Moog's Missing Link: An Interview with Doug McKechnie

Doug McKechnie
Doug McKechnie, 1968. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When a musician is among the first to play a newly innovative instrument, one can only assume the sensation is like setting foot on uncharted sonic territory. Imagine you're the violinist of an 18th century orchestra picking up a Stradivarius, or better yet, put yourself in the shoes of Charlie Christian the first time he attached a pickup to his guitar. Surely, the element of surprise and curiosity that comes with newfound tonal exploration must be contagious.

When I recently asked 81-year-old longtime Bay Area resident Doug McKechnie what it was like to come into contact with the original Moog synthesizer, he compared his first encounters—in classic Californian parlance—to getting up on a surfboard for the first time.

"You're finding your balance, finding where the wave is going," he reflected over the phone. "If you look at time as the wave and the machine as a surfboard, you get on and you do the best you can and you move where fate takes you."

It was 1968 when the twentysomething army veteran and psychedelic enthusiast crossed paths with the Moog Modular Series III that belonged to his electrical engineer roommate Bruce Hatch. In just a few short weeks, he was performing improvised concerts and lecturing at universities across the Bay Area in the midst of a countercultural moment where synths were still a rare commodity ready for universal exposition. Before it was sold to a member of Tangerine Dream in 1972, McKechnie would take the Moog to recording sessions alongside the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco Opera House with composer Terry Riley, and the now-infamous Altamont Free Concert headlined by the Rolling Stones.

Though recordings of McKechnie's Moog performances from this era have now been uncovered and assembled by Baltimore-based VG+ Records for a two-part retrospective compilation—San Francisco Moog: 1968-1972—his contributions to the historical narrative of electronic music have largely remained overlooked until very recently. As one of the first performers to realize the potential of the Moog's step sequencers in a live context, the label is quick to claim him as the "missing link" in the wider story of synthesis.

Speaking from his home in Oakland, McKechnie walked us through his five-year relationship with the Moog Modular, the relationship between synthesis and the human voice, and his staunch belief that "all things manifest in waveforms". His retrospective compilation, The Complete San Francisco Moog: 1968-1972, is out now via VG+ Records.

Doug McKechnie and Frank Oppenheimer
Doug McKechnie and physicist Frank Oppenheimer at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, 1969. Image courtesy of the artist.

You first came into contact with the Moog Modular Series III—serial number 004—on the third floor of 759 Harrison Street in SoMa, San Francisco. Take me back to that first chance encounter in 1968 and your relationship with its owner, your former roommate Bruce Hatch.

I had rented the third floor and needed someone to help me with the rent. I don't actually remember whether I put an ad in the paper or quite how it came about, but this young man who had just flown in from Kansas seemed like a nice guy. We shook hands and started hanging out in this space. It was several weeks later that these boxes arrived—big boxes, four of them—and all this black equipment with wires and plugs and God knows what. I was just mystified by it. It took him probably several days to put it all together and I was like, "What is this?" And he goes, "It's a Moog synthesizer." I go "Really? What's that?" He says, "Well, it's an electronic instrument." I say, "Well, what's that?"

I was completely ignorant of any of the history of electronic music or anything of that point, and he was a kind of technical wizard of sorts. Eventually we had an association of technical wizards and they all referred to themselves as wizards. But anyway, he explained the machine to me and I said, "What are you going to do with it?" And he said, "It's a showpiece. I'm going to see if I can attract some attention and figure out what I'm going to do because I want to do something with the sound." And when I started fiddling around it was like, "Oh my God," I just intuited the entire machine in about a week.

Bruce was very helpful in showing me what things went where and why. Once I figured it out, I said, "Hell, let's take this on the road." We started lecturing in schools—first high schools and then universities and colleges. By the time I'd done it three or four times, I had a whole rap worked out with examples of things that were interesting on the machine. I wasn't doing much musically at this point, but exploring the topography of the audio world basically. I would start my lectures with the same opening line: "all things manifest in waveforms".

I love that phrase of yours. I would love for you to elaborate.

It's a simple matter of fact if you look at it from the microcosm or the macrocosm. Several years earlier I had taken a course in communications at San Francisco State, and the professor who ran the course was Dr. Richard Marsh, a very accomplished communicator. When the class started, he introduced himself and explained that he'd just returned from a year in Mexico with Timothy Leary…

Oh boy.

…and that we would learn everything we needed to know about communications at the end of the course when we would all take LSD, which we all did. It was probably the most extraordinary college course I ever took.

I'm assuming you passed?

Oh yes. We all passed with more than flying colors. (laughter) But the experience itself showed me in very physical detail the ramifications of waveform creation. When I started using the Moog, it was an easy jump into that psychotropic world to try and explain that everything connected with vibrations and that harmony was systemic throughout the universe. Anytime you get two things moving in time, you have the potential for harmony. Let's take the solar system: the distances of the planets from the sun are integral relationships of an octave. Everything relates to the octave, and in fact, the octave is the mirror of the entire universe. And so I got into the weeds with that one and the instrument.

One of my favorite aspects was exemplified in the meditation piece on the first VG+ compilation album: you take two waveforms and you bring them together slowly like a pilot with two engines on a plane matching the frequencies. Then, you play with changing the frequency or moving it up and down and back and forth, and then finally coming into the zero point where they're both on the same octave. For me, that was a classic example of what the instrument was all about without getting into rhythm or melodic construction. It was all interplay.

You've compared generating synthetic sound with the anatomy of the human voice, and I understand you started out as a singer but had no other formal musical training before you encountered the Moog. All the same, you were using it to lecture and perform in a matter of weeks. How did you adapt to the instrument so quickly?

It became pretty obvious after a while, although I hadn't thought of it to begin with. In many respects, the Moog was mimicking what you could do with your human voice, and that was one of the juxtapositions that I used in the lectures: I could duplicate a number of things that the synthesizer was doing with a microphone. I would explain to people that the vocal cords were like an oscillator, the teeth and lips were like an envelope generator, and the interior architecture of the mouth was the high and low pass filter.


Once I got that and started explaining it, then the mystery of the instrument dissolved and became not mechanical but understandable. Not only me, but to whoever I explained it to. Now, once I started trying to create music… I've always looked at music—especially anything that wasn't the voice—as storytelling. I always wanted to have a beginning, middle, and end, but lots of people were just satisfied with playing around with bleeps and bloops. I really didn't like that.

Concrète wasn't your thing?

No. In fact, I had the unfortunate experience of probably insulting Don Buchla one evening. It was at the Family Dog when I was performing on the bill with Big Mama Thornton and Sandy Bull…

A dream lineup, if I say so myself.

…oh my God. I got to tell you, we went out on the beach and smoked a joint before the performance. It was a lovely night. But anyway, I'm on the stage and this guy comes up to me and extends his hand and says, "Hi, I'm Don Buchla," And of course I've heard of him. I even listened to several things that were done with some of his instruments. Instead of being gracious, my lizard mind took over and I said, "Hey, Don, nice to meet you. When are you going to build a musical instrument?" (laughter) I still get flashes of embarrassment when I tell that story, because if I had done something else, anything else, I would have felt much better about meeting him because he was a genius. I recently saw my friend Suzanne Ciani perform at an event honoring Don with several of his instruments. I thought it was just stunning. She's a wonderful performer—she was gracious enough to do the liner notes for the second compilation.

Where was I… I had two 24 step sequencers and I never really utilized the 24 steps. I always stayed within the parameter of less than 10 steps usually, but I enjoyed putting them together just to hear the contrapuntal stuff. We had nine oscillators—three of them went to one sequencer, three of them went to another, and the other three were with me on the keyboard. That was what I would do in terms of creating something that was harmonically coherent. Each time it was an experiment and each time learning something. Always struggling to keep the pitches proper. You can hear it in the recordings that there are drifts. (laughs) After all these years, it's kind of endearing on some level.

One of the great surprises to me was when Lee Gardner of VG+ Records first asked to listen to the music, and I sent it to him. When they told me that I was the missing link, I didn't know what they were talking about. I said, "Link between what?" And they said I was one of the first people to be performing live with sequencers. I had never given it a second thought, quite frankly, because that's all I had. I had no prior historic understanding of electronic music, although later I came to appreciate the ondes Martenot. Are you familiar with that instrument?

Absolutely. That's the instrument Messiaen used in his symphonies.

Exactly—the Feast of The Beautiful Waters (Fête des belles eaux) that he did in Paris. Do you know about that piece?

Of course.

That was a fabulous piece of music. I always imagine myself standing on the Seine and watching the fireworks and the music coming from those six different instruments. Lovely experience that must have been.

I recently saw the New York Philharmonic perform his Turangalîla-Symphonie, and we were seated right in front of the ondes Martenot speaker, which was placed right beside the conductor at the front of the stage. It was one of the most cosmic experiences of live music I've ever had.

Wow. There's nothing like vacuum tubes. (laughter)

One of several live recordings collected for Doug McKechnie's VG+ Records compilation The Complete San Francisco Moog.

I want to ask you a little bit about these improvised performances you did with the Moog, which made several cameos across the Bay while you still had your hands on it: earlier, you mentioned The Family Dog, but it also made its way to GLIDE Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, and you brought it to Pacific High Recording in Sausalito for a session with the Grateful Dead.

That's right.

I wonder: how does one approach improvised performance on an instrument that very few have had access to? Take someone like Sandy Bull, for example: he has the benefit of playing the guitar, oud, banjo—these instruments that have existed for centuries. On the other hand, your instrument of choice came straight from the factory. I imagine there to be some agency or responsibility that comes with improvising on a new instrument where one is left to figure out what they want to do.

It's not much different than getting up on a surfboard for the first time: you're finding your balance, finding where the wave is going. If you look at time as the wave and the machine as a surfboard, you get on and you do the best you can and you move where fate takes you. That was one of the more interesting things about performing with that instrument. I could do all that I could to set the thing up to do what I wanted, but I was never sure quite where we were going with it. When you set up the sequencers in particular, you just wait for the impulse. Where do I want to go? Where did I want to take me? It's like sitting at the piano and playing a single note and then allowing yourself the freedom to let your intuition tell you what the next note is. That was my approach every time with the Moog.

It seems like you were reinventing the wheel every time.

Every time. That was the excitement of it. That was the thrill of it.

I'm particularly curious about the audiences at these early concerts. When one looks at the historical context, these performances were only a few years after Dylan caused a stir at Newport when he had "gone electric". What with all the LSD and free love flowing around in Haight-Ashbury, I would imagine that the crowd response ran the range from curiosity to controversy. Do you remember any particular reactions from your audiences?

The most interesting was the one that you can hear on the album of the crowd at The Family Dog. I'll tell you that my personal experience of that evening was that I was not happy with what I'd done. I thought I had failed. I felt embarrassed.


Because I was struggling every second, and it was not quite what I had hoped for in terms of the music. It was much more kinetic. But the crowd loved it! They went crazy. And the light show guys became my lifelong brothers, Kenvin Lyman and Richard Taylor—Richard was the one that did the mandala on the compilations. But pretty much every time I recorded a set, I was frustrated or annoyed, and the next day I would listen back and I would go, "Oh, that doesn't sound so bad." That happened over and over again. I began to think that there's no collating the feeling you're having while you're performing with what you're actually doing. You never really know whether you're getting it or not until later.

You don't know whether you're holding on to the aura, so to speak, and whether or not that's still going to be there when you revisit it on the Nagra.


Talk to me about getting this monolith to the gigs. After all, you're working with nine oscillators, two step sequencers, not to mention a keyboard controller and all the other accouterments—still portable compared to the spaceships that were strapped into other earlier studios at the time, but still plenty of moving parts to deal with. Earlier you mentioned the pitch was sensitive to temperature and I imagine load-in and set up at any given stage or studio turned out to be very time-consuming. How did you handle transport and adapting the machine to new spaces?

Our crew were these people that would just show up. It's amazing, if you have something that sparkles, you will suddenly have a crowd and devotees, people who say, "Oh man, I got to be around this more often." Our tech David Schultz, who used the name Virgo Engineering—he was an outlaw and a pirate. He had been a cat burglar as a teenager. He was a rascal, smartly dressed in his jeans and leathers and his cowboy hat. He had a thin mustache and a wry smile. We had Pete Slauson, who actually was a legend in his own way with rock and roll videotaping. He taped tons and tons of fabulous music over the years, and he was part of the crew. Jim Pernell was another part of the crew. We had two Altec A7 Voice Of The Theatre speakers—the kind that you would have behind the screen in movie houses—and each one had their own McIntosh amplifier. We had a hell of a sound system and a van, and that's how we got around.

A cassette recording of Doug McKechnie's performance at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert, December 1969.

The Moog also made an appearance at that infamous show Altamont Speedway that the Rolling Stones headlined in December 1969, a night that many have said effectively ended the 1960s. You played a set at sunrise that morning before being given the boot by the event's engineer, Owlsley "Bear" Stanley.

I can only surmise at what Owsley was going through when I started to perform on the stage. The preamble to that was that we got a phone call on a Friday night from Bill Graham's organization. They said that they had to go out there and build this stage and put up the sound system, and asked if we were in. And I said, "Yeah, if I get to play." And they went, "Yeah, okay." We went out and helped build the stage, and of course stayed the night. And I said, "Oh boy, I want to play the sunrise." We set everything up and went to bed, and then I got up and played the sunrise set.

I relive this every time I tell it, because I could have done things differently and things would've been different. I decided to do a ramp wave from 55 cycles, which is low, to 20,000 cycles, which is off the charts. I was going to thrill the crowd. And Bear's up in the control tower, which was out in the middle of the crowd on a scaffolding three stories up, and he's looking at his needles. I'm sure his needles started to climb and head for the red, but no sound was coming out because it was just like, "Tick, tick, tick." And he's on acid. And so what does he do? He goes, "What the fuck is this?" And he switches me off.

First of several bad trips to happen that day, I would imagine. So much happened at that event that the Maysles Brothers didn't shoot for Gimme Shelter.

It turned out that someone recorded my set and years later it ended up on YouTube. I was stunned because I only ran into that about a year ago. But what we're attempting to do this year is to create a performance called "Alt-Amont"—the pieces that didn't get played. David Ganz, who did the Grateful Dead Hour for 25 years at KPFA, and Joe Cristiano, a wonderful producer and performer, came to me with the idea. "Let's get you a Moog, and we'll set you up and you can tell your story and play a few pieces. Then we'll do a faux Grateful Dead band called The Dreadful Great, and we'll play the piece that they didn't get to play at Altamont." I loved the idea.

Me too. You also played with Terry Riley, who you would later join on the Moog for a performance of "In C" at the San Francisco Opera House. I would love to know how you two crossed paths.

The first time I met Terry was because of this Indian man named Harish, who considered himself to be the reincarnation of the monkey god Hanuman. He showed up with Terry at Harrison Street. At the time I was playing with a group called Sunshine. The group was a few wind instruments, a harp, and me on the Moog. We'd done a number of gigs including the opening of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. When Terry, Harish and the rest of the coterie arrived, we spent four or five hours in a blissful state. John Pearson took lovely photographs of the evening. Later on, the Moog and I were used to be part of the Oakland Symphony for a rendering of "In C". I think it was the second time it was ever performed in the world. Have you ever heard the piece?

I've spent a lot of time with the original Columbia recording, and I've heard a few other versions over the years. I don't know if I've ever heard a performance with a synthesizer before.

There wasn't really much for me to do, although there were changes. Laurette Goldberg was a keyboardist of some renown in the Bay Area. Because I don't read music professionally, she was called into play the notes that would come up within the composition. And of course, the thing just continues. It's just "ding, ding, ding, ding." So you have to count and follow along—it was pre-internet, pre-computer, blah, blah, blah, just paper and attention.

After that, I didn't have any contact with him, and nor did I triy to contact him. I don't think it ever occurred to me to get in touch with him. At some point. It would be lovely to see him again, and we'd probably smile and tell a few stories, and that would be it. He's a remarkable musician.

Doug McKechnie
Doug McKechnie. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In 1972, the Moog III was sold to Christopher Franke of Tangerine Dream, a transaction that helped birth the Berlin School of synthesis as we know it today. How did he enter your radar? Were there a few different potential buyers before it landed in his hands?

Bernie Krause, who was involved with a bunch of different things with synthesizers, was the one who negotiated the sale. It was first going to go to The Byrds, and for whatever reason, they decided not to do it. Then, it went off to Tangerine Dream. I wasn't actually part of any of that negotiation—that was pretty much all Bruce Hatch because it was his instrument.

I recently went to Texas to try and recover the rest of any of the archives, and I was able to bring back a half a dozen tapes to find out whether there's anything on them. I haven't yet digitized them yet, but when I met with Bruce, he kept apologizing to me for something that I didn't remember. Apparently our breakup of the scene was pretty rancorous in his memory. I had forgotten about it, but apparently when he came to me and said he was going to sell the Moog, I didn't react very well.

I mean, you developed a five-year monogamous relationship, so to speak, with the instrument. I imagine there was some level of heartbreak.

It was devastating on some level. Immediately I decided, "I better go get a piano." I went and bought a $200 gutted player piano made by Belmore and paid somebody $65 to tune it, because it was out of whack when I got it. Afterwards I realized that I was paying more than half my rent in the little place that I was in to get my piano tuned, so I decided to become a piano tuner myself and learned to regulate uprights, but that's another story.

After breaking up with the beloved Moog, you continued juggling scores and soundtracks with sound work for festivals and television, you tuned pianos. As synthesis evolved and became more portable and eventually shifted from analog to digital in the following decades, how did your relationship to music tech change?

It really blossomed as far as I was concerned. A film that I scored in 1976 was nominated for an Oscar in '77 and that propelled me into creating music for film and television. I went into partnership with my dear friend John Lewis. We used sections from the archives, and he borrowed an ARP 2600 to create the soundtrack for the movie. There were a bunch of us that Francis Ford Coppola got together to find out who would be involved with the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now. I spent several days in a studio with Shirley Walker, and we worked on the section where they go up the river into the mist. I was supposed to show up at four in the morning for the conference where they would look at what I'd done for two days, and I fell asleep.

Doug McKechnie
Doug McKechnie. Photo by John Pearson, courtesy of the artist.

You slept in!

I still think they used my music in the film, but I have no idea, and I'm so embarrassed I've never asked.

Even if you didn't make the cut, it's a nice resume piece.

Getting back to your question, I went to work for Yamaha in 1980, and he had a piano store in San Francisco, and he was also eventually selling DX7s and Yamaha C10s. A young student came to me and said, "I want to learn synthesizer." At that time, the DX7 hadn't come to the market and was still being worked on, but Rhodes had created a polyphonic synthesizer called a Chroma. When he decided he wanted to study with me, we wound up each of us buying one and starting to work together, not just to discover the darn instrument. And then he became a colleague later in one of his San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble, which is the next phase of things.

I created this group of four electronic music composers, the original synthesizer ensemble with Jim Purcell, who was a fabulous keyboard player, John Lewis, Paul de Benedictis, and myself. And then later when we did our world premiere Jim—who was a psychologist at the time—couldn't take the time to rehearse and perform with us. So we got another guy, Scott Singer, who was also a very talented musician, and we did a series of performances at Theater Artaud in 1984, I think. Then wound up playing the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987. Storied stories. Anyway, there's a whole archive of music from the eighties that had never been published.

Speaking of the archive, let's go a little deeper on your recent relationship with VG+ Records in Baltimore. They've lovingly assembled this two-part retrospective compilation of your performances from the '68-'72 era, largely recorded in real time, straight to tape.

Completely live. None of it was ever overdubbed.

How did you come into contact with the team who released it?

I didn't know who they were until after we'd established contact through Lee. About 10 years ago, Paul de Benedictis came to me and said, "Look, you have all this music from the old days and these photographs. Let me put up some photographs and snippets of the music and tell me what you think." So he did that, and I went, "Oh, that's interesting. Go ahead and put that up on YouTube if you want." Which he did. It sat there for probably six years. I think it started out at zero, but by the second or third year, there were at least 30,000 hits, and it's gone up from there.

Soon, I got this phone call from Lee Gardner who asked me if there was more music than what was in those snippets. I told him we had an entire archive and he said, "Well, we're this vanity press record company. Can we listen to the archive? And I just liked the way you sounded." And my intuition, I always surf on my intuition anyway, so I said, "Yeah, I'll send it to you," which I did. A week later, I got an email back telling me I was a "missing link", as they put it, and I was a little flabbergasted actually. That was when they said they wanted to make two vinyl albums, and then the rest is history.

One last question: recently, you've spoken frequently about the future of sound studies and your attitude seems to be that we've barely reached the tip of the iceberg, that waveform manipulation has really yet to be explored. Perhaps to close, could you further reflect on your predictions and where you think we're headed?

As science goes in the same direction that the James Webb telescope is going—only in reverse—we discover that the interlocking relationship of waveforms is the key to pretty much manipulating whatever level of fundamentals there are. For instance, they're starting to do surgery now with waveforms where they can go directly into the brain and go into a minute area of the brain and cook it to the point where people who have tremors find their tremors have gone. They have full control of their hands and body again. It's simple—well, it's not simple, but it is the use of waveforms focused and brought into the level that they need to be in order to un-invasively enter the body and do surgery. That's just the tip of the iceberg. I think we'll wind up solving gravity with waveform manipulation. I can't wait for my anti-gravity belt!

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