Into the Mix

Low Riders

A cast of international DJs remixes the quietest band in Minnesota

by Peter S. Scholtes

A few years ago, when a certain radio-friendly depressive took his own life with a shotgun and made grunge a memory, shell-shocked Nirvana fans couldn't have asked for a more melancholic antidote to the prevailing commercial winds than I Could Live in Hope, the 1994 debut by Low, a three-piece band hailing from placid Duluth, Minnesota. Paced like the setting sun, the album took its cavernous sound from Elvis Presley's zone-poem rendition of "Blue Moon." Live, the band sailed high above the mosh pit in a rain cloud of sadness all its own. With their Simon & Garfunkel-esque, boy-girl harmonizing, these hypnotists could have scored a David Lynch movie; this was "The Sounds of Silence" dissipating into the ether.

But however trippy the band's long, glacial pop slabs became in subsequent years, the trio remained utterly undanceable, and it would be hard to imagine a less likely candidate for an album of remixes, much less a great album of remixes. Nevertheless, that's exactly what the new owL remix Low is: a digital, often booty-kicking reinterpretation of the band's oeuvre that will throw both Low fans and electroheads for a loop.

Hoping to make good on the boutique-chic indie-remix trend, the suits at the Virgin/Caroline subsidiary Vernon Yard apparently tossed the band's masters to various DJs around the globe and crossed their fingers. The resulting electroni-product is both striking and troubling. Striking because the various DJs the label enlisted have managed to translate Low's melancholic Lake Superior sound into the specialized tongues of techno and trip hop. Troubling because Low was dropped from the label a year and a half ago (after two albums and an EP), and, as a result, had little input in orchestrating the project, for which they'll receive no pay. (Sales of previous Low albums failed to recoup label advances and recording costs.)

Given the circumstances, it's tempting to see the remix disc--or even remixing itself--as a poignant metaphor for the manipulation and appropriation endemic to the music business. "The album is just this strange entity to us," says singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk, from his Duluth home 10 blocks from the big lake. "In 1996 they'd said, 'Let's drop all the bands that aren't doing as well as the Chemical Brothers.' Then they came back and said, 'By the way, we still want to do this remix thing.'"

As the project moved forward, Vernon Yard sent Sparhawk cassette copies of the remixes, but the band's original input wasn't heeded. "We had suggested people we know, like John McEntire [of Tortoise], to be on it. But at the end of the day, the only involvement we had is the fact that our name is on there. Within the band, there's a range of opinions about the whole thing, from complete disdain to 'Oh, that's interesting.'"

That said, the resultant sound collages are more than interesting. Instead of tapping alt-rock crossover stars like Soul Coughing or Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire (as Low suggested), Vernon Yard sought non-name-brand DJs with no indie-rock association. Neither Tomas Koener (one-half of techno duo Porter Ricks) nor Neotropic (a.k.a. Riz Maslen) had heard of Low before they were asked to remix them. But Low's weird Duluthian dirges made an instant impression on both DJs.

"They sent me some CDs, and I was totally amazed by the sound," says Koener from his studio in Dortmund, Germany, the industrial suburb he calls home. "It's an extremely developed style, what they're doing. It reminded me of a Mondrian painting, very austere."

Kicking off owL remix Low, Koener isolates a lyric from "Down," an early Low tune about sexual frustration and guilt, couching the looped phrase "I guess the secret's out" in soothing wind-tunnel noise cribbed from a Porter Ricks track titled "Scuba Lounge." Koener lets Sparhawk's distinct guitar figure surface slowly, over the course of 13 minutes, as if the listener were walking toward a distant light in a snowstorm. "Actually, I had a vision of a bar with frogmen," laughs Koener. Either way, when Sparhawk received the tape in the mail, he thought Koener had successfully amplified the feeling of his original.

London's Neotropic contributed three zinger tracks to the remixer. On the phone from her home studio in London's East End, the DJ says she was similarly struck by Low's slo-mo, spartan pop. "I'd never approached anything in that kind of style before, but I love a challenge," she says. As one of the few women making headway in the still male-dominated DJ field (her new album, Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock, is due out soon on Ninja Tune), Neotropic responded to Low's male-female blend of voices. "Low's stuff has this innocence in the singing," she says. "It's not abrasive in any way. I've just done a Skinny Puppy remix, which was like going from one extreme to another."  

If there's a single cut that will baffle Low fans, it's Neotropic's four-and-a-half-minute version of Low's 14-minute "Do You Know How to Waltz." The DJ takes a snippet of the original vocal, speeds it up, then loops it. Then she freezes a moment of piano--which was originally back-tracked--and loops it forward as the basis of a new, DJ Shadow-type track with a funk guitar break. Though the original built slowly into a rolling boulder of guitar noise, the tonal structure of the spin-off is unmistakably Low-ly.

Far more perverted is Tranquility Bass's "'91 Party Dance Mix" of Low's most addicting song, "Over the Ocean," from their last full-length album, When the Curtain Hits the Cast. If you've ever wondered what Low would sound like as a Suzanne Vega remix, this is your tune, complete with tacky horn bleats and snake rattles. Still, even this hilariously bubbly track remains fascinating with repeated exposure. It provides the classic remix template: Place an undeniable melody in a danceable and (gasp) radio-friendly context and throw in enough sonic quirks to sate head-bobbers.

When I mention the cut to Sparhawk, he laughs. The original song, he says, was meant to evoke the feeling of floating above things. Yet politically tinged lyrics like "And if I am wrong, the mighty and strong will be rejected" cut against any ethereal ambiguity to suggest a detached cynicism. "Tranquility Bass definitely caught on to that floating feeling," he says, "but gave it an ecstasy feel. Like flying, but in more of a Peter Pan way."

Despite the band's misgivings about the project, Sparhawk seems amenable to the results. "It makes you think differently about music," Sparhawk says of owL. "Not that we're going to change to a techno band, but when you hear someone else pick apart your stuff and do different things with it, it makes you question your approach. We're getting ready to record a new album, and this thing opened up my perspective.

"You know, being remixed is kind of like the extreme end of being misquoted out of context," he laughs. "We recorded a cover of Joy Division's 'Transmission,' and the version we do is a lot more sober and less frantic than the original. So I guess we've been guilty of remixing. The only difference is that mixers are taking the actual sound you made, the actual noises coming out of your mouth."

Instant Replay

Surprisingly, the remix and the turntable might keep the world safe for guitar rock

by Jon Dolan

Rockers, think hard. Think hard about the first time you heard Run-D.M.C.'s remix of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." It was the latter part of the second half of the 20th century, and you were probably a lot like me: an acid-washed, mullet-cut, Schlitz-guzzlin' axecentric goon preparing to enlist for our nation's next aircraft-carrier cruise to Grenada.

But, assuming we weren't dyed-in-the-wool, funk-retardant racists, Jam Master Jay's drum break and that sweet little slice of Joe Perry guitar wankery suckered us into kinda digging rap. That is until the Beasties put a jammie upside our collective cookie puss, shook our ruuuumpa and forced us to truly dig rap. And we know what happened next: First it was Superfly, then Sly, then "That's the Joint," and on and on until we were all ganja-goofed interns in Dr. Lee Perry's beat pharmacy. And that's what a remix should do: recontextualize not just sounds or artists but entire musical (hell, social) histories.

By now rock-crossover remixes are as ingrained in the culture, as, say, Christina Ricci--almost there. The computer programs needed to download sounds and reshape a track are relatively inexpensive. And in an era when artistes are increasingly mindful of the gap between the record-making and record-buying public, DJ Blah Blah's "Such 'n' Such" remix of Post Rock Band X's "Song You've Never Heard" might be the only way for band or jock to feel any sense of community at all. That said, dozens of indie 'n' alt bands--Cornershop, Everything But the Girl, Air, Modest Mouse, Komeda, et al.--have called in DJs and moonlighting friends from the indie-rock pool to cut up their tracks for use as single fodder. This year has seen a spate of full-length, indie-rock remix albums. And just when you thought those alt-rock axes were beginning to collect rust.

The Chicago collage-rock band Tortoise has gained quite a little rep for appropriating selections from The Greatest Hits of 20th-Century Classical Music, and squeezing out ingenious indie-rock revisions. Their post-hip fandom is, more often than not, none the wiser: A recent Minneapolis show saw the horn-rimmed set stand in awe as four mallet-wielding Torties worked out a direct rip-off of sampling pioneer Steve Reich's "Six Marimbas."  

That cribbing comes back to haunt them on Tortoise:Remixed via U.N.K.L.E.'s "Bruise Blood Mix" of the group's 1996 track "Djed." In 1966 Reich took a sound sample of a young man who had been battered, but skillfully left unbloodied, by some of New York's finest. "I had to, like open the bruise and let some of the bruise blood come out to sho' dem," he said after emerging from lockup, his wound compelling the police to release him to onlookers. Reich took this quote on tape, cut it up, and manually looped it in staggered snippets for 12:48, effectively inventing the repetition theory that now informs all techno.

U.N.K.L.E. (actually Mo' Wax Records owner James LaVelle) loops the phrase and crosscuts it with menacing cellos and a military hip-hop beat that could send DJ Shadow into fits of thumb sucking. That sample sits at the front of U.N.K.L.E.'s remix of la Tortuga's marimba-heavy track. If you don't know Reich's original, "bruise blood" will probably be misheard as "blues blood" and "open up the bruise" as "open up the grooves"--remixer manifestos for sure.

This is easily the funkiest thing the consummate post-rock band has ever been a part of, and the track is addictive. As is the rest of Tortoise:Remixed: See Spring Heel Jack's "Galapagos [Version One]" or the Krautoppin' take on the song "Tjed," sculpted by none other than Tortoise's own drummer, John McEntire. Say what? Say incest, I guess. McEntire's name has been on tons of these remix albums (and, really, as incestuous as the above seems, incest isn't really incest if you're merely playing with yourself).

The only remixer who appears on other people's projects more often than McEntire is everybody's favorite claptrapper, DJ Spooky. Rumor has it he's currently working on a remix of a famous "post-structuralist" text. Yet on Strictly East Coast Sneaky Flute Music, a remix record of songs by the forgotten Boston indie band the Swirlies, he offers something X1998 times less pretentious than that, and (probably) 50 times smarter.

Like U.N.K.L.E., Spooky begins his "Sea Welt Edit...Sneaky Flute Orchestra" with an aside to initiates--a snippet of Swirlie shoe-gazer blare that epitomizes the outmoded sound of alt-rock circa 1991. It's looped ad infinitum until the drum-bass-guitar clamor implodes, eventually reappearing seconds later recombobulated as drum 'n' bass. Echo effects make it feel like you're in an airplane hangar with the Swirlies playing at one end, Spooky mixing them on the other--and the last 10 years of hipster noise reflecting off the walls between them. Ten years of alt-rock history flying by in six minutes: not a bad little primer.

Conversely, more of a remix epic is Kevin Shields's astonishing, 16-minute "My Bloody Valentine Remix" of "Mogwai Fear Satan" at the end of the two-disc Kicking a Dead Pig, a set of remixes of songs by the Scottish guitar band Mogwai. Beginning with a torrent of rolling tom toms and undulating MBV-esque guitars, Shields lets the sounds bore into themselves until we're left with five minutes of mushrooming white noise. This is how the world ends: not with a whimper, but with a big-ass explosion.

Wading through the rest of Kicking is like marinating in the North Sea in mid-December. Sure, it's a tad chilly, but the catharsis is worth the discomfort. Safely nestled in the highlands, miles from the arteries of currency and good taste, Mogwai are like a cross between the U2 they grew up with and the American indie rock (Slint, Squirrel Bait) they heard three years ago. And this works because the DJs assembled--including Alec Empire, u-Ziq, and Mog's mope-rock countrymen Arab Strap--don't try to turn the Mogwai into a funky chicken, à la Spooky's Swirlies.

One of the first (and best) remix albums was last year's Hyper Civilizado, on which some of the best avant-hop DJs in New York (SPIT, We, Sub Dub, Spooky) remixed songs from ultra-egghead Arto Lindsay's excellent bossa-pop album, Mundo Civilizado. Lindsay's mewl of male inefficacy was easily cut into angel dust and sprinkled over some deep, tough dub-hop. The resulting record could have been used by Brazilian sports psychologists on their losing football team in a retaliatory psy-ops experiment; it perfected the form, starting with two disparate sources and creating an entirely new landscape.

Other attempts at similar meta-exotica have failed miserably; avoid strenuously the Pizzicato Five remix project Happy End of You, on which Japanese lounge pop and chic techno-hip hop blend together on a record with all the universal appeal of an intraoffice e-mail.

A good DJ should always try to incite as much head-bobbin' as possible, just as a good guitar band shouldn't try to invent the wheel every time they plug in. Will the wheels of steel help reinvent the guitar band? Hell, Joe Perry's still collecting royalties.


As If Electronica Never Happened

by Jane Dark

That crazy music all the kids are listening to these days may be great and all but it is really fucking up the whole idea of the remix. The album version of the song is presented to the electronica remixer like, say, the rhyme words for a sonnet. The task is to make the most interesting object possible given those rather minimal formal constraints.

But what if I don't think music should be interesting? It can be, and that's swell. But as it happens, interestingness is a quality less suited for art that engages your body. I want architecture to be interesting exactly because I can't dance to it.

Electronica, as it happens, bears a bodyrockin' history--in fact, it marks the first successful storming of the culture castle by dance music. Oh well. Meet the new boss, etc.

Theory corrupts, and absolute theory corrupts absolutely: The vast majority of electronic music these days is rapturously idea-happy. It's also no damn fun, and it takes a whole lot of epinephrine to get me dancing to it. But despite what lifestyle-spinners like MTV and Spin intimate, the vast majority of people who get their boogie on to contemporary music are swooping and bumping to Janet Jackson and Ace of Base. So what's the new age of remixing making of the pop charts?

Garbage is the worst-case scenario. "Push It" is one fine song on their latest Version 2.0. It's a fast car with super-tinted windows: beautifully machined with darkly reflective surfaces blurring past. Sadly, the lone remix on the CD single, by some crew known as Boom Boom Satellites, renders everything stupid about electronica remixture without providing any fun whatsoever (as if we didn't already have a whole Bush remix project for that very purpose).

Taking a four-minute song out to almost seven isn't inherently a bad idea, but in the case of Garbage it's a disaster. When you stretch the same soundset across a longer track you break the individual noises out of their context; sounds start to stand alone. Which can be crucial: The whole concept of the drum break--on which hip-hop looping is founded--comes from exactly this sort of remixing procedure, made possible back in the day by the introduction of longer-playing 12-inch singles. But for Garbage, the very thing that makes their good songs great--from "Vow" onward--is the swirling density, at once mercurial and mechanical, with its own gravity and its own propulsion. These songs have already been assembled by a beat-happy, egghead knob-twiddler.

So what can Boom Boom Satellites do but fail? Version two-point-stupid of "Push It" first mutes the Hurby Luv Bug beat and then attenuates the song's density until we're left with dry clicking in lieu of rhythm and a discrete series of boops and bleeps, plinky piano, and transient guitar noises. They're after something like the floaty, liquid morphine ambience of Apollo 440's remix of "Mysterious Ways," but instead it's pure Valium. And Valium isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Brandy's second single, "Sittin' on Top of the World," is--like "Push It"--great on the album. But because her crew isn't as corrupted by theoretical practice, they just let it be. "Sittin'" already sounds exactly like a remix of the R&B variety: rich with digitized scratches and vocal pasting over nothing but a breakbeat.

The Diva Carey would have tried to have it both ways, leaving the song all melody and vocal autoeroticism on the record--four out of five soccer moms prefer it!--and then spending her remix budget renting a ghetto pass from Ol' Dirty Bastard (sorry, Big Baby Jesus). Brandy cuts to the edit without delay: "Sittin'" opens with an awesomely irrelevant rap by Mase (working the shit out of the last few minutes before he grows unbearable). His words are as flat as ever--kid 'n' playa Esperanto--but his lyrical negotiation with the beat is just utterly charming, like a grade-schooler who learned to jump a mean double dutch with two spastic pals.

Meanwhile, Brandy loves hooks and they love her; there's a certain noblesse in her ability to carry the tune but let others carry the weight, or at least some of it. This is what most distinguishes her from Aunt Whitney, who's such a grand dame that she can't help but own the entirety of a song. (Imagine Mase going for his on one of Whitney's tracks!) Ms. Houston's vocal gift is so extreme it crushes songs until genre disappears: In 20 years her discs will sit down the bin from Tony Bennett, strictly File Under Vocals. But coming of age in the R&B renaissance, Brandy knows how to manage the sultry, cozy address of R&B while keeping the groove on. Brandy won't always love you, but she's down for you right now, inviting you in to help her ride the stripped-down thwack track home. And it's not even a love song.  

In their different ways, both "Push It" and "Sittin'" offer examples of how remix artisanship has been folded into the premix. It's a lesson Tjinder Singh should really learn. Cornershop's current single "Sleep on the Left Side" is, on record, dull as dishwater. A pop song with no pop, it gets by on little but the surplus value of helping one feel all multicultural and shit.

The Les Rhythmes Digitales' "Living by Numbers" remix, with additional production by Jacques LuCont, isn't much longer, nor is it much different. A few BPM faster, more drums, and a claptrack fill out the beat. A mildly goofy alto synth part adds a boppiness to the rhythm, while a low synth brings the melody forward--very Human League. Suddenly the vocals (pretty much the same as the album version) seem focused and engaging; the song stops lying back and jumps up to hit you with the hook.

None of the track's revisions are particularly ambitious, radical, or technologically complex. It doesn't sound any more like a dance-floor workout, but it sure sounds less like wallpaper. In short, after the remix it's a nice, basic pop single. It's a little pleasure. Which is what it should have been in the first place. Why did we ever have to hear the original, which now sounds like a pricey demo?

The current mother of all remixes is William Orbit's "Liquid Mix" of Madonna's "Ray of Light." Orbit is the sonic tactician to Butch Vig's strategist: While they're equally obsessive with their soundsets, Orbit's the genius of specific tones where Vig's wizardry is laying in the layers. This was one of Orbit's downfalls in the original album's production: His manufactory of amazing noises gets compressed and concealed by the time limits of the pop song.

So while Garbage loses by disassembling their density, Orbit can only gain from such decompression. The "Liquid Mix" is 8:08 state-of-the-art minutes with hardly any new sounds added or removed from the album track; it's just rearranged, given more free play. Though this is hardly the first case of an electronicat rearranging a pop dog, it's the one that makes sense of the scheme. In melodies begin responsibilities, and the Grand Dame's vocal line keeps Orbit from falling into a theoryfunk. But also, the sounds are exalted and pure as church music, the same way that eunuch choirs were designed to sound inhumanly beautiful. Orbit's noises are just as constructivist-angelic, and Madonna slides lucently into the mix: supershiny digital gospel.

And then Billy Orbit gets busy. Five minutes in, the song runs off a cliff, Our Lady's voice hanging like Wile E. Coyote in midair, suspended by nothing but a syncopated handclap. Then the "instruments" start to come in again one by one, pulsing and modulating as each in turn joins the main motion of the mix. It's a classic old-school breakdown passed through the new technology.

Okay, okay, so not as if electronica never happened but as if it never chose math homework over going on a date, or never learned to be a position paper while forgetting how to get down and boogie oogie oogie.

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