Electro Company

Local DJs put their own spin on electronic music

Raise your hand if you'd rather spend an evening rubbing kosher salt into your eyes than listening to a dance-club DJ stringing innumerable sides of vinyl along the same throbbing, redundant house beat.Yeah, me too.

And for a lot of people, that's exactly the kind of aural image the term "electronic music" conjures. An anonymous, monotonous groove racket conceived for folks who need ceaseless accompaniment to their drug-cranked heartbeats and care little for anything beyond the beat — unless, of course, it's a voice singing the words and melody to a song that was originally twice as good at half the speed. Even here in the post-Dust Brothers, post-Fatboy Slim, post-Moby-getting-his-shit-into-every- commercial-ever landscape, electronic music in general, and DJs in particular, are still widely associated with the word "techno."

"Techno is an early '90s classification," says Tampa DJ William Jensen, who creates atmospheric drum 'n' bass as Anomalous. "It's a sub-genre unto itself, and well respected around the world, but it hardly stands to classify the entire genre [of electronic music] anymore."

In the wake of its mid-1990s dalliance with the mainstream, electronic music has remained a musical Pandora's Box, chaotically spewing out new categories every nine seconds or so to fuck with fans and intimidate the ignorant. Down-tempo. Chillout. Micro-house. Two-step. What had its origins on the dancefloor has expanded to fill every listening niche, from headphone trips to all-ages punk clubs, as both veteran artists and newly intrigued initiates continue to experiment with new sounds, speeds and combinations.

"I sort of consider it the last frontier as far as the music scene is concerned. Rock 'n' roll is kind of played out, and now it's just sort of reinventing itself, rehashing past accomplishments," Jensen reasons. "Electronica is the last place that everything has to go, unless a new group of instruments comes along."

As exciting and creatively rewarding as the mapping of new vistas may be, however, electronic music has always had a hard time qualifying itself in the realm of live performance. Outside of star-DJ club appearances, electro-driven concerts are generally characterized by massive lighting productions and assorted theatrics to assist (read: compensate for) both the music's static nature and a lack of musicians tumbling around the stage.

"I think that's probably the only way to really get a 'rock' aesthetic going on, to bring something besides the music," says Seth King, a.k.a. Denizen. "Because two guys twiddling knobs is not something that you want to look at."

"There is, I guess, some showmanship that goes on from time to time, but it does have more to do with the production values," Jensen assents. "You listen to the music, and the subtle changes to the track that they're producing live on the stage. But it's not going to be the same as the bass player showing up drunk, and fucking up the whole track."

If rock is indeed trapped in an ongoing cycle of nominal reinvention, so too is electronic music in danger of confining itself — to the status of a once-removed experience. For serious live music fans, what's missing from an electronica show isn't visual so much as visceral, a sense of inclusion in the creative/ cathartic act. While Jensen finds electronic music's precision "intoxicating," audiences accustomed to being involved when a performer re-imagines his or her work there, in the moment, often find it cold.

"That's the difficulty of electronic music. I find it all the time," says Henry Hsiao of the electro-experimental Trace Element. "I'm a drummer originally, and I love programming, but when it comes to a live show, I'm not that inspired by somebody sitting behind a laptop, even though I do the same thing myself."

Enter the concept of "live PA" electronic-music performances, where DJs, laptop producers and studio manipulators bring their creative processes, rather than just the results of them, into the set. The Endeavors showcase series, organized by King and Jensen's emerging label/production co-op Soul Motive, spotlights electronic musicians exploring their art live in a concert setting. Pre-produced beats and sequences are augmented, amalgamated and otherwise screwed with in real time. Some performers incorporate live musicians, some employ a host of synths, MiniDiscs and tech toys of various vintages, and some do both, to produce one-of-a-kind live-gig experiences far more spontaneous and organic than your average club night.

"[Live PA] is a live show in its fundamental sense," Hsiao says. "If you break it down, it's just like a band."

Hsiao knows both sides of the fence well. Head honcho at Tampa's Pure Tone Studios, he played in bands before getting into electronic music and DJing, and is also a member of the jazz/world beat/electroclash outfit M.O.D. Trace Element sets often include eclectic percussion and such esoteric instrumentation as the theremin; the upcoming Endeavors 4 set, in addition, will feature female vocalist Eluv performing material from another Hsiao project, Radiant Soul.

This Sunday's installment will also feature the harsh, industrial hypno-hop of Medicated and house- and dub-infected funk of Function (featuring globetrotting turntablist Thee Joker) turning in live PA sets in one room. A score of creative DJs will dispel booty-club cliches in another. Endeavors has mounted its production in a different Tampa venue each time out, in an effort to build an audience from all of the Bay's various music scenes. The Red Star/Flirt building's two-story layout (located at 1909 15th St., Ybor City) offers "round four," an interesting opportunity to remind the DJ-following crowd that it's still as much about ambiance as it is live performance.

"If anybody wants something that's not quite so hard and dark as, say, Medicated playing downstairs, they can walk right upstairs and see another act, with a completely different vibe," Jensen confirms. "There will be those people standing next to the stage geeking out on whoever's performing, but there will be other people just hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere."

All of these guys — Jensen, King and Hsiao — do DJ gigs where they basically mix records together. It's fun, it has its own community, and it probably makes them some money too. But all three of them agree that making their own music and performing it live are more challenging and satisfying art forms. And to a man, they see the elements behind ideas like live PA — and the collaborative, organic productions that accompany it — as one of the keys to electronic music's future.

"There are always going to be DJs, people that just come in and play other people's records," says Jensen. "And then there's going to be the electronic musicians, people coming in with drum machines, synthesizers and a laptop all strung together, creating their own craftwork, so to speak. Stuff that's live, spontaneous, stuff they were just working on hours before. That's where it's all headed, if you ask me."

Echoes Hsiao: "I think that's the next wave. People are ready for the next thing, but they're not ready to go back to just plain bands. It's the combination of the two, I guess."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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