by Brian Cook
on Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 2:06 PM
Seattle’s controversial electronoise outfit Crypts celebrated their return from tour with a Halloween show at Chop Suey with Ononos, Haunted Horses, and Battle Stations. Just prior to their departure, I ran into Crypts’ Bryce Brown in a neighborhood bar. He had just gotten done rehearsing their set for tour, which, he joked, really just involved practicing hitting the space bar on a laptop. The joke, as anyone that’s seen Crypts is assuredly aware of, is that they are anything but a “just hit play” electronic group. Of the half dozen or so times I’ve seen Crypts, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them get through a set without a glitch caused by human error. But far from that being a hindrance, it’s actually a perfect demonstration of what I wish I’d see more often in electronic acts: danger and fallibility. There’s musical interaction between the players in Crypts; there’s a correlation between the energy in the club and how their music is performed. Sometimes shit comes unplugged. Sometimes cues are missed. This is what I want out of the live music experience. Perhaps I’m just tainted with a “rockist” perspective, and Crypts are still able to appeal to that neural point that wants things to be ragged and imprecise. Or perhaps life has lead me down a path where I expect more out of a show than machinery running on autopilot.
Even as a little kid back in the '80s, I remember having to endure the occasional “special music performance” at church, which usually consisted of someone in the congregation singing solo along with a cassette tape. Even at that age, I didn’t understand why someone would choose to sing along with prerecorded music when the church had a pianist, an organist, and a guy that played acoustic guitar, especially when the cassette always sounded like the thin canned music you’d hear in a department store. Didn’t seem particularly “special” to me.
In 2001, I saw Phantomsmasher open for Fantômas at the Showbox. Phantomsmasher was just James Plotkin sitting at a fold-up card table, sipping a mug of coffee, and poking at his laptop. While his music made all the DHR/Alec Empire albums of the previous decade sound like Erasure, his stage gimmick made the utterly boring Atari Teenage Riot/Shizuo/EC8OR show I’d seen years prior seem vibrant and alive in comparison. At the end of the set, the Fantômas fan standing in front of me turned to his friend and said “I’m not sure if that was the greatest thing ever or if it was total bullshit.” I was equally torn at the time, but in the years since I’ve never bothered listening to my Phantomsmasher album again. Prior to the show, Phantomsmasher made me think of an army of rabid drummers besieged by angry robots. Now it makes me think of a guy sitting at his computer and sipping coffee.
In 2003, Fischerspooner played the Showbox. I remember there being some controversy because they lip-synched, but the issue was largely dismissed because they ‘fessed up to it and said the show was meant to be more of a performance-art thing than an actual concert. I admit I kinda liked that song “Emerge,” though I think just about everyone liked that song around 2002-2003. Electroclash had tapped into the mainstream. A year later Ashley Simpson became the butt of countless jokes because she lip-synched on television.
I caught a live performance by Tim Hecker in Switzerland about six years ago. He opted to set up shop at the sound booth instead of on stage. He wore a dark robe and a mask. He recoiled whenever the house lighting guy tried to train a spotlight on him. It was an anti-performance. Was Hecker acknowledging that there was no real performance to be had? With a laptop as his only instrument, there was no visual spectacle to accompany his music. If an audience wanted to hear Hecker through a big PA, here was their chance, but he wasn’t going to try to convince anyone that he was somehow summoning all these different sounds from the ether.
I like that Hecker played in the soundbooth. Isn’t the role of a producer to be behind a mixing board?
On May 22, 2011, I was in Lincoln, NE with my husband. We met up with a friend who took us to Lincoln’s only gay bar, The Q. Our expectations were low for a prairie-state gay bar on a Sunday night, but it wound up being the night of an annual regional drag competition. The place was packed and the performances were top notch. The highlight routine was a rendition of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” with the little spoken-word intro of “Control” thrown in at the beginning for good measure. The choreography was a spot-on tribute to Miss Jackson’s militaristic routine, complete with the uniforms and back-up dancers. “This is a story about control.” It was executed perfectly—stern, sharp, precise. I imagined the drag queen up there knew a thing or two about feeling the oppressive weight of control. Surviving and thriving as a gay African-American man in rural Nebraska must require an almost militaristic toughness. She could've given Fischerspooner a run for their money.
In June 2012, DJ/producer Deadmau5 managed to piss off just about everyone by saying that when it comes to EDM “we all hit play.” It confirmed and refueled rockists’ annoyance with electronic music; it exposed some of the lazier producers in the field; and of course, it downplayed some of the more gifted and hands-on musicians in electronic world. But it also prompted some interesting discussions about the nature of live electronic music, particularly with regard to the role of performance and recreating something on stage when there isn’t always something to actually recreate. Is there a point to pretending there’s something more to the live execution of a song if everything really just runs on autopilot? Do people really go to Deadmau5 concerts to see him actually do something?
Some folks go out to clubs just to hear music on a big soundsystem and to congregate with kindred spirits. I understand; There are nights where I’m content to hang out at a bar and listen to someone spin records. But ultimately, I prefer to witness musicians actively doing their craft. I want to see how the magic happens. I’m not making a judgment here; some folks want to watch the creative process, some folks just want to hear songs they like. It only gets strange when an artist whose work lacks an innate live element tries to make the leap into the realm of performance. It obfuscates the distinctions between musicianship and theater. Perhaps this distinction doesn’t matter, or perhaps blurring the lines is the new frontier in music. As long as the future still involves groups like Crypts—artists who are entrenched in the live reproduction of their songs and aren’t afraid to break a sweat in the process—then I’m all for it.