Trance Jammers – Brief Article
Byline: KEN MICALLEF
At the point on the musical map where jam band – type improvisation intersects with DJ-driven dance music lies a new style. Blending soaring solos with human instrumental loops and extended atmospheres with DJ mechanics, these so-called jam-trance bands make music even a computer could dance to.
Once upon a time, bands played onstage, DJs spun records in clubs, and never the twain could meet. Things have changed. An influx of musicians raised on a mixture of heavily sampled and computer-assembled U.K. dance music, hip-hop, jazz fusion, and rock have begun combining the best of both worlds. Bands such as The New Deal, The Disco Biscuits, Lake Trout, and Sound Tribe Sector 9 merge lengthy instrumental improvisations with the repetitive, computer-built melodies and rigidly programmed rhythmic loops of contemporary dance styles like drum and bass, techno, or house (disco). It’s a freaky concoction – equal parts Phish and the Chemical Brothers – a weird science in which musicians imitate music once made entirely by machines.
Listen to any of these bands for the first time (and they are bands in the traditional sense; none use a computer onstage), and you might think you’re walking through a virtual department store of clashing styles. Seventies-era Miles Davis is on display in Men’s Wear; Medeski, Martin and Wood – type jams can be heard in the Shoe Department; and over in Hardware, a DJ is spinning static beats and computer-assisted melodies. At first the collision can be shocking, but eventually things make sense.
Both DJ music and jam band culture share a love of melodic climaxes, extended rhythmic travel, and nonlinear song structures. DJs – like jam bands – typically play very long sets built on themes of aggression, tension, and release. Both appeal to young audiences that love to dance and get lost in the music. DJs and jam bands also share the kind of underground cachet that the Internet serves well; fans are bound to seek out the recordings and tour dates of their favorite bands on the Web. Finally, there’s a less wholesome connection: both audiences use recreational drugs as part of their concert experience.
The Disco Biscuits’ yearly Camp Bisco All Star Loon Fest gives the jam-trance crowd a chance to meet and extend the ethos of better improvisation through DJ influence. As the impact of the knob-twiddlers and samplists grows, the jam-trance interface may just teach the world a new way to improvise.
THE NEW DEAL: LOW DOWN DISCO DEALING
Dubbed “the Kraftwerk of the new millennium” by Spin, Toronto’s band The New Deal inspires the kind of hyperbole usually reserved for record-label bios. The trio’s keyboardist, Jamie Shields, isn’t buying it.
“We sound nothing like Kraftwerk,” says Shields, whose bandmates are drummer Darren Shearer and bassist Dan Kurtz. “Kraftwerk’s approach took it from being human to mechanized-human, like robots. We attempt to emulate what people hear now with machines, but by our own hands.”
The New Deal practices jam band improvisation while using disco techniques. The band sounds like a disco DJ with 12 hands: 2 for spinning the vinyl, and 10 for controlling the odd meters, prog-rock keyboard solos, sampled vocals, locomotive loops, and disco beats. Yet while The New Deal’s music resembles a repetitive DJ set, it’s funkier and looser than music spun by popular house music DJs such as Paul Van Dyk or Paul Oakenfold. And it’s as chilled as anything made by ambient-music icon The Orb. Though employing disco techniques, The New Deal practices jam band improvisation.
“It’s like instant composition,” Shields explains. “We’ll have an idea one night, then use it the next night to develop it further. All the ‘heads’ are made up onstage. We could hear a good idea during one night’s gig and expand on it the next night. That’s how we get our thematic inspiration.”
While improvisation is a key aspect of the band’s work, their music isn’t random. “We try to develop songs, as opposed to just jamming away,” he says. “We develop songs onstage; that’s how all of our songs come into being, night after night. We have never had a rehearsal or a writing session. It all happens onstage.”
The band also uses hand signals to control their spontaneous song structures. Shields commands The New Deal from behind his array of keyboards.
“We have about 30 hand signals,” he says. “We have a signal for every note, as well as for key changes and for each theme. We even have a signal for imitating a sample by just looping what we are playing in the moment – we repeat the notes ad infinitum. We also have signs for playing faster and slower and for playing rhythms in unison. It’s all by the seat of our pants, so everyone has to know the signals.”
LAKE TROUT: SWIMMING WITH SONIC SHARKS
Baltimore’s Lake Trout focuses on the “jam” in “jam-trance,” weaving in hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass rhythms with serpentine guitars, eerie keyboards, and mysterious vocals. Not surprisingly for an act that acknowledges disparate influences such as DJ Shadow and Pink Floyd, Lake Trout is constantly experimenting, and its latest release Another One Lost (SNS, 2002) is somewhat more rock oriented than the avant-garde jam band hallucinations of its previous album Alone at Last (Pheonix Rising, 2000) would imply. As with The New Deal, improv is the key.
“We’re still into drum ‘n’ bass,” says guitarist Ed Harris, “but we’re exploring it from a different perspective. It’s always a blur during our transitional stages. Now we improvise less onstage – it is more like a rock show.”
Harris’s rig includes a Fender Twin, an Epiphone Sheraton II guitar, and a Danelectro distortion pedal. While there are no computers onstage, singer Woody Ranere uses a Korg Kaoss pad to treat his vocals in real time.
Some songs pulse ominously with interstellar saxophone and guitar solos over free-floating King Crimsonish arrangements. Others sound like James Brown’s Famous Flames jamming with drum ‘n’ bass lunatic Squarepusher. Drummer Michael Lowry mimics the martial rhythms of drum ‘n’ bass with drive and dexterity, lending Lake Trout a futuristic human-versus-machine quality.
SOUND TRIBE SECTOR 9: THE CHILL THAT THRILLS
The Atlanta-based quintet Sound Tribe Sector 9 achieves a consensus of techno-edged thrill and flower-power serenity. It’s all about the band’s goal of healing through music. For example, on the opening track to STS9’s CD Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace (Landslide, 2000), a skittish drum ‘n’ bass beat underpins frothy new-age atmospheres. One minute the band’s music sounds like techno Santana; the next, it sounds like twilight rave fodder for the hackysack-and-granola set. But STS9 also mixes it up with, for example, air-puffed progressive rock on “Otherwise Formless,” aggressive drum ‘n’ bass meets jazz lite on “And Some Are Angels,” and slow-motion funk on “Turtle.”
“The body is 90 percent water,” says STS9 bassist David Murphy, “and music and vibration affects water molecules. If you are resonating with the music, then we see that as being healing.”
STS9’s tunes, which are as likely to draw on hypertechno dance music as ’70s fusion, typically exceed 20 minutes. “We explore different realms in each piece of music,” says Murphy. “We play five songs per set, but the songs are more like movements. They intertwine with each other, so our sets are a continuous flow from beginning to end.”
STS9’s members – Murphy, drummer Zach Velmer, keyboardist David Phipps, guitarist Hunter Brown, and percussionist Jeffree Lerner – are the truest practitioners of the techno/jam band interface. One look at the music they listen to reveals their diverse interests and influences: St. Germain, Stan Getz, Primus, Bob Marley, Zachir Hussain, Tabla Beat Science. STS9 spins it all together through the jam band credo of improvisation.
“The organic process is definitely improv,” explains Murphy. “We began as a three-piece doing three-hour shows and improvised the whole time. Sometimes we’ll go from a relaxed vibe to reggae to drum ‘n’ bass. It’s still evolving, but we explore any new sounds we can create.”
While STS9 has avoided computers in the past, the band currently uses an Apple Macintosh G4 as a compositional tool. “We take loops and sequences out of the new songs and play them live on the computer, ” Murphy says. “Then we play over the top of the loops. It’s a live version of the computerized song.”
Perhaps that’s something the fusion pioneers of the ’70s would have done, had the technology of the day been able to keep pace with their lightning-fast fingers. “We feel a kinship with the Headhunters [a ’70s jazz/funk band] or Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in exploring music and being totally open to playing whatever. Those bands didn’t put any limitations on themselves. That’s what jazz is for me – it’s free-form. It can evolve anywhere.”
Indeed, the band’s continuing evolution is showcased on their latest release, Seasons 01 (Landslide, 2002), in which they mix live concert tracks with real-life sounds (crying babies, jackhammers) recorded near their studio. It’s the next step forward for a group that keeps reaching for the outer limits.
THE DISCO BISCUITS: HOT-HEADED IMPROV FOR THE GOA SET
Like a sports car negotiating sudden curves, The Disco Biscuits’ digital-trance-morph music flows from techno to samba to prog-rock, often within the same song. This Santa Cruz, California – based foursome uses the usual drums-guitar-keyboards-bass lineup, but music from their album They Missed the Perfume (Megaforce, 2001) sounds like dizzy computers making psychedelic MIDI-love: it combines wild ambient sonics with Zappaesque dexterity and the fleet funk of Phish.
“We wanted the album to be funky,” explains the band’s guitarist, Jon Gutwillig (aka Num Chuck), “but it turned into more of a soundscape we made on a computer, without MIDI. We put tiny pieces of audio on a computer and collaged it all together. What you’re hearing might not have originally been intended to be there. A guitar solo from one song ended up in another song.”
The band’s latest release, Senor Boombox (Megaforce, 2002), departs somewhat from They Missed the Perfume, offering a more organic feel, sort of like a live studio recording with less computer enhancement. There are four-on-the-floor rave tracks, for sure, but also funky improv tunes that would be right at home in a typical deadhead set.
When they play live, the DBs weave frenetic beats, epic keyboard riffs, swirling guitar, and rumbling bass into long, dramatic sets. Imagine Kraftwerk jamming with George Clinton and you’ll get some idea of Disco Biscuits’ bizarre music. How do they do it?
“Onstage it’s all live drums – no computers except for the keyboards,” says Gutwillig. “Our bassist gets all the bass sounds you would hear at a rave club from his pedals. I do the guitars; the keyboard player has seven keyboards. Our drummer triggers the record scratches, tambourines, and the yelps. We play many kinds of dance music, from techno to four-on-the-floor. We end up in very strange places on a regular basis.”
The Disco Biscuits also re-create the fast, repetitious techno style called goa. Typically performed by DJs at dawn to drugged-out ravers, The Disco Biscuits use the fast 150 bpm dance music for grooving and soloing.
“Goa is played by just doing eighth notes, no triplets,” explains keyboardist Aron Magner. “Our drummer, Sam [Altman], will put the four-on-the-floor at a very fast pace with a hi-hat against it. We groove and sit in tight eighth-note phrasings. If I want to take a solo, I throw in the goa. We take the new music out of the nuances of the present music. Understand? You’ll hear something as you groove, then it will go ’round and you’ll really hear it, and then it goes ’round again until it is the loudest thing. That little part becomes the dominant part of the song.”
But if the DBs strive to replicate the sounds of the global DJ posse, why not just play a CD? The DBs often launch their show during the closing spins of the DJ’s set, so what’s the difference?
“DJing is very specific,” replies Gutwillig. “You can dance with a certain amount of roboticness and you know the music is going be there. But with live bands it’s more of a groove and more of a pulse.”
The jam-trance revolution is changing the musicians more than the listeners. No one knows where the melding of hot-headed improvisation and electronic dance techniques will lead. But Gutwillig has an idea.
“Atmospheres. Musicians today, compared to musicians a decade ago or even in the ’60s, are better at playing atmospheres. Atmospheres were very popular in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. In the ’80s with computers, trance and techno were really atmospheric. Drum ‘n’ bass was completely atmospheric with crazy drums, no melody at all. So a lot of these musicians are just changing atmospheres. Just like Miles and Vangelis, we’re all playing atmospheres.”
Ken Micallef is a New York – based music journalist who contributes to such publications as Blender, Buzzine, Remix, Modern Drummer, and the Holy Roller Roundup.
A Drummer’s Guide to Drum ‘n’ Bass Grooves
All jam-trance bands improvise over a drum ‘n’ bass groove, whether it’s the full-bore breakbeat anthems of Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Lake Trout or the more minimal action of The New Deal. To play drum ‘n’ bass convincingly, you must immerse yourself in the style, which is what New York – based drummer Zach Danziger has done for the past five years. As a founding member of the drum ‘n’ bass aggregate Boomish (www.boomish.net), Danziger has toured the world playing the hyperspeed rhythms and machinelike stickings of drum ‘n’ bass. An acknowledged drum ‘n’ bass expert, Danziger designed Zildjian’s popular Re Mix line of cymbals especially for playing electronic music. He’s also worked with jazz luminaries Eddie Gomez, Michel Camilo, Randy Brecker, and Wayne Krantz as well as rockers Primal Scream and U2. Danziger can be heard on the soundtrack to the recent film, Ocean’s Eleven. Danziger talked to Onstage about the ins and outs of playing drum ‘n’ bass grooves live.
His take goes like this: “The original jungle (aka drum ‘n’ bass) programmers would record and then sample old soul and funk beats into loops, or breakbeats. They would speed them up to jungle tempo – 160 or 170 bpm – then cut them up on the sampler into fragments so that they could reprogram the rhythms into different combinations. I took the same approach, learning to play drum rhythms in more fragmented ways, just focusing on a quarter note section of the bar. I’d learn the beats on the drum kit as if I was breaking them up in a sampler, learning one fragment of the beat at a time, then practice by repeating that one quarter note’s worth of the breakbeat (see Fig. A). I would look at the rhythms as little pieces rather than a full bar of music. You get them up to speed by practicing them slowly with a metronome.
“Jungle music offers a technical challenge that drummers aren’t usually trained for. You have to get used to the unconventional, awkward nature of the stickings (see Fig. B), like three notes in one hand or playing time with the middle note accented. You almost have to sound like a record skipping. It took months to get the programmed rhythms to feel natural. You don’t need a sampler, just listen to those artists (Goldie, Plug, LTJ Bukem, Roni Size) and listen for these concepts. It also helps to transcribe the beats.
“The drum sound is also important. The hi-hats sound very industrial, and the bass drum is more woofy and gated. It is not an acoustic drum sound. I will tape a splash cymbal to the snare drum and hit the snare and the cymbal together for a metallic, cracked sound.
www.thenewdeal.ca The New Deal’s official Web site. www.laketrout.com Lake Trout’s official site. www.sts9.com Sound Tribe Sector 9’s official site. www.discobiscuits.com The DBs’ home on the Web.
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