Thought Leaders: Protect-U makes dance music for folks who use their heads.
Thought Leaders: Protect-U makes dance music for folks who use their heads.

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Breezy, psychedelic, jammy, drifty— words like these pop up regularly in fans’ and writers’ descriptions of Protect-U’s music, and finding uncomplicated pleasure in the D.C. synth duo’s output is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. This is dance music; the kick drum says so. But at this point in Protect-U’s ever-evolving manipulation of sonic hardware, I dig a deeper listen, a more complex appreciation of the duo’s choices. I pay to hear these two dudes think.

The more time I spend with Free USA, the duo’s first proper album—and the local Future Times label’s first LP since last summer’s nifty Son by the Beautiful Swimmers—the more I concentrate on the music’s twists and Protect-U’s deliberate decisions: the constantly unsettled percussion in the otherwise liquid “Time 2 Technique,” the way “Distored” and “F-USA” cleverly layer aural grime and galactica, the way “Down the Tubes” sneakily shifts from the fireworks of snare blasts to slightly ominous keyboard clouds. Every motif seems to come with a question about its long-term viability; hardly any last all the way through an entire song. It’s easy to zone out to this kind of wordless dance music, but Free USA is a reminder that the brain is a far more interesting place before it actually reaches a meditative state.

Protect-U is Aaron Leitko and Mike Petillo, whose live performances with their consoles and keyboards have facets of outré electronic music (heads down, knobs twirled), live jazz (rhythms and patterns improvised), and cult-of-the-DJ moments (crowds nudged to reckon with transformations). Lots of dance acts pull from all three traditions, but Protect-U always makes the combination seem particularly risky. Is that gizmo working? Is that knob where they want it? Why did they switch sides? Should the crowd be waiting on a climax? Does it matter?

On Free USA, the risk gets expressed in an unlikely combination of hardware. A MacBook probably played a hand in pulling the sounds from the duo’s machines with 21st-century efficiency, but every track offers some sense that old-school gearhead eureka moments are essential parts of the process. For synth nerds, Easter eggs abound, I’m sure. For the uninitiated, it’s not difficult to hear that several different boxes, probably vintage, are churning out sounds under the command of potentially sketchy controllers, giving “Top Hat” its laser-disco energy, “Needs” and “Flying High” their action-drama slickness, and “Flunx” its analog grind. (“Retro” is another word that gets tossed around in relation to Protect-U, but it feels cheap.)

Even if your cerebrum has gone down those teched-out holes with Leitko and Petillo (a co-owner of Future Times with the Swimmers’ Andrew Field-Pickering), it’s possible to pull away and reabsorb Free USA as just a series of tunes—especially in a car, where the album takes on open-road optimism, or coming from speakers at the other end of a room, where it exudes an odd sort of muscularity. Protect-U’s D.C. recording space is a famously tight room, though, so I’m going to stick with Plan A: Circle back to listening closely, gaming out why this decision or that one worked out so cleanly. Head nodding, always.

Protect-U performs with Peaking Lights and Maxmillion Dunbar on Saturday, May 10 at 10 p.m. at Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Avenue NW. $10.