Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kids Today!

I've been making electronic music and merging it with indie rock at various points since the late 80s.  Back then the divisions between genres and "Rock and Roll" VS  DJs or pre-recorded  parts were more of  a jumble. Hip Hop had made turntablism an art and of course the whole British synthpop movement brought out this new technology to the masses and bands evolved from "punk" to "new wave" and then some. As things crept on there was a merging of man and machine as bands started to incorporate drum machines or sequenced synthesizers into their live performances. In the late 70s we had groups like Suicide who somehow made dirty and frightening rock and roll with a Cha-Cha drum machine and cheesy organ. In the 80s technology hit top 40 radio with bands like the Cars and Devo and in the 90s the underground industrial movement with everyone from Psychic TV to Ministry  were pressing ""start" and then blasting onward.

Every step of the way there were vicious verbal battles by old school "musician" stalwarts who declared using prerecorded or sequenced backing tracks or arpeggiators and drum machines "cheating".  Jabs and diatribes were everywhere mocking hardware laden bands who "couldn't play an instrument" or "simply stood there". If  I had a dime for every time a self appointed manly guitar player made an effeminate reference about a synthesizer I could buy you a vintage Minimoog or '56 Les Paul.

Of course the evolution of mixing classic rock and punk with electronic instruments was much more nuanced and complex but if you'll forgive my gross simplification and go with me that sequencers, drum machines, and guitars, bass, and drums started to merge in live music more we can all proceed.

Still with me? Good.

For better or worse we have now grown into an age where complete live performances can (and are) done on a single laptop or with looping software and virtual instruments. I've attended Power Electronics as well as  techno shows where the "band" consisted of a singer and his ipod and in some cases, much to my surprise,  they rocked.  These required a certain suspension of the traditional view of what "Live music" is but you need not go further than current critical and indie darlings like "The Kills" or "The Submarines" to see what can be done with a guitar, macbook, and some feedback and good old reckless abandon.

I suppose I still hearken back to my roots of playing sweaty rock clubs with broken PAs and I like hearing live bass guitar and drums as much as I like to hear all the new things we get with wacky synths and samplers. What I find fascinating is when a young band who never knew about the past's arguments  mixes it all up and spits it out focusing entirely on what's been important throughout this technological revolution; the Music.

This past week I was flipping through internet TV channels on my Roku (how futuristic!) and came across a rebroadcast of a show that offered live in studio performances by various bands called "In the Basement".  I immediately went to one episode that demonstrates the ultimate in old school rock performance -  a concert with the reunited Iggy Pop and the Stooges. But in the best of the old school booking traditions this show mixed up bands and not only had the quintessential rock gods The Stooges,  it also had a younger band that played multiple synths, guitars, prerecorded percussion/sound, and live drums. And they had a dedicated charismatic live singer. And they rocked.

From Brasil of all places C.S.S.  (http://www.subpop.com/artists/css) blew the roof off the studio even after The Stooges.  The playing, arrangements, and songs were great but what got me was the feedback drenched 100% live transition between their two singles and the gleeful grande finale noise crescendo at the end. Seeing these younger musicians do that that reminded me what music is regardless of the instruments used. I first heard their album tracks on the GREAT indie phila. radio station WKDU a few years ago.  I liked what I heard but this performance took the recordings  and went to that *other* place where inspiration, groove, energy, and what makes us play music mix into a good sloppy and spicy stew. In other words, a LIVE performance.

The video clip is  about 9 minutes long and I highly recommend watching it in it's entirely to see the magic unfold right before your eyes. CSS would be the first to admit they aren't the most advanced players or tightest musicians but they are great at what they're doing and enjoying it which, in this case,  counts for just as much. The simple yet intriguingly intertwined guitar parts have that special something as do all the fun and creative synth and sound lines. And their unapologetically mined Disco beat turns what could be retro and stale into fresh and youthful again. Throw in some irreverent lyrics and almost a half dozen girls and boys swapping instruments and musical hooks and you've got a party that shows new can come from old. Especially if you remember why you're doing it in the first place.

Rock on.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


I recently found an old cassette tape my friend Kent Williams had sent me back in the 1990s. You know when "tape trading" was all the rage and long before CDrs let alone digital recording. Well, to be fair I think DAT was the high end studio bees Knees.

Anyway those were the days when I'd pick up two cheesy analog pieces and do a "jam" twiddling knobs like a monkey not really knowing what I was doing and then declare I had written a "track". I guess in some ways not much has changed.

Anyway this is a silly two bit piece with the lowest of the low drum machines (a Boss DR55) and Roland SH101 monosynth I remember buying from a Pawn shop in south Philly during my lunch break from work. I set the drum machine to "Velveta" and threw a few note sequence into the SH101 and, well, recorded a track. And then promptly forgot about it forever. Until I found it on the ass end of a cassette tape this year.

What do we learn from all this? Perhaps a little about enthusiasm and youth and how friends make it all worthwhile. Or maybe just twiddling analog stuff is good clean stupid fun.

Either way, bleep on...