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If electronic musicians are supposed to be sedate, bedroom-bound wallflowers, then why is Hrvatski such a hyper-opinionated packet of wiry energy? I've so far followed the Massachusetts-based artist, who is otherwise known as Keith Fullerton Whitman, through his late-night laptop session at New York's experimental music venue Tonic, an early-morning musique concrète radio performance at the college station WNYU-FM (89.1), and a breakneck shoe-shopping spree to replace his worn-out soles. The man shows no sign of tiring.
"I actually think Attitude"--Kid 606's lauded N.W.A. tribute record--"was a really lame idea," he says, amid bites of a quick lunch at a Manhattan sandwich shop. (Shoe shopping requires fuel.) "And his new stuff, he's putting a Missy Elliott track through a [distortion] plug-in, and people are saying it's genius. Which is ludicrous, considering how much more work, how many millions and millions of dollars, went into the original!"
Despite how it may seem, Whitman isn't being snarky or scenesterish. On the contrary, comments like these cascade forth during the conversation as part of his dizzying, mile-a-minute--and at times, delightfully contradictory--flow of ideas. This shouldn't surprise those who've followed his confusingly diverse career. Gaining notoriety first for writing eclectic, jump-cut reviews for the legendary Forced Exposure online experimental-music store, Hrvatski has in the past few years carved out a recording career of his own that has spun from wildly distorted breakbeats to minimalist drones and high-tech experimentalism. Last year saw institutional validation of sorts for him with the release of his ambitious RKK13 CD (on his own impossibly named label, Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge). The album allowed such famed contributors as Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke free license to splice and re-splice Hrvatski's debut album Attention: Cats, with startling results.
Now, of course, on the eve of his largest U.S. tour to date, Whitman has (as always) a lot of things on his mind. He's still struggling to work out how to make his laptop performances as visually memorable as they are sonically involving. "The thing is, I'm really into sound, and laptops are great for just pure sound," he says. "I hate to use that whole 'cinema of the ears' thing, but that's really applicable--that the music takes you somewhere. Of course, the trade-off is a massive lack of physical or visual stimuli."
Such complaints are common now that laptops are becoming an increasingly popular instrument for live sound. But Whitman seems to relish the argument as much as the music. "That's the thing that's great about laptops: They're a kind of exciter. They open up a whole new can of worms," he notes.
"When we play in Europe, people are fine. But in the U.S. people expect rock, and so they end up screaming at us: 'Check your e-mail!' But when you go to a rock show, what's the physical stimuli? Is it interaction? Is it human beings? Is it sweat? Is it storytelling? Is it movement? Is it agility? Is it grace and beauty? Other than the physicality of strumming, what is it that laptop music is missing?"
Whitman's own particular interest in the laptop lies in its almost infinite sonic capabilities, many of which are expressed in his live performance through sets that change almost entirely from night to night. His last jaunt through the U.S. saw him infuriating his beat-freak constituency by delving into digitally processed guitar drones. But Hrvatski's latest Tonic set melded extreme drill 'n' bass and early tape-collage aesthetics into a beautiful freeform and free-floating mass of acoustic particles.
"I'm always playing devil's advocate," says Whitman. "You can play to the crowd to some extent, but it's also fun to play at them every now and then. I mean, I'm playing at Tonic. They're the most willing crowd; they would accept any drone thing I wanted to do. So instead I really wanted to play a totally beat-matched set, where nobody would dance 'cause they'd all be sitting down."
"The thing is," he continues, getting worked up again, "I'm a consummate music junkie. I like so many styles of music. Indie-rock made everything ironic, but you can be respectful and eclectic. I could see how someone would think it was funny if I went into a Prince-style falsetto onstage, but the thing is, Prince rules! There's no sarcasm at all when I say Prince makes incredible music."
All these thoughts, it seems, are in service of Whitman's relentless and unending quest for perfect sound. As Whitman himself points out, "In what other [genre] can you get away with being so rampantly eclectic?"