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The guy with the microphone on the Black Cat’s backstage is arrayed in white Lycra leggings, a red shiny shirt, and, literally, an expressionless mask. He jerks his spiky head violently and speaks unintelligibly along to the improvised electronic music his bandmates in Nautical Almanac are creating in the background. They’re wearing masks, too, and they’re making music from things that don’t look particularly musical: a long board and a metal boxboth full of wires and plugs and buttonsthat emit long screeches, piercing shrieks, low droning buzzes, and crashing beats with each flip of a switch or turn of a dial.
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It may not have a steady beat and you probably can’t dance to italthough a few of the 30-some onlookers find a way to tap their feet or bob their headsbut this is exactly what John “SK” Rickman had in mind when he decided to call his bimonthly showcase Electric Circus.
“Basically, I started Electric Circus so I could have some excuse to play live somewhere,” Rickman, 30, says with a laugh. “But now it’s gone from being a local event to something that bridges local people and people from up and down the East Coast and around the world.” Indeed, Rickman has taken the showwhich he initiated a year agoon the road to Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Richmond, Va., in recent months; one performance even featured a musician from Australia who had specifically contacted Rickman to ask if he could participate during his visit to the States.
A drummer with a rock background who performed in the area band Eggs, Rickman (who by day works for a tax-manual publishing firm) got into the experimental electronic scene a few years ago when a friend gave him a couple of Casio SK sampling keyboards. “I vowed to her that I would learn to use them and I would play live,” he says. “And that’s pretty much what I did.” He put together his first Electric Circus as part of 2000’s monthlong arts showcase Art-O-Matic.
“The whole purpose is to get everyone out of their bedroom and into an environment where they can play electronic music,” Rickman says. “You don’t see it everyday, and I wish there were more electronic shows I could go to, so I try to make it happen.”
Rickman, who hopes to host another Circus in March, says that the D.C. electronic scene is small but supportive. He and the subculture’s other major players make it a point to check out each other’s events: Rickman’s recent Circus drew Richard Chartier, a DJ and artist who hosts a weekly electronic-music night at Adams Morgan’s Blue Room, and Chuck Bettis, a musician who holds electronic shows infused with punk and free-jazz influences at a different D.C. venue every month.
“The experimental scene is really starting to congeal into a stronger mass,” says Bettis, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage at January’s Circus. “John and I are doing these shows and people come up to us and say, ‘I didn’t know this happened in D.C.’ Our world is growing.” Aimee Agresti