.
As far as products I’d like to create in the future—now this is where it gets into the other people who could be involved. Eric [Stephens] came up with a really cool idea, building on the piano idea, but with an old TV. Take the tube out and make that into a fish tank. It would be awesome. Then you could put a TV behind it that could raise out at the touch of a button. With lift mechanisms, there is nothing that you can’t do. People have even put them in cars. I saw a video of a guy who put a 50 inch TV into an Acura sports car. The hatchback comes up and the TV comes out and it has speakers all over the place.
Also building on the piano idea, I could put an electronic keyboard in there or an electric piano and mount it where the keys were. I could use transducers or speakers and an amplifier to make it an actual playing piano as well. You could still have a TV in it. Another thing, if somebody had a piano that they really liked and they enjoyed playing it, we can put a box on the back of the piano and mount the lift in the box to conceal the TV when it isn’t in use That’s not a tough thing to do either. I’ve seen it done with a steam organ. That’s really neat. But, stimulating the economy isn’t just about throwing money into it, it’s about getting the money that’s there to start flowing. If the goal is to get rich people to give you money, you’ve got to give them a reason to give you their money. They didn’t get rich by throwing their money around. You’ve got to give them a reason to let go of it. I’m hoping to give people a reason to let go of that money. [laughs]
Man, I love bubbles.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessica Dockrey
Photos by Jessi Smith