Line O' the Times

While Poor Line Condition are pioneering live drum 'n' bass in the local music scene, their audience just likes to watch

No one is dancing. But the members of Poor Line Condition, who are responsible for the hyperkinetic gnarl of breakbeatery that pulses and twitches through the Entry tonight, assure me that many of their other shows have been less sedentary. "Everyone was dancing when we opened for Mouse on Mars in the Mainroom," says drummer Tim Glen when I speak to the group several weeks after the show. "We'd like more dancing," insists bassist James Buckley. To Buckley's left and right, the heads of Glen and bassist Huntley Miller nod in aggressive agreement. I believe these guys on all counts. But tonight, no one is dancing.

The crowd is hardly immune to the rhythm: The heads that tentatively bob do so with an evident feel for the music, not with a nod of hip knowingness. And this audience isn't scared off by the coiled intensity of the music. The floor of the Entry--that area so often used as a buffer between bands and wary onlookers--isn't empty, but rather is the site of a contemplatively seated semicircle of beatwise aficionados. From the back of the room, others gaze intently, as if taking in a particularly heated championship chess match.

Poor Line Condition's rhythm method keeps couples off the dance floor
Tony Nelson
Poor Line Condition's rhythm method keeps couples off the dance floor

Suddenly, a tiny young woman wearing a ruffled baby-doll dress eases down from the bleachers opposite the stage and starts to bump and slide toward the band. She's good. She has to be. Only the adventurous could be lured out onto the dance floor to risk being tripped up by the trio's triple-timed, hairpin breakbeats. A few minutes later, her friend joins her. No one else does. Maybe the difficulty factor is what's keeping them away.

This funk is tough, and I don't just mean in a gritty sense. I mean in a how'd they do that? sense, as well as a where are my feet supposed to go next? sense. Poor Line Condition are players in the Old School sense: a drummer and two bass players with enough chops to move easily between styles. Buckley pays the bills by playing dinner-club standards at Sophia's with a jazz combo, and he and Glen regularly unfurl more loosely ruled jazz at other venues. All three members contribute to the burgeoning local improv scene, as contributors to various units as well as charter members of the instrumental collective called T.

Glen and Buckley honed their craft playing together in Eau Claire, well before Photek and Source Direct entered their earscape. "I knew I was capable of doing it," says Glen of his breakbeat drumming, "because I'd played a lot of punk rock and grindcore. It was just a matter of adapting to the sound." The two came to Minneapolis in the spring of 1999, where Miller, who been playing funk and rock around town, was looking to move in a more adventurous direction. The three locked in together in the fall of 2000.

If the music of Poor Line Condition were merely a parlor trick--look, drum 'n' bass with no machines!--they wouldn't be worth our time. They'd be like Stanley Jordan. You remember him? The dude could tap out two distinct lines on his guitar at the same time, like he was Wes Montgomery and the Allman Brothers all rolled up into one slick, fleet-fingered package. Fun to catch for a few songs live, sure, but you know what his records sounded like? They sounded like two guitarists, or maybe the same guy double-tracked, playing boring jazz--bigdealsowhat. Manual dexterity can't count as an end in itself, at least not for long, no matter what fans of metal virtuosity or turntablist esoterica try to tell you.

What sets Poor Line Condition apart is their sense of composition. The term sounds dreary, or at least pompous, bringing to mind orchestral themes and variations. But it just means devising song structures with discrete but interconnected parts. While this stuff is cerebral, motorvated by internal discipline rather than the free exploration of jamming, it's far from attenuated. "Now, I think we hear this music better in our minds before we sit down to play it," offers Glen. "I'll hear Huntley play something, and I know what he's thinking, because I know his reference points."

So maybe these attentive non-dancers are absorbing the compositional aspect of the performance. Or maybe they're just curious what drum 'n' bass looks like. I mean, think about it--what does rock 'n' roll look like? Quick, don't try and be clever--you got a visual image almost immediately. It's probably four guys (yeah, guys, I said don't be clever, we're dealing in stereotypes) and they're white, too, and the lot of them are either thrashing about or staring at their feet, depending on your musical temperament. Keep going. Jazz? Funk? All of these give you a visual impulse of someone producing the sounds.

So what does drum 'n' bass look like, then? It looks like swirls of color projected against a screen, maybe, or maybe like a floor of bodies contorting intricately to the funk cutups--or maybe, if you absolutely needed to personify it, like a DJ. But as more of drum 'n' bass comes to be composed by laptop jocks, and as more of said geeks want to pass off the results as dance music, DJs are becoming less of a focus. And so, more often, drum 'n' bass now looks like some guy finishing his term paper at a keyboard.

Modern dance music comes from nowhere, just like milk comes from supermarkets rather than a cow. There's a good deal of mental anguish expended in its creation, but very little physical sweat, and all we hear is the end result: a disembodied beat, freed from the material. There is no more production apparent; all is consumption. So the sight of a human being propagating those jerkity beats is startling. (Glen also hangs triangles and bags of loose metal from his drum set to achieve the distinctive rattle of drum and bass, and plays with a set composed of multiple snares and small, high-pitched cymbals). Miller plays the traditional "bass" part, the low end, repeating, undulating, steadying the music. I know for sure that Buckley is playing a bass only because it has four strings and because I double-check with him in our interview later. It sounds like everything but a bass, modulated and phased into melodic sound waves that add a high-end texture to the proceedings.

Poor Line Condition don't really "put on a show." But the subtle communication between the musicians is riveting. Maybe that's why no one is dancing. You can dance to any drum 'n' bass, but how much drum 'n' bass do you get to watch?

 

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