Ableton-Bodied: The Fiercely Independent, Cinematic Power of the Glitch Mob
Over the past five years, the Glitch Mob has grown from a West Coast club sensation to an electronic music titan. The Los Angeles-based trio of Josh "Ooah" Mayer, Ed "edIT" Ma, and Justin "Boreta" Boreta were each already established names as solo artists and DJs known for tweaking cutting-edge technology. But it took some old-fashioned, DIY tactics to really achieve liftoff, says Boreta.
"At the beginning of the group, we were in kind of DJ territory, where we would play a lot of weekend shows, doing clubs and festivals," he recalls. "But when we decided to tour like a band and hop in a van and load it up with gear and drive around the country to play these 35-date tours — that's definitely when we saw a big wave of momentum."
Make that a tidal wave. This past year has seen Glitch Mob playing some of its most massive shows to date, including a performance for 10,000 fans at Colorado's legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a slot at Coachella, and, locally, a gig this past March on the last day of Ultra Music Festival.
Yet the trio remains surprisingly grassroots. The group's live show is just the three members — well, plus an aerialist — but no extra musical performers. And their music, including last year's lauded Drink the Sea LP and an upcoming EP, We Can Make the World Stop, is still released on the group's own imprint, Glass Air. In other words, Glitch Mob is more indie than many of the guitar bands with whom it regularly shares bills.
Even with that streak of independent energy, do not lump the Glitch Mob in with scrappy, lo-fi bedroom-studio projects. Rather, the group has become a favorite on the festival circuit precisely for its larger-than-life sound. Boreta and his bandmates perform everything live but nearly entirely on computer. There are some touch-screen controllers and electronic drums that trigger presets on the software Ableton Live, but as musical futurists, they're unapologetic about playing the MacBook Pro as an instrument.
That doesn't mean more run-of-the-mill, repetitive beats, though. The group's name isn't an accident — Glitch Mob songs are often, indeed, glitchy, riding on unpredictable hip-hop and downtempo beats that sometimes trip on themselves. Layers and loops of sound threaten to smother one another as they fight for dominance, and rather than rely on vocals, the songs propel themselves forward on crescendoing synths and samples. The overall effect is filled with warmth, and decidedly epic.
If it all sounds like the soundtrack to a movie never made, well, that's on purpose, says Boreta. That's exactly what they had in mind for Drink the Sea. "We wrote the whole thing as a narrative," he says. "We felt that if we put all these little stories together into something without vocals, people could take from it whatever they wanted."
That's not the case with We Can Make the World Stop, due out July 12. Instead, Boreta, Mayer, and Ma tried a new tactic, each coming up with his own new musical sketch every day for the two weeks. At the end, they opened up their beloved Ableton and moved the modular musical pieces around for a final product that was fully collaborative but not necessarily wedded to one particular album arc. "With this three-song thing, we thought we could explore a couple of different ideas," Boreta says.
Not that the result is any less dramatic or sweeping in its execution. The new material still rides giddy emotional waves while hinging on a sound rooted distantly in hip-hop. And if this special Glitch Mob blend seems to be just now taking off in mass popularity, it's not a coincidence.
In fact, 2011 appears to be the year for many of Glitch Mob's pals, including fellow Los Angeles artists like Daedalus, Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer, and Nosaj Thing, as well as extended family members like San Francisco's Bassnectar. All were early residents of the now-renowned Low End Theory club night, which was cofounded by Glitch Mob's edIT. And all acts mine parts of the same spectrum of deep, organic hip-hop, dubstep, and other bass-driven genres, winning a broad range of fiercely devoted fans from hipsters to hippies.
"At one point, we were this funky little club. But we are just fortunate to be at a point in time in the U.S. where there's been a wave of interest in electronic music as a legitimate form of music," Boreta says. "I mean, a lot of pop stars are now using very traditional electronic stuff too, and all of these little things are contributing to people not pigeonholing electronic music as just rave music."
Still, there's a certain thrill in catching the group in a festival or club environment, especially considering the bold visual shows for which it's almost equally famous. If Glitch Mob songs can sound particularly cinematic, they sound that way even more so when married to the group's large-scale projections and abstract images. Surprisingly, though, both are not conceived of as a piece, Boreta says. "That all comes later," he says. "When we're writing, we just really focus on the music."
This time around, that "later" work will be extraspecial. The act's show at Revolution on Tuesday will feature an all-new visual and light show designed by Martin Phillips and John McGuire. That's the team behind Daft Punk's famous light-up pyramid, Kanye West's own version later, and other amazingness for Nine Inch Nails. It's a production coup, to be sure.
"I think we just got lucky. It's one of those serendipitous things where they're a friend of a friend of a friend and just happened to like our music," Boreta says. "We're just really excited to go out there and have something that we feel accurately extracts visual data from our music."
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