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Mike Castaneda is mesmerized. An eerie, bluish glow lights up his face as he kneels onstage in front of a computer screen, clicking the mouse and bobbing his head to a frantic barrage of digital beats that blast like machine-gun fire from the amps at Modified Arts in downtown Phoenix.
The music could be an action movie's musical score and high-tech sound effects rolled up into one, or maybe the racket from a nightmare. But either way, it's probably something you've never heard before -- and would be hard-pressed to define.
Under the alias Terminal 11, the broad-shouldered and dark-haired Castaneda creates experimental electronic music that's as fascinating as it is confounding. At moments, it falls apart into a paralyzing assault of bizarre sounds. More often, its complex layers of twisted samples, hyper-caffeinated breaks, melodic fragments and an occasional echo of mysterious, unintelligible lyrics congeal into something wickedly danceable. But many of the two dozen or so laid-back twentysomethings in the audience are content to watch Terminal 11 while sitting Indian-style on the floor.
This is Thru the Wires, Modified's monthly night of cutting-edge electronica that started in late 2002, bringing together an enthusiastic community of people who normally make music alone, on their computers. On fliers promoting the event, it's billed as "an evening of bile, DSP, digital fuckery, and hyperactive IDM super fun." (Who wouldn't be curious? DSP stands for Digital Signal Processing, referring to computer programs that are used to create music, and IDM means Intelligent Dance Music, an avant-garde vein of techno.)
Twenty-two-year-old Castaneda has been co-host of Thru the Wires (with Adam Stranieri) since early 2003, usually serving as DJ-in-residence under the alternate pseudonym Paul Van Oakendyk.
It's easy to think that experimental electronica comes from computer geeks who have a musical bent. But Castaneda quickly defies that assumption. "I didn't play instruments, and I really had no desire to make music until I heard noise," he says. In junior high, exposure to the Japanese noise band The Boredoms, along with the American composer John Zorn, triggered Castaneda's interest in creating something musical.
He didn't have his own computer, either; his earliest works were analog. Inspired by electronica from Future Sound of London and Aphex Twin, Castaneda started obsessively recording different natural sounds on microcassettes. "I even developed a way to scratch tapes like turntables," he says, demonstrating his technique by fiddling with a hand-held player that's lacking a faceplate. His first mixer was a karaoke machine.
Castaneda finally got a computer in 1999, during high school. Dabbling in programs such as Sound Forge and MODPlug Tracker (the sequencing software he uses now), he was able to manipulate his collection of sounds into tracks. That's when he discovered his true love.
"There are literally no limits, once you get into the thought of field recordings -- just going out anywhere, being able to record any sound," says Castaneda. "And rock music, you're pretty much limited to what you're using. There's millions of ways to manipulate that, but you're still kind of a slave to your machine in that sense. For me, it's just much more interesting to have an entire world at your hands."
Terminal 11 started off as "anger management through audio," he adds. "The pressures of high school, being frustrated with loving people that don't feel the same way back, not finding anybody to really click with -- there was a lot of anger."
Castaneda graduated in 2000, and the teen angst is now well behind him. But making music is still an emotional release. "It's a very personal process. A lot of people think that you escape that with electronica, but when you work with field recordings, there's much more to it."
Many people make light of experimental electronica, Castaneda says, if they don't understand it. "If you know what program somebody is running, you can have a very high respect for what's coming out of the speakers."
One person who treated Terminal 11 seriously was Dimitri Fergadis, who performs under the moniker Phthalocyanine and runs the Pasadena-based noise label Phthalo. In 2001, Castaneda read about Fergadis in XLR8R magazine and decided to send him five tracks. Fergadis liked what he heard, so he gave Castaneda the chance to reach many more listeners -- not just with a deal to release Terminal 11's debut CD, Speed Modified, but with an opportunity to tour the West Coast with other Phthalo artists.
Don Maximo/Postmod Premax, Castaneda's sophomore effort, came out last October, and a third Terminal 11 album is ready to be released this September.
If he's lucky, Castaneda will still be in the U.S. for a CD release party. If not, he can celebrate in Tokyo, where he plans to spend three months at the invitation of Copp, a Japanese-born artist who made a splash on the Valley music scene when she lived here a few years ago. Copp contributed vocals to Don Maximo/Postmod Premax, and Castaneda says he plans to work on an album with her during his hiatus in Japan.
Although Terminal 11 could well develop a following among sophisticated, musically ravenous Tokyoites -- after all, they launched The Boredoms to international celebrity -- Castaneda certainly doesn't talk like he plans to abandon the growing experimental-music community here in Phoenix. Not yet, anyway.