The Machine Makes the Man
Outside the long warehouse complex on Tyler Street in Northeast Minneapolis hangs a sign advertising Gopher Towing, whose offices and indoor lot are housed within. Next to the sign is a smaller notice reading, "Unauthorized vehicles will be towed to Gopher Towing." Convenient, I think, entering the ancient brick structure, which also houses practice spaces, art studios, even a small art gallery. Somehow it makes sense that such a bohemian enclave should adjoin an impound lot.
Climbing up a dank stairwell, I enter a giant studio space overlooking a back lot full of towed cars fenced in with barbed wire. At one end of the room, local electronic musician Benji Gross sits in the dark playing a monsters-in-a-maze game called Wizard on his Atari 2600. The sun is already setting, and the purple glow of the TV screen fills the high-ceilinged room as he greets me and provides a quick tour. Gross is a lanky 24-year-old with oval-rimmed glasses, long features, and a bold shock of red, punkish hair. As we talk, we navigate a floor strewn with paintings in progress and assorted gadgets: a 16mm film projector, a harmonium, a bass guitar left over from Gross's last practice with his part-time "space metal" band, Hondo.
When I join Gross for a round of Wizard, I'm struck by how scary the blocky vintage graphics are, and I can see what entices people to join groups like St. Paul's Atari Computer Enthusiasts (a.k.a. SPACE). These minimalist old games make you feel like a nerve-racked 10-year-old again, fighting off inevitable death at the hands of evil Space Invaders or one of their more proficient progeny. "Atari chic" may well be resurgent among ravers and indie kids, but Gross always liked the old game systems, which inspire both his pixel-textured, garishly colored paintings and the abstract brand of electronic music he performs under the moniker Radar Threat. "The technology was so primitive that the creators of these games had to exploit it to its fullest," he remarks. "They had to be more creative, rather than rely on graphics."
Limitations like the ones Gross describes are embraced by champions of the "lo-fi" movement in music, who prefer primitive amplified instruments and recording equipment. It's nothing new, even in the forward-thinking field of electronic music. But Radar Threat upholds the aesthetic with unusual fervor, eschewing digital samplers and microchip-based synthesizers for old-school FX like tape loops and voltage-varying analog synths. His debut album, Mechanize Biorhythmic Imperative (just released on Lost In Translation's breakcore label, History of the Future) is a bracing work of no-budget musique concrète. Even in an era when bands as big as the Beastie Boys borrow readily from analog experimenters like Stereolab and Trans Am, Radar Threat's retro-electro rawness sets him apart.
Beginning with the kind of static rumble familiar to fans of Atari Teenage Riot main man Alec Empire, Mechanize rips into a uniquely fuzzed-out groove, forgoing breakbeats and guitar noise for what at first sounds like the bleeps and explosions of Missile Command, distorted almost beyond recognition. The hourlong sound blast that follows can be tough going. It consists of three long, largely improvised cuts, one recorded live at the local electro-cabaret Future Perfect. But Gross's din switches textures and rhythms constantly, functioning less like a song-set than a wildly flagellating strand of some mutant virus.
In fact, the album is crowded with information--perhaps too much for its own good--not unlike the room where it was hatched. As a CD shuffler alternates between Method Man and local laptop soundsmith Jake Mandell, Gross takes me to the small loft where he keeps his synthesizers, turntables, and recording equipment. A foot-thick pipe draining water from the building's roof runs through the room at chest level, and Gross leans on it as he smokes a pipe full of sweet-smelling tobacco. "I've hit my head so many times, I'm losing brain cells working up here," he says. The walls of this claustrophobic workspace are similarly crammed with visual distractions--homemade cassettes, comic books, paintings, photos--and wooden, orange-painted fish dangle from the ceiling.
This studio recalls the space Gross first made for himself after moving to Minneapolis following his graduation from Oberlin College in 1996. I knew one of his roommates then, and stepping into his black-lit, neon-painted bedroom was like walking into a scene from Tron.
Gross was born in Minneapolis and raised in Redwood Falls, a small, sleepy farm town in western Minnesota. He's shy and boyish in demeanor, and if one observes little of that persona in his music, there's a revealing innocence in his crudely rendered comix zine, Exploding Cigar. "Episode two" features a story about a robot that creates a "friend machine" to cure loneliness, an idea that goes horribly awry when the invention spits out a menacing psychic dog robot named, appropriately enough, Radar. Though his comic's angular, line-driven layouts and busy backgrounds are decidedly trippy (compelling and demanding, just like his music), Gross has created a tale with the tone of a children's book.
He says his music is similarly about "man vs. machine issues," but Radar Threat's version of this conflict is more playful than that moniker suggests. His improvisational zeal is what tears your ears off or engages you for hours. And he uses creaky old analog equipment (made before the age of programming) because it doesn't always work, which requires Gross to do some quick thinking. "I like the breakdown factor," he says, showing me a cheap old microphone he uses during improvisation. "I like not knowing exactly what will happen. It's a way of letting the universe take part in what you're doing." To deal with such uncertainty, Gross spends long hours getting to know each new-old piece of equipment, discovering its flaws and playing with them.
His interest in rugged synthesizers began with a high-school passion for Midnight Oil's synth-dominated 1983 album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which set him about tinkering with every sort of vintage drum-programmer and echo machine. (Purists take note: Gross just recently broke the no-samples rule by purchasing a back-to-basics mid-'80s sampler.) But this private hobby has become a bit more public in the two years since he drew his "friend machine" cartoon (he insists a new issue is on the way).
Now a community of like-minded local experimentalists is flowering around him, comprising dozens of acts, from label mate Lost In Translation to ambient nightcrawlers Skye Klad. And though Gross was never shy to the point of reclusion--I've run into him at a diverse array of concerts, from hardcore punk to hip hop--he's only just making his presence known among Minneapolis DJs and noise proliferators. He has performed jaw-dropping improvised sets at both Future Perfect and The New Atlantis, and even hosts the occasional Atari party.
But despite more frequent collaborations with dub-influenced drum 'n' bass artist Criterion and others, Gross seems most at home making his studio's thick walls shake from the sounds of his Zen arcade games. Listening to Mechanism, I'm reminded of how his roommate once complained bitterly about the electro throb that seemed to emanate perpetually from his room. Two years later, as winter engulfs the night world outside, Benji finishes beating the tar out of me at Wizard and we say our goodbyes. On my way out of the building, I stop by an antique store downstairs and ask its friendly owner about her noisy neighbor upstairs. "Oh, we don't give them a hard time," she says, smiling. "They're artists."
For copies of Exploding Cigar, write Lo Fi Evil Productions, 1317 Tyler St. N.E., Minneapolis, MN 55413. Radar Threat performs in the Subzero cabaret on March 13 at the Soap Factory; call (612) 623-9176 or go to freenoise.simplenet.com on the Net. Gross will also play at the New Atlantis cabaret on March 26 at Jitters, (612) 333-8511, and at a Let It Be Records in-store on March 20, (612) 339-7439.
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