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Live Wires 

Inside the currents of New Orleans' electronic music scene

My upstairs neighbor is a well-known jazz saxophonist who plays at clubs with Michael Ray and other local luminaries, and when they play wild and confusing and sound like the future, I love it. But this same forward-thinking musician neighbor dismisses the blips and beeps and synthesizer sounds and beats coming from my apartment. After finding me at the coffeehouse with my laptop computer, he looked down on me with deep disappointment, concern, maybe even contempt. He asked, "You're not making music with that thing?"

His face flushed as he earnestly explained to me that brass, pianos and upright basses are in mortal combat against sequencers and samplers. This progressive-minded man concluded his tirade with the phrase,"Electronic music is not real music."

To be fair to my neighbor, people with that attitude are often just misinformed, equating electronic music with the soulless drum-and-bass of car commercials, or the four-to-the-floor techno thump of aerobics classes and teenage raves, rather than the eclectic New Orleans electronic music scene. Just as Slayer and Snooks Eaglin aren't lumped under some 'electric music' category despite the fact that both artists use electric guitars, electronic music is not necessarily a genre or a style -- but simply the use of electronic instruments to make any type of music.

Influential Ninth Ward artists Quintron and Miss Pussycat are inspiring godparents to many of New Orleans' electronic music bands. But beyond Quintron and the electronic 'sprinkler beats' of bounce music, which rattle countless cars in New Orleans and are firmly etched in the canon of hip-hop sounds, the local electronic music scene is making some noise. The loudest local buzz (and some kind of strange oscillating humming sound) is coming from Electrical Spectacle.

More than 100 people showed up at an Electrical Spectacle show last Thanksgiving Eve. It was a free show, but still an impressive turnout for a cold holiday night in Faubourg Marigny, especially for a band that sounds like a Kraftwerk-ian man-machine (as reworked by Afrika Bambaata), in a town where even the rock bands complain they're often ignored for more traditional music forms. But at all their recent shows, Electrical Spectacle's growing fanbase of boys in thrift store clothes and pretty alt-girls packed the room, dancing around the band's mountain of Moog synthesizers and drum machines and blinking lights piled up like a Christmas tree -- topped with the shiny silver antennae of a squealing theremin.

Electrical Spectacle's main Moog keyboard man Anton Gussoni and resident redhead keyboardist, Vocoder and theremin player Mike Mayfield started their new band as a side project to quench their originality jones while holding down the rhythm section of a traditional blues unit (which they no longer play in). The first year Electrical Spectacle played out, the aforementioned Michael Ray showed up at Tipitina's to play with them, giving his stamp of approval. Just a few weeks ago, the night before New Year's Eve, 100 people paid to see them at the Circle Bar -- a notable number considering Egg Yolk Jubilee was playing at Mermaid Lounge and Quintron was opening at Tipitina's.

Gussoni considers the band a happy accident. "When we started, we didn't even know what kind of music we wanted to make," he says. "We'd just been collecting old keyboards and weird instruments ... we had no idea what they could do and, in playing around with them, the new sounds we'd hear inspired songs."

That combination of unusual instruments and effects, combined with favoring texture and rhythm over structure, is also inspiring other up-and-coming bands. One such group is Chef Menteur, which uses a "Boomerang" to guide its songwriting. "The 'Boomerang' is one thing I really feel we can call our own," Chef Menteur's Alec Vance says of the giant foot-operated effects box. The Boomerang loops, layers and reverses the direction of bassist Jim Yonkus' bass lines, forming a churning sea of strange low-end, to be decorated by Vance's Farfisa organ, guitar and well-placed Art Bell vocal samples. The end product is a sometimes trance-inducing soup of thoughtfully shifting sounds.

Music that can put you to sleep is an acquired taste, but Chef Menteur shares one thing with so many other New Orleans musicians. Says Vance, "We have milestones in our songs, moments where we know what we're going to do and we synch up, but mostly we just, for lack of a better word, 'jam,' over loops and programming until we hit a groove." He adds,"Though I hate that word, 'groove,' too."

Electrical Spectacle's Mayfield now plays drums with Vance and Yonkus, and Chef Menteur has become more of a band. It was an addition made as much for the eyes as for the ears. After describing a show where the band utilized projectors for visual ambience, Vance admits, "We're not much to watch, so we try to give people something to look at."

It's good that he's thinking along those lines. Live electronic music has also received a bad reputation because most acts concentrate so hard on their knob twiddling you almost expect the crowd to start throwing money up on stage, mistakenly thinking they're watching the French Quarter's famous frozen street mimes.

"I've had people tell me flat out, 'Your show was really boring,'" says Joshua Eustis of New Orleans-born computer-music duo Telefon Tel Aviv, whose 2001 CD Fahrenheit Fair Enough (Hefty Records) is a perfect example of how gorgeous, delicate and perfectly soulful electronics can be -- especially when fluidly mixed with electric pianos and other soft, real-time instruments. Even Trent Reznor feels safe enough in the arms of Telefon Tel Aviv to let them remix some of his work. But Eustis and partner Charles Cooper recently moved to Chicago because, says Eustis, "People in N.O. largely can't get into a strictly laptop set like we used to rock -- because New Orleans music is so performance based. The music we make is composition-based, and lots of folks don't realize that or don't care."

There's a word to unfurrow the brows of traditionalists: composition. For Bach and Beethoven and Aphex Twin and Authechre and Telefon Tel Aviv, it's always been as much about composing as any eventual performance. Computer composers are faced with the opportunity -- and burden -- of being unlimited to pre-existing instruments, to shape the very timbres of every sound they use. They can create sounds never before heard.

"Electronic instruments open up possibilities hard to achieve with the usual drum kit/bass/guitar [format]," says Nancy "Nastie" Kang, bassists/singer/performer in Glorybee, an experimental/hip-hop/R&B/funk outfit. Though Kang also expertly fingerpicks the bass guitar in her group, Glorybee thinks in spaces where, according to King, "A slamming door is transformed (into) a bass line. Feedback whines, screams, laughter ... are shaped and used."

Electrical Spectacle's part-time drummer Louis Romanos espouses a similar philosophy. Romanos plays with lap-steel guitar wizard Dave Easley in the jazz quartet LRQ and makes a living by subbing for various jazz and funk combos and running his own recording business, B.B.S. Studio. On top of all this, Romanos plays drums and composes programming for PermaGrin, one of the few bands to ever bring samplers to a gig at The Funky Butt. PermaGrin also features guitarist Dan Sumner, who studied jazz at the New England conservatory with Bob Moses and George Russell, and currently plays in the back-up band of lounge stylist Glyn Styler. PermaGrin's all-instrumental sound combines echoing jazz guitar and heady drums with looped bass lines and huge, sampled atmospheres so naturally that it makes you wonder why more jazz artists don't utilize technology to broaden their palates.

Romanos, whose experience running his studio makes him a natural for electronic music, says, "You have to be a musician and a techie at the same time, and those two ways of thinking are diametrically opposed: right brain versus left brain. PermaGrin's first compositions were more like the ECM brand of jazz out of New York, (but) as technology advanced, so did our sound. It's become an awful lot of work. To program every little nuance, that takes a long time."

And even after all tweaking is complete, Romanos tweaks more knobs at live shows, at the same time he plays drums. Even computer composers like Telefon Tel Aviv don't just get on stage and press play, but remix their compositions live, in real time, a performance tradition similar to that of old dub reggae masters like Mad Professor. The songs are always different and spontaneous.

Yet even with all the composition, sound sculpting and remixing effort put in, the public still expects a show. Standing in a 300-person semi-circle, watching a guy stare into a computer monitor while diddling his mouse makes you feel like the butt of some post-modern joke; the silent glassy-eyed crowd staring at the fellow on stage who, if he were in a cubicle, looks like he's doing what he probably does at his day job. Even if the music's ambitious, creative, perfect, if it comes down to paying a cover to stand up in a smoky club, listening but watching nothing, even I'd rather be at home listening to a brilliant composer's CD or my neighbor's horn leaking through the ceiling.

Electrical Spectacle's live success lies partly in that they, like most of New Orleans' popular electronic artists, combine real-time playing with programming. E.S.' songs sound their best when Romanos runs polyrhythmically around the drum machine. But even when the drum kit is left at home and the chintzy beat of a '70s-era Roland leads E.S's heavy waves of analogue synth, Mayfield snarls at and dances with his screaming theremin, as Gussoni rolls out Moog bass lines in registers low enough to scare club owners -- and Electrical Spectacle is truly a live band.

Even Telefon Tel Aviv's Eustis concedes that "people always have and always will want to see humans ... playing instruments." Thus his band has changed since abandoning New Orleans. "(We've) added a guitarist. ... We are all trading instruments on stage, (with) bass, two guitars and Fender Rhodes (piano)," says Eustis. "We've also been collaborating with a visual artist, who projects beautifully rendered moving artwork on to us as we are playing."

Chances are Telafon Tel Aviv's pure aural perfection would have fared better in New Orleans had they put as much effort into their stage show as Glorybee does. Glorybee's parade rivals the grandeur of even the mighty Quintron. Glorybee's regalia borders on comedy when little Kang, dressed as a bumblebee, pops clusters of balloons in perfect time to the track as main rapper/singer Lord Hoffa begs the girls in the audience to rendezvous with him after the show. But the band remains compelling on CD, when neither Nastie, nor Hoffa, nor main electronic brain Master Boink, nor the dancing Thai chef who often accompanies the band on stage, can be seen in their full cartoonish glory. Nastie's cheerleader chants in a voice like a Muppet Baby, the children's instruments, the legitimate soul singing smothered over Boink's brilliantly textured, mature programming, is as stimulating in your kitchen as in the club.

Still, Glorybee knows it's expected to grab more than just one of your senses at a time in a city where multiple entertainment options are always a go-cup away. So Glorybee has more in common with the breakdancers down by the river than the cubicled 9-to-5 crowd staring into their Dells in the Central Business District.

"New Orleans has a tradition of performance that has influenced us," says Kang, who's studying to be a doctor in her spare time. "(Culture here) centers around having a great time, in real time: street performers, block parties. ... Here we like to laugh and dance. I've seen many (electronic) bands pass through, twiddling knobs. They look sad and bored. Do promoters, clubs, and fans respond (to electronic music)? Yes, if you entertain and raise emotions in the present moment."

click to enlarge Moog, Vocoder and theremin tweaking contribute to the sound of Electrical Spectacle, (from left) Anton Gussani, Louis Romanos and Mike Mayfield. - ROMNEY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Romney Photography
  • Moog, Vocoder and theremin tweaking contribute to the sound of Electrical Spectacle, (from left) Anton Gussani, Louis Romanos and Mike Mayfield.
click to enlarge 'As technology advanced, so did our sound. It's become an awful lot of work. To program every little nuance, that takes a long time.' -- PermaGrin's Louis Romanos (pictured, left). - ROBERT MERCURIO
  • Robert Mercurio
  • 'As technology advanced, so did our sound. It's become an awful lot of work. To program every little nuance, that takes a long time.' -- PermaGrin's Louis Romanos (pictured, left).
click to enlarge Glorybee dresses up its beats with an elaborate stage show featuring a bumblebee costume, balloon popping, and a dancing Thai chef. - VANESSA S. BROWN
  • Vanessa S. Brown
  • Glorybee dresses up its beats with an elaborate stage show featuring a bumblebee costume, balloon popping, and a dancing Thai chef.
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