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Lonefront leads the local electronic scene’s modular revival

Phillips Hamilton

Phillips Hamilton

What makes a module neurotic?

“Too many options,” explains Ross Hutchens, the energetic young techno musician who performs as Lonefront. “When there’s too many features packed into too small [a space].”

We’re in the back of Spyhouse Coffee in Uptown; the caffeine is making its presence felt on both sides of the table. But Hutchens is charged for reasons other than java. When we meet, it’s been about three weeks since he released a well-received hour-long set of all new Lonefront material for the local dance-music podcast series Kajunga Program—season two, episode 12, to be precise. It’s dark and discursive, its ectoplasmic riffs ringing out with a metallic tang and no two tones exactly alike.

“When I made the mix for Kajunga, they were all the discrete tracks I had for several projects, and I brought them in together,” says Hutchens. “But once everything started blending together, I lost track of everything, trying to turn it into this giant mix.” It’s easy to hear what he means—but the result is engaging, not shapeless, long-dark-tunnel music that seems to carry the echo of warehouse walls.

Hutchens has come to prefer using modular synthesizers—a technology that predates the analog machines that would remake the sound of modern pop and dance music through the ’80s—when he performs his hypnotic, shifting compositions. It’s a big sidestep from the laptop-based tracks he made prior to adopting the Lonefront alias. On a computer, he says, “I start making arbitrary aesthetic judgments: ‘Now all my delays have to have this 0.1 percent adjustment on them.’ I can’t refrain from it.” With modular, “even when I didn’t understand what I was doing, I was doing things and hearing results that I had never conceived of or heard of in the software realm. It’s not the sound, per se, it’s the way you interact with it. Just twisting and turning things and getting new results and stopping once I had something happen.”

Quick, focused, and playful, the 25-year-old Hutchens grew up outside of Oakland, the son of a single mom. “No dad—I know him, but I didn’t grow up with him,” he says. “Mom provided everything, did everything.” A childhood violinist, Hutchens switched to cello and, at Mount Eden High School, sousaphone for a martinet marching-band instructor. “We were competitive,” he says. “I think my highest honor still was playing at Carnegie Hall when I was in 10th grade—I haven’t beat that.” He also played in bands growing up. Hutchens’ first request to his guitar teacher, age 10, was: “How do I play ‘Reign in Blood’?”

When Hutchens came to Macalester College in 2012, he majored in music with a focus on jazz guitar, while also fronting a “screamo revival” band. One part of Macalester’s music curriculum that stuck with Hutchens was his readings of Theodor Adorno’s music writings—and the young synthesist has similarly sharp, specific assessments of what he makes and hears, and why. Midway through Macalester’s program, Hutchens began teaching himself Ableton Live alongside some friends—because, as he puts it, “In this situation in capitalism, and my market options as a musician, it made sense for me to consider expanding my horizons—even if it meant I was going to sell my soul.”

Instead, he started crafting beats. “I was making hip-hop,” he says. “I got into footwork, really into DJ Rashad for a long time. I was making synth-pop with a friend, Rachel Rostad; we played Battle of the Bands and opened up for Rae Smemmurd one year at the school concert.” (Their material is forthcoming, he says, though he didn’t offer details.) At this point, Hutchens was completely indifferent to dance music: “At that point [in my mind] it’s still oontz-oontz, candy kids—it was EDM; it wasn’t techno. I had come to terms with my opinions on aesthetics and electronic music. I had got over the whole ‘You’re not a musician.’ I thought even critiquing that attitude was a waste of time at that point.”

Hutchens was skeptical when some friends invited him to Future Classic, an occasional invitation-only party thrown by DVS-1, a onetime Minneapolis techno mainstay now playing regularly at Berlin’s legendary Berghain club. His guest was Steffi, a resident at Berghain’s sister venue, Panorama Bar. It was a powerful double dose of hard-edged but playful underground dance music, especially for a first-timer. Hutchens was impressed by the way it sounded “referential but also a breath of fresh air—it sounds intentional but unbothered, because it didn’t sound piped through all the compressors possible to get the maximum peak.” He was hooked immediately.

“I went into that room, I walked out a different person. I walked in and realized that what I was currently doing with music was not what I wanted to be doing with music.” He looked up some DVS-1 tracks and “let YouTube take me on the trail. All these techno tracks that I’d glossed over when my friends had shown me—all of a sudden it had color. I could contextualize it from my experience on the dance floor.” Documentaries, historical features, and techno arcana became Hutchens’ new snack food. “I just started soaking up as much information as possible.”

Another conversion experience occurred at the Works, a Detroit club, for an after-party during the Movement festival, when Hutchens encountered Perc the DJ, whose crunching timbres brought him back to his primal love of distortion. “My face was... contorted,” he says. “That super-high-octane bludgeoning metallic object-sounding shit. I don’t like the aggressive terminology that comes to mind when I think about all of that—I think it’s an uplifting, emancipatory kind of music. That’s how it felt out on the dance floor—coming out of your skin, just tearing through it. So I went home and was like, ‘Shit—how do I do this?’ Or not ‘how,’ but there’s a whole realm of sound I didn’t even know I liked.” Plus, unlike punk or metal, Hutchens says, in techno, “I’m also the only member of the band. That was a big appeal.”

It wasn’t long before Hutchens began exploring older, crunchier forms of electronic music making. He started using an APC40 (Ableton Live Performance Controller) “to get more of a hands-on feel” playing digitally. Modular gear came soon after. So did recognition: Lonefront is booking a West Coast tour for the summer (a Bay Area show is planned with Russell E.L. Butler, with whom Lonefront played Honey recently), and the Kajunga podcast makes an inviting calling card. (Hutchens is also working on a licensed DJ set.)

The Kajunga set came about after Hutchens hadn’t seen the label’s founder, Ry Johnson, for a while. “I went out to Honey for a show and he walked up to me and slipped me a little card,” says Hutchens. “He’d silkscreen printed it—it had my name on it. That’s how he does it for all the Kajunga mixes. I really liked the way he did it. He could have just hit me up on Facebook.”