Friday, March 7, 2008

GLITCHES WITH ATTITUDE: kid606, Matmos, Blectum from Blechdom, Lesser
director's cut of feature for Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Surveying the white-walled expanse of the Manhattan loft she's just acquired as a rehearsal studio/sleeping quarters for her band and entourage, Bjork realizes something's wrong. Her manager's making phone calls sprawled flat on his belly on the pinewood floor; her assistant's teetering awkwardly on an up-ended cardboard box. "We need chairs," chirrups the Icelandic singer, who's dressed in a tight-fitting white-leather bodice and fake-fur pom-pom slippers. Dropping into the earthy slang of her adopted home London, she adds: "And we need them now, because we're totally knackered!"

Talk of chairs missing prompts Martin Schmidt from Matmos, the San Francisco electronic duo who basically are "the band" on Bjork's forthcoming world-tour, to recall that he once made a short experimental film called Chairs In the Wind. "It consisted of: some chairs, sitting in a field, not moving," he explains, adding ruefully. "If I'd had my way, it'd have been two hours long". Drew Daniel, Schmidt's partner in music and life, leans over and kisses the top of his head tenderly, touched by the avant-garde excesses of his boyfriend's youth.

Matmos are prime movers in the next-wave of electronica, a bunch of mischief-makers who are disrupting techno's cult of impersonality with quirky characterfulness and punk attitude. The duo are especially tight with the cluster of misfits surrounding the Tigerbeat 6 label in San Francisco: Lesser, Blectum from Blechdom, and kid606, the label's founder. With Matmos's critically acclaimed A Chance to Cut Is A Chance To Cure and Lesser's Gearhound both coming out on Matador, kid606 remixing the back-from-the-dead Depeche Mode, and now Schmidt & Daniel's link-up with Bjork, this genre-without-a-name--laptop punk, glitchcore, and emo-tronica are all contenders--is inching closer to the mainstream.

Bastard children of left-field electronica's first wave (the Anglo/Euro pantheon of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Oval, etc), the Tigerbeat 6 crew work from their precursors's innovations (mad Tex Avery beats, exaggerated digital effects, glitchy-twitchy riffs), but lively up the studio-science with passion, polemic, and a kick-ass approach to live performance. US rave culture and its home-listening adjunct IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) have always looked across the Atlantic for guidance. But now, with Tigerbeat 6 and other glitchcore labels like Schematic, Phthalo, BetaBodega, Carpark, and Plug Research, there's a real sense that America is leading the way.

The Old World has perked up its ears: England's leading IDM label Warp just signed two Schematic producers, Richard Devine and Scott Heren (a/k/a Prefuse 73), while the Frankfurt label Mille Plateaux gleaned the cream of California's crop of glitchtronica for its clicks_+_cuts compilations. Renowned for her ardour for left-field techno, Bjork was so enchanted by Matmos's 1998 album Quasi-Objects--whose tracks are all based on single-source samples, ranging from balloons to "amplified crayfish neural tissue"--she bought 20 copies to give to friends. Now she's persuaded the duo to take a year-long sabbatical from their day-jobs (Schmidt is an assistant manager at the San Francisco Art Institute, Daniel is doing a PhD at Berkeley) and traipse around the world with her.

Right now, Daniels and Schmidt re adapting the album into something that can be played live--a complicated and protracted process, given the range of technologies and programming languages that Bjork's multiple collaborators have used. While the singer and Daniels talk fluently in the jargon of soundfiles and MIDI, Schmidt takes a sofa-break and nurses his hangover, a relic from last night's group outing to a rollerskating rink. Bjork's play hard/work hard regime seems designed to encourage cameraderie and maintain morale. Not that the pace of activity in this uber-IKEA loft is especially frantic. "The truth is, when B's here, not much gets done," Martin confides in a whisper. "It's too easy to have fun, so fun is what we have."


Fun--having it, making it--is what Tigerbeat 6 is all about. Kid606 and friends have an almost Tourette's Syndrome-like compulsion to deflate the po-faced pomposity that too often surrounds electronic music. "Not taking yourself too seriously is something we take very seriously," says Kevin, one half of the androgynously-named female duo Blectum From Blechdom. Lesser calls himself a "jackass," and it takes a while before you realize he's not being self-deprecating: it's his highest term of praise, reserved for people like his hero Steve Albini. kid606--real name, Miguel Depredo--litters his music with in-jokes and wisecracks: titles like "Matmos Are The A-Team of Electronica," the Ma$e-sampling "It'll Take Millions In Plastic Surgery To Make Me Black," and tracks like "Buffalo 606--the morning after" and "Catstep" that testify to his twin obsessions with Christina Ricci and felines.

Only 21 years old but surprisingly mature and burly-looking--born in Venuezuala, he could pass for a Latin American dissident, albeit one wearing braces--Depredo has carved out a career as a thorn in the side of IDM. Inspired by Warp's concept of "electronic listening music," IDM was originally an Internet mailing list for Aphex Twin fans but has since developed into a subculture of geeky obsessives. "It's just that indie-rock, lo-fi mentality transferred to electronic music," says Depredo scathingly. "The word 'intelligent' is a way of flattering the audience that they're superior to people mindlessly shaking their butts on the dancefloor---as if to make music credible, you have to take the fun out of it! "

Although kid606 uses many of the same techniques that have become IDM mannerisms--dementedly micro-edited breakbeats, the digital hiccups of the post-Oval genre called "glitch"--he also injects the party-hard energy of a whole array of Stupid Dance Musics: gabba's piledriver beats and blaring riffs, the booty-shake appeal of Miami Bass, gangsta rap, and dancehall. All these sounds make you jump, rather than stroke your chin ruminatively. "I like some cheesy-ass shit, and I'm not ashamed of that. In fact, that's the shit that enables me to do my shit. And if I only listenened to the Warp catalogue, I'd be shit."

Although hip hop is a major passion for Depredo and Lesser (kid606 organized a tribute album to NWA called Attitude), punk rock is the real shared heritage that informs Tigerbeat 6's sensibility. Matmos's Daniel put out a punkzine called Conqueror Worm in his hometown Louisville, Kentucky, while Schmidt was involved in the early Eighties Los Angeles hardcore scene. "We used to buy our speed off Will Shatter from Flipper!," he grins. As kids growing up in San Diego, Lesser progressed from the Metallica cover band Creeping Death to making electronic noise for local punk label Vinyl Communications, while Depredo says he was profoundly influenced by San Diego emocore groups like Heroin and The Locust.

One result of this is Depredo's compulsion to wear his heart on his record sleeves, with titles like "Fuck You Sarah," PS I Love You, and Soccer Girl, all inspired by relationships. "I got tired of the way electronic artists wouldn't put their emotions in the music. It's all part of that faux-art attitude. There's too many records where the font used on the sleeve is the most expressive thing about it."

By contrast, with kid606 and cohorts, you're always aware there's a flesh-and-blood person behind the music. "In electronic music, everyone's obsessed with having a distinctive sound, but I'd much rather have a voice that people recognise," says Lesser. "Instead of 'oh, it's got that Lesser sound', I'd rather people would go 'oh, it's the jack-ass again.'"

Defining himself against IDM's prissy neatness, Lesser calls his approach "anal-expulsive"--the opposite of anal-retentive. The word fits Blectum from Blechdom even better. Their quirky-scary music (imagine The Shaggs if they'd had laptops instead of guitars/bass/drums) drags the listener into a surreally scatological world populated by verminous critters with names like snause, sea slurpent, and bee-grub. On record, Kevin and Blevin relate adventures from this macabre wonderland via between-track skits and mini-dramas, shattering techno's decorum with deranged girlish laughter and Monty Python-style funny voices. As Kevin unfurls the grody details--snauses live in toilets, bite people's toes off, and have a single 'bitch-hole' through which they pee, poop, eat, breathe, and fornicate; a scientist called Mallard experimentally breeds snauses with extra orifices for his perverse pleasure---it starts to resemble the hallucinations of a ketamine-head channel-flipping between Discovery, porn, and Alien 3. According to Blevin, it actually started as a doodle, a private joke, 'that took on a life of its own. It's like we couldn't stop joking".

The odd couple originally met at Mills, the Oakland college where they were studying avant-garde electronic music. They threw raves in the dirt-floor basement underneath the 1930s concert hall, and in the process got to know many players in San Francisco's electronic scene. But with their "messy aesthetic", Blectum felt isolated until the arrival of Lesser and Depredo from San Diego a little over a year ago. Fans of bad music (they sample Men At Work's "Down Under" on one track), and the grisly children's stories of Jim Copp & Ed Brown, Blectum have no time for IDM's hipper-than-thou ethos. "There's something about absurdity and ridiculousness we like," says Kevin. "A lot of so-called good music is about presenting yourself as cool and smooth, but the reality of how we feel is kinda psychotic and all-over-the-place. So if you can accept bad music and grotesque things, it's like accepting yourself."

Matmos's A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure goes even further into "euuu, gross!" territory--it's a concept album of lopsided house music largely composed from the sounds of cosmetic surgery and other medical procedures. Following the rootsy, organic sound of their Americana-inspired album The West, Matmos wanted to make something "cold and machine-like, yet still visceral," says Daniel. "When you know it's the sounds of stuff being done to human bodies it makes you flinch, you're more invested in those sounds, 'cos these are things that could be done to you." One track is based on their friend Monica Youn's laser eye surgery. I get to meet this "human sample" in the eerie flesh when Matmos are briefly billeted in a SoHo loft that she's house-sitting from Princess Olga of Greece. "Luckily there were complications, and I had to have the operation done again," Youn says, wryly. "Lucky for Drew, because his first attempt at recording the surgery were spoiled by background interference." Other samples-- liposuction, chin implants, nose-jobs--were procured in shady fashion, without the patient's knowledge. "They'd be out cold, under anesthetic, and then the doctors snuck me in," says Daniel. He admits that this was ethically "dodgy"--not so much because it's an invasion of the patient's privacy, but simply for insurance reasons. "The surgeons who allowed us to do this were putting themselves at risk... Imagine if I'd tripped and stumbled into them mid-operation..." Schmidt completes the thought: "Coulda cut the nose clean off!."

Although Matmos have yet to release anything via Tigerbeat 6, they are very much part of the crew, not least because Lesser is their third member when they play live. It's as much a hanging-out thing as based in musical affinities. "For a while, we'd have these soldering socials," says Lesser. "We'd all get together and bring crappy synths picked up from thrift-stores, and all solder together and discuss the best techniques." This closeknit clique is almost literally incestuous, in that intermarriage within the tribe seems to be compulsory. Kid606's goes out with Kevin, Lesser is dating Blevin. The two couples plan to make a record together as Fleetwood Mackintosh.

Schmidt and Daniels' eight years strong relationship began when Martin spotted Drew "dancing in his underwear on the bar" at Club Uranus in San Francisco. Discovering from a mutual friend that Daniel wasn't just "way cute" but made electronic music too, Schmidt approached and used the come-on line: "wanna come back to my place and learn how to use a sequencer?'." Romance blossomed between the drum machines and analog synths. Quips Daniels, "It was like a dream come true to meet Martin... from a software point of view.


Taking this home-studio culture to the stage has always been problematic. There isn't a performance vocabulary of gestures and stage moves like there is with rock'n'roll; electronic artists who do put on a show, from Moby to the Prodigy, are regarded suspiciously by techno hipsters as sell-outs pandering to trad-rock tastes, or as egomaniacal exhibitionists. Wary of these dangers, the Tigerbeat 6 crew nonetheless find the IDM live performance norm--a geeky dude motionlessly staring into his laptop and clicking a mouse every so often--to be "unacceptably dull", as Schmidt puts it.

Synth, a regular IDM night at San Francisco chic bar the Blind Tiger, clearly aspires to be the kind of hiptronica club you might find in, say, Cologne---monochrome geometric patterns projected on the wall, an aural backdrop of "clickhouse" (a slick, subdued version of glitch). Given that the promoters are aiming for such a tasteful downtempo vibe, it's rather surprising they've booked kid606 and friends to bring da ruckus.

IDM has always been an Anglophile/Europhile scene: fans try to work out the secrets of Autechre's "granular synthesis" techniques, they fret about the dearth of new Aphex product. In reaction, the Tigerbeat 6 stance is defiantly patriotic. Track titles like Lesser's "Markus Popp Can Kiss My Redneck Ass" and kid606's follow-up "Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass" are playful desecrations of IDM sacred cows (Oval's Popp pioneered glitch, while Vibert was an early exponent of the jungle-parody style of absurdist breakbeat science known as drill'n'bass).

Synth's wannabe Euro-cool is shattered by the first Tigerbeat 6 performer, Gold Chains, a new recruit to the label who crush-collides the hitherto separate universes of The Source and XLR8R, Jay-Z and Jeff Mills. Swarthy and balding, Gold Chains raps hoarsely about "sipping your pussy like champagne" over pounding hardcore techno. A circle of white "hipno babes" throw themselves with ironic fervor into the role of ho's to Gold Chains's mack daddy: jiggling what their mamas gave them, chanting his name, squealing at choice couplets like "your beats are wack/at least that's what your girl said in the sack," and generally acting like project chicks in a Cash Money video.

Next up is Lesser, looking pointedly American in his old-timer's Derby hat and handlebar moustache (you almost expect his coat to fall open to reveal a Colt 45 in holster). Hunched over a laptop, he unleashes a barrage of shredded breakbeats closer to a guitar solo than drum'n'bass. One track features a Motley Crue sample and Lesser's own stab at death-metal singing.

Dressed in matching Pokemon T-shirts and orange foam headbands, Blectum from Blechdom showcase the new pop direction of their forthcoming Bitches Without Britches album: doubled girl-group vocals, mad fairground muzak, a mood midway between twee and psychotic. By now the crowd is an unstable mixture of hipno chinscratchers and Tigerbeat's following, characterized by Lesser as "a good blend of dork and troublemaker". A scary-looking Scottish expat is chanting "you're gonna get yer head kicked in/you're goin' home in an ambulance" for no apparent reason. And a sleazy fellow is telling me how he finds that playing Boards of Canada--IDM at its most wistful and ethereal--makes the girls wanna fuck all night.

Finally, kid606 steps up for his headlining spot. Transfixed by his twin laptops, Depredo's fingers fly over an orange square called the Chaos Pad, which allows him to warp his music through real-time DSP (digital signal processing). DSP extremism is a Tigerbeat 6 hallmark, the reason why their drums sound like a fireworks display of ultravivid timbres. "It's like the way Jimi Hendrix played feedback--we're basically playing effects," is how Lesser explains it, adding "Not to compare genius or anything!". But there is something Hendrix-like about the way melodic refrains--snatches of TLC's "No Scrubs," a Snoop Dogg hook from a Chronic-era Dr. Dre tune--flicker and dissipate in the maelstrom of kid606's music. Dancing in the front row, Kevin from Blectum rocks with her eyes blissfully closed as her boyfriend savagely tweaks the EQ. She leans over and says, dotingly, "it's so cute the way Miguel's cheeks go red when he's really concentrating." At set's end, the Kid leaves his machines running to his spur-of-the-moment remix of 2step garage anthem "Flowers, and joins the crowd to dance.

Not everybody appreciates this mystique-smashing approach to live electronics, though. At the after-party (held in the Compound, a studio containing the 13 channel audio-video system invented by local music eccentric Naut Human), Kit Clayton, one of the SF scene's leading glitcherati, expresses his doubts. He uses the word "pornography" to characterize our quaint hankering to see the "real person" behind the music. "Electronic music is like cinema," he argues. "People don't go to movies and expect to see the film edited in front of them--they're happy to see a finished artwork, not the process of construction." It's a powerful argument for the purity of the techno approach--anonymity, perfectionism, the artist as sound-designer or architect, as opposed to the voyeurism involved in more rock approaches to showmanship.

The Tigerbeat 6 mob have a less purist attitude: both Matmos and Blectum bring a performance art element to their live shows (the Blectum girls often play encased inside a gigantic two-person body suit), while Lesser is wont to indulge in stage-diving mid-set. But it's another Tigerbeat artist, Cex (Baltimore teenager Rjyan Kidwell) who takes the "let me entertain you" ethos to the limit. "Rjyan has just got gold teeth made that spell CEX," marvels Depredo. "He'll strip at shows. I'd almost say Cex is a threat to me, if I gave a shit."

Asked what he calls Tigerbeat's music, Depredo pauses for a second, and then says, "it's all rock'n'roll, really, in the end, isn't it?"

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