By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Jason Shapiro's apartment is so free of clutter that the Kiss dolls on the mantle stand out like clowns in a museum. In fact, they're little monuments to an otherwise undetectable rock 'n' roll obsession. "I bought my first Kiss album when I was four," he says. "Wanting to go see Kiss and knowing I couldn't was just awful."
Shapiro, 24 years old, finally did see Kiss on their reunion tour, but he's hardly grown up to be Paul Stanley. Outfitted in what might be called office casual--save for his early-era Depeche Mode coif--Shapiro works as a computer programmer in downtown Minneapolis and usually gets to bed before 11 p.m.: "I'm really lame," he says sheepishly.
Many a local music fanatic would beg to differ. Shapiro's electronic music ensemble, Ousia, has gained a strong following for its weird, gorgeously textured space-fuzz music. Live, the band wears matching outfits and gold masks--glam having taught Shapiro the value of putting on a good show. "If four Minnesota guys walked up there in flannels and did what we do, I think we would lose our audience right away."
Yet Ousia will soon meet this fate nonetheless. The day before I interview Shapiro, he's encountered some bad news. "It all happened over e-mail," he says, sounding deflated, but not bitter. Ousia has just broken up. The split was long in coming, with time constraints--not personal or musical differences--precipitating the end. A day later, the group's members have gotten together to talk and rehearse for the gig that will be their final show. Though they'd recently sworn off wearing the masks, Shapiro says they'll don them one last time.
This Saturday, Ousia will head up the Future Perfect Sound System, a recurring multimedia, multiartist "be-in" that served as Ousia's training ground back in 1996. The band's improvised hums and buzzes will fill the expansive Weisman Art Museum, where the entire shindig will be lit by the Magic Lantern Light Show (famous for their work with the Doors) and broadcast on the Net. Obscure but excellent artists A Most Happy Sound, Uneven, Lost in Translation, and Satoshi Shinozaki will perform alongside respected DJs such as Rob "Tempest" Williams and REV 105 legend Kevin Cole, who will appear from Seattle via the Net to "spin" a yarn by DJing a batch of children's story records. Guitarist Chuck Zwicky will play along with stories by local folkie Larry Long, and even indie-rocker Dylan Hicks will stop by for a bit of impromptu avant-gardening.
Future Perfect organizer Chris Strouth has specialized in these kinds of multimedia projects since he started dreaming up experimental music blowouts at the Red Eye in the early '90s. But Future Perfect is a culmination of sorts, an effort to wash away the dividing line between rock show and rave. "What Chris said with Future Perfect was, 'Look, here's electronic music, and you don't have to dance to it,'" Shapiro explains. "You can enjoy it in a different way." The same could be said of Ousia, who without venues like Future Perfect might never have found an audience.
Last year, the event moved from First Avenue to the Walker Art Center, giving it some high-culture cachet, and a nonrock context where the idea of undanceable dance music somehow seemed less pretentious than in First Ave.'s more traditional bar setting. The continuing emphasis on atmosphere may allow Future Perfect to become a sort of '90s version of Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a space where unusual music (say, the Velvet Underground humping that mighty E Major into eternity) makes perfect sense.
The import of a scene like this to Ousia cannot be overstated: As Shapiro readily admits, it's doubtful that three years ago an ambient electro band without any lyrics or block-rockin' beats could have drawn the crowds Ousia draws, spit out a wonderful CD (1997's Why Is That a Four?), and received the plaudits of an ecstatic local press and the Minnesota Music Academy.
Shapiro's earliest music experiences had more in common with the guitar braying of Minneapolis's last musical renaissance. Yet after spending his formative years playing drums in punk-rock bands, Shapiro became enamored with classical avant-garde music, and sold his drum set before graduating high school. When asked if a lot of nonelectronic bands go through an early, unrecorded avant-garde "phase" (like the Clash with their mid-'70s sheet-metal drumming), he nods. "It usually gets discouraged right away," he says, adding that people who want to "make it" often leave rec-room dissonance behind. "Developing a vocabulary of noise and implementing it in a way that's interesting and original is very difficult."
But during Ousia's two-year existence, a new milieu has emerged to nourish oddballs communicating through a new language composed of ham-radio feedback, Casio jazz, and de-funked rare grooves. Cabarets such as the New Atlantis at Jitters (which Shapiro co-founded) and the Polar Bear Club complement Future Perfect's goal of tweaking the music-consuming experience. They also tap into a new pool of artists: "I think that there's a lot more people doing this kind of music than we know," Shapiro says. "It's just happening in their bedrooms and in their basements. I don't think electronic music has grown, actually. I just think it's moved further out in the open."