A Peace Out West: Mourning the Late Michael Kandel of Tranquility Bass
Michael Kandel, early '90s
Courtesy of Exist Dance
“We got something better for you,” Michael Kandel would say. And he always did have something better, transmitting from Heaven, the name of Tranquility Bass’ original studio, launched in the heady days of California's early rave scene.
Mike Kandel, who with Tom Chasteen formed Los Angeles’ first EDM label Exist Dance in 1991 and was a pioneer of ambient trip-hop as Tranquility Bass, passed away unexpectedly earlier this week. He was 47. Family and friends say he died of natural causes.
"I remember going over to the garage of a house in Echo Park where the guys were living," recalls Jason Bentley, KCRW's music director, who produced the homegrown compilation California Dreaming in 1993 when electronic dance music was still an alien frontier. "It was part music studio and art space, and they rummaged through some DAT tapes and played a few things, including 'Cantamilla,' which immediately caught my ear."
That song became a staple in West Coast chill-out rooms and violet dawn DJ sets, a deep reflection point for a subculture grappling with the first waves of the digital revolution. Its soft spiritualist vocals and lullaby melodies, under a tide of slow, effusive breakbeats, still call back to a more optimistic time.
"I remember Jason wanted to put 'They Came In Peace' on California Dreaming," Kandel told me last year. "He called up and I said, 'Ah, we got something better for you.' I played 'Cantamilla' for him and he was kind of floored. It opened up that compilation."
Just months before, New York's Astralwerks label had also come looking for magic. 1993’s Excursions in Ambience album, the first in a series of four, was recently highlighted by Michaelangelo Matos as a landmark in his history of U.S. EDM, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America.
Brian Long, who compiled the first Excursions, had also called up Exist Dance, Kandel told me: “I want to use ‘They Came In Peace,’ he said. ‘Well, we have something better for ya.’" That something was a new song called "Mya Yadana." "He opened up the record with it.”
"Open your minds, your hearts, your very souls, good people, to what you are going to see and hear," a hypnotic voice intones on the track. It echoed and boomed with a meditative hip-hop beat, arching up through jungle branches and forgotten temples. Chasteen’s record scratching chopped the air, popping bubbles skyward. It was trip-hop that surpassed genre tics, true to the word "trip." Alongside classics by Future Sound of London and Higher Intelligence Agency, "Mya Yadana" was the best and most creative in the whole Excursions series.
Michael Adam Kandel was born in Chicago, growing up in what he described as its idyllic suburbs. He was adopted into a loving family. When he was 12, he started taking the train into Chicago. At 16 he went to Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, the birthplace of house music. “I was completely dismayed at what people were doing,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that I got into electronic dance music, that I got it.”
At 18, he headed west to attend Cal Arts, where he met another L.A. transplant, Tom Chasteen, who came from upstate New York. “My best friend in college and still to this day is Tom Chasteen,” he told me. “We were both just avid record collectors. We were buying everything. Our musical tastes are still very eclectic.”
Building a massive sample library, the two started Exist Dance after hearing acid house in the late ‘80s. “It was the extreme psychedelic nature of it,” he said. He remembered thinking, “Yeah, I could bite on that.” Setting up Heaven in downtown Los Angeles, they lived and worked in the bowels of the city in a Skid Row loft.
“In ’91, I went to their studio and there was fucking gear and shit everywhere,” remembers DJ Dan. “It was a hot mess. Downtown was super bombed out, super ghetto. You had to go through these gates, these fences to get through, and then take one of those lift elevators to their apartment ... And I remember thinking to myself, these guys are real musicians. They’re hardcore.”
Other DJs took notice of Exist Dance across the country and overseas. Brooklyn DJ Frankie Bones called out the sweet whispering trance of "I’m So High," a track Kandel and Chasteen released under the name Eden Transmission, as a particular favorite with his Storm Rave collective. In 1992, Storm’s Heather Heart and Dan Morgan interviewed Exist Dance for her influential Under One Sky zine, noting their exotic sound. Techno gave them “a stream of music that just keeps going on with an infinite, expansive future,” they said.
Part of that expanse was their interest in Asia, west of West. Like homesteaders on the edge of tomorrow, they were channeling a new future that was uniquely Pacific. Using samples of birds chirping that Kandel had recorded during a six-month trip through Indonesia, Thailand and Burma when he was 20 — a trip Chasteen joined him for halfway — the pair opened up a new chapter in electronic music with their 1991 landmark, "They Came In Peace."
Released the same year as Massive Attack’s trip-hop masterpiece Blue Lines, it was an entirely different point of view. It was profound music far from pop concerns. James Lavelle chose it for his famous Headz compilation on Mo’ Wax and Moonshine used it on their first The Trip Hop Test, both in 1994.
DJ Garth of San Francisco’s storied Wicked crew remembers opening up every one of his outdoor full moon party sets throughout 1991 with "They Came In Peace." “In 1991, there was only one West Coast label releasing the kind of music that fueled those all-night renegade parties,” he says. “Their deep, psychedelic techno breakbeats were a perfect compliment to what we were doing at the time ... truly a visionary label.”
Only Kandel and Chasteen's second record out the gate, "They Came in Peace" was a kind of manifesto, with a winding upright bass that looped round and round with a positive delirium. A melancholy yet happy synth floated like morning mist, as Chasteen’s man-on-the-moon sample “They came in peace for all mankind” repeated a feel-good frequency back to Planet Rave.
But at the time of its release, it was barely a blip. “We sold like 10 copies,” Kandel told me, still exasperated more than 20 years later. “It was fucking depressing. We’d bring them into record stores. The guys who tried selling them would put it at 45 rpm. They had no idea what it was. The first pressings were 500 and they were blue vinyl. We were using them to decorate our loft. We were using them as blue gels over lights.”
Yet somehow, crate by crate, the right DJs found it and played it from their hearts: S.F.’s Wicked and Hardkiss crews, L.A.’s Michael Cook and Moontribe, England’s Lavelle and France’s Kid Loco.
Kandel and Chasteen "were way ahead of their time,” says Bentley. “As far as independent dance labels and a uniquely psychedelic dance sound, it was one of the earliest links from a '60s/'70s rock aesthetic to the burgeoning dance music scene in the early '90s. They had no rule book or template. The different things they were releasing ranged in style and tempo. I think the intent just had to be sacred and transformative.”
After a few years, Chasteen needed a hiatus, so Kandel continued alone as Tranquility Bass, leaving L.A. behind. “I realized [after] I’m living in L.A. without a car for a couple months, ‘Man, I could be on the moon with a fax machine doing the same thing.’”
He chose a remote house on Lopez Island in the Pacific Northwest to record 1997’s critically acclaimed Let the Freak Flag Fly. It was a synthesis of his magpie mind, expressing a distinctly American sound that included folk, acid rock, soul, hip-hop, ambient and house.
The 'God Particle,' Wesley Owen (left) and Michael Kandel (right)
Courtesy of Exist Dance
But by the late ‘90s, several labels interested in releasing his next album, Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs, suddenly folded. The Internet’s flood of free and pirated music also hit him hard. After a multiyear pause, he relaunched Exist Dance and Tranquility Bass on Bandcamp, giving fans new gems like the gentle ambient blues on "A Hundred Billion Stars" and the looping, hypnotic drones of "The God Particle," his collaboration with Wesley Owen. He was regaining momentum.
In April, he set out on a road trip to see friends and revisit the Old West — he had returned to Chicago years before. Back in L.A., he got to check out one of Chasteen’s long-running Dub Club nights at the Echo. The next day, I met Mike for the first time in person at Tom's house.
He told me he was ready to move back to the West Coast, but first he was going to go on another long excursion in Asia. After I conducted an interview with him and Tom, I reached out to shake his hand. Instead, he pulled me into a big hug. I think that was the core of him. I wish I hugged him longer. I never thought it would be the first and last time I would see him.
From Exist Dance to his mercurial albums — all of them soulful and timeless — the common ground in all of Mike's music is his heart. As with many of the great electronic musicians of his generation, we never gave him back enough. We are the poorer for it. The rest is tranquil. His gifts are eternal.
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