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Human Engineering

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"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.

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Rafer Guzman

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