The Cure for Dance Fever
With a few exceptions--Oval's Markus Popp petting his computer mouse on the Empty Bottle stage, Pan Sonic turning beats to bullets at Metro--most electronica artists who've come through Chicago have come to work the dance floor. Which means we're not getting the whole picture: the popularization of electronics as a means of making music and the proliferation of cheaper gear has set off a deluge of new stuff that's designed not so much for the ass as for the mind. Now, thanks largely to the efforts of Mike Javor, Chicagoans are finally getting the chance to hear it live.
Javor, who started listening to experimental electronic music when he got bored with the industrial scene about five years ago, was moved to promote concerts because while following his favorite acts on the Internet he found that they frequently skipped Chicago on tour. He used his connections as a contributor to the on-line electronica magazine Urban Sounds to get in touch with them and arrange shows. In May he kicked off a performance series called "/bin" with a showcase of artists who record for the small LA label Plug Research, and last month he put together an impressive international bill with California's Shuttle358, Germany's Tom Steinle, and local Labradford side project Pan-American. Both shows were at the Nervous Center, a cozy basement space that usually hosts avant-garde jazz and improv. In contrast to DJ gigs at Karma, Crobar, and even Smart Bar, where most people are either dancing or at least nodding their heads, the fans at the Pan-American show hunkered down on old wooden chairs or long makeshift benches, watching abstract images manipulated live via computer and listening.
"I'm not averse to the dance-floor presentation," says Javor, 24. "The shows I've done so far haven't exactly been music that you can get up and start dancing to, so they lent themselves to a smaller, more personal kind of show. What the environment will be really depends on who the artist is." Javor's next show, on Thursday, July 15, is headlined by the German duo Funkstörung (see Critic's Choice), whose dense, shifting soundscapes are heavier on the beats, so he's moving to a bigger venue, HotHouse.
Javor's explicitly interested in "the fringe of more popular forms of electronic music," so none of the acts he's booked are exactly household names. But "giving a recognizable identity to the series as a whole will help out, especially with some of the acts most people don't know about," he says. The average rock fan will probably still have no interest, though in some ways the new artists seem to be reacting to the mindless hedonism of rave music the way rockers reacted to disco.
The roots of the movement are overseas, with acts like Popp (a Berliner who builds unsettling ambient music from CD skips and glitches) and Autechre (an English duo whose complex, abstract beat-driven music morphs continuously), but the burgeoning U.S. scene is being documented on labels like Plug Research, Vinyl Communications, Schematic, 12k, and Chicago's own Kultbox. And while some of the music certainly borrows from European sources, many U.S. artists are finding their own sounds, like the dense, off-kilter circuitry overload of Miami's Phoenicia, who may play a "/bin" show later this year, or the wiggy, disjointed machinations of the San Francisco duo Matmos, who make their Chicago debut this Sunday at Thurston's.
On Matmos's 1998 album Quasi-Objects (Vague Terrain) and the new The West (Deluxe)--which features ex-Tortoise guitarist David Pajo and Acetone guitarist Mark Lightcap--Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt can't sit still, jerking between hyperactive drum 'n' bass, discordant soundscapes, dislocated guitar strumming, punishing electro breakbeats, and wild manipulations of found sounds. Their show here isn't actually a Javor production, but he is DJing on the bill, which was set up by Kultbox co-owner Kent Henderson. The rest of the artists either have records out on Kultbox or will before the year ends, including Californians Lesser and Kid-606, Amsterdam drum 'n' bass terrorists Rude 66, and Casey "Designer" Rice.
Last Tuesday, with the release of a two-CD compilation called Exposed Roots: The Best of Alt-Country, the genre got the official K-Tel seal of cheese, with glad-handing liner notes by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock of the scene's bimonthly bible, No Depression. It's not a bad collection per se, with tracks by Lucinda Williams, the Handsome Family, Freakwater, Gram Parsons, and the Meat Puppets, but I'm suspicious of any historical revisionism that lumps together Johnny Cash and Southern Culture on the Skids.
Samba Pra Burro, a 1998 album by singer Otto that just turned up at Dusty Groove, may turn out to be my favorite Brazilian record of 1999: Otto jury-rigs Brazilian forms for electronica much as the late Chico Science did for hip-hop and rock, mixing live and programmed percussion in catchy, seductive electronica-bolstered pop songs that put American attempts at the same to shame.
This Sunday Kim Deal of the Breeders takes time out from recording the band's next album with Steve Albini--she's playing all the parts herself--to perform solo at Lounge Ax.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.