Music from the unknown

Percussive guitarist Derek DeMuth explores the event horizon

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Derek DeMuth
Courtesy of Derek DeMuth

A year ago, Derek DeMuth found himself unexpectedly traveling in Peru alone. His travel partner had decided to bail on the trip, but DeMuth was in for the long haul. And he knew where he wanted to end up. 

Guitar in hand, the Golden-native made his way into the jungle and found an ayahuasca retreat center where he spent the next month and a half exploring unknown parts of his psyche in twice weekly ayahuasca ceremonies. 

He found inspiration in the jungle — yes, from the psychoactive tea, but also from the lush world around him, particularly insects. Recently, sitting in a homemade studio at his apartment in Boulder, covered in depictions of the cosmos, DeMuth shows me a drawing he made of a creature that looks to be half insect, half man, sitting in a collage of photos of the Peruvian jungle. The insect is an explosion of color, his wings suggesting a connection to the four elements: earth, fire, air and water. It was a spirit guide of sorts for DeMuth, a vision that kept coming to him during his ceremonies. 

Interesting, I offer, since most people have difficulty connecting with insects.

“We all need more connection,” DeMuth says. “We’re so disconnected from ourselves, from each other, from the world.” 

He pulls a Taylor from its case and plays a song he wrote in Peru called “La Selva” — the jungle. DeMuth is a classically trained guitarist who found himself drawn to the percussive acoustic techniques of guitarists like Andy Mckee and Michael Hedges. Using combinations of flicks, taps, knocks, slides and other motions on different parts of the guitar, percussive guitarists like DeMuth are able to mimic a drum kit and create multiple layers of sound within a song — a full-handed tap on the body of the guitar sounds deep, like a bass drum, while a fingernail tapped on the pickguard sounds sharp, like a snare. Alternate tunings allow percussive style guitarists to access different sonorities, chord voicings and fingerings, and even simulate the sounds of other instruments. 

In “La Selva,” DeMuth conjures images of the dense Amazonian landscape with a flare that is distinctively tinged by Western pop-folk. You can envision walking past broad-leafed plants dappled by bits of sunshine that sneaked their way through the thick canopy and dew glistening on spiders’ webs. DeMuth himself seems transported as he plays, all smiles and loose movements. 

DeMuth started playing guitar at age 12, inspired as many young guitarists are by the heavy riffs of classic rock, but when it came time to head off to college, he knew he was going to have to broaden his stylings if he planned to major in guitar. He worried, admittedly, that school would tamp down his creative inclinations in favor of rigid form and technique. What he found was a whole new dimension of music. Guitarist composers like Matteo Carcassi, Francisco Tárrega and Mauro Giuliani deepended DeMuth’s understanding of what the guitar could create sonically, as did the piano sonatas of Beethoven and Chopin. All the while he continued to enjoy popular music like Rodrigo y Gabriela, Queen and Eric Johnson.

As a result, his compositions are steeped in his deep appreciation for musical theory while still being accessible and not overly technical.  

Fascinated by space since he was a child, DeMuth retains this appreciation for the expansive universe that birthed the atoms that form each of us. Quiet but candid, earnest but lighthearted, DeMuth makes music that is rooted in his belief that we have to explore the unknown — within ourselves and in our universe — to be able to truly connect with one another. 

His newest EP, A Different Wavelength, taps into that constant searching. 

“A black hole has a boundary called an event horizon,” DeMuth writes on his website. “Nobody knows what happens past the event horizon and that’s what this EP is like. It’s like being in the event horizon and peering over the edge. That’s where I feel all my music comes from: the unknown, the uncharted, the great mystery.”    

Listen to more of Derek DeMuth’s music at derekdemuth.com.

ON THE BILL: Derek DeMuth (opening for Bonnie and the Clydes) — Bands on the Bricks. 6 p.m. July 3, 1300 block of Pearl Street Mall, Boulder.