Human Engineering

It's got a good beat and you can dance to it, but not everyone is convinced that electronica is worth paying money to hear live. When the British rave band Orbital headlined Lollapalooza in several cities last year, its concerts featured video screens, smoke machines, strobe lights, one giant disco ball, and two guys hidden behind stacks of synthesizers emitting a thunderous 4/4 beat.

The show was a lot like being in a dance club. In fact, it was exactly like being in a dance club.

"That was one of the very first bands that we saw in Los Angeles," says Scott Kirkland, who along with his long-time friend Ken Jordan, comprises electronica's hottest band of the minute, The Crystal Method. "They were on a huge riser, nobody could see who they were or what they were doing. And if you got up on the balcony you could look down and see a bunch of keyboards and mixing boards -- and a couple of cigarettes and two guys twiddling knobs.

"It was great, but it's a live performance, and to me, I'd love to see them play things. That's the connection I made with live concerts growing up: We'd go to see our guitar heroes play their guitars and perform the songs we knew and loved."

In the early '90s, during the dawn of rave music, Orbital was the epitome of cool: anonymous, faceless, more like laid-back DJs than egotistical rock-gods. But that was the U.K., and this is America. Part of the reason the British rave scene escaped America's attention for so many years is that nobody knew who was making the music.

"Sure, there have been lots of albums and twelve-inches that have come out with names attached to them, but there wasn't any personality that people could find out about and follow," says Kirkland from his home in Glendale, California. "In America the whole music industry, the rock 'n' roll machine that's been working pretty successfully for the last twenty years or so, they take a band, put them on the road, build a fan base, take pictures of them, release a record, build up a bigger fan base, and da-da-da.

"But the way everyone approached this music was: It's great to listen to in a club, but what kid from Omaha, Nebraska, is going to go out and buy this stuff? Who's going to care?"

These days, everyone cares about electronica, from the kids in Omaha to the label executives in Manhattan and Los Angeles. Over the past two years, the aforementioned "rock 'n' roll machine" has spent millions of dollars on publicity, advertising, dozens of new record labels, and countless new acts in the hopes of generating the genre's first bona fide chart-topper.

One such hopeful act is The Crystal Method, whose two members grew up in the gritty, glitzy, high-voltage city of Las Vegas. They first met while working DJ shifts at a strip club. The pair spent the late '80s experimenting with synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers before moving to Los Angeles to start their own remixing studio. In 1993 they established the Bomb Shelter, a soundproofed garage in the peaceful bedroom community of Glendale. It was there that Kirkland and Jordan remixed songs for Moby, Black Grape, and Keoki, among others.

Two years later the Chemical Brothers broke out of the electronica underground with their debut album Exit Planet Dust. Two years after that, in 1997, Prodigy's The Fat of the Album became the first electronica album to debut at No. 1.

Out of the subsequent avalanche of electronica acts -- David Holmes, Supersonic, Fatboy Slim, Roni Size, et al. -- the most commercially successful act has been The Crystal Method. Their debut album Vegas hearkens back to the house music of the mid-'80s, though updated with complex beats and hyperkinetic synthesizers. Vegas hasn't exactly conquered the charts, but the high-energy dance tracks "Busy Child" and "Keep Hope Alive" have received substantial airplay and become club favorites.

"Relatively speaking, we've come up through the ranks pretty quickly," Kirkland, now age 27, acknowledges. "I know my mom's seen me in the media a lot more! And that's pretty much happened over the last year. We've been doing this since 1994 or whatever, and although that's not that long ago, it's not like an overnight success. Things were growing slowly and steadily for us for a few years -- and then we were like this weed that suddenly took over your back yard."

An indigenous weed, at that. While British kids were grooving on Ecstasy at raves in the English countryside, Kirkland and Jordan were chugging beers and dodging fists in the wild 'n' woolly bars of Las Vegas. Upon moving to Los Angeles, they discovered the floating clubs that move from warehouse to warehouse, which brought the hippie-ish rave scene into the urban environment of L.A.

"We're about as American as you can get," Kirkland allows with a laugh. "We relate with more of the American beer-drinkers than with the crazy, whacked-out, European pill-takers."

Along with that comes the American rock-concert tradition. Kirkland, a heavy metal fan in junior high, treats his keyboard more like a guitar, swinging it around and even sending it to the floor. "We try to set up our gear right at the edge of the stage," Kirkland adds, "so people can come right up to us and feel like they're part of the show. And Ken and I always jump up and down and drink lots of beer. It's a give-and-take that everybody in the audience wants to have with the band. You know that they're not performing exclusive for you, but you feel, 'Hey, they're in my hometown, and it's exciting, and it's really worth my fifteen or twenty bucks.'"

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