Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Northridge-born and still a Valley dude, electronic manipulator Todd Drootin drinks a lot of coffee, smiles easily, and swivels his attention between L.A.'s charms and its cons, disparaging our pitiful radio selection, praising Claremont's KSPC, then musing about the dearth of decent live venues. "I had a gig at the Bar Marmont, and they stopped me after three songs and were, like, 'Uh, that's good enough, thanks.'"
Drootin's musical incarnation, Books on Tape, can be heard more regularly ricocheting inside the Smell's slimy walls downtown. BoT might look like a one-guy outfit onstage; really it's a duo: a give-and-take between Drootin and his sampler. But where other electronic artists revel in that self-reflexive world of glitches, blips and buzzes, Books on Tape wants you to think it's a band. Some call its sound "beat punk" a tightly wound ruckus that's composed completely on a wired box.
"If people want to call it beat punk, that's fine; to me it's just music I made on a sampler," says Drootin. "As long as things remain interesting, I have no need to be consistent."
Audiences seem to have a fairly immediate grasp of the 25-year-old Drootin's noise now, in contrast to his wobbly first show alone at a straight-edge punk festival in Florida three years ago. "I was really thrown in the fire. Those guys didn't know what to think of me, but in the end I got a pretty good reaction."
Now comes a souped-up, full-length CD excursion, Throw Down Your Laptops (Deathbomb Arc), recorded and produced by Drootin and Brian Miller via samples of generated and found sounds. One or two seconds of zooming guitar, run backward through the sampler, might serve as the beat of a song, while another two or three layers of amp hiss chop out a melody you'll hum for days. Simultaneously electronic dance and sloppy punk, BoT submits warm & fuzzy bits of sound to mechanical bondage for its DIY-meets-DOS feel.
Drootin's last band during his college days in Santa Cruz played too loud for their practice space, and Drootin and his collaborator eventually pooled their cash for a sampler to generate beats. "He wanted to have his hands in everything, and so did I, so we stopped working with each other. That's when I started going it alone."
Santa Cruz was also where Books on Tape's amalgamative style originated. "I used to live up in the mountains. There was this one spot where all the radio stations would just bleed onto each other, and that was the best part of my ride home. I was such a spaz in my car for two minutes, just hearing all the combinations, like Spanish and jazz and this and that. I'd never heard indie and electronic, and I said, 'There it is.' It was the crossings of all these kinds of music that got me the idea of that sort of peanut-butter-and-chocolate mix. I thought, 'Hey, what's my Reese's melody?'"
The tastes in Drootin's larder are not that simple a mash; they're blended with great discrimination, as becomes apparent on a stroll through Amoeba Music. "I like Jim O'Rourke, but he's not the savior of the world," he says. Others who arouse polite uncertainty are Hot Hot Heat ("It's all the same"), Missy Elliot ("I wanted to like it so bad"), Beck, Fischerspooner, and Dntel ("But there are good ideas on that album"). The positives are more varied: Watts Prophets, Daedelus, Foghat, Negativland, Scarnella, Derek Bailey and Jay Z.
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"Jay Z is a guy who knows the image he wants to put out, and there's something very valid about that, even if it's not always listenable. I appreciate that in bands, like with Sun Ra he stuck with his story. I have Jay Z and Sun Ra fairly close together on my record shelf."
Drootin says he was thinking about that kind of unified approach more with Throw Down Your Laptops than he did with his previous releases. "Now I have to do my Todd's United Front which seems riddled with holes to me, but maybe someone else doesn't know that." The title is a direct reference to the cut-and-paste genre of IDM dudes like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, though it's not exactly a gauntlet thrown in challenge. Drootin says he's not trying to start a cultural revolution: "I love MC5 and Kick Out the Jams antagonistic, but playfully so."
He hesitates and sips his coffee. "I don't want to end up in the 'unusually experimental' section at Amoeba with $160 box sets." Then he smiles. "Well, maybe someday."
Books on Tape performs at Flor y Canto, 3706 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park, (323) 276-8350, on Friday, March 14, and at the Parlour Club, 7702 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-7968, on Tuesday, March 18.