By Lauren Wise
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Unless you've been isolated from civilization for the past six months, you know that the commercial music biz has been pushing "electronica" as the next big thing, signing geeks with samplers at the same rate it signed grunge bands back in '92.
What you might not have noticed yet is that indie labels known for their guitar bands have been kicking out electronic/synthetic beats themselves.
K Records owner Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System has been injecting Jamaican-flavored soul into the booties of indie-rock brats for several years; the Folk Implosion splits its time between lo-fi acoustic songs and bass-heavy dance-floor tunes such as "Natural One" and "Insinuation" ("Insinuation" was even remixed by the legendary Dust Brothers, the guys responsible for the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay); and Tortoise won over legions of indie fans with its post-Slint experimentalism and mangled, remixed 12-inches of its own album tracks.
While major-label techno generally restricts itself to club-friendly mixes that fit neatly into various subgenres (drum 'n' bass, jungle, deep house, etc.), indie rockers are taking the technology and blending it with their own styles.
So why do indie rockers do it better? We like beginnings and ends to our songs; we like our songs inspired by emotion and not merely by how neat they sound (not that the neatness factor is immaterial, but we're goin' for integrity here); and we don't care how many club DJs spin our discs, we care how it relates to us personally when we're chilling around the house.
Of course, not all the electronica being put out by guitar-rock indies lives up to those standards, and not all the commercial stuff being spun in the clubs sucks, but indie rock's batting average is a hell of a lot higher proportionately.
On the indie/electronica/funk tip, Pigeonhed is a studio collaboration between Seattle's Steve Fisk and Shawn Smith: Fisk is best-known for his indie production credits, which include Nirvana (when it was on Sub Pop), Unwound, Low, and Beat Happening; Smith is vocalist for Northwest bands Satchel, and Brad. Together as Pigeonhed--Smith croons and programs drums, Fisk remains behind the boards running synths, loops, sequencing, and manipulating Smith's vocals--the two drop funked-out, groove-heavy bombs worthy of, well, Prince circa Controversy. (On "Battle Flag," off P-hed's most recent LP, The Full Sentence, Smith even busts out Prince's "Sexuality" rap from Controversy.)
Actually, Pigeonhed's instrumentation blows away anything the Artist Formerly Blahblahblah's various backing bands could've constructed, but through most of the album, Smith sings in a sultry, Marvin Gayelike falsetto that conjures comparisons to the Purple One. Meanwhile, Fisk lays down thumps with Parliament-flavored synths, then overlays them with instrumental tracks by some of the duo's friends (Helios Creed from Chrome, Wayne Flower of the Treepeople). Smith's shimmering soul and Fisk's funk aptitude redefine what R&B has evolved into; Pigeonhed demonstrates just how diverse two white boys raised on punk rock can be.
Revolver called up Fisk last week to get some insight into the electronica phenomenon and how Pigeonhed fits into all the hype. Here's an excerpt:
Revolver: A lot of guitar indies are "diversifying" into electronic music, right in synch with the "industry." Some of the releases are actual techno, rave-style recordings. What's your take on that?
Steve Fisk: I think we've had three bad years in the record industry, and a lot of indies are just as clueless as the majors at this point, so they're coppin' an attitude and puttin' on blue see-through pants to see if they can sell records that way. I think it's really cynical; I don't think it's really interesting, actually. Ultimately, interesting things happen, but I don't know anybody who's doing it smart. I guess they're all responding to a demand, but I don't think anybody really has a clue. I think we're in a sorting-out time right now.
R: How does Pigeonhed relate to the electronica boom?
SF: I don't think we really fit into all that techno crap. And we didn't get signed because all of a sudden our label [Sub Pop] decided they were going techno and making a Sub Pop rave logo so they could make some dough. They're not dumping their guitar bands to put out techno remixes; they've been trying to diversify for a while.
R: And your opinion of the electronica scene?
SF: There's great stuff out there, really, really great stuff, but there's such a glut right now of techno records that most of them are pretty lame. I'm getting tired of records with limited samplers. You can hear that the person making it has like eight or 16 seconds of sampling time, and it really restricts what they can sample and bite. It gives it the air of a puppet show: It's like, here's the sample, here's the sample, here's another one three times real fast, here's the first one again. It's an easy kind of music to make, and it's being cloned quicker than any other English export has.
R: What about guitar-oriented artists who are incorporating electronica into their music now?
SF: Rock bands shouldn't put down their guitars and pick up samplers or start doing remixes of songs and getting them played in clubs that don't even represent their fans. I think guitar bands are guitar bands and drum-machine bands are drum-machine bands, and there's reasons for both. But they're best when they stick to what they know. It's all punk rock. It's always about annoying your parents. You can do it with a guitar, or you can do it with a Casio."