By David Rolland
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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.
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.'"
Another American electronic artist known for his on-stage energy is Brian Transeau, who records under the name BT, and joins The Crystal Method on its tour of the U.S. this year. Though Transeau's records (ima, released in 1996, and ESCM, released late last year) find the middle ground between ambient sounds and dance-floor beats, the 26-year-old Maryland native says his live shows have all the energy of a punk concert.
"I come from a band background, I was playing in hardcore bands through high school," says Transeau from his home in Maryland. "So I'm breaking synthesizers on my head and shit, I go completely ballistic. When you engage a crowd, when you're playing live, you have a sonic authority. You can create any sound you want and manipulate it in five million ways. The world is your oyster. If you can play great music live and engage the crowd, that's really something special. People want to be guided, they don't really understand this music yet -- so I'm there coaxing them through this experience."
Transeau's background also includes classical piano training starting at the age of four and a two-year stint at the Berklee College of Music, which introduced him to the world of jazz. Yet he found himself continually drawn to electronic music, experimenting with old eight-track tape decks in the days before he could afford a synthesizer.
"It's all to do with being alive right now, in this time, near the turn of the century," Transeau maintains. "Humans are having to get used to coexisting with electronics. It's cool to make electronic music that feels organic and human, and a lot of thought and a lot of planning goes into that for me." He adds, "Ninety-nine percent of what I do on ESCM is live strings, live drums, live guitars, things I do in my living room -- and then put them into the computer and mangle them beyond recognition."
Like The Crystal Method, Transeau seems to be bringing electronica back to its musical roots. Rather than describe the specs of his Yamaha Pro-Mix 02, Transeau talks about the rather old-fashioned notion of actual songs.
"I grew up listening to songs," he says. "Even with instrumental stuff, it should be a song. You should be able to sit down with a guitar or a piano and play it or sing it. That makes a good composition to me."
Kirkland seems to agree. "When we were growing up, you'd get a great record that you could listen to from beginning to end," says Kirkland, "and the whole thing would flow and make sense, and it was just such a joy to listen to. Now, there's a lot of records that have great songs on them, but they're not really classics. Not that our album is a classic, but for Ken and myself, we were happy with the way the whole thing flowed."
Perhaps Americans will be the ones to release the album that does for electronica what Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band did for rock, or what It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back did for rap. If so, they've got some catching up to do. More and more British electronica groups -- such as Natural Born Chillers and Propellerheads -- are turning back to the tried-and-true rock-song format.
"America does not embrace what it creates, initially. Just like jazz, they exported it to Europe," says Transeau. "If you think about the fact that this stuff was going on in America for twelve years or so, it makes sense. It gets exported and returned, and redefined and then reembraced. That's what America does."
If The Crystal Method's attempt to bring rock-concert theatrics to electronica proves successful, be prepared to see even more synthesizer-toting acts touring the States. The rock 'n' roll machine is well oiled and ready to go.
The Crystal Method performs with Brian Transeau and third act Taylor at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 17 at the Theater, 3339 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $16.50. Call 954-565-5522.