Log On, Tune in, Drop Out

Laptop drone artist Datura 1.0 hacks in through the doors of perception

None of the bohemians at Eli's Bar and Grill in Minneapolis are likely to look at Matt Cisler and think: "Shaved head, black T-shirt and jeans, five o'clock shadow--he must have stopped in from Billy Graham headquarters for a quick nonalcoholic brew." If anything, they'd probably take him for a cross between the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland and the leader of a peyote cult. And they wouldn't be too far off in that assumption.

Sending elegant smoke rings ceiling-ward, Cisler props himself against the bar, discussing the metaphysics of his various obsessions. "I'm a complete bass junkie," the local dronemeister and part-time Minneapolis Institute of Arts guard declares, perhaps giving the more casual eavesdroppers along the rail the impression that he's bragging about his fender-rattling car stereo or massive dub 12-inch collection. But as the force behind the solo electronic outfit Datura 1.0, he's far more interested in hotwiring synaptic connections than turning chicks' heads with his expansive low end.

His love of bass frequencies goes far deeper than mere product fetishism. "It might be because it's so physical, like thunderstorms and earthquakes," Cisler, a graduate of the MCAD punk-rock scene of the '80s, observes. "And that goes back to shamanism and to Gnosticism, where physical experience is as important as what goes on in your head."

As his fondness for both isms might tell you, Cisler has spent so much time tumbling down different rabbit holes that he could probably lend Alice and Neo a few fistfuls of frequent faller miles. Which might explain why the seasoned psychonaut's two new self-released discs, Morphium/The Pataloop and Happy Hell, explore what legendary Beat renaissance dude Alexander Trocchi referred to as "unexplored psychic territory"--the sprawling reality that squirms behind the facade of everyday life. Still, he wants to conduct his investigations with his head screwed all the way on (albeit not too tightly).

Cisler works in the realm of the senses, even when he's asleep. He created "Morphium," the first of the two long titular tracks on Morphium/The Pataloop, as an aid to lucid dreaming--and, as you may have already guessed, the piece is not something you're likely to encounter at your next new-age fun fair. It opens with a few unintelligible, computer-generated syllables that sound as if they were intoned by something that had once been human, then oozes into nearly 17 minutes of undulating moans, hums, buzzes, and rumbles that evoke super-intelligent giant squids going about their squidly business in the eternal twilight of some undersea metropolis.

Cisler admits that "Morphium" is an extension of the "haunted house tapes" he and a few friends made for their own amusement back in their junior high days. "I had this open-reel tape deck that you could slow way down," he recalls. "I'd stick a mic in a vacuum tube, record the results, then slow it down until I got this incredible cavernous sound." Nowadays, though, his principal weapon of choice in Datura 1.0 is a laptop, the ideal tool for his music (though, as rock bands from the Velvet Underground through Spacemen 3 and Kinski have illustrated, the guitar is no slouch in the drone department, either). Instead of accumulating traditional dronemaking instruments like didgeridoos (the godpappy) and sitars, he uses a variety of software tools, particularly AudioMulch, a powerful (and inexpensive) program that allows him to use the computer for synthesis, composition, processing, and recording--all at the same time, if he chooses.

That's exactly what Cisler did on Happy Hell, a succession of six tracks that range from sublime susurrations to infernal sucking and grinding noises that would have made a nice soundtrack to Fritz Lang's industrial classic Metropolis if that film hadn't been so damn silent. If Morphium conjures up a submarine realm, its sister evokes the Earth's interior, where giant toads, perched solemnly on even more monstrous fungi, oversee the peregrinations of silver humanoids in chambers lit by noxious green and purple mists. Or maybe, as Cisler suggests, it's just the sound of Joe Cubicle's average denial-infested workday.

Despite the album's darkness and near-glacial stillness at times, it makes for a pleasurable ride--equal parts thrill and lull. Happy Hell seems so meticulously orchestrated, you'd never guess it's a one-take real-time improvisation, recorded directly from Cisler's laptop to the hard drive of another computer. The process was an anomaly for Cisler, who usually composes scrupulously for long stretches of time, often starting a track in the early evening and finishing just as the sun comes up. "Like many digital artists," he notes, "once I start a piece, I want to get it done."

He attributes his stamina to yet another discipline, tai chi, which, like lucid dreaming, he's been studying for a more than a decade. "All these practices feed one another and the music," he explains. "But my primary spiritual practice is shamanism. To me, shamanism is maintaining the awareness that you're creating reality. What I'm trying for, if I can go that far, is sort of a visionary thing. If I can make you see things, even only in your head..."

He trails off, gazing intently at the shot of Jägermeister he's holding, then drains it in one swallow. You can only guess at what kinds of things he'll be seeing in his head later tonight.

 
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