The Great American Electronic Music Hall

Some reflections on electronic music

This conversation took place, obviously, over a year ago. It didn’t run earlier simply because, in their own words, “69X and Lo Tec are lazy bastards and missed a few deadlines.”

•Wire with Matmos, May 2, 2000, GAMH, SF
•Funkstörung, October 12, 2000, Justice League, SF
•Pole, October 14, 2000, CCAC, SF
•Chicks on Speed with Kid 606 and Iqu, April 19, 2001, GAMH
•Squarepusher with Plaid, April 26, 2001, GAMH
•Autechre, May 18, 2001, Club Indigo, Oakland

DJ Lo Tec: I am impressed that a show with Squarepusher headlining and Plaid opening at the Great American Music Hall (GAMH) can sell out. I’ve never seen something like this happening. Electronic music hasn’t been big here the way it’s been in Europe, or even New York. Five years ago, you could have Aphex Twin play at a small club and not fill it up. It must have something to do with the influx of people working in the industry over the last several years... people who live with and for computers, and who want their music to come from computers, too.

DJ Theo 69X: Yes, and it’s not only that people come here to listen to the music, they also watch the technicians. Like aspiring DJs watching a star, or aspiring musicians watching how the guitarist plays her chords, they watch the laptop screens from the balcony. But it might also have something to do with the association between computers and money. The smell of money draws the crowd.

DLT: I never would have thought that something positive could come out of the digital transformation of San Francisco. And it is interesting that similar digital musical enterprises, especially local digital acts, don’t have the same draw if they are more in line with the “old” San Francisco. I’m thinking of Chicks on Speed, which played the GAMH a week ago, or even Frisco’s very own Matmos. Chicks on Speed are a tongue-in-cheek reenactment of early ‘80s art punk, but all electronic, complete with a live act to go with it. These three “girls,” one from Sydney, one from New York, and one from Munich (“the center of the universe”), made NME’s single of the week with their cover of The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” but the crowd in SF remains sparse. Most of the audience seemed to come for Iqu and Kid 606.

69X: What will be interesting is to see what happens as the shakedown returns San Francisco to itself. This spring I can feel it—as if all the freaks are coming back out of their holes—of our holes. My friend Erik says it’s as if it’s okay to be poor again. Okay to subsist on burritos, and not to have the latest cell phone or shoulder bag. But a change has come: we do all have cell phones now. It’s important to remember that dot.commers mostly weren’t from out of town. They were our friends, transformed by greed into unrecognizable creatures. And now we all understand something that only the ravers among us understood five years ago: that electronic music is good for you, good for us, good for community. Laptop rock actually fits really well with poverty, whether voluntary or imposed. It’s inherently decentralized, etc. So what do we do, now that the money’s gone, with these strange gadgets the dot.commers have left behind them?

DLT: It is nevertheless inspiring that a group like Matmos can start out in an anti-electronic-music climate as seems to me to have pervaded SF in 1995, and now go on a world tour with Bjork. When they played here last, the show was sold out—but only because they were opening for Wire. Back then, Green Day was still the stuff played on the radio. On the other hand, given that punk was such an important part of SF’s self-image, it is surprising that Chicks on Speed aren’t more popular, in particular since they are distributed by the West Coast’s favorite label K Records.

69X: I’ll bet you anything that Chicks on Speed are a bigger draw in Olympia or Portland though. I’ll bet you anything that electronica is still uncool up there. Standing here I’m reminded of the sentiment voiced in the pages of this very magazine, that “all bands suck live.” What are people looking for in an evening like this, I wonder? I mean, if rock bands are disappointing to people, how much more disappointing must laptop rockers be? For me it doesn’t really matter; I’m easily entertained I guess. Going out to hear music is mainly just an opportunity for engaged listening, something day-to-day life has too little time for.

DLT: Yes, for most bands the show is nothing. For Chicks on Speed, the show, in the best art-school tradition, is an integral part. Day-glo costumes, a 10-foot-blow-up female torso as stage decoration, audience interaction: this turns the show into a performance, and makes it worthwhile above the engaged listening experience you mention.

69X: Volume is key. I remember many an electronica event where I’ve been blissfully happy just to be listening to these sounds and rhythms on a pumping system. Listening seriously like this to Plaid, I have to say I think they’re musical geniuses.

DLT: They have really good sounds.

69X: Yeah, I’m comparing them in my head to Funkstörung, who have a somewhat similar method, simple, evocative melodies on top of fucked-up incomprehensible rhythm tracks. I loved them live at the Justice League—though we were drinking rather heavily that night. But Funkstörung are famous for their diversity of sounds, dozens in each track. Plaid doesn’t need such big sound libraries, they have fewer sounds, but well-chosen.

DLT: Yes, the complexity of electronic music lies not just in the rhythmic and harmonic elements, but to a very large extent in the sounds. There aren’t that many sounds you can draw forth from a guitar and a drum set, but an unlimited amount from a Mac laptop. Sounds are the notes of the 21st century. We laugh now at Joseph II when he complained about Mozart and said: “Too many notes!” And while I agree with you that Plaid are genius and that less is often more (in regard to sounds), I wonder if holding Funkstörung accountable for the sound complexity of their pieces is like Joseph II’s misunderstanding of Mozart. Is Plaid the Salieri to Funkstörung’s Mozart?

69X: Autechre as Bach? No, they’re more like late Beethoven... they really do represent a totally new way of thinking about music. But while Funkstörung baffle with an incredible diversity of timbres, and Plaid construct elegant Chinese boxes out of perfect sounds meshing perfectly in complex riddle-like melodies, both give you a harmonic top end to bathe in. Autechre doesn’t bother with that. They use a handful of inherently uninteresting sounds, no melody. Autechre are the straight feed, from whatever planet this stuff comes from.

DLT: Do you not understand Squarepusher?

69X: My response would be to criticize it as being too intellectual which is probably the same thing. However, Music Is Rotted One Note is probably the best album title of all time.

DLT: Feed Me Weird Things isn’t bad either.

69X: My problem with Mr. Squarepusher is that he’s a musician inspired by drum & bass. He is to drum & bass what Kid 606 is to gabber. It’s like he heard it, this autochthonic folk form, and was converted, as anyone with any taste is the first time they hear those genres; but then he decided he could make it “better,” make it into high art. The comparison with Bartok is apt, actually; Bartok just stole, with respect, from folk forms, and used what he stole to reinvent the high art project he was involved in. If Bartok were Squarepusher, he would have tried to make “better” folk songs, instead of revolutionary string quartets. Squarepusher’s set at the Great American could have been from ’96, only in ’96 the untutored and anonymous drum & bass producers used more complex and ever-changing rhythms.

DLT: What can he do? He’s white.

69X: But a lot of the pioneers of drum & bass were white. That’s what made it amazing, a genuinely cross-cultural phenomenon.

Unknown Girl: Do you want to smoke? A joint?

69X: Here at this Autechre show, I feel like I’m 15 again, going to see the Dead Kennedys at some rented community center. This is such an amazing environment. Not that the music is inessential, but the whole experience is way more than just the music.

DLT: Here are the three reasons to see live music: engaged listening, people watching, danceability.

69X: Right. At home you can’t really experience the danceability completely. At home what matters is makeoutability.

DLT: That’s why I liked the Squarepusher show better. That was good drum & bass, and good drum & bass is danceable, after a fashion. I no longer feel embarrassed dancing to it. On the other hand, do you remember that Pole show? I mean, a slippery slope of memory foam, one side facing the DJ, the other the big-screen video projection? That was surpremely makeoutable. If I remember correctly, you did somersaults on the memory foam, though.

69X: Just as Autechre represent a completely new way of thinking about music, they require new ways of dancing. One of the most interesting things about live electronica to me is seeing how people deal with the inherent contradiction of a live band doing nothing, and dancing to music with no beat. Where to focus? Here I have definitely seen some of the strangest forms of interpretive movement outside of a Dead show. I joined a posse of sitters for a while. We just sat cross-legged, letting the outrageously loud weird sound wash over us.

—DJ Theo 69X and DJ Lo Tec