Woody McBride stands in front of the small clapboard house where he runs Communique Records, squinting into the sun. He's discussing techno--something he can do for hours--while a photographer pushes a camera into his face. "Stop talking," he's told, a lens hovering three inches from his mouth. The soft-spoken king of the local electronic dance scene pauses for a few seconds.
"It's such... experiential music," McBride continues, choosing his words deliberately. He's referring to techno in its truest form--as delivered through the massive sound systems that have been the trademark of the Midwest underground for years. "There's nothing like that--to go and get crazy in front of a 15-foot wall of speakers, where it's really punishingly loud and bassy. That experience can't really be conveyed on TV or radio."
A stone's throw from where we stand, I-94 rumbles heavily with late afternoon traffic; across the way, a smokestack belches fumes into a pale blue sky. McBride pauses again for the cameraman, who is still clicking away; as usual, he looks utterly at peace.
This quiet, almost Zen-like aspect belies the music Woody McBride is best known for: the thundering, fiercely mechanistic brand of electronica dubbed acid techno (the referent being less lysergic than sulfuric). It's an uncompromising dance music that has made McBride, otherwise known as DJ ESP, world-famous--at least among certain club-goers in Germany, France, Belgium, Japan, and other places where they like their beats hard and fast.
Acid's trademark instrument, its Stratocaster, is the Roland 303, a cheap analog bass synthesizer no longer in production (though it's been much copied; see sidebar). At normal listening levels, it's remarkably thin and cheesy-sounding. But pump the 303 up to around 100 decibels and its electro-bass palpitations become seismic, overwhelming--like the amplified sound of blood rushing in your ears during orgasm. No doubt it's an acquired taste, but for those who have seen the light, it is a sound that, when combined with dancing, can induce instant biochemical bliss. The phenomenon is one McBride obviously understands well. Check the numerous websites devoted to the 303--virtually all mention his tracks among those that define the acid genre.
Born and raised in the broad and flat expanses of Bismarck, N.D., McBride came to the Twin Cities in 1988 to attend the University of Minnesota. A rock & roll kid intrigued by the moody electro-pop of New Order and various groups on England's 4AD label, his first real encounter with electronic dance music was at First Avenue DJ events like the industrial-minded Club Degenerate and House Nation Under A Groove. "I'll always have this image of Woody," recalls Kevin Cole, co-founder (with Tom Speigel) of House Nation and currently program director of REV-105. "I'd be spinning at the [7th Street] Entry, and the turntables were right by the sound booth's window. And Woody is really tall, you know--so he was able to peek up over the edge of the turntables, and he'd stand there for hours watching and shouting encouragement, right at the edge of the turntable, like six inches from my face."
When House Nation became the more eclectic Depth Probe, McBride became Cole's main sidekick, designing flyers and warming up events with his own DJ set. "Kevin Cole was the king of dance music in town," he remembers. "He was my mentor; he gave me my big break, and a lot of other DJs in town, too." But McBride was ambitious, and eventually, amidst some backbiting, the partnership dissolved. "I criticized Depth Probe as being too safe," he recalls. "I wanted to do bigger shows, take it more into the rave realm. So that partnership had to break, and I went on to do my own thing."
Championing the dystopian techno of Detroit's Underground Resistance and NYC's Adam X, McBride's DJing alienated older house fans but connected hard with kids. Thus began the conflict which has defined the local techno scene: As dance music attracted an audience too young to drink and repelled everyone else, club owners who survived on liquor sales (i.e.: virtually all of them) had absolutely no use for techno. The scene grew quickly in warehouse parties advertised by word-of-mouth or by flyers distributed in a few select shops, and things swelled steadily larger until the "underground" was hosting international DJs playing to audiences of anywhere from 1,500 (McBride's '96 Labor Day event in the St. Paul Civic Center sub-basement) to 4,000 (the three-day Even Furthur festival in Wisconsin, which McBride helped organize with Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network last year).
Nowadays, McBride is doing less DJing and event promoting, focusing instead on his work as an artist, producer, and label chief. To date he's released well over 100 DJ 12-inch singles by himself and other artists on his numerous imprints (the best known of which are Communique, Sounds, and Head In The Clouds), as well as a two-CD compilation titled Strangely Arranged. As with most local techno producers, the market for McBride's vinyl releases is mainly abroad: 80 percent of his sales are still in Europe, Japan, and other parts of the world.
But McBride still finds time to play out and host parties, usually traveling with some of his label sidekicks (who include homeboy DJ Apollo and Chicago's DJ Hyperactive). Next month it's California and Hawaii for a couple of weeks; in April, a few dates in Japan; May will be either Germany or South Africa; June, England and France. On March 15, McBride will host what should be one of the biggest local techno events to date, featuring underground superstars Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman; Detroit via Windsor, Ontario), Josh Wink (U.K. hitmaker from Philadelphia), Terry Mullan (from Chicago, with a mix CD due soon on Communique), California breakbeat newcomer DJ Dan, and DJ ESP, along with other local DJs and live acts including Savage Aural Hotbed, Simply Pimp, Timeblind, and Joyride.
"It's a really exciting time," McBride says of the current attention techno is getting from the mainstream. "It looks like electronic music is going to get bigger and bigger here." I remind him of a conversation we had less than a year ago, when he said techno would probably never explode in the United States the way it had in Europe. "Everything's moving so fast... And I was leery then. In a way I was hoping it wouldn't catch on, if it meant the music was going to get poppy. But now I'm confident that American kids will be into the more aggressive, underground stuff. I mean, look at the Chemical Brothers--that's like punk rock break beats."
Despite his relative fame in the techno world, McBride is a little nervous about the larger spotlight. "We're all basically bedroom studio musicians," he says of the U.S. techno underground. "It should be pretty interesting to see how artists deal with the public aspect. It's like a new era of music-making, where everything is inverted. Nowadays you start with equipment, then you make your music, then you start a label, and after that, you develop your act."
Woody McBride pauses again, weighing his words. "This music, this scene, is something really new. We don't often get a chance to see something, to live through something totally new--like when music changed from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley. I feel really privileged."
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