Jason Shapiro's apartment is so free of clutter that the Kiss dolls on the mantle stand out like clowns in a museum. In fact, they're little monuments to an otherwise undetectable rock 'n' roll obsession. "I bought my first Kiss album when I was four," he says. "Wanting to go see Kiss and knowing I couldn't was just awful."
Shapiro, 24 years old, finally did see Kiss on their reunion tour, but he's hardly grown up to be Paul Stanley. Outfitted in what might be called office casual--save for his early-era Depeche Mode coif--Shapiro works as a computer programmer in downtown Minneapolis and usually gets to bed before 11 p.m.: "I'm really lame," he says sheepishly.
Many a local music fanatic would beg to differ. Shapiro's electronic music ensemble, Ousia, has gained a strong following for its weird, gorgeously textured space-fuzz music. Live, the band wears matching outfits and gold masks--glam having taught Shapiro the value of putting on a good show. "If four Minnesota guys walked up there in flannels and did what we do, I think we would lose our audience right away."
Yet Ousia will soon meet this fate nonetheless. The day before I interview Shapiro, he's encountered some bad news. "It all happened over e-mail," he says, sounding deflated, but not bitter. Ousia has just broken up. The split was long in coming, with time constraints--not personal or musical differences--precipitating the end. A day later, the group's members have gotten together to talk and rehearse for the gig that will be their final show. Though they'd recently sworn off wearing the masks, Shapiro says they'll don them one last time.
This Saturday, Ousia will head up the Future Perfect Sound System, a recurring multimedia, multiartist "be-in" that served as Ousia's training ground back in 1996. The band's improvised hums and buzzes will fill the expansive Weisman Art Museum, where the entire shindig will be lit by the Magic Lantern Light Show (famous for their work with the Doors) and broadcast on the Net. Obscure but excellent artists A Most Happy Sound, Uneven, Lost in Translation, and Satoshi Shinozaki will perform alongside respected DJs such as Rob "Tempest" Williams and REV 105 legend Kevin Cole, who will appear from Seattle via the Net to "spin" a yarn by DJing a batch of children's story records. Guitarist Chuck Zwicky will play along with stories by local folkie Larry Long, and even indie-rocker Dylan Hicks will stop by for a bit of impromptu avant-gardening.
Future Perfect organizer Chris Strouth has specialized in these kinds of multimedia projects since he started dreaming up experimental music blowouts at the Red Eye in the early '90s. But Future Perfect is a culmination of sorts, an effort to wash away the dividing line between rock show and rave. "What Chris said with Future Perfect was, 'Look, here's electronic music, and you don't have to dance to it,'" Shapiro explains. "You can enjoy it in a different way." The same could be said of Ousia, who without venues like Future Perfect might never have found an audience.
Last year, the event moved from First Avenue to the Walker Art Center, giving it some high-culture cachet, and a nonrock context where the idea of undanceable dance music somehow seemed less pretentious than in First Ave.'s more traditional bar setting. The continuing emphasis on atmosphere may allow Future Perfect to become a sort of '90s version of Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a space where unusual music (say, the Velvet Underground humping that mighty E Major into eternity) makes perfect sense.
The import of a scene like this to Ousia cannot be overstated: As Shapiro readily admits, it's doubtful that three years ago an ambient electro band without any lyrics or block-rockin' beats could have drawn the crowds Ousia draws, spit out a wonderful CD (1997's Why Is That a Four?), and received the plaudits of an ecstatic local press and the Minnesota Music Academy.
Shapiro's earliest music experiences had more in common with the guitar braying of Minneapolis's last musical renaissance. Yet after spending his formative years playing drums in punk-rock bands, Shapiro became enamored with classical avant-garde music, and sold his drum set before graduating high school. When asked if a lot of nonelectronic bands go through an early, unrecorded avant-garde "phase" (like the Clash with their mid-'70s sheet-metal drumming), he nods. "It usually gets discouraged right away," he says, adding that people who want to "make it" often leave rec-room dissonance behind. "Developing a vocabulary of noise and implementing it in a way that's interesting and original is very difficult."
But during Ousia's two-year existence, a new milieu has emerged to nourish oddballs communicating through a new language composed of ham-radio feedback, Casio jazz, and de-funked rare grooves. Cabarets such as the New Atlantis at Jitters (which Shapiro co-founded) and the Polar Bear Club complement Future Perfect's goal of tweaking the music-consuming experience. They also tap into a new pool of artists: "I think that there's a lot more people doing this kind of music than we know," Shapiro says. "It's just happening in their bedrooms and in their basements. I don't think electronic music has grown, actually. I just think it's moved further out in the open."
Call it the musical equivalent of Xerox art, or just rock 'n' roll in the age of the screen saver. But the aural content-providers moving in and out of the Future Perfect scene may be the next wave in local music. "I've played in all sorts of scenes," says Shapiro. "Punk, alternative rock, free jazz, classical, you name it. And electronic music is the most supportive and noncompetitive scene. People are as excited to hear you as they are to play for you."
In this environment, Ousia's members will continue their various side projects, and Shapiro plans to make a go of it full time, something Chris Strouth says most cybercomposers never do. "You can make infinitely more as a computer programmer than as a techno guy," Strouth says. "It's different than the average rock band in that these guys are smart and have options. They're not gonna throw that away."
Strouth emphasizes other obstacles: Where nearly every guitar noodler can land on a stage, venues for electro nerds remain harder to find. Strouth has experienced resistance from club bookers firsthand. "Clubs absolutely hate having electronic music," he says. "The sound guys are always really bad, and inevitably blast Skynyrd after the show's over just to piss you off."
Granted, not everything the Star Wars generation is composing in its bedroom studios will be the next Let It Be (or even the next Let It Bleep). But Strouth's event and others like it do encourage people who normally wouldn't perform to give it a go. "The way I kind of approach Future Perfect is as a sound system," he says. "It gets people together and drags them out."
In this spirit, Strouth introduced Shapiro to Ana Voog, perhaps the Cities' most distinct bedroom artist, who last year turned her everyday routine into a work of Net performance art. Voog (a.k.a. Rachael Olson) was perhaps best known as singer/guitarist for the Blue Up?, until she placed digital cameras around her apartment and began uploading images every two minutes on her Web site, www.anacam.com. When the Anacam caught her in "the act" with an old flame last November, she became the stuff of Web legend--an odd circumstance for a self-described introvert who professes to hate parties.
The site itself has the tone of a personal fanzine, but without the typical six-month delay time. Check out this passage from her May 12 ANAlog: "On a sad note, my boyfriend Siam's incredible ambient band broke up today. They were called Ousia and they were my fave local band... Siam is being interviewed tomorrow by the local paper called City Pages. They are interviewing him about the future of electronic music."
Shapiro, or "Siam" (his old Web handle), first spoke to Voog in her online chat room before meeting her in person after last November's Future Perfect show. Their kindred spirits soon clicked: "We both have an obsession with the early-'80s New Romantic era," Shapiro says. Shapiro and Ousia's Dave Onnen agreed to back up Voog live, in support of her crisp new electro-pop album (handily titled anavoog.com and produced by Bobby Z, ex of Prince and the Revolution).
True to reclusive Voog form, her late-April debut gig was, well, nationally televised: In what must be local music's TV Moment of the Year, the rhinestone-decorated diva rendered her new-wavey tune "Please God" with the assurance of a vet on Vibe. Somehow, she slipped an unbleeped "fuck me" past the censors, and host Sinbad, for his part, repeatedly brought up the notorious Anacam tryst. Thus Voog's private world found its widest audience ever.
"My heart was beating like a crazy rabbit during the song," she tells me weeks later. "After it was done, I was just happy I hadn't thrown up or hit the microphone." Still, Voog found her May 7 homecoming gig at Ground Zero just as daunting. "I was more scared for that show than Vibe. I didn't really want to play in this town yet 'cause I was too shy." Fresh from a headlining concert in Las Vegas last week, Voog and Shapiro will take a break to perform ambient music at Future Perfect under the name Purrotika.
Though Voog would seem a perfect heroine for the rec-room wave of electro, November's Future Perfect was her first exposure to the scene. But that and the New Atlantis cabarets have made her a convert. "All these people who usually just kind of sit around and twiddle around with ham radios, all of a sudden they came out of their houses," she says. "They were the same as me because I never leave my house either. I said, 'I've been looking for all you guys forever.' I was just so happy to find this strange little community of musicians." CP
Future Perfect Sound System starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Weisman Art Museum; call 625-9495.
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