Enter the Machines
Ryan Breen is best known locally as the guitarist for Chronic Future, the young, progressive rap-rock band whose first Interscope album is scheduled to drop in April.
But in his latest musical endeavor, Back Ted N-Ted, Breen doesn't touch a guitar. If you hit up a Back Ted N-Ted show, you'll see Breen sitting down, playing little more than an iMac laptop and a small MIDI keyboard, forcing out dissonant bleeps over staggered rhythms and loops.
While the phenomenon of live on-the-fly laptop rockers is nothing new nationally, it's definitely a fresh experience for the Valley.
And around here, we tend to have a shortage of fresh experiences. Keeping a close eye on our music scene can be depressing. If you're looking for something completely new and innovative, you'd have just as much luck scouring Payson for a good jungle MC.
But if you can rein in your cynicism long enough to catch Back Ted N-Ted next Thursday night, February 19, at Fat Cats in Phoenix, your faith just might be restored.
At a live Back Ted N-Ted show, Breen's aesthetic is all about sensory overload, played out in a variety of mediums. While he mostly sits calmly programming sounds on the fly, he often has friends dressed in costumes dancing or playing chess onstage, or has an artist painting behind him. Breen says he's looking to incorporate visual projections into his live shows, as well as more ambitious ideas, like having live cooking onstage to get your olfactory senses involved.
Breen's uncanny genius behind the laptop hasn't gone unnoticed outside of Phoenix. Los Angeles' glitchy alt-hip-hop Plug Research label, home to Dntel amongst others, is releasing Back Ted N-Ted's jazzy Sort Sor and Orie EP in the spring. Additionally, Breen has been recording tracks with formerly local electronica auteur Copp for an upcoming album on her Mango Sweet Rice label.
Breen began fooling around with electronic music when he played in local electro-rock band Digital Free Loner Boy several years ago, and his fascination blossomed from there.
"I started messing with sequencers and MIDI sequencing and immediately fell in love with it," he explained to me at his small, neat Tempe apartment. "It's like the only thing I could do for hours on end and not get bored, just get really lost in it." Breen subsequently attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts in Tempe and learned the technical aspects of recording and multi-tracking using programs like ProTools and Reason.
Breen honed his skills by producing tracks with Copp and her various collaborators before striking out on his own. "I needed a new name and a new persona to put it under," he says. "That's where the Back Ted N-Ted came in." Breen saw the cut-up words on the side of a cardboard box (half of the phrase "send back sorted and oriented") and discovered his new identity.
Back Ted N-Ted takes its cues from electronic artists like Autechre, Squarepusher, Four-Tet, and Dntel, making beats that reside somewhere between trip-hop and glitch. At times, Back Ted N-Ted tracks sound like outtakes from Radiohead's Kid A sessions. "Insects," the first track from the Send Sor and Orie EP, features Chronic Future MC Mike Busse rapping in a sinister whisper over an audio overload of clicks, squelches and microscopically intricate bleeps and blips.
"I wanna do more melodic, organic stuff, minimal, not so busy, but really kind of hone in on precise beats, clear ideas, really try to make it more coherent," Breen explains. The remainder of the songs on the EP reflect a more subdued, jazzy perspective, playful and warm on tracks like "Brologic" and "Fun."
"Some of the older stuff I've done, there's so much sound involved and so many sounds involved, that's what I was going for, the sensory overload, it's hard to pay attention to every single sound that's going on because it's so busy," he adds.
"As I go on, I want to do less of that and just make statements, rhythmical and sonic statements, with vocals, make really potent statements. Have a beat alone that's interesting enough to keep your attention for a while. Just a few little twists in it to make it stand out. I'd like to always be able to go back to the sensory-overload, ADD-type feel, when I need to, but not depend on that all the time."
Innovative music may be hard to find in the Valley, but beneath the mediocre surface of the music scene, anomalies like Back Ted N-Ted are lurking, waiting to blow your mind.
This is Breen's vision: "I'm playing a set, you can listen to the music, you can watch me on the laptop, I'm just kind of doing this (mimics typing) and dancing around a little bit, not very interesting. You can watch [my friend] Lawrence cooking, which also isn't very interesting, but hopefully he cooks some good food, hopefully I play good music. Just make it something a little more interactive for the audience."
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