Monday, June 28, 2010

Dance Rock Revolution: Boston's rock and electronic scenes make sweet music together


As a general rule, it's a good idea to be suspicious of trend pieces in magazines, particularly when it comes to something as mercurial and amorphous as the concept of a brand new music scene! Half the time the stories end up predicting the dawn of a genre no one gives a shit about five minutes after publication, and the other half they read more like a recap of last night's episode of Duh the series. With that in mind, I'm not exactly going to come out and say this is officially the year that the worlds of rock and electronic music have finally consummated their long-drawn-out courtship in Boston, because those two kids have been engaged in an on-again, off-again thing for years. (Get a room.) But just between us, it's a pretty exciting time to be watching the worlds of rock and dance, well, rock and dance together.

The first thing you're gonna need when you're trend-hyping is a big shiny example to hang your idea on. There's no question here that Passion Pit, the hottest band out of Boston on the national stage for the past two years, fit the mold nicely. The band's ghostly carnival-tripping-through-space songs have been licensed all over the ad world. They've been selling out shows across the country and doing tons of high-profile remix work. And even weirder, they are seriously good. It's not supposed to work that way, right? Let's put it this way: they are a band from Boston that everyone reading this has heard of. That's not all that common.

Part of Passion Pit's appeal comes from their sonic and stylistic fence-sitting. But haven't rock bands in Boston been utilizing the liberating neon power of synths and computer effects ever since that girl out of The Human League was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar? "It's funny to think of what makes an ‘electronic band' at this point," says Sean Drinkwater, a longtime veteran of the Boston electronic/rock border clashes given his 10-plus years performing in the synth-pop outfits Freezepop and Lifestyle. "I think Passion Pit are a band that uses electronics in the studio, but live they are still more or less a rock band. It's a good formula. You get the impact of musicians really laying a foundation, but the arrangements get to be more complex and thought-out since they're triggering lots of synths and samples that have been programmed in advance. It's a smart decision for many reasons."

Boston hasn't always been so welcoming to the seemingly simple marriage of genres. "I think Boston has come into its own as far as electronic music goes, and I'm a bit disappointed that it didn't happen five or six years ago," says Drinkwater. "At this point, we kind of feel even more like outsiders to the whole thing, even though we've been attempting to re-pioneer it for seemingly ages in many different bands."

Why did it take so long for things to cross over then? "The dance club scene generally doesn't follow local rock very closely," says Dave Virr, aka Dave Duncan, local music booker and WFNX DJ. "Synth pop has always had a foothold here. But bands like Passion Pit and Bodega Girls have crossed over to that [dance club] crowd. I think some of it has to do with dance nights that feature live bands at the beginning of the night, whether it's The Pill or Paper. Those nights attract people who wouldn't go to T.T. the Bear's to hear four local rock bands on a bill together, but they will check out a band while they're working on their dance floor buzz over at the bar."


"I sometimes get guff from my DJ buddies about liking ‘guitar-based music,' " says Jamie Michalski, aka Die Young, one of the resident DJs at Make It New at the Middlesex Lounge, the center of the trend-forward dance club scene in Boston for the past couple of years. "I would imagine that the same applies for rock kids that listen to techno."

"I would agree," says Evan Kenney of Bodega Girls, perhaps the literal embodiment of this scene cross-pollination experiment. Composed of members of notable Boston rock bands like Kenney's defunct screamers Read Yellow and longtime scene vet Jake Brennan, the band throws "lo-fi hedonistic dance parties"  that are a blend of soul, funk, punk, and electro. Remember all that stuff in the Bible about how dancing makes you pregnant? This is what they were talking about.

"Even though Boston is basically a small town, it is easy to be unaware of different ‘scenes.' If you didn't know where to look, you would never know that electronic music and DJ nights even existed in this city if you never left the rock-and-roll bubble," says Kenney.

"My old band was definitely heavily involved with Boston rock and roll, but at the same time I was a huge fan of electronic and hip-hop music, and it took me some time to find where to go in Boston to be a part of it," Kenney continues. "I think the shift just happened because there needed to be a change. Shit was getting pretty stale there for a spell. The crossover sounds within these newer bands may have helped in drawing a wider audience. We all love the same records, people still love to dance, and they love to rock the fuck out and get rowdy. This has become more apparent in the nightlife."

The style gap has been closing for a while, Michalski says. "With more and more [international] artists that cross the divide like Cut Copy and Hot Chip, Memory Tapes, Neon Indian, and Delorean, and with some older acts like Out Hud and !!!, both camps can probably agree, for a few minutes anyway, that dance-informed rock is good and is getting better. And it's not a new phenomenon either; it's just more the logical end to millions of kids from the 1980s having access to ... any band they want through the power of the Internet, then throwing all of those influences in a blender and coming out as bands that throw down a mishmash of all of their favorite and, more importantly, nostalgia-inducing music."

It could also be just a matter of economics and logistics. DJ equipment is cheap now, and drum kits are unwieldy. Programming beats on your laptop saves a lot of money and space in a van. YouTube and inexpensive equipment have democratized the practice of DJing, says Nate Bluhm of Mystery Roar, the Boston band with the most seamless blend of dance music presented in a live-rock format and my new favorite Boston band of any kind (just saying). "All you need is taste, and to be a good host and performer," Bluhm says.

But some people still won't think of that model as a "real" band. Some people are assholes. "I think when people don't see a drummer or other musicians playing the music they hear coming from the PA, they tend to have a hard time justifying it as live music," says Paul Morse of noisy beat project PPALMM. "The past 10 years, people have been changing their perspectives on music, so much so that the conjunction of the typical rock-band layout and the electronic-music setup are basically all the same thing. Everyone's got a synthesizer now, and everyone is over-producing the hell out of music on their laptops because you can work outside of the limitations of band mates and the band relationship dynamic."

"Locally, the demarcations you are talking about were completely obliterated by the [Together electronic-music festival recently held in Boston], with its mix of live acts and DJs," says Bluhm. At Dopamine, the label that puts out his band's records alongside other rock and electronic acts, "They don't give two shits about the old paradigm."

Another band trying to work outside these outdated limits is the synth-pop dance-rock group Bearstronaut. "Our mentality in Bearstronaut is trying to produce the same effect as a DJ, but playing instruments on stage," says frontman Dave Martineau. "A certain level of engagement is now being demanded by the Boston dance bands. We want people to feel like they're welcome to join us on the dance floor at as many of our shows as possible in order to break down that sometimes inevitable wall between band and audience."

This sort of genre crossover is being seen more and more often at places like Middlesex and his club, says Good Life owner Peter Fiumara. He believes in it enough that he's just launched a record label called Fort Point Recordings that will put out both live-band and electronic records. "Most DJs are in bands or producing with bands," he says. That's the case with one of his first signings, DJ André Obin's decidedly rock-and-roll outfit Endless Wave. "People want to see a little of both, and just as the musicians are interchangeable, the fans are as well."

At the Middle East, they've had a lot of success with just that, throwing electronic music-oriented dance nights with rock-show trappings like Throwed! "The rock and dance scenes are definitely separated, but on the best occasions, the scenes mix well," says club publicist Clay Fernald. "Rock bands that have a party vibe mix well with the DJ scene, if pulled off properly. Bands first ... then a raging dance party after."

"I do feel like kids nowadays hold less of a blood allegiance to specific genres," says Christopher Principe. His band Hooray for Earth, the Boston-New York outfit who've just released a genre-confounding EP called Momo, seem next in line for breaking through to national indie status. "I'm not sure why, but it's probably because of the magic Internet making everything so readily available. Music dorks have such a giant and diverse pool to choose from that it's easy to cross genre lines. If a song is good, then it's good. It doesn't matter where it comes from or what instrument it was made by. So now you see the same slouching hipster at a dance night at Middlesex one night and a rock show at the Middle East the next."

"The bands that are doing dance rock or pop, like us and Bodega Girls, are not only performing at traditional rock venues, but we're hosting dance parties at Enormous Room, Middlesex, and ZuZu," says Bluhm. "Some of these are straight-up DJ nights, and others include live performances." At a recent Enormous Room show, he DJ'd before and after his band's performance. "We mixed into our first song and out of our last song as seamlessly as I could at the time, and it was really inspiring."


Most of us have become omnivorous in our musical tastes by this point, so it makes sense that mingling "scenes" would come as a result from literally mingling scenes. "It comes down to the fact that what's happening is that what used to be different crews is all in one," says Michael Potvin, one half of electro duo #1Dad & DJ Fred Mertz and DJ at parties like Thunderdome.

In his opinion, remixes of bands' music always end up being better than the original. Why not just cut out the middle man? "That's finally happening now," Potvin says. "We've got original music being produced, and those same producers are DJs and in a band. And they're bumping different versions of their track as the situation calls and feeding back between live performance, dance floor, and the World Wide Web."

"Here in Boston, there has always been am emphasis on live shows, and the rock-and-roll style of guitar, bass, and drums on stage, so electronic musicians are borrowing from that idea to bridge the gap from dance club to rock city. In that, they're getting the people, too, bringing the bedroom DJs together with the Sound Museum rats of Allston," Potvin says.

The result is a sort of Frankenstein's monster of instrumentation - DJs bringing their gear in front of a rock-club audience and screaming "It's alive!"

"It really gets interesting when you are starting to see more and more producers of electronic music dragging the studio onto the stage and rocking out next to bands with the old standard lineup," says Potvin. He name checks PPALMM as a good example of that phenomenon. "His music is 100% electronic in nature, yet his live show appeals to crowds who like live music, as well as those who appreciate DJ sets. It's that kind of thing that is driving this shift."

Meanwhile, having rockers and club kids meet up in mutual appreciation "creates something in this city that has been lacking," says Bodega Girls' Kenney. "It's pretty beautiful." His Cool Ranch party at Middlesex brings in tons of different types of kids, down for whatever.

Everyone knows that all it takes for a trend piece in journalism is three examples, and that's like, what, a hundred right here I just covered? Looks like another case closed. Kenney plays us out to the finish: "Maybe I am a hippie, but I am still into the whole ‘unity' thing," he says. "It's just a party. We aren't trying to be anything great; we just want to be one big energetic mixtape, a soundtrack to a night of hedonism. Dance, drink, make out ... we keep it loose." Those are a few things that pretty much any scene can agree on.

Want to hear these sonic hybrids yourself? Click here for a mix of tunes by some of the artists mentioned above. 

No comments: