Are You Coming With Us?

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

"I've just been in the hospital for the last couple of days," confesses Lo-Fidelity Allstars DJ Phil Ward, a.k.a. The Albino Priest. Ward (who like the other members of the group uses a ridiculously elaborate alias) has been recovering from a serious bout of road fatigue.

Speaking in a thick northern British accent, his voice is noticeably tired from a relentless string of concerts and promotional appearances that began late last year. "After five weeks on the road with this last tour, I think my body finally shut down," says Ward.

The group, which includes drummer Johnny "The Slammer" Machin, keyboardist Martin "The Many Tentacles" Whiteman and bassist Andy "The One Man Crowd Called Gentile" Dickinson, has spent several weeks in San Francisco, recuperating from the grinding road swing and demoing tracks for a new album (tentatively scheduled for a March 2000 release). Ward admits that the critical and commercial acceptance of their debut How to Operate With a Blown Mind (featuring the hit single "Battle Flag") has at times been overwhelming.

"It's been amazing so far. We've done a lot of these radio festivals; it's been a hundred percent rock bill apart from us. But the attitude and the energy we put in onstage, I think our approach is just as rock 'n' roll as any guitar band out there."

Despite all outward appearances, the Lo-Fi Allstars are deeply rooted in a rock 'n' roll ethic. Even before forming the group, Ward frequently incorporated the disparate sounds of punk and modern dance music as part of his club sets.

"I used to mix Nirvana's 'Lithium' with Future Sound of London's 'Papua New Guinea.' And the Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog.' I always used to start the DJ set with that no matter where we played," says Ward.

"Groups like the Stooges and MC5 were a big influence. We've always been into bands with that full-on, in-your-face sort of distortion stuff."

The fact that the Lo-Fi Allstars present a brand of electronic music that's less threatening to the hegemony of guitar-based rock 'n' roll is perhaps one reason for the overwhelmingly favorable critical response the group has generated since landing on American soil earlier this year. Glowing reviews in Spin, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post and the New York Times have praised the group for its insightful mix of trad-rock and manic funk beats.

"I think it's easier for a pure rock journalist, that is, a journalist who's used to seeing bands--it's a lot easier for him to understand us because we can talk about the use of live drums and live bass and things like that. Somehow I think they're more receptive."

The group's unique mix has brought with it the obvious comparisons to other British alchemists like the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

"It's a great compliment because the Mondays and the Roses, especially, changed the way music was written in England at the time," says Ward. "They [Stone Roses] really mixed up dance and rock like nobody had done before and they did it well. I don't think musically we sound anything like them, but it's quite an easy link to make because of the way we mix up styles."

Signed by Britain's Skint Records after just one show, the group released a series of infectious singles before completing How to Operate With a Blown Mind--a genuinely remarkable effort that, in its expansive scope, touches on stylistic elements ranging from Philly soul to acid rock.

Last December, with the album already making an impact in the U.K. and with an American release imminent, lead singer Dave Randall abruptly left the group on the eve of their first major English tour.

"It was a bit of a blow, really. We felt extremely let down," says Ward. "He felt he had to do it, I guess. It seemed like he was never that big a dance-music fan anyway. He tried doing it just as a way to express himself, mainly.

"When we started, the voice was always treated as another sample--it was always there to be distorted and mutated. It was no more important than the rest of the instruments. Toward the end, Dave wanted to do more straight-up vocals, no effects, a singer/songwriter type of thing. And that's not the nature of this band."

While the departure of the lead singer could have been a fatal blow to a conventional group, the very nature of the Lo-Fi Allstars' setup made Randall's exit a temporary setback. "There was never any question that we would go on. We never expected it to carry on at this level. But we always intended to continue."

With Randall gone, Ward was forced to assume vocal duties, a task he was ideally suited for, although not initially comfortable with. "The English tour was one of the hardest things we've ever done in our lives. It was petrifying," says Ward.

"The reason I took over the vocals was because I was the only one who had his hands free," he notes. "Everybody else has things to do. And because I had written the songs, I knew the lyrics inside out. It was just sort of the obvious choice at the time. I've gotten into it now, though I'm still nervous up there."

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.

However, he grudgingly admits that the high-profile inclusions have had their advantages, mainly in exposing mainstream audiences to their work.

"We performed on The Howard Stern Show. He's been playing 'Battle Flag' constantly for like the last month even though everybody kept saying, 'He doesn't like music,' and, 'Oh, he's known for hating music.' He invited us to play on the show, and that's only because he heard it in the Mod Squad soundtrack. He heard the song and absolutely loved it. So as long as it's getting across to a few people, it's not that bad, really."

One possible film project that the band is much more eager to be a part of is Man of the People, the Michael Mann-directed drama starring Al Pacino.

In addition to gaining a Hollywood cachet, the group has established a growing reputation as live performers as well. One standout performance was at this year's South by Southwest music conference (where the group was curiously out of place on a bill that included alt-country twangers the Old 97's and indie rockers Built to Spill). Their high-energy sonic and pyrotechnic show appeared to have the crowd both confused and entranced by what was going on. Ward says the chaotic environment is in part designed to shake up people's conventional notions about live performance.

"We're not bothered if people don't look at the stage. We swamp it in smoke and have all the lights going. They should be there to listen to the music, and it don't matter who's doing the vocals or whatever," says Ward. "I think it's good some people say, 'Oh, I couldn't even see who was up there.' Still, everybody up there gets into it. Like Andy [Dickinson] on the bass--he just goes mad. So in a way it's like having five different front men."

As they prepare to launch a highly anticipated national tour with Orbital and the Crystal Method, Ward is confident that the group's unique style will continue to find converts. On its last outing, the group went over surprisingly well in places like Alabama and Utah--not generally considered hotbeds for electronic music.

"It's weird. We've been to places we've never even heard of like Columbia [South Carolina], and it sold out three days in advance. Even in Pittsburgh we had an all-ages show at 8 in the evening, and it was filled up. The response just seems to be the same everywhere, and it's constantly surprising."

The Lo-Fidelity Allstars are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, July 20, at Club Rio in Tempe, with Orbital, and the Crystal Method. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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