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IF YOU'VE EVER flipped through the record collection of any aficionado of experimental music, chances are good you found some old bargain-basement easy-listening platters with titles like Starlight Serenade, Twilight Music, and Ping Pong Percussion alongside the Krautrock and British avant-noise LPs. Indeed, there seems to be a discernible crossover between fans of easy listening, and, well, difficult listening.
"I've seen radio playlists for noise shows which begin and end with a Martin Denny, Les Baxter or Jackie Gleason tune" notes local DJ Rod Smith. "Actually [S.F. experimentalists] the Residents were heavily influenced by Martin Denny."
If this belies a taste for aesthetic extremes, Smith would know. The enthusiastic Twin Cities tastemaker was one half of the early electronic-noise act Lies Incorporated in the '80s, and is now a DJ for First Avenue's eclectic Wednesday night format. His brainchild, the loungy Polar Bear Club, was founded in 1994 by Smith and fellow DJ David Lofquist, who met at KABL radio in the '80s. ("Lofquist was flying a Jimmy Swaggart record over an instrumental record by A Certain Ratio," remembers Smith. "I thought, 'Ah--kindred spirits!'") Long before the Cocktail Nation made the cover of Esquire, Smith, Lofquist and the since-departed Mike Wolf presented their easy-listening evenings to strong response at the Entry, the Loring Bar, the Uptown Bar and the Walker. Smith's premise was to create "a situation where the music was in the middle foreground, and people would come to listen, or dance, or simply talk. The music provided the medium for socializing, as opposed to the all-encompassing thing that one encounters in a normal club situation."
Cue forward two years. The Polar Bear Club has now morphed into the Electric Polar Bear Club, which takes its first stab at the First Avenue mainroom on Thursday night. The social, laid-back mood will remain, but the hosts and guest DJs will switch the focus to ambient, drone, trip hop, modern jazz and electronic "neo-easy listening," with some traditional African and Asian music thrown in. "The Electrification came about because Lofquist and I were getting tired of these frat boy types coming in and obviously not really caring or knowing, but just having entry-level buzzwords, you know, 'Frankie, Sammy, Dino,'" explains Smith. "That, and we were becoming dismayed with the one-dimensional dress-up nature that was developing. The Electric Polar Bear Club will be more casual."
It will also provide a chance for guest DJs more often associated with dance music--JT, Drone, Chris Sattinger, and Pull--to show off other sides of their expansive record collections. On Thursday, those DJs plus Tim DuRoche will throw down wax, with music cameos by The John Devine Quartet and Wave Guide. Spoken-word segments will be held down by Paul Dickinson, L Williams, Carole Selin and Jeffrey Little. Magician Steve Fingerett will perform some sleight of hand. And if that's not enough, the Polar Bear staff will be giving away many of its old easy-listening records (see above) in droves. But Smith denies he's totally burying the Polar Bear Club of old: "I love the past, and that's still going to play a big part [in the PBC]. It just seems the past is being extensively addressed now. And I love the future, too."