OK Computer

A musical boy and his laptop give new meaning to the term Mac Daddy

Twenty-three-year-old electronica prodigy Jake Mandell is sitting in the spacious basement of his parents' Edina home playing connect the dots. Working on one of the two computers he uses to make music, he adjoins a series of onscreen boxes, manipulating a simple shape in as many different directions as he can imagine. (Think Photoshop for sound.) Adding new weaves and wrinkles to his inorganic music's timbral pattern, Mandell tweaks the onscreen image until it begins to resemble--ironically enough--a DNA strand. Breakbeat science, indeed. "It still sounds computery," he says as the waveform spasmodically flips and flutters. "But I kind of like that supercrisp digital sound."

Today's goal is to come up with an orchestration he can add to his ever-expanding library of 200 completed tracks, the best of which appear on his excellent full-length debut import, Parallel Processes (Worm Interface). Such productivity might seem daunting, but for Mandell--a computer nerd since his father brought home one of the first Apple PCs 15 years ago--moving the mouse is second nature.

"I'm not a hermit, but I do enjoy working alone," he says. "Sometimes I'll make two or three tracks in a day, and it keeps me in the house a lot. I have to time myself so that I don't just keep working on music." Mandell's thick specs, pale skin, and distracted manner fit this shut-in stereotype almost too perfectly. But his halting demeanor hides a relaxed, funny guy who's well aware of the comic appeal of his awkwardness. "I'd be a DJ, except I have no coordination and no sense of rhythm," he says.

Eight hours later at Jitters's monthly experimental music night, the New Atlantis, he proves that in the post-dance scene, one does not need motor skills and turntables to work a crowd. Armed with nothing but his laptop, Mandell sets about creating a series of impressionistic sound sculptures reminiscent of creations by Kraut-poppers Mouse on Mars. The gray-blue light of the Mac casts a glow across his face as he squints into his monitor.

While the image of an unassuming geek hunched over a laptop, screwing with preset rhythms and sounds might not sound like a funky good time, Mandell's constantly shifting beats and elastic melodies stir an audience that had previously been using the evening's blips and bleeps as conversation fodder. A few even start dancing. Excepting the inevitable lulls, Mandell's set cooks, turning what could have been a grooveless theoretical exercise into physically satisfying music.

Born and raised outside Boston, the young Jake was, by his own admission, a bit different from the other kids. "When I was in day care, they had two instructors," he remembers. "One to take care of me, and the other one for the rest of the kids. I was always looking at the cracks in the sidewalk and inspecting acorns."

While studying piano in his teens, Mandell became obsessed with Mozart, Danny Elfman, and Keith Jarrett. At 13 he developed in interest in film music and began scoring soundtracks on a cheap synthesizer. "You hear about people like Aphex Twin writing brilliant stuff when he was 13, but the stuff I was writing was just trash. I never knew what was up," he says.

Studying biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mandell was introduced to electronic music through Stewart Walker, a techno-producing classmate. "When I heard drum 'n' bass, I became obsessed with it, and I knew I had to start writing it myself," he remembers. "I felt isolated in Madison; it's a pretty small town. So it was really neat to move here and find people who are really interested in this music."

Setting up camp in his parents' newly purchased Edina home, Mandell tinkered happily in obscurity for months before his recent "discovery" by the local and international dance communities. He has garnered the interest of London's Warp Records--the Stax-Volt of home-listening electronica--and his work has been touted in the two most prominent post-rave culture mags, Urb and The Wire. "Artcore drum 'n' bass as it should be," wrote Wire columnist Peter Shapiro, "[with] slightly unsettling atmospheres and whispered off-kilter beats that add to the tension."

Indeed, his music, as heard on the out-of-print Midwest EP and the highly anticipated Parallel Processes, is as bracing as it is engaging. Both records feature stuttering, flopping drum 'n' bass rhythms that never lose their pulse. Mandell shares the compositional intelligence of his idols Aphex Twin and Autechre: Odd rhythms hook you in, busy micromelodies hold your attention, and subtle variations keep you hanging on. Yet even at its most athletic, his best stuff never sounds forced. And tracks on compilations such as Lucky Kitchen's Blip, Bleep (Soundtracks to Imaginary Videogames), the Worm Interface sampler Alternative Frequencies 3, and his own 12-inch (released under the name Prime Deep) suggest he's just getting started.

Right now Mandell is tentatively scheduled to head for England in early 1999 as part of a Worm Interface tour, which could introduce his thrilling live sound-puzzles to a larger, more enthusiastic audience. In the meantime he'll be playing "here and there" around town in the hope of accumulating enough money to allow for the long-awaited move out of Mom and Dad's downstairs. "I realize there's a lot of factors beyond my control," he says. "But if I can't make a career out of it, I'll probably just end up becoming a programmer."

 
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