By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Michael AckermanDealing with emotion has never been electronic music’s strong suit. When Kraftwerk sang, “Fun fun fun on the Autobahn,” the fun was in the disconnect: It didn’t sound like Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter would know the difference between a belly laugh and a system error. (The word fun itself was part of the disconnect. Kraftwerk were actually singing “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn,” German for “We’re driving driving driving on the Autobahn.” The misheard lyric is widely accepted, though, and much cooler besides.) Shimmering sounds, happy cascades and keyboard flurries aside, Kraftwerk could do nothing to conceal the fascist funkiness of their algorithmic, motorik beat: Doomb-doomb click. Do-boom-boom-click. “Enjoyment will be enforced, mein freund. You veel haff fun if vee haff anything to say about it.”
Yet electronic music can make you feel things. House has a good command of bathos (the diva howls). Techno has the mechanics of anonymous sex down cold (thump thump thump thump). Intelligent dance music — Autechre, Aphex Twin, etc. — does an excellent impression of mental illness (a combination of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder). In fact, almost every genre of electronic dance music is ebullient, even if it’s often a joy imposed by force. Think of Fatboy Slim, Propellerheads and other proponents of the rapidly receding genre of Big Beat. (Cocaine music for cocaine smiles.) And electronic music has tried its hand at melancholy and more tangled emotional states. New Order comes to mind, as does its synth-pop progeny (e.g., goths, the New Romantics, the new wave).
Electronic music that emotes has been around since the theremin and the amplified guitar, but electronic music as we define it today only came into being in the ’70s with the advent of affordable sequencers and synthesizers. More often than not, it’s been music for or by the alienated and the overwhelmed: German academics and hippies (Kraftwerk, Neu, Can); gay, Alvin Toffler–obsessed African-Americans from Detroit (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson); and, more recently, dot-com employees (who are alienated and overwhelmed, at least). Arising amid the hum of various Motor Cities, electronic music has traditionally been less about using music as a path toward open roads and open minds, and more about the precision engineering of feelings. How do you build the best defense against the world at large?
Ask any computer programmer and they will tell you that, at its best, manipulating code is like playing God. Electronic musicians have often aimed for the same ecstasy when molding sound; what they’ve sought is complete control. Right now, in Los Angeles, there’s a growing community of music makers trying to bring that beat bring that beat bring that beat back to the irregular rhythm of the human heart. Many of these efforts intersect in one way or another with the work of Dublab.com, a DJ pool slash production company slash group of friends (back)slash Internet radio station that has just compiled Freeways, an album of some of L.A.’s strongest peristaltic beats. Fun. Fun! Fun?
Well, not quite. Yes, dance music’s got ebullient down, and intelligent dance music’s got a lock on brainiacs. What electronic music doesn’t have a handle on are ambivalent emotions — those small, furtive feelings (delicacy, prettiness) and the mysterious big ones (belief, faith). Few have shown a mastery of quiet times, soft notes, sensitivity — the songs that limpid, watery-eyed boys put on mix tapes for their willowy young female friends. Dublab has a command of that strange, often unpopular thing. The best of the musicians assembled on Freeways understand that our heartbeats are finite — quite unlike the endless and iterative Krautrock throb. It’s the music Nick Drake or Joan Baez would make if they had Roland TR-808s.
Languis and Fer Chloca start things up with “The Sky Below.” The track builds on a digital skip-step beat (rote among aspiring IDMers) but adds layers of keyboards, clacking tones more like tongue pops than pistons, diffuse bass that bleeds instead of bruises, and a classical guitar melody that weaves gossamer melodic lines where others would build rats’ nests. Daedelus contributes “A Mashnote,” a collage of fluttering birds, violin strokes and error bleeps all arising from the keyboard clicks that open the song. (He’s writing this song on a computer — get it?) Daedelus is a programmer who has transformed the traditional love-letter salutation — xoxo — into a new kind of code for the hug and the kiss: 1010101. Mia Doi Todd’s “Digital” is a tone poem that draws connections between man and machine over a drum-circle cum drum-’n’-bass beat. Genetics meet synthetics, binaries become DNA, and bodily exhaustion is explicitly linked to the demands of our ever more robust information machines: “Nakedly we lie in an ecstatic embrace, trying not to come too quickly. One minute rise plastic bagged lubricated safety tube. This is not a through street. One cannot pass here . . . Throw your body to the edge of crisis. Paralysis is everywhere . . . Population in transition. Information transference overload.” Sung word-salad style Ã la Beck, Todd’s song is an easy target for the kind of Bob Dylan comparison that greets all earnest folk singers: She’s gone electric and written her “Desolation Row.”