If You Like Your Dance Music Weird, Get to Know Baseck and His Modular Synths

Derrick "Baseck" EstradaEXPAND
Derrick "Baseck" Estrada
Alex the Brown

Derrick Estrada’s downtown loft is like the Starship Enterprise for synth nerds.

In the living room, shelves and desktops are lined with his collection of modular synthesizers and rare drum machines. The adjoining room is filled with yet more gear from his friend and frequent collaborator Cyrusrex — including a computer and mixing board, two versions of the classic Roland TB-303 bass sequencer, and original Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines.

And then there’s the pièce de résistance: A synth the size of a two-door sedan, festooned with a giant curved panel of oscillators, envelope generators and filters, all linked together by a colorful matrix of patch cables.

“I believe that you don’t need to use a bunch of gear to make stuff,” says Estrada, better known as DJ/producer Baseck. “But damn, it sure does get the process going.”

There was a time when Baseck took a low-tech approach. But in recent years he’s evolved radically as an artist. Venturing off into sonic galaxies unknown, he’s come back with a sound that’s equal parts organic and cybertronic, defying dance floor–friendly conventions while conjuring experimental sounds that make your body move.

Baseck's new sound will be on full display Saturday, Aug. 13, with a show at downtown DIY space the Handbag Factory. The show not only commemorates Baseck's 35th birthday but also marks the return of Celebrate Everything, a crew that's been putting on dance parties since late 2013.

Baseck originally started Celebrate Everything along with electronic artist Joy Through Noise as a kind of more upbeat foil to Darkmatter Soundsystem, the breakcore- and gabber-oriented collective that Baseck co-founded with a group of friends in 2001. Celebrate Everything has been on hiatus for more than a year, but Baseck's revived it following his recent return from a 10-month sojourn to Portland.

The tagline of the show emphasizes an open-minded perspective: “Experience the Sound of the Future, Today!” As Baseck puts it, the events are all about being stoked on, well, everything: "You're here to celebrate life, not to run away from your shit." 

Reared on the broken beats and punk-rock ethos of labels like Praxis Records and Digital Hardcore Recordings, Baseck's instruments of choice throughout the 2000s were two Game Boys outfitted with the Little Sound DJ cartridge. The program turned his handheld Nintendo devices into music-making machines, producing gnarly tracks at a glitchy, low bitrate. 

“I used to pride myself off of making music without any money,” Baseck recalls. He’s kicking back in the patio of his loft on a sunny day in July, looking relaxed in his black sneakers, maroon pants and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He’s got an easy smile and his long black hair is tied in a ponytail.

“I thought I was super punk back then, because I would tour Europe, pull the Game Boys out of my pockets or a fanny pack, have them hooked up to a mixer and have these really crazy breakcore tracks coming out.”

Baseck once was wary of putting his hands on legendary hardware like the TR-909 — prominent on so many of his favorite gabber records of the ’90s. But then he realized that it was actually pretty simple to use. Cyrusrex for years tried to get him to jam with his vintage gear, and eventually Baseck got sucked in. He'd saved up $2,000 to buy a car, but he bought a Tempest drum machine instead. He started making his own drum sounds, and before long was navigating the circuitry of modular synthesizers.

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With modular synths, rather than simply twist some knobs on a factory-made keyboard or sequencer, you essentially build your own machine by patching together various components that create and control electronic signals in different ways. It costs a lot of money to build up a collection of modules, and figuring out how to make them work together is a painstaking process of trial-and-error. 

“It kind of rewires your brain in a weird way, because there’s these simple things that you wanna do, but it’s a little complex to get there,” Baseck says. “But once you start learning it, you have these ‘a-ha’ moments where you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re just like, ‘Oh, damn. I know exactly how to make that bass line.’”

Now, Baseck uses a combination of analog and digital gear to push his sound into new directions. He still draws from the breakcore aesthetic but with a more sophisticated approach. His recordings and live performances are off-kilter and unpredictable, sometimes full of ravey riffs, other times almost resembling experimental noise, everything shape-shifting into amazingly visceral rhythms that resemble alien particle beams or giant cyborg tentacles.

“I got really into making my own percussion from raw oscillators. Shaping the sounds, creating my own kick drums, my own snare drums. And I’m really into, like, laser percussion,” he says, making laser blast sounds with his voice.

“I like making sounds that every time the pattern hits on one of those laser snare sounds, it’s going to morph a little bit. It could have a little bit longer decay to it, and it could pan a little bit from left to right to the speaker, and it could maybe also go up and down in pitch,” he adds. “That’s why you feel like it’s moving. It’s kind of this thing that’s breathing, and it has kind of a mind of its own.”

During his time in Portland, Oregon, Baseck found plenty of fellow synth lovers; the city is home to the modular synth company Malekko Heavy Industry, which hooked him up with his first modulars and case. But now that he's back in L.A., he's kept busy, playing a string of live shows while working on projects with Cyrusrex and their group Black Line, a collaboration with Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris from the British industrial band Nitzer Ebb.

With the power of electronic synthesis in his hands, there’s no saying where he’ll go next.

“When I get these machines, it’s kind of like a dirt bike, you know what I mean?” he says. “You don’t wanna drive that on a 20 mph road and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a nice dirt bike.’ You want to fly off of jumps and cliffs and just completely shred it, and see what it can do.” 

Baseck performs at Celebrate Everything with Sleep Clinic, Vytear, Droste, Double Diamond Sun Body and Izapa at the Handbag Factory on Saturday, Aug. 13. More info.

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