M. Geddes Gengras doesn’t normally make dance music. A staple of L.A.’s experimental music scene, you’re more likely to find him making tweaks to intricate modular synths.
But Gengras' latest album, New Lines, aims right for the dance floor. Released under his Personable alter ego, its four tracks and 34 minutes make for a celestial wormhole of avant-techno and house. Arpeggiating synths ripple like sonic liquid, guided forward by Teutonic four-to-the-floor beats. Big riffs and bass drops are non-existent, but the heady moods and subtle shifts — reminiscent of European techno and ambient experimentalists like Basic Channel and Gas — urge the body to move.
“It’s me pushing my concept of dance music through my own personal filter, and then also through the filter of the gear and the techniques that I use with the gear,” Gengras explains, speaking by phone while on vacation in Connecticut. “When I started making that stuff, I was getting really interested in dance music because I was getting interested in dancing, and the power that music can exhibit when you allow it to sort of take over your body.”
Gengras, 33, has always had a bit of a nerdy approach to music. He wears heavy-framed glasses fit for a lab scientist, and he foregoes conventional songwriting methods in favor of a more process-based approach. The hulking analog synthesizers he uses under his own name are patched together with mods and cables, requiring immense patience and attention to detail as he creates vast electronic soundscapes rich with ever-changing tone and texture, which invite quiet repose and introspection from the listener.
But in recent years, Gengras has learned to dance. He runs a dancehall label called Duppy Gun with fellow musician Sun Araw, and his education in physicality started in 2011 when they flew to Jamaica to make an album with legendary roots-reggae band The Congos. The experience was powerful, and it prompted several more trips to the island, where Gengras has met with Rastafarians and attended sound system parties where little kids and elderly people alike dance and sing along to every song.
“I feel like as Westerners, as Americans or whatever, we’re always in this zone — dance clubs, night clubs, it becomes this sort of de facto meat market thing,” Gengras says. “That is definitely going on there too in Jamaica. That’s a huge part of it, for sure. But also, you just see people dancing on their own, and just really engaged in the music, in this beautiful kind of perfect bubble in their space. … You’re dancing to give praise, not just to God but to the people who made the music, to the land you live on. It’s a different thing.”
Of course, electronic music has long been connected to both mind with body. This dates back to the mid-20th century, when avant-garde composers experimented with tape loops and turntables, and in more recent years rave DJs and pop producers have used machines to feed more base human urges. As the years have gone by, the barriers between these two realms have increasingly melted away.
“It’s kind of amazing what you can get away with," Gengras says. "If you put a real heavy beat under something and sort of let that ride, you can put some weird shit on top and people will respond to it if it moves air in the right way.” He made the four tracks on the 34-minute New Lines — which came out on L.A. label Peak Oil in early October — after going on tour with Laurel Halo, Ital and Magic Touch in 2012, and marveling at the way they used the format of club music to push boundaries.
To do this himself on New Lines, Gengras used the Elektron Machinedrum, a sophisticated piece of hardware that has the “tweak-y” capabilities he's so fond of, but which keeps everything aligned to a bracing, up-tempo BPM.
Of course, he's relatively new to dance music. He’s only played a handful of shows under the Personable alias, and his live sets don’t always pop off on dance floors. But he's still gotten a lot out of channeling his physical side.
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"I have a practice now where, if I feel like shit in the morning, I just try and dance until I feel better," he says. "Maybe it’s techno, or maybe it’s the Grateful Dead, or maybe it’s dub music or whatever, but I try to move my body. As soon as you start moving, man, things start moving. You move your body, then you’re going to move things around in your brain, and maybe you’ll find a whole different aspect on your point of view.”
Personable will perform with M.E.S.H., Bill Kouligas, J.S. Aurelius, and Encapsulate on Nov. 28 at a venue TBA. For more info and updates, visit www.facebook.com/mggengras.