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Thanks to a rare and quirky musical instrument, One Ring Zero sounds like no band you've ever heard before.

Circus Sounds

One Ring Zero with Mr. Blasco and Patrick Phelan
3129 W. Cary St.
10:30 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 1

Play These Songs
"Dead Animals"
"Voodoo Function"

Real Audio Required
Even the most expert musicologist will struggle to identify the instrument generating the Felliniesque, circuslike sounds on One Ring Zero's debut CD. Is it an accordion? An organ? Perhaps even an oboe? The answer is none of the above. "Tranz Party" sounds like nothing you've heard before precisely because you never have. The instrument in question is the new, and rare, claviola.

"Whoa, this is cool," Michael Hearst remembers thinking when the two-and-a-half octave, strap-on keyboard with the plastic hose arrived at the Hohner musical instrument distribution facility in Ashland where he and band co-founder Joshua Camp worked. Already big fans of skewered sonics, the two remember that the cumbersome yet intriguing new instrument presented a slew of new musical possibilities.

"We just thought it was a totally cool instrument," Hearst recalls. "I don't think Hohner knew quite what to do with it."

If Hohner didn't know quite what to do with its new arrival from Germany, the two Virginia Commonwealth University music composition graduates were eager to explore the instrument's potential. Two years of discovery and hours of recording later, Hearst, Camp and their One Ring Zero bandmates celebrate the completion of their claviola-driven CD "Tranz Party" with a 10:30 p.m. show at Chopstix, Friday, Oct. 1.

Designed by German inventor Ernst Zacharias for Hohner (best known for its harmonicas and accordions) in the 1960s, it wasn't until 1996 that the company actually manufactured the claviola and shipped only six to its North American distribution facility. In the 1950s Zacharias also invented the Hohner clavinet, the funky keyboard immortalized on Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

From the beginning, when the guys borrowed a couple of the newly arrived instruments from Hohner and started honing their claviola chops, the eerie yet melodious sounds coming from the reeds promised wide-ranging possibilities. As claviola pioneers, Hearst and Camp have had to develop their own technique for playing the instrument.

"The hardest thing about playing this," Hearts says hoisting the instrument to his chest, "is getting up in front of people. You look so incredibly stupid."

Before long, the duo found themselves taping their off-the-cuff tunes in Hearst's Urban Geek Studios, set up in the basement of his Woodland Heights home. Hearst says they would start each morning with sketchy ideas, and by day's end they'd have a finished song, already recorded and mastered. Along the way, the guys incorporated sounds from items found around the studio, and they started inviting their musically gifted friends to the loose and lively recording affair.

Camp tossed in accordion, Hearst kept time on snare, and both coaxed trembling, calliopelike sounds from the claviola. A 1970 Thomas organ and slide whistles entered the mix. Paul Watson(Coby and Watty) contributed cornet and guitar, while Scot Fitzsimmons (Sparklehorse) added upright bass. John Gotschalk (Kinevils, Red Hot Lava Men) played guitar and Mark Snyder's (Easy Chair, Dirtball) tuba quietly boomed on the bottom. Kitty litter boxes, bread machines and harmonicas of all sizes came into play.

"We did the whole thing in a guerrilla style," Hearst says with a smile. "It was just all falling together."

In 1998, about halfway through the first year of recording, Hearst says they started to see some future for the project, though Zero had no formal membership and had not performed live locally. They approached some indie record labels but heard no response until Hearst eventually took the songs to Jim Bland at Planetary Records in Richmond, who agreed to release "Tranz Party" with some minor changes.

"Tranz Party" is witness to the overall sense of adventure that prevailed during recording. Though all the musicians involved are quite serious and musically grounded within schooled guidelines, sometimes the sounds captured by the microphones surprised them — to everyone's delight.

And when the group performed at Mayo Island this past July 4, they delighted two other musicians — keyboardist John Medeski of Medseki Martin & Wood and Sean Lennon. After the performance, both musicians approached One Ring Zero full of questions about the claviola. "They thought it was really cool," Heart says. When both musicians asked where they could obtain the instrument, Hearst told them about the Hohner distribution facility in Ashland, then delivered the bad news: There was only one claviola available in all the world. Whoever called the company first would be the one to strap on the instrument.

The winner? Medeski, who excitedly called Hearst early the next morning to report his coup. Hearst says Hohner has no plans to manufacture any more of the instruments. But thanks to musicians such as Medeski and the members of One Ring Zero, the claviola is guaranteed to win

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