Tranquility Bass's Hippie-Hop
You might assume a lot of things about Mike Kandel based on appearances, but that he's one of the unheralded forefathers of trip-hop probably isn't one of them. While his dance-music colleagues strut about in Gore-Tex anoraks and baggy pants, Kandel--aka Tranquility Bass--wears beads and a long, knotted beard, decorates record covers with Haight-Ashbury patchwork art, and favors "peace" as a salutation. "Everything I touch sort of has a hippie element," he admits.
A cursory listen to Kandel's hard-to-find earlier work reveals plenty of one-world overtones, but it's the Tranquility Bass debut album, Let the Freak Flag Fly (released earlier this week), that best fuses that hippie vibe with deliberately sleek, high-tech dance-music production. For all the hoopla generated by recent forays into electronica by David Bowie and U2, Tranquility Bass delivers a far more convincing mix of electronica and rock than either.
Unlike those genre-hopping Johnny-come-latelies, Kandel has been immersed in both worlds for more than a decade. The 29-year-old Chicago native began dabbling in music at 12, learning to play guitar and keyboards. By 15 he'd loaded up on electronic gear and a four-track recorder and was madly concocting "experimental electronic tape manipulations" in his bedroom. After finishing at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, Kandel headed for Cal Arts, where he met kindred spirit Tom Chasteen. Together they began plotting ways to make the same sort of dance music they were consuming obsessively in record shops and nightclubs. In 1991, after several years of purchasing equipment, stockpiling potential samples, and writing songs, the duo released a couple 12-inch singles, one as Tranquility Bass, on its own Exist Dance label.
"It was a big thing for us to actually figure out how to mix down and make a record," says Kandel. "We never really thought about how to sell them." The label's earliest re-leases paired down-tempo hip-hop beats with trancey ethnic-music samples--the sort of thing groups like Transglobal Underground and Loop Guru have been credited with since. (In fact, the British magazine Mixmag claims to have coined the term "trip-hop" to describe an early Tranquility Bass track.) Also in 1991 Kandel stopped by Chicago's legendary Warehouse club on a visit home and realized that Exist Dance needed to embrace the unrelenting pulse of techno to make a dent in the dance-music scene. "Champion Sound," a subsequent single credited to High Lonesome Sound System, one of several monikers he and Chasteen used, presciently paired a furious breakbeat scheme with raga samples--the sort of thing the Chemical Brothers now do with much less panache--and its underground success quickly established Exist Dance.
By 1993, however, after the pair had released 15 club-geared records, Chasteen bowed out and Kandel grew intent on making a full Tranquility Bass album. After securing a deal with Caroline/Virgin, which ended up releasing the album on its dance-oriented Astralwerks imprint, Kandel moved from LA to Lopez Island, a remote, idyllic isle off the coast of Bellingham, Washington, with a population of 1,500, and began raising his Freak Flag. "I had never done an album before and I'm not very good at budgeting my time, so when the label gave me three or four months, I was like, 'Sure, I'll give it a shot.'" It took more than two years, and last summer he came back to Chicago to fine-tune and mix the more than 80 tracks he'd laid. He finished in August, but because of the family and friends he has in the city, he decided to stay.
Kandel says he rarely plans out the music he makes, but with Freak Flag he specifically wanted to release "something that wasn't made for DJs." He succeeded: though the album's meticulously constructed electronic foundation draws liberally on club beats, what goes on top is never beholden to them. "When I was preparing for the record I was listening to Curtis Mayfield, Santana, and lots of other very live-sounding, long jams from the late 60s and early 70s," says Kandel. "And then I'd listen to my records and other stuff from the dance-music genre and I would ask myself, What's missing here? It's supposed to be rocking the dance floor and it just sounds flat." So he layered horns, a variety of nonsynth keyboards, guitar, percussion, and fiddle--many of which he played himself--over the dynamic rhythms. The result is a staggering hodgepodge of psychedelia, P-Funk, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian grooves, prog-rock flights of fancy, and schlocky mainstream 80s rock melodicism--with lyrics like "Lord, make us one" and "Tell the children when they ask you why / That it's to free their minds from constraints of space and time"--that somehow coheres as a unified, if occasionally reductive, whole. It's also the first dance record with a country cover on it: Kandel delivers Jimmie Rodgers's "Soldier's Sweetheart" accompanied only by acoustic guitar. "It's fun playing with people's expectations," he says.
Kandel plans to audition musicians for a band to perform his music live, but if he can't find the perfect ensemble, he says, he'll scrap the idea. Meanwhile, he's been busy remixing singles from the album as well as some songs by the Red Krayola. In May the local Organico label, which is run by Kandel's manager, Matt Adell, will release a single by Commander Mindfuck, yet another Kandel alias.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chess Records' inception, MCA, which owns the label's vast catalog, has kicked off an extensive reissue program. Unfortunately, much of the music has already been repackaged in so many different configurations over the years that the new titles--9 of a projected 20 have hit the shelves in the last few weeks--add little to the big picture but confusion. Best-of offerings from Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy, and even two decade-length overviews are filled with readily available nuggets. The only truly laudable release is the 51-track, two-CD set of the complete Chess recordings of Jimmy Rogers, the brilliant Muddy Waters guitarist whose own available work on Chess previously was limited to the 14-cut Chicago Bound--which MCA has recently made unavailable, probably in order to sell more reissues.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Mike Kandel by Marty Perez.