Up a winding road an hour outside of Los Angeles, artist-musician Mark Lane lives and works in near solitude, creating prolifically against the foggy backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Inside the studio is a gallery’s worth of art in various stages of completion. There are the collages made of carefully crumpled photographs of Renaissance works that serve as Lane’s sketches, large canvases upon which he employs the same techniques as the Masters for his abstract paintings, and a smattering of other work. Visual art is Lane’s primary medium now, the means by which he pays the bills, but in the midst of this scene is the link between Mark Lane, postmodern artist and Mark Lane, pioneer of the minimal synth sound — a hodgepodge of analog synthesizers that he reconfigured to perform at El Cid last Saturday, December 6, his first L.A. show in almost a quarter of a century.
For Lane, who grew up in Ventura County and played his earliest gigs across the punk landscape of early-’80s Los Angeles (before venturing to Europe in the middle of the decade), this gig, promoted by underground electronic party M/R/X-Wolfpak, is a bittersweet homecoming.
“I had played in front of some pretty good-sized audiences over [in Europe], in some pretty nice clubs, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to go backward for America,’” Lane explains. “I thought that I would rather just end it and have my memories of Europe than break my heart here.”
He was encouraged to return to the stage by Dirk Ivens, founder of the Belgian industrial group Absolute Body Control. For six months, Lane left his friend’s suggestion in the back of his mind. He didn’t play live anymore, he says, and, besides, his painting required most of his time. But last spring, he went to M/R/X-Wolfpak to see Absolute Body Control perform. Inside a Chinatown venue, Lane was greeted by a new generation of minimal-synth fans, people who had discovered his work through genre Web sites, who had picked up The Anti-Tech Testament (a 24-piece, two-CD collection of songs produced between 1981 and 1985, which he had released in 2006) and were hooked. A concert now seemed like a viable option.
“I felt more welcome there than I ever did in the ’80s in L.A.,” he confesses, adding, in reference to his formative years, “I really felt like an outsider. I really was, kind of.”
As the 1970s waned and the ’80s took shape, Lane, who had recently graduated high school, discovered synthesizers. Punk was thriving and still at a point when it was a catch-all term for everything out of the ordinary. It was an era of technological advances that allowed musicians to record efficiently at home, taking the demo tapes they had made to exchange with friends and fans by mail.
“Once we had the Portastudio, people started making progress faster, developing their ideas quicker, getting their ideas together,” he says. “It created what the commercial world knows as the new wave.”
Lane had taken to recording with great abandon, and quickly amassed a vast body of work, much of which would not reach listeners until years later. The vibe was stark but melodic, sounding more like it came from a fading British industrial town than coastal California. He released two flexi-discs, two 7-inch singles and one EP during this period. He occasionally played live, joined by a few friends for backup inside Anti-Club and other local L.A. venues, long since gone.
“The people who liked it really loved it,” he says. “The people who hated it hated it.”
In L.A., purely electronic music was polarizing, but in Europe, where Lane had been making contacts through his work with On-Slaught magazine, it was the norm. He saved his money and at the end of 1984 headed overseas. Almost immediately, the musician hooked up with members of the Klinik, which included Ivens, who acted as his backing band for a time and recorded several tracks with him. Lane collaborated with the leaders of electronic music, including Conrad Schnitzler of Tangerine Dream and Martin Bowes of Attrition, and opened in large theaters for experimental bands like the Legendary Pink Dots and Tuxedomoon. He consistently sold out pressings for his independently released albums. Ultimately, he found the acceptance that eluded him back home. But there was more Lane wanted to do.
“I was right in the groove with my electronic music. It seemed like everything I make sells out and I’m happy with it,” he says. “My painting, on the other hand, had hit a place where I knew that if I was going to move up to the next level, I had to learn something.”
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Lane returned to the States and spent the ensuing years studying art, eventually graduating from Cal State Long Beach, while quietly releasing albums of both new material and older, unreleased work. But then something happened. New bands began adapting the sound of ’80s post-punk and synth-pop for a new century, causing their fans to dig deeper into the history of the sounds. The music that seemed too dark, too minimal nearly 30 years ago was now hip. The young artist who lived on the outside of his native music scene had become a hometown hero of L.A.’s electronic underground.
December 6 came and the crowd filtered into El Cid, filling the club by the time of Lane’s postmidnight set. Backed by his trio of synthesizers, he played for close to an hour. Lane leaned over the edge of the stage as he sang, his voice still strong despite so much time away from live venues. His clean, minimal pop brought out the dancers and screamers in the scene. Toward the end of the show, he pulled out his camera to shoot the audience, his face radiant. And as he finished the night, he waved a sweat-drenched arm, grinned and said, “The pleasure has been all mine.”
Every once in a while, Lane runs into someone from his past, who wonders if he finally quit messing around with his synthesizers.
“I never quit,” Lane answers. “I’m an artist. How do you quit? It’s like cutting off your arm.”