Electric Company

Two local jazz luminaries become laptop converts

"I'm a drummer! I want rhythm!"

I'm sitting in my building's laundry room with Huntley Miller and JT Bates (a.k.a. Grid), and Bates is lamenting the occasional randomness of Autechre's drum attack at last year's Woman's Club performance.

"We both have musically trained ears. We really can't stand it if the beats aren't in time," Bates says. "If I want that sort of thing, I'll listen to free jazz. I'm really not attracted to computer-generated chaos."

It's easy to see why Bates and Miller would blanch at Autechre's rhythmic lack of grace. Bates, one of the area's most respected jazz drummers, sports a CV longer than a registration-day line at Music Tech. Miller, a former student of renowned jazz master Anthony Cox, currently holds the demanding job of being one of two bass guitarists in Poor Line Condition. Both Miller and Bates are mainsprings of the illustrious, anything-goes improv combo T. Both were instrumental, so to speak, in blazing Suki Takahashi's jazzy drum 'n' bass trail. And, as further testimony to their musical eclecticism, they met nearly three years ago in an indie-rock band called Tugboat.

So formidable are the pair's combined credentials, in fact, that you have to ask, how is it that two accomplished musicians--sturdy fellows, with a history of hauling band gear to shows--got so caught up in electronics?

I had to ask anyway. "I got into effects pedals and looping," Miller reports. For his part, Bates sought a richer percussion palette. Once they started, they were hooked. Over the course of a few years, they amassed a compact arsenal of samplers, synths, and drum machines, knowing that sooner or later they'd make the move to computer-based creation. The turning point in Miller and Bates's transition from hardware to software came this past February, before a show in First Avenue's Mainroom. "We had dismantled our entire studio, dragged it to the club, and set it up on a table. About half an hour later, Matt Arnold"--local laptop luminary Mr. Projectile--"shows up with these two little bags and sets up in, like, five minutes. I looked at JT and said, 'We're getting laptops.'"

Their story is a common one: Contrary to widely held beliefs, many of the folks making electronic music today have backgrounds that involve playing "real" instruments, as opposed to starting out as DJs or latent appliance fetishists. Consider the locally spawned strain: Jake Mandell played classical piano for years before taking up the PowerBook. Chris Sattinger (Timeblind) majored in saxophone at the prestigious Eastman School of Music and also played guitar with local dream-poppers Fauna in the early 1990s. Despite their electronic sound-making expertise, Triangle's Brian Tester and Amanda Warner remain married to the guitar and bass. Then you've got Ed Ackerson, Martin Dosh, Bob Mould--the list goes on.

Why the switch? "You have so much more control over the final product with electronics," Bates asserts. "Instead of trying to explain the sound you're looking for to someone [else], you can just make it yourself. You can compose, do sound design, production. It just sort of becomes one thing instead of this division of labor. It's much easier to realize your vision--assuming you have one."

Grid certainly do, and the four tracks on Lake 11, their self-released debut CD, provide telling evidence of it. Stately and spacious, with an ear for melodic counterpoint that verges on baroque at times, the album is--for lack of a better designation--classic IDM. While at times it evokes early Autechre (a professed influence for both Bates and Miller), the album's end product is distinctly Grid's. Original flourishes abound, from the pipe-organ-style bassline that offsets the funky drums on "Alaska," to the ionospheric chromo-dub of "Everything's Orange."

To the casual listener, Lake 11 seems like solid laptop invention: less clamorous than some, more musical than most. Only thing is, Grid hadn't yet gotten their laptops when they recorded it. The EP was made using classic synths, two Korg Electribe drum machines, and a little Yamaha sequencer they picked up for 40 bucks. And while PowerBooks do figure heavily in their plans, especially when it comes to playing live, Grid have no intention of abandoning their other, hardware-based gear. Not for now, anyway.

When I ask Miller how he feels about the fact that many consider watching live electronica--especially the laptop-generated variety about as exciting as watching someone write a term paper, he has a ready answer. (Seems I'm not the first to pose this question as of late.) The band would like to incorporate a visual artist, Miller explains. "But we don't want someone who's just going to pop in a videotape and let it run," he continues. "Ideally, we'd like to find someone who'd be willing to improvise about as much as we do"--their live shows are about 40 percent improvised. "Until then, I'd like to think that the music is strong enough, that it has enough passion, to stand on its own."

 
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