Are You Coming With Us?

The Lo-Fidelity Allstars pose some dizzying musical questions with a riot of sounds and styles

While Ward has been a capable substitute, Randall's departure is unfortunate. His vocals are one of the major highlights of How to Operate With a Blown Mind. Possessing a biting, accusatory tone that recalls early Public Image Limited-era John Lydon, the combination of Randall's vocals and the corrosive and darkened imagery of Ward's lyrics ("Your construction smells of corruption") hints at a range of influences beyond that of most of their dance contemporaries.

Ward admits that the group's blend of somber imagery and eclectic grooves owes a tremendous debt to an often overlooked school of '70s funk epitomized by Sly and the Family Stone's brooding 1971 opus There's a Riot Going On.

"I think some of the best funk that's been made is the dark stuff. There's a Riot Going On is one of the darkest albums ever written, I think. Curtis Mayfield's 'If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go' is another amazing piece of funk and soul, but it's very, very dark."

At the same time, Ward doesn't dismiss the influence of less gloomy dance music, but adds that his own personal taste lies more toward the socially conscious soul and funk of the era.

"We're into the sort of light, fluffy, party funk that was just as valid at the time, but personally my favorite album is Trouble Man, the Marvin Gaye soundtrack album. It's mainly instrumental, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel with that album at all. It's just pure darkness.

"We've always been attracted to the darker forms of music regardless of what it is. That carries over to house music and drum and bass. We've been always into the real jump-up drum and bass with the dark, low bass sound."

This myriad of influences is well-represented on the record. How to Operate With a Blown Mind seamlessly alternates between the bounding hip-hop of "Kool Roc Bass," the energetic dance beat of "Blisters on My Brain" and the disjointed, jazz-influenced rhythms of the title track. Punctuated with ominous-sounding lyrical non sequiturs and spoken passages, the group specializes in creating audio collages. It's stylistic hodgepodge that Ward refers to as "punk paste."

While the group members resist other stylistic tags like "skunk rock" or "trip hop," they acknowledge that they've benefited from the impact that "big beat" artists like the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim have had in America. "Those bands have helped us greatly just by helping the man on the street to accept electronica as a bit more of a valid form of music," says Ward.

Although the group's commercial rise has been relatively swift, it has been marked by some difficulty. Legal issues became a major stumbling block for the band even before its album was released in the States. The group was prohibited from using a sample of Prince's "Spirituality" in the U.S. version of "Battle Flag," and the Breeders forced the group to remove a piece of their 1993 hit "Cannonball" from "Blisters on My Brain."

"It's just a shame, really. We have nothing against paying for samples. When we sample people from the '60s and '70s, who probably didn't make any money at the time, I think it's fair enough that they get paid. But big bands get very greedy about money and where to get money from," says Ward.

What makes the Lo-Fi Allstars' dilemma even more frustrating is watching guitar-based acts like the Offspring blatantly rip off complete melodies and whole passages from other songs without even raising an eyebrow (the Offspring's smash "Why Don't You Get a Job" cannibalizes both the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia" in addition to completely lifting its bridge melody from Doris Troy's 1963 hit "Just One Look").

"With some bands out there, you can hear how a whole chorus is based around another song, and it's like, 'How come they're not getting sued?'" says Ward. "But it's just the nature of it. People still seem to be scared of technology in music, especially over here. In England, it's a bit better. That's why the album took so long to be released over here; it was purely sample clearance."

Despite the legal harangues, Ward promises that future material won't be compromised by financial considerations. "Each song is different. We don't go out looking saying, 'We've got to find a sample to fill this.' We try to re-create as many samples as we can, but if we reproduce the sample and it doesn't sound as good, then we'll always go back and use the original. Even if it's going to cost us a lot of money--which it usually does," adds Ward with a laugh.

Unlike many artists (such as Puff Daddy or Will Smith) who abuse the concept of sampling, the Lo-Fi Allstars' use of source material is entirely different. Taking only small bits, and then reworking and reshaping them into something almost entirely different, the group's sonic manipulation further blurs the distinction as to what is considered "original" music.

The group's visually evocative soundscapes are influenced to a great degree by the cinema. Ward (who for a time attended film school) agrees. But he's been less than thrilled with the use of "Battle Flag" (a reworking of the Pigeonhead track which the group doesn't control the rights to) in certain soundtracks. "It's a shame because some of the films we've been used in are not like the sort of thing you want to be associated with," says Ward.

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