The wall between indie and techno music disappears into a landscape of experimentation.
When D.C. indie music was storming along in the early ’90s, Mike Schulman was able to capture a significant piece of it. His D.C.-based label, Slumberland Records, had a stable of rising underground acts: Velocity Girl, Jane Pow, and a host of others (along with the rights to early material from Stereolab). Years later, Schulman is still riding the Zeitgeist, but this time around, it’s synth riffs instead of hooky guitar choruses that are fueling the trip. His new label, Drop Beat, with 10 releases to its name, specializes in odd, headphone-trip techno music that bears no resemblance to the stuff he worked with at Slumberland. But electronic music has opened a whole new underground for Schulman to explore.
Schulman wants to keep the two imprints separate, but “there’s been a certain amount of overlap” between them. For instance, Steven Gardner of Slumberland group Lorelei has another musical incarnation, Chessie, which brings a version of jungle-influenced techno to Drop Beat. Even though in some cases he’s working with the same people, drawing a line between his two labels is important to Schulman: “I didn’t want the stuff to get characterized as rock people doing electronic music.”
But that’s exactly what a lot of rock people are doing these days. Different toolbox, same creative imperatives—but electronica is much less proscribed in terms of what constitutes appropriate and worthy artistic output. The sheer number of techno-influenced releases coming from indie refugees these days, such as wizardly studio artist Trevor Kampmann’s output as both hollAnd and Commercial, suggests that the migration of rockers toward the genre is more than a fad. While any funeral for the guitar, bass, and drums trio would be premature, D.C.’s alternative talent is increasingly making music that has nothing to do with that durable pop template.
Lots of ex-rockers are composing, recording, and performing solo with whatever semi-recent technology they can lay their hands on. The gear—turntables, samplers, keyboards, Macintoshes, or a suitcase full of scuffed vintage effects pedals—means that musicians can end up with a fully realized sound without recruiting a bunch of pals. Those possibilities have turned the heads of a number of smart music-makers, who increasingly find that the Gibson SG is gathering dust in the corner while they give the Casio a workout. It’s the same AC current powering the equipment, but it’s arrayed over a fundamentally different sound.
Steve Raskin no longer hammers out damaged melodies in his parents’ basement. He’s an alum of the D.C. band Edsel (a group I played drums with from 1994 to 1995), which put out four postpunk albums in 10 years, but these days, his first love is on hold while he spends time in the company of his Technics SL-1200s turntable decks.
Raskin’s conversion to electronica was seeded in 1995, when Edsel went to the U.K. to record its Techniques of Speed Hypnosis album for Relativity Records. Liverpool and a legendary club called Cream exposed the harDCore-bred Americans to underground music culture and left them wondering if they weren’t missing something important.
“The Dust Brothers were just putting out their first singles,” Raskin recalls. “It was the first thing I had heard that was the evolution of hiphop and rock. Even on Techniques, we tried to incorporate the new sounds we heard.” After returning stateside, Raskin started working on his own music. “I started on the drum ‘n’ bass thing,” he says. His unconverted rock friends would stare at him and say, “What do you hear in this?”
But Raskin still thinks like a basement rocker. “I’m used to verse and chorus,” he says. “Song-structure-wise, I want to impose it on dance music.”
There are other compromises he’s not willing to make, either. “I don’t like to use other people’s music if possible.” If he loves a bass line, he’ll go play something similar himself and lay it down. The dance-music-makers he likes (such as Fatboy Slim) got started making their own rackets before detouring into the world of loops.
The flexibility inherent in the production process means that Raskin can genre-hop to his heart’s content, working with different partners in crime depending on the impulse. As Thunderball, his main outlet with buddy Sid Barcelona, he’s released several singles, “Hijack,” “This Girl,” and “Pop the Trunk” on the Eighteenth Street Lounge label. “Thunderball,” on his own Moonraker label, appears on a few compilations: Dubbed Out in D.C. and Covert Operations. He plans to release a full-length record in January again on ESL. Raskin also sidelines with his friend from Girls Against Boys, Eli Janney, as Americruiser, a duo that remixes New Musical Express darlings like the Sneaker Pimps, Morcheeba, Three Colours Red, and Placebo with David Bowie. He and Janney are currently finishing their own single, a complicated confection that Raskin hopes is as accessible as anything Fatboy or Massive Attack has produced.
With his variegated resume and multiple productions, you wonder if Raskin expects dance-track aficionados to take him seriously. Curiously, he’s found the electronic musicians he knows accepting, even envious, of his performance background. Raskin’s enthusiasm and can-do punk-rock ethic certainly have something to do with his creative rebirth in another subculture.
“I never wanted to ‘break into’ it—I just wanted to do it,” he says of electronica. The local underground’s insularity and occasional spoiled reliance on a few talented brahmins haven’t made it easy for every rookie composer to go out on a limb. “D.C. punk,” Raskin notes, has been “protective of a sound that took a long time to create.” By setting aside that legacy, he’s pretty much free to make music the way he hears it, not how people expect it to sound.
There may be a bit of a commercial imperative behind the wandering affiliations of local rockers. D.C.’s rock ‘n’ rollers can’t help but notice that the city’s top export acts are trading in beats. They’re DJs or producers; Thievery Corporation and Deep Dish have quietly built empires amid the furious punk going on all around them. Other D.C. groups have already made international names as electronicists—Trans Am, on four albums and endless tours, has widened the rockscape imaginatively, bridging straits between Van Halen and Trans-Europe Express in a confident, charismatic, and deftly musical way. They’ve exposed fans of muscular rock to undiluted synth pulses and made them cool. And D.C.’s Richard Chartier has quietly released several albums of curious minimalist sound in the U.S., the Netherlands, and Japan.
But it’s less about being the next one to break through than having fun where you are. Among local rockers, the appeal of going electronic—whether techno-dance, experimental, or improvisational—is multifold: They gain creative control and freedom; they can access new sounds and instruments; the composing and recording process can be part of one seamless exercise (writing a track and recording it can be simultaneous: just stick it on the hard drive); and it’s convenient (rolling out of bed and booting up is easier than getting that new drummer to show up). Besides, it’s nice to be back in a musical neighborhood where no one knows what the future is going to sound like.
Schulman is far from convinced that a rocker’s approach will yield transcendent results in a genre that is often hit-or-miss to begin with. If it’s easy to just plug in and start noodling around, it goes without saying that some of the product will be silly.
“People don’t have a full appreciation of it,” he insists. “The idea that rock people can go out and buy the gear and make good electronic music is demeaning to the form.” Schulman contends that most electronica is like the bulk of any genre—crap. Drop Beat has fielded more than its share of demos with “jungle beats and half-baked indie-pop over top of it,” he says.
Electronica requires a significant reorientation, not simply rock played with new gadgets. “It has no words,” Schulman says. “It’s not trying to put across a specific message.”
Schulman’s healthy skepticism is born of hard-earned experience. He and a partner opened a store, also called Drop Beat, in Berkeley, Calif., in ’96 that attempted to “draw a connection between experimental rock and experimental electronica” by offering both. It shuttered within two years, became a mail-order business briefly, and then closed altogether. The popular electronica explosion killed it—suddenly once-obscure music had a new visibility. When Matador Records released works by electronica bands such as Boards of Canada and [burger/ink], supposedly underground records that stores like Drop Beat specialized in became available at any Tower Records, and Schulman knew that his techno boutique was a goner.
But it’s easy to see why he’s still excited. The Drop Beat store in Berkeley attempted to offer selections from “the whole underground economy of hundreds of fucked-up little labels that put out records every week.” Even though Drop Beat’s releases to date have been way too weird to be dance-floor-friendly, Schulman remains enamored of the way techno sells. With indie rock, he says, it’s very hard to get something new heard, whereas the buyers at a store in Berlin or Bern might “hear a promo [of electronica] and buy a stack of it.” Labels like Code Red, Loop, or Missile might sell 10,000 to 15,000 12-inch records without going through a big-time distributor—which to Schulman is “incomprehensible.” It’s an international market, he says, that’s more independent than that of indie rock. “The money stays in that scene. If you make a banging hardass techno record, then banging hardass techno DJs are going to play it.”
Even some of the indie scene’s most stalwart supporters have embraced new possibilities with open arms. Chuck Bettis transformed from a hardcore ranter to an experimentalist after his group, the Metamatics, dissolved nearly five years ago. Instead of just forming another punk band with some of the streetwise style urchins of Northwest D.C., he came up with two distinct projects: the All Scars, an arty funk group, and his one-man electronica act the Trance and the Arcade.
“Basically, I really didn’t see the same spirit in punk rock anymore—it became conservative music,” he says. He was searching for sounds that were “relevant to me, organic,” Bettis says. “I saw more of an honest spirit in experimental music.”
As the Trance and the Arcade, Bettis used “caveman electronics” like guitar effects pedals, a sampler, a drum machine, and a keyboard to conjure his first full-length CD, Harmonic Architecture. It’s a galaxy away from the post-punk Metamatics: The record has jungle beats; clipped, galloping static; strange panting sounds; and headcleaning bursts to make it clear that everything you hear is being seriously fucked with before it gets to tape. In person, Bettis looks like a post-apocalyptic Charlie Brown. As a music maker, he emulates French composer Pierre Henry in his sculptured approach to sound.
Bettis seems pleased working on his own: “There’s no filtering system through anybody else. It’s completely how you wanted it.” His self-made label, Mass Particles, exists because he says there’s no other way to get the stuff heard.
Unless you count the likes of Derek Morton, who has gone from “a guitar player with a Casio” in the Arlington indie-band Ex-Atari Kid to a kind of ambassador for transistorized art, performing and organizing festivals and showcases in D.C. relentlessly for the last few years. Morton was inspired by listening to tapes of Ex-Atari’s jams and realizing that the best bits, “the important parts,” were unplanned—and a bit weirder than music meant for a pop-song format. Soon he had flung himself into a digital world with a duo called Music Arch de Lux, which created an improvisational, sampler-equipped sound that brings to mind Suicide or Cluster.
Since then, he’s performed in a number of outfits, such as the duo Commodore 64, and sponsored the experimentally oriented Tropic of Metatronic festival here in D.C., along with a regular showcase, the Emergent Music Forum. And recently, he formed a new group, Mikroknytes, where he uses computers, CDs of backing tracks, and a sequencer against John Coursey’s avant-garde violin witherings. The band’s home-burned CD is available through Rocker! Supernova, and a few tracks are available for download at http://www.mp3.com/artists/ 28/mikroknytes.html.
Morton, Raskin, and Bettis all make it clear that they are reveling in a sea of artistic options that many chugga-chugga rhythm-guitar players would never imagine, nor particularly desire. It’s an odd marriage when you think about it. Punk’s authenticity, so closely identified with anti-disco, was based on the premise that funky dance music was intrinsically false, artistically barren territory.
But D.C.’s punk scene was nourished by some brainy talent, and it shouldn’t be surprising that at least a few of these pioneers now feel like breaking from its constraints. Those ex-punks now find themselves working in a new place, between the poles of a rich, comfortable past and an unsettled digitized future. CP