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The Journey

Bearing the torch: DJ Markus Schulz.

"Yeah, Kraftwerk and the Backstreet Boys," chuckles Markus Schulz. The Phoenix DJ is laughing at the juxtaposition of the two, shall we say, diverse artists. For Schulz both have played important, though vastly different, roles in his development as an internationally respected DJ and music-industry player. The former -- the German electronic pioneers -- served as a seminal influence on a young Schulz when he first began merging dance and hip-hop tracks with the harsher Teutonic sounds emerging from his homeland. While Schulz's relationship with the boy-band cheese-makers was economic rather than musical: "They [the Backstreet Boys' record label] came to me and said, 'We've got this group' -- this was at the very beginning of their career -- 'and we want to have the clubs play them. They're very Top 40 and very commercial, but we want to do some remixes that club DJs would get into,'" remembers Schulz. "So I went into the studio with that, and I ended up remixing three songs for them that ended up being pretty successful. The band is obviously kind of lame, but the remixes helped pay for the label."

The label in question is Schulz's Plastik Records. Just back from a European jaunt, Schulz is understandably enthusiastic about the prospects for his growing DJ empire. Plastik Records (and the Plastik Records store in Tempe), which Schulz started in 1994, has just released its 19th record. And Schulz claims the label is selling out each pressing (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 copies).

The original impetus for starting Plastik was his own growing creative restlessness as a remix guru. Schulz became a sought after remixer with the international success of 1994's The Journey. European labels came calling, and, along with onetime studio partner C.L. McFadden, Schulz remixed tracks including Blue Amazon's "No Other Love," Bedrock's "For What You Dream Of" and Jayanne Hanna's "Lost With You." He also scored a series of domestic assignments reworking cuts by Poe, Madonna and the aforementioned Backstreet Boys. "I just got tired of doing remixes," says Schulz. "I wanted to experiment more. I really wanted to develop a unique sound and just experiment with sounds in general. That's why we started the label."

What started as a creative outlet has turned into a profitable and growing enterprise. During his recent European trip, Schulz finalized arrangements on a deal to license Plastik releases in Europe, began negotiations with a "major British underground label" to distribute in America, and confirmed the opening of a U.K. branch of Plastik Records. Add to that the start-up of a domestic Plastik offshoot label that will focus on "trancier" sounding fare, a track on Risk Records Torchbearers disc (a compilation that brings together top club DJs from across the U.S.) and a spot at the upcoming Zen Fest in L.A. -- an event that is expected to bring 20,000-plus -- and it's easy to see why Schulz is enthusiastic.

Born and raised in Germany, Schulz moved to America just as he hit his teens. His family settled in Boston, where he was immediately taken by the rich culture of the inner city. He first began to DJ by playing hip-hop at Beantown break-dance parties. "I started out listening to a lot of hip-hop. A combination of German electronica and hip-hop is what I started with when I was young," recalls Schulz. "The hard German sound has continued to influence me a lot. I've tried to play more of the soulful garagey stuff, but I could never get into it. My stuff has been getting harder and harder as years go by. That's what the German sound is all about."

From there Schulz began spinning in the Top 40 clubs. By the late '80s, he found that it was a life he was no longer suited for. "I got absolutely burnt out on that. Paula Abdul just worked my nerves," says Schulz with a laugh. "So I started DJing in the gay clubs. That was the only place where you could play good, progressive music."

Schulz's tenure in the gay clubs coincided with his move from Massachusetts to Phoenix in 1989. His timing was fortuitous, as elements of the rave and progressive scene that Schulz preferred had begun to find favor in larger clubs. "From there it just evolved into the underground stuff I play now. The gay scene evolved into the rave scene and that's what's basically turned into pop culture," notes Schulz.

In 1992, Schulz became resident DJ at The Works in Scottsdale. It was a spot he would hold from the club's opening night until its closure last October. Not long after the Works opened, 106.3-FM The Edge, then just starting out, approached Schulz about putting on an all-night dance/DJ program for the fledgling station. Schulz's The Edge Factor (which runs from 1 to 4 a.m.) on Sunday morning is the station's longest-running specialty program. The success of The Edge Factor has opened a number of doors for Schulz professionally, but the DJ regards the program as a labor of love. "The Edge Factor is my outlet. It's a release for me. It's frustrating for me sometimes because there's so much great music that I want to expose people to that I hear from all over the world, and that's really my kind of outlet to give back."

 

With his activity and long standing within the Phoenix scene, Schulz is in a unique position to address the state of Phoenix's club/dance culture. "It's funny because the scene keeps pushing forward, but it's not pushing forward as fast as Europe. The energy is starting to pick up again here in Phoenix, though. There was a time when there was a lot of energy, but it seemed to die down for a while. But this past year, I've really felt the whole thing pick back up a bit," says Schulz.

"[The scene] is still very young," continues Schulz. "It's a lot of kids, whereas in Europe it's older people, an older crowd. They were kids but now they've grown with the scene and they're still in it. That's the biggest difference as to what's happening in Arizona and what's happening in Europe. It's a big age difference."

Schulz is also quick to note that American and European styles contrast sharply. The differences are likely due to the age gap, but can also be traced to greater openness on the part of European clubgoers and an overall sense of sonic adventurism that is, in part, cultural. "The Europeans are much more into the eclectic stuff. It doesn't have to be just minimal techno stuff. You can really get into some complex things over there," claims Schulz. "It isn't just a techno beat all night long. You can be more patient with the music and play a song for like 10 minutes that really tells a story."

But Schulz isn't complaining. With his label booming and his store doing brisk business, Schulz is grateful that the music -- once the passion of small underground clique -- has finally emerged into the public consciousness. "During the techno surge back in the early '90s, the mainstream clubs didn't really embrace this music or acknowledge it. Now, you're seeing that happen. Which pretty much signifies the scene has seeped into the mainstream. I think it's great that it's finally happened."

Black Is Black: When you say your band plays "bastardized punk-inflected cowboy blues," it's a mouthful. But the beauty of Chicago's Blacks is that their musical stew genuinely lives up to such a broad and ambitious label. Described by Rolling Stone as "glam-country," the band manages to combine eccentricity and showmanship with a genuine feel for traditional folk balladry, classic country and rockabilly. The campy presence of Amazon bassist Gina Black, stiletto-heeled guitar virtuoso Nora O'Connor, the frenetic swing of drummer James Emmenegger and the white-suited pompadoured cool of front man Danny Black make for a fascinating floor show. Despite its flair and onstage panache, the group doesn't resort to shtick to make its point musically -- in that respect it's closer to the Cramps than to Southern Culture on the Skids. Pseudo-trailer trash isn't the Blacks' vibe, and you're more likely to find elements of neo-classical music in the bowed solos Gina Black wrings from her upright bass.

The Blacks' Bloodshot Records debut, Dolly Horrorshow, finds the band twisting and shaping conventional melodies and rhythms with a wide pallet of sounds. Few groups could follow a Bill Monroe hymnal with a wild, trumpet-fueled romp punctuated by screams and diddly-bowed hysteria and do it convincingly. The record (produced by noted alt-country guru Eric "Roscoe" Ambel) is full of moments like that, whether it's the close harmonies of "Tortured Holiday" or the bizarre country-punk yodel of "Crazy." Either way, the Blacks never fail to provide a complete sonic and visual feast.

The Blacks are scheduled to open for Don Caballero on Wednesday, October 6, at Modified.

Sideburns From Hell: It's a bit of a running joke in Denver that every year, Brethren Fast seems to be in a different category in Westword's (New Times' sister paper) music-awards showcase, and, each year, the new category seems just as inappropriate as the last one.

Having been named Denver's Best Rock/Pop Band two years in a row, the group just took honors as the city's Best Roots Band. It's the kind of identity crisis the group has learned to deal with. Blending a handful of seemingly incongruous styles and influences (including Johnny Cash, George Clinton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Junior Brown), the group has started to get some well-deserved national attention for its twangy, groove-filled sound. The band's current regional tour comes in support of its third release, 500 Laps of Beer Drinkin' Fun (which follows Sideburns From Hell and What in the Hell?).

 

Bash & Pop had the opportunity to stumble (quite literally) upon the band during a recent visit to the Mile High City. True to its press release, the group did somehow manage to pull off the strange concoction it calls "electrified hillbilly funk." Clad in Budweiser racing suits and aided by an act that includes big doses of humor and onstage trucker patter, the group's blazing 45-minute set did not disappoint. Locals will have ample opportunity to catch the combo as it makes a trio of appearances in Phoenix this week.

Brethren Fast is scheduled to perform on Thursday, September 30, at Peppino's Pizza in Tempe; on Friday, October 1, with Bit O' Jane at R.T. O'Sullivan's in Mesa; and on Saturday, October 2, as the band closes out its Phoenix triple bill with a show at the Balboa Cafe in Tempe.

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bmehr@newtimes.com


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