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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

They’ve lost control: Mutant punk is a distant memory, but is its cyberpunk vision more real than ever?

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Brock Bousfield of Nero's Day at Disneyland

Considering everything America has gone through recently—two foreign wars, Hurricane Katrina, a devastating recession, a catastrophic oil spill—it’s easy to conclude that we’re living through the cyberpunk nightmare envisioned in From Rotting Fantasylands, the latest album of Brock Bousfield’s solo project, Nero’s Day at Disneyland.

A sci-fi take on Switched-On Bach, Fantasylands combines samples of emotive arias, orchestra hits and jaunty piano lines from Baroque and Renaissance music with the kind of schizophrenic sampled drums, 8-bit electronics and harsh synths you’d expect from Aphex Twin or Squarepusher.

On “In Ailes,” Bousfield borrows vocal samples from a recording of The Threepenny Opera—a 1931 musical critique of capitalism by the Marxist dramatist Bertolt Brecht—playing them in reverse to make disgorged vocal melodies. Over rattling drums and an explosive synth riff, the backwards vocals come across like subliminal social commentary about a society gone mad.

Influenced as much by American Splendor comic writer Harvey Pekar as post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler, From Rotting Fantasylands is as dark as it is ridiculous.

“It’s a sardonic take on ridiculousness” of today’s society, Bousfield says of his album. “It’s definitely intentional.”

In a way, it makes perfect sense that Bousfield, a softspoken 28-year-old who lives in Oakland, grew up in the suburban San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont. For certain people, the suburbs—with their indiscriminate winding streets and ubiquitous chain stores—can be an incubator for madness and rebellion. As a former member of Beautiful Mutants, a synth-punk band that formed the center of a short-lived “mutant punk” scene in San Diego in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Bousfield knows that all too well.

Beautiful Mutants’ songs parodied the emptiness of suburban life. “I buy the things I need / so I can feel OK,” the singer intones over a jaunty keyboard marimba in one track. “When I’m out of Miracle Whip / nothing tastes quite the same.”

The “mutant punk” scene—inspired by Devo’s idea of “de-evolution,” the idea that humankind is regressing rather than evolving, along with drug-addled sci-fi literature like William Gibson’s classic 1984 novel Neuromancer—was inherently out of control. With their crazy shows and penchant for drugs, the Beautiful Mutants felt like a radical response to all of the things San Diego is known for: the military presence, the conservative political establishment, the nondescript geography of the suburbs.

One show at Gelato Vero is still burned in my mind as one of the craziest I’ve ever been to: As Hide and Go Freak (a band that formed after Beautiful Mutants broke up) played sloppy synth-punk, a wildly drunk couple crashed into a crowd of dancing gutter-punks who looked like extras from Blade Runner. When a skinny guy who went by the name Kevin Von Mutant began playing harsh industrial music from a computer, people started drumming maniacally on random pieces of metal. The floor felt like it would fall through. Anticipating a riot, the management kicked everybody out.

Unsurprisingly, none of these bands got a scrap of media attention. “No one was watching, so you felt like you could just do anything,” Bousfield says.

In the early ’00s, the scene began to fragment when Beautiful Mutants guitarist Nick Galvez died. A month after his death, Hide and Go Freak’s keyboardist died of alcohol poisoning. Soon after that, Bousfield moved to Santa Cruz. “It was just time to get out,” he says.

Today, San Diego’s “mutant punk” scene is all but forgotten.

But Bousfield is still Nero’s Day at Disneyland—the solo project he’s been working on since he was 16— playing sci-fi fugues on keyboards painted neon colors. And as track titles like “Charging Swarm of Mouseketeers” and “Plumes of ATM Sinew” suggest, he hasn’t lost his warped sense of humor about our decaying materialistic society.

Nor has he lost sight of it. Ironically, in his day job he tape-records business meetings and conventions at hotels.

“I get to see people from BP talking amongst themselves,” he says.

Nero’s Day at Disneyland plays with Mincemeat or Tenspeed, Bubblegum Octopus, Take Up Serpents and Nerfbau at Che Café on Saturday, July 31. myspace.com/nerosdayatdisneland.

This article ran in the July 28 issue of San Diego CityBeat.

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Written by Peter Holslin

August 19, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Interview: Mark Mothersbaugh

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Mark Mothersbaugh (bottom left) and his Devo brethren.

Devo, the legendary new-wave band famous for herky-jerky pop hits like “Whip It,” adheres to the theory of “de-evolution”–the idea that humanity is regressing rather than evolving through societal dysfunction and follow-the-pack mentality. But when the industrial suit-wearing oddballs made Something for Everybody, the band’s first record in 20 years, they did everything they could to appeal to the masses: its twelve subversively catchy synth-pop tracks, which contain references to things like the Taliban and the infamous University of Florida Taser incident, were cleared through an extensive focus group approval process.

Appealing to the masses might sound counter-intuitive to Devo philosophy. But mass appeal is the point, says Mark Mothersbaugh–a Devo co-founder and prolific composer of movie soundtracks, T.V. show theme songs and music for commercials–who maintains that the only way to change society is through subversion. In a recent phone interview ahead of Devo’s performance in Balboa Park on Sunday, July 18, as part of the San Diego Pride Festival, Mothersbaugh talked about the focus group process, humanity’s continuing de-evolution, and how he inserted subliminal messages into commercials.

Tell me about this focus group process. How did that work?

We hired Mother LA [an ad agency based in Los Angeles, who list Devo as their only client on their website], and we talked about the things that changed a lot in the world for us as Devo. Back in the ’70s, if you asked people if they believe in de-evolution, they would say, ‘You’re insane! You’re an asshole! You’re a cynic!’ and now, you say it and people go, ‘Yeah-hoo, let’s party! Things are devolved, let’s go!’ We felt it was time to ask people what they thought about Devo and de-evolution, and we took it to heart.

What kind of feedback did you get?

Well, we did a color study and people decided that the Devo red hat was too aggressive and thought we should change it to blue. And we did.

Did they pooh-pooh any songs you were really into?

Yeah, there were songs that we were surprised they didn’t choose. There was a radical mix of “Don’t Shoot.” I still think that’s going to come out because that’s so radical. It’s maybe the most radical thing that we did in the last three or four months—the last six or eight months, I mean. During the whole time of this record, the last couple years.

What was radical about it?

A band called Polysics did a remix. They really took out a lot of it. They sped it up. Some of the part in the middle where it slows down and there’s a speaking section—they took half of that out. They took out a lot of the “I’m a man”s. It’s a lot of [voices fast rock groove] “Don’t shoot!”, “Don’t shoot!”, “Don’t shoot!” It sounded more like “Uncontrollable Urge” from our first record.

It’s been twenty years since Devo last released an album. To what extent do you think society has de-evolved in those twenty years?

It’s a Mike Judge movie now. It’s like the whole world’s kind of turned into Idiocracy, in a way. People make decisions based on anything but the facts. They have access to more information than ever, but yet they’re filled with more misinformation than ever. Just look at where the last twenty years have taken us, you know, with our own government. Things have just gone downward. Education is last in line for funding and bombs are first in line, once again. I think the dumbing-down of the planet is not hard to recognize.

Have you ever worried that maybe you’ve succumbed to de-evolution yourself?

Oh, I know I have. Certainly physically. It’s like—you know, sitting at a desk writing music for the last twenty years and [I] went back on a stage and realized it was a good thing that those yellow suits were so big. I’ve been losing weight for the last year or two and it’s hard when you’re old. It’s easy when you’re twenty.

I was listening to an interview with you and you were talking about how you were at the protest at the Kent State shootings in 1970. I see a parallel between the shootings and the Tasering of the guy at the University of Florida, which you make a reference to it in your song “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man).”

I think what we learned and took away from being idealistic young people–who said, “You don’t have to napalm humans in my name over there in Vietnam! I don’t really think you need to napalm them and pay for it. I don’t think I want to be doing that. I don’t think I want to be represented like that. I think there’s other ways to do things”–we found out that rebellion could only go so far in a democracy. The ideal is that you could speak your mind. But in reality, it was given limitations.

What I think we took away from it was that rebellion was obsolete, and that the only way you really change things in our culture is through subversion. So we looked around and came to the conclusion that maybe Madison Avenue was the best at influencing people indirectly.

In terms of advertising?

Right. Unfortunately, most of Madison Avenue was for bad stuff. But the techniques were valid.

I heard you talking about that on NPR recently. You said you guys were inspired by commercials.

Yeah. When we were kids, we listened and watched everything. It wasn’t just like we listened only to, you know, radio—either FM or AM or pop or alternative, if there was such a thing, which I don’t think there even was back then. We listened to everything. We listened to film soundtracks. We listened to music when we were at the mall. We listened to music in elevators. We listened to music on TV commercials. And understood the validity of all of it.

What about commercials in particular interests you?

I just like the creativity that’s involved. I ended up working in commercials for a long time, or at least writing music for commercials just out of curiosity about the media. There was a commercial in the early 70s that I really liked, and I paid attention to, because it made me laugh. It was Burger King and they took Pachelbel’s Canon and turned this beautiful piece of music–one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the classic music world–and they turned it into, “Hold the pickles / Hold the lettuce / Special orders don’t upset us / All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” That was successful. And then they proceeded to change that into a country-western version, and a folk version, and a rock version, and a funk, Motown kind of version.

Early on in our career, we made this movie called The Truth About De-Evolution. The Akron Art Institute showed our film. It’s seven and a half minutes long, it wasn’t very long. I remember this woman coming up being really upset, going, “I know what you’re doing! I can see what you’re doing!” And we were like, “Uh, what? What’s that?” She says, “I know what’s going on here! I saw subliminal messages. I saw the word ‘submit’ and I saw the word ‘obey.’” And she was really upset. She was agitated. And I remember Jerry [Casale, a founding member of Devo] and us going, “What a good idea! That’s great!”

When I started doing commercials, I used to put my own messages in them—and did it for twenty or thirty of them before I finally got bored with it because it was too easy.

Could you give me an example?

I got hired to do music for a soft drink that I thought was absolutely terrible tasting—and it was like almost pure sugar, anyhow. I put the subliminal message, ‘Sugar is bad for you.’ And in other commercials, I put messages like, ‘We must repeat,’ ‘Question authority.’

How would you do that?

You just put it right below the threshold of what people hear. They’re already listening for something when they listen to a commercial. Once you put lyrics or a melody on it, they’re following that. And so you can turn it up pretty loud.

So you would slip these lines into the jingle?

I put it underneath a cymbal or a horn riff or a guitar line or something, or a synth part that you would not right away go, ‘Oh, I just heard lyrics.’ You would be, ‘Oh, that was interesting,’ but not even recognize it. It’s not that hard to do, that’s the funny thing.

I know Devo has redone songs for commercials—like the “Swiff It” commercial for the Swiffer. Did you do anything with those?

We didn’t have to. To me, just redoing the lyrics on a Devo song was subversive enough. Because what it meant is, a kid who likes the song would go, ‘Lemme hear that.’ And then they’d hear the real song and then the real lyrics would become much more resonant. I always loved the idea of like taking our lyrics and distorting them for a commercial. Actually, “Whip It”—we have “Strip It,” “Slip It,” “Zip It,” “Swiff It”… There were like eleven or twelve different “Whip It”s out there, where you put them on a reel and you have a really crazy six minutes of viewing pleasure.

Do you ever worry that, instead of subverting these commercials, you’re actually subverting Devo or losing sight of the de-evolutionary vision?

I’m not that worried about it. I know what you’re saying. I learned to deal with that a long time ago and never felt that way. I always felt like what we were talking about, if it had any meaning at all, it would be relevant when people came back to it.

And you’re right. People can say, ‘Oh, Devo! They’re not Devo—they’re De-ho. They just let anybody use their music.’ I’m sure there’s people that think that way.

I think of Andy Warhol, who was my hero when I was a kid. If he were still alive, I think he would get a kick out of our marketing focus groups that we did with this new album. I think he would love the idea of taking a pop song and turning it into a tool to sell stupid, conspicuous crap. Maybe it does make some people interested in Hershey’s chocolate or something else, but we’re taking a ride on that, too. Because the Hershey’s chocolate people have just embedded our virus into their product. That’s how I see it. I see the Devo virus has just been further insinuated into our culture.

And, I mean, you know what? On some level, kids will never think of Devo as anything other than a kick-ass band to dance to, or to skateboard to, or to make-out to or something. They might think of it just as that, on the lowest level. But there’s a percentage of kids, somewhere along the line—it may not happen the first time they hear the record—somewhere along the line, they’re going to be saying those lyrics, singing those lyrics at work in their head or something. And they’re gonna go, “What does he mean when he says, ‘We’re pinheads now / We are not whole / We’re pinheads all / Jocko Homo’? What’s that mean? What’re they talking about?” I’m patient. I think that’s the way you change things—I think it’s through subversion.

This interview originally appeared on CityBeat‘s blog, Lastblogonearth.com.

Written by Peter Holslin

July 20, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Theocracy bites: Indie-rockers Hypernova won’t return to Iran any time soon

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Raam (second from right) cut his teeth in basement shows - Photo by Jeffrey Grossman

If you think making it big here is hard, try being a rock band in Iran—where rock music is officially considered a decadent vice of Western imperialists.

Alcohol is banned and music venues are nonexistent in Iran, so the rock band Hypernova spent seven years in Tehran’s underground scene, playing basement shows and birthday parties. There aren’t any legal recording studios, so they recorded their 2006 EP, Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?, in their friend’s crappy home studio. They’ve been doing much better since their move to the United States in 2007—they’re living in Brooklyn and touring nationally—but they still hide their real identities to protect their families back home.

“The problem with the underground is there’s only so much you can do there,” says Raam, the band’s 29-yearold lead singer and guitarist, in a recent phone interview. “You’re either going to end up in prison or you’re not going to make any money. You’re not going to be able to pursue that other career unless you’re rich enough to just play in your own basement for the rest of your life.”

They don’t have any plans to return home any time soon—in part because it’s a foregone conclusion that they’d be thrown in jail for a song like “Viva la Resistance,” the second track on their debut full-length, Through the Chaos. Over a muted guitar and a bouncy bass line reminiscent of The Strokes, Raam sings, “Your theocratic, neo-fascist ideology / is only getting in the way of my biology.”

In a way, Raam says, they’re better off outside Iran.

“The more success we see over here,” he says, “the more hope it gives to all the kids back home.”

Iranians have always been keen on Western music (on YouTube, there’s an amazing video from 1991 of some Persian dudes break-dancing at a party in Tehran), but Iranian music has gained wider popularity in the year since the birth of the Green Movement, a grassroots civil-rights campaign kick-started by the controversial reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats shed light on Tehran’s underground music scene and an adorable indie-pop duo called Take it Easy Hospital. Shahin Najafi, a Persian rapper based in Germany, has become famous for cutting rhymes that attack Iran’s oppressive theological strictures.

But as the Iranian government does all it can to crush the Green Movement, they’ve raised the stakes for artists looking to speak out.

When Raam, who describes himself as “non-religious,” first started playing with Hypernova drummer Kami in 2000, the country was undergoing liberal reforms under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami. “Holding a girl’s hand in public was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Raam says. “But during Khatami, small things like that became more culturally acceptable.”

But today, the government is reportedly cracking down harder than ever before. Peaceful demonstrators have been attacked by paramilitary youths wielding batons. Bloggers and filmmakers have been arrested and kept in solitary confinement. In December, Iranian authorities detained and intimidated Shahram Nazeri, a respected vocalist who recorded a protest song; he’s been silent ever since.

And don’t even think about holding a girl’s hand.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance went so far as to impose guidelines on men’s hairstyles.

“It’s going to take time, but I really do think that struggle is going to prevail,” Raam says. “I think one of the greatest points about the Green Movement, and just the movement of the people, is that they’re demanding that all fundamental basic rights be respected. Everyone should have the freedom to be and follow what they want—but, more importantly, everyone should also be represented equally.”

To its detriment, Hypernova isn’t all that different from countless other bands. Straight-ahead rock songs like “Universal” and “Fairy Tales” may be incredibly catchy, but they’re not groundbreaking or unique. But maybe Raam’s being too harsh when he freely says that Hypernova’s music is “far from good.” To be sure, they’re making headway by introducing synths and live sequencing, dispensing with the tired Strokes formula that defines most of Through the Chaos.

Still, it’s unclear whether they’ll ever reach their ultimate ambition: global recognition.

“For us, the goal is to become so famous and so big one day that when we go back home, we’ll be untouchable,” Raam says. “Like, you know, ‘Do your worst.

Throw me into jail.’ “But, hopefully, it won’t come to that,” he adds. “I don’t want to go to Iranian jail.”

Hypernova plays with The Black Diamond Riders at Bar Pink on Sunday, July 18. hypernova.com

This article ran in last week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.

Written by Peter Holslin

July 20, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Revolucion del Hipster

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Antonio Jiménez of María y José; photo by Ricardo Aragón.

This article ran in the July/August issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

In Zona Centro, the downtown district in Tijuana, a city on the U.S.–Mexico border just south of San Diego, DIY-chic is all the rage. La Mezcalera, a mezcal bar and nightclub that’s regarded as the city’s own Studio 54, is decorated with Simon Says consoles and old LPs. Indie Go, one of four bars that sit in the hipster enclave Callejon de la Sexta, masks its plywood décor with deep-red lighting, a wall-sized mirror, and the all-encompassing thud of a techno beat.

As for La Bodega Aragón…well, it’s just DIY.

One Friday night in May, the tiny club’s walls were still sticky with wet paint. Bartenders served drinks in the kind of plastic cups you’d find at a house party. The P.A. system was scratchy; the microphone cut out intermittently. Worst of all, the lighting was installed incorrectly. Instead of lighting up the performers onstage, a machine’s flickering red, green, and blue lights blinded the four dozen college students in the audience.

But I didn’t come for the ambiance. At the invitation of Derrik Chinn, an American who lives in Tijuana, I came to see the Guacamole Music Fest, a two-day festival put on by the University of Baja California that played host to electro bands from across Mexico and Latin America, including some of Tijuana’s best up-and-coming acts.

Colorful lasers shot into the crowd. Gray smoke was ejected from a machine. Santos, an electronic dance outfit from Tijuana, broke down the musical formula invented by Nortec Collective—a world-famous assemblage of D.J.s and producers who mix techno with norteño, an accordion-driven genre popular in northern Mexico—to its basest parts: over a humongous four-to-the-floor beat, a young man used a laptop and a USB keyboard to fire off triumphant rave synths and snippets of accordion and tuba looped ad nauseam. As if that wasn’t enough, a live drummer added fills to the relentless groove.

When it comes to dance music, Tijuana’s claim to fame is Nortec Collective. Their mashups perfectly capture how the city’s disparate cultures often sit side by side, feeding off each other. On the opening track of Corridos Urbanos, a new album by Nortec’s Clorofila, the interplay between honking accordions and glistening synths mirrored the scene at La Bodega Aragón. In the club, young people played dance music on laptops. At the Hotel Aragón bar next door, guys in cowboy hats played tunes on guitars and accordions. Drink in hand, I freely traversed the two spaces.

But in the 10 years since Nortec first emerged, their romantic sound hasn’t evolved the way Tijuana has. Ten years ago, navy boys and college co-eds would flock here to get plastered at gaudy balcony bars. But since the September 11 attacks, tourist traffic has gradually waned. In 2008, at the height of the city’s drug violence, tourists deserted the city completely.

In their absence, locals have reclaimed the area as their own. Tourist bars have been colonized by hipsters. Shuttered gift shops and old storage spaces have turned into vintage clothing stores and bars. And venues like La Sexta House of Music and La Bodega Aragón are supporting a burgeoning local music scene, with bands like Santos capturing the rawness of it all.

By all accounts, the hipster transformation began with a mezcal bar.

In 2008, rival drug cartels were fighting a savage war on Tijuana’s streets. Victims were being decapitated or castrated. Their tongues were being cut out. The really unlucky ones would be stuffed into vats of acid.

The violence had a chilling effect on the city’s thriving nightlife. High-priced clubs and restaurants became magnets for kidnapping and violence. Locals would stay home. Or they would hang out at bars in the city’s red-light district, where they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Along Avenida Revolucion, the main tourist drag downtown, there were no gringos to be found.

As the months wore on, Tijuanenses eventually grew tired of staying cooped up inside, club owners and residents say. When La Mezcalera opened its doors on Calle Sexta near Revolucion in January 2009, it hit a nerve. The bar quickly took on a diverse clientele. When more and more patrons began asking for drinks besides mezcal and beer, the bar’s owners emptied out an old storage space adjoining the front room, painted the walls, added a disco ball, and opened up an incredibly chic, if modestly-sized, nightclub.

Within a year, according to Sergio Gonzalez, a co-owner of La Mezcalera, over a dozen bars opened in the area.

“Without realizing, I think they began a revolution in Tijuana’s nightlife,” Lorena Cienfuegos, the co-owner of Indie Go, told me. “We started consuming music from our country, rather than importing it. We started going out—that was something we were [previously] afraid of because of the violence.”

Tijuana may be a vice city, but musicians and club owners say it’s a conservative one.

“In general, Tijuanenses tend to play it quite safe when deciding which shows to attend,” Moisés Horta, who plays in the band Los Macuanos, told me via e-mail. “It’s never really been an issue of musical quality so much as production value. The undecided spectator will more often than not lean toward the party with the biggest budget, the glossiest flyer, and the swankiest venue.”

When I visited, La Bodega Aragón was anything but swanky—and the very antithesis of big-budget. On the second night of the Guacamole Music Fest, Antonio Jiménez of María y José, a solo electronic project, sounded like a lo-fi Panda Bear as he sang casually over sample-driven Latin grooves and simple synth melodies playing from—what else?—a computer.

In the same way that downtown’s DIY-chic runs in the opposite direction of the gaudy bars that used to define Avenida Revolucion, acts like María y José are running away from the overblown raves that have defined electronic music in Tijuana. Three years ago, Jiménez and the guys who would later become Los Macuanos—Moisés Horta, Moisés López, and Reuben Torres, all in their early 20s—started throwing “No Rave” parties in Tijuana and Chula Vista, a U.S. city just south of San Diego, where they played minimal house, funky no-wave, and “random noise,” Horta said.

“At that time, electronic music in Tijuana consisted of massive cash cows masquerading as raves, with D.J.s you’d never even heard of and music you couldn’t care less about,” he wrote. “So our response, naturally, was to create our own scene.”

María y José’s song “Espíritu Invisible” brought their scene to a new level. The song’s hypnotic groove and darkly spiritual lyrics—“And where did your great God go? / He took everything and left you the pain,” Jiménez sings in Spanish, as I’ve roughly translated—inspired them to be more personal and regional. The results show in El Fin Mix, released online by New Other Thing, in which Los Macuanos offer up danceable yet dark grooves laden with Afro-Cuban horns and Latin rhythms.

At this point, whatever they’ve created is still in its infancy, Horta says. But with homey electro bands like Tijuana’s Ibi Ego and Aguascalientes’s Capullo on the scene, something refreshingly un-electro-trash seems to be growing.

It certainly helps that there are new venues downtown.

“The proliferation of venues has definitely afforded more options, not to mention the fact that you have a large cross-section of your potential audience cramped within a relatively tiny radius,” Horta wrote to me. “There’s a high possibility that drifting spectators might accidentally come upon your show and become hooked as a result. Of course, there’s an equal chance that people might just wander out in the middle of your show. But in general, I think the possibilities are more beneficial.”

Calle Sexta, a bustling street that cuts through Revolucion, forms the center of Tijuana hipsterdom. At the corner of Revolucion and Calle Sexta, La Sexta House of Music books bands and D.J.s. Just down the street, La Estrella, one of the city’s oldest and most cherished clubs, sits right next door to La Mezcalera. Across the street, there’s the longtime hotspot Dandy Del Sur. A short walk away, the cozy alleyway Callejon de la Sexta is always overflowing with young hipsters.

Tijuana’s violence has dropped significantly since January, when federal police captured Teodoro Garcia Simental, a ruthless crime lord responsible for much of the violence. Now, hipness is expanding beyond Calle Sexta.

One sunny Saturday in June, I walked around the area surrounding Avenida Revolucion with Jason Fritz, a graduate student at San Diego State University who lives in Tijuana. A pitiful donkey painted with zebra stripes was lounging on the street—as it has been for as long as I can remember. At pharmacies, salespeople in white lab coats hawked discount drugs. Aside from that, though, this wasn’t the same Avenida Revolucion I remember from my childhood.

We checked out vintage clothing stores. We ate at a gourmet hamburger joint. At a cavernous mall once filled with indistinguishable gift shops, a painter worked in his studio, a graffiti store had designer spray cans on display, and a barista at a quaint café was making cappuccinos.

On the corner of Revolucion and Calle Sexta, La Mezcalera’s Gonzalez and his business partner, César Fernández, were overseeing the construction of a ’60s-themed diner. Construction workers were putting up posters of Andy Warhol–style Campbell’s Soup cans labeled “Pozole,” referring to the popular Mexican stew.

Around the corner we ran into Tony Tee, a local promoter, who showed us around a sleek new club he was designing called Revue, which was quite the departure from the garish balcony bars of tourist-era Revolucion. Inside, I admired a spacious D.J. booth that was under construction.

Tee was feeling optimistic.

“Instead of trying to attract the tourists, we’re gonna attract locals,” he said. “But you know what’s going to happen? The tourists are going to come, too.”

Tireless intellect: As Vegetarian Werewolf, John Paul Labno ponders the universe

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Photo by Maria Maria Photography.

In the year since the breakup of his old band, Grand Ole Party, John Paul Labno’s proven to be an unstoppable force. Along with his girlfriend, Sasha Pfau, he’s the creative force behind indie-soul band The Hot Moon. He plays tenor sax in Mr. Tube & The Flying Objects, a quirky funk outfit headed by Pall Jenkins of The Black Heart Procession. To pay the bills, he serves coffee at Gelato Vero, the café next door to his Middletown apartment. In his off hours, he writes songs for a new solo project called Vegetarian Werewolf.

Recently, the 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist powered through a marathon week: The Hot Moon went into the studio to record their new album, Mr. Tube had rehearsals for a show at The Casbah and he prepared for this week’s solo CD-release party at Tin Can Ale House. But in an interview at his cozy apartment the week prior, he said he wasn’t overwhelmed.

“In a certain sort of way, I feel like it keeps me a little more level-headed,” he said, as he double-fisted soy chai lattés. “I have plenty of stuff to do as it is. Anything going tremendously successfully would only mean more stuff to do.

“Which is fine,” he’s quick to add.

Vegetarian Werewolf grew out of his own restlessness last October, when Hot Moon bassist Jovi Butz and drummer Jason Hooper went on tour with Jenkins for three months. With nothing better to do, Labno sat down to make The Blood Count Step, a 28-minute one-off that’s being released on cassette tape by Factual Fabrications, a small label based in Brooklyn.

The record’s 11 songs were inspired by the high-intensity soundtrack of Nintendo’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, only it’s been slowed down to a spooky dub crawl. Recording all the instruments himself, the 40-day endeavor pushed Labno in new directions: He’s taken up keyboards, and he’s singing for the first time.“It’s like a novelty record,” he said. “I wasn’t so sure I could make a record at all—and it turns out I can. So now I’m writing another one.”

Where Grand Ole Party radiated animalistic energy and The Hot Moon oozes soulfulness, Vegetarian Werewolf combines Spartan ingenuity with intellectual curiosity. In “Man and Machine,” a new demo that Labno plans to put on a proper Vegetarian Werewolf debut, he explores the romance between humans and computers. “Evening time, a glass of wine / Time to plug in,” he sings over a beat that juxtaposes a squeaking Sharpie with a clicking typewriter. “Digital world lets him be who he wants / Digital woman loves him for who he is.”

As Labno explains, the solo project works as an engine for his need to make sense of the world.

“Do you accept the fact that things can seem so droll and mundane that, therefore, things are meaningless and there’s so much crap out there that we’re just lost in a confused haze? Or do you keep looking?” he wondered. “I choose to keep looking. I think it keeps me feeling a lot better. I try to keep my picture of the world growing, because I feel like if it gets stuck at any one place, things start to become a lot more difficult.”

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the project seems to capture how Labno’s making sense of his current circumstances.

Last year, he was playing guitar for a band that was hitting its stride, recording an album in Atlanta with Ben Allen—who produced Animal Collective’s landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion—and preparing to go on tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But when Grand Ole Party split, he had to start fresh. Today, he writes his solo material in his bedroom, recording songs on his laptop and using his floor as a kick pedal.

In “Light of Day,” another new demo, the chorus might reflect the radical difference between then and now: “It’s so hard to let go of the phantoms we’ve grown used to / Everything I used to know is as a dream.”

He could use a day off, he says. But he’s not gloating. “Whether people like the music I’m making or not, or whether I’m playing to 20 people or 2,000 people or whatever, I’m in my fuckin’ house making as much music as I can every day,” he said. “It’s the same thing I’ve always been doing.”

Vegetarian Werewolf will celebrate the release of The Blood Count Step at Tin Can Ale House on Thursday, July 8. myspace.com/vegetarianwerewolf

This article ran in last week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.

Written by Peter Holslin

July 7, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Sounds complicated: This year’s soundON Festival will challenge musicians and listeners alike

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Sounds complicated

The NOISE ensemble performing in 2009. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler.

Christopher Adler, a music professor at the University of San Diego who organizes the annual soundON Festival of Modern Music, likes to be challenged.

He’s mastered the khaen, a bamboo mouth organ used in the traditional music of Laos and Northeast Thailand. His newest composition, a piece for a drum set without cymbals, seeks to capture the polyrhythmic improvisation of free-jazz drumming. At the first soundON Festival four years ago, he performed “The Chord Catalog,” a mathematical marathon by the Paris-based minimalist composer Tom Johnson. On piano, Adler studiously played all 8,178 possible chords contained in a single octave.

“It was akin to a form of meditation, almost like a kind of Buddhist meditation—an hour of absolutely focused concentration,” he says. “Not so much a musical experience in any traditional sense.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the soundON Festival is tricky for musicians and listeners alike. This year’s program includes highly conceptual and dazzlingly complex pieces by composers from around the world. Two U.S. premieres look especially brutal: Johnson’s “844 Chords,” which follows a complex mathematical algorithm that makes Terry Riley’s “In C” sound like “Old McDonald”; and Greek composer Nicolas Tzortzis’ “Mnésique,” a seven-minute exploration of memory that Adler likens to seeing your life flash before your eyes during a car crash.

Complicating matters is the fact that members of NOISE, the ensemble performing most of the pieces, live in different parts of the country—in addition to Adler and guitarist / composer Colin McAllister in San Diego, there’s a violinist in L.A., a cellist in Ohio, a flautist in Baltimore and a percussionist in Alaska (who’s sitting out this year)—and they won’t actually sit down to rehearse the pieces until a week before the festival. But Adler, NOISE’s pianist and composer in residence, doesn’t seem worried.

“That kind of music is inherently risky,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much rehearsal time you have. There’s always this element of danger in it, and that’s part of what we like about it.”

In spite of all these challenges, the festival is designed to make uncompromising music more approachable. Concerts will be held in La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library—with no stage, curtain or backstage, it offers a more relaxed vibe than a concert hall. Rehearsals on the day of performances will be open to the public. Visiting composers will hold pre-concert talks. And at a late-night “Chill-out Concert” featuring the Formalist Quartet, a California string ensemble, audience members are free to come and go as they ponder pieces like Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh’s sublime “Voice and Echo I.”

To hardcore avant-garde listeners, the most surprising aspect of the festival might be that the program mostly consists of traditional notation and arrangements. Back in the ’60s, the late American composer Harry Partch taught SDSU students how to play fanciful homemade instruments with unique tuning systems, and these days, UCSD’s famed Music Department has supported groups like the Bitwise Operators, a self-described “laptop ensemble”—so, in a city with a rich experimental history, aren’t violins and treble clefs old-hat?

Adler doesn’t think so. “It’s almost like the language I grew up speaking, so it’s hard, in a way, not to love it,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’s all used up. People can still write a good novel in English; there’s still good music you can write with good old notes on paper.”

Appropriately, NOISE’s name brings to mind the prescient 1985 study Noise: The Political Economy of Music, in which French scholar Jacques Attali argues that music will eventually no longer be a social tool but, rather, a boundless medium for experimentation. Nobody can deny that today’s musicians enjoy immense freedoms. They can borrow ideas from groundbreaking composers like John Cage or Steve Reich—or they can create their own musical systems. And if they can’t play instruments, they can use computer programs like Max/MSP to create their own sounds. But they still face the challenge of making music that’s intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.

Sound and concept dovetail beautifully in “Shades of Raindrops” by Korean composer Sungji Hong, one piece on the program. In a recording Hong sent via e-mail, Korea’s Ensemble TIMF explore various timbres in E-flat—long-drawn strings, fluttering flute, slamming piano, even some random snapping. The impressionist changes, she explains, evoke the different colors and patterns of raindrops, from light drizzle to heavy torrents.

NOISE assembled the program two years ago, after an international call for scores yielded enough interesting pieces to fill two years’ worth of festivals. Unfortunately for curious concert-goers, though, none of the Europe-based composers whose pieces will be performed this year will be able to attend the festival because of the economic downturn.

Adler is characteristically undaunted.

“In a way, if that’s the worst side-effect of the economy, we’re doing OK,” he says. “We’re still doing the festival. We’re still doing the music we want to do.”

The soundON Festival of Modern Music will be held at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla Thursday June 17, through Saturday, June 19. sandiegonewmusic.com/soundON10

This article ran in last week’s issue of CityBeat.

Interview: Mat Diablo

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Last month, 91X fired Matthew Bates (aka Mat Diablo) and cancelled The 91X Morning Show with Mat Diablo. Now, as we reported in this week’s issue, he’s looking for a new job—but not in radio.

Bates, a 30-year-old marketing specialist who works part-time for the online personal radio outlet Slacker, says he’s not bitter, but he doesn’t have much hope for the future of radio. In an interview with CityBeat last Sunday, Bates talked about the Morning Show‘s early days, the radio industry’s business model, and how it can compete with a legion of iPhone apps.

How did you get involved with 91X?

Well, they’d offered me a job when I was still up in Boise [Idaho, where he was program director and brand manager for KQXR 100.3 FM], and I said ‘No.’ Because my perception at the time was that 91X was in bad shape, which it was. And when I moved to town [in 2006], the people who were running the station at the time [Finest City Broadcasting, which had recently bought the station from Clear Channel] hit me up and said, ‘Hey, let’s just talk. I’m interested in what you’re doing over here. Maybe can you develop some content for us as well, on the side?’ I started having high-level conversations with them about where that station can go. They recognized that, for the better part of the last decade, that station had been a non-issue for most people—you know, as a result of being owned by Clear Channel, being programmed from out of the city, voice-tracking, and all the other terrible things you hear about radio consolidation. They were really committed to rebuilding 91X’s brand.

Everyone knows 91X. It plays music, you tune in, you tune out; it’s there. Certainly not what it used to be, though. As far as being active in the community, as far as what it represents to this generation, it’s just sort of a shell of its former self. And they recognized that. They said, ‘We’re gonna fix this. We wanna take our listeners and turn them into enthusiasts. We want to develop some good will in the community. And more importantly, we want to embrace emerging tech. Rather than being reactive to all these challenges—i.e. Pandora and Slacker and satellite radio and God knows what else—we want to be pro-active. We want to be a leader when it comes to incorporating emerging tech and emerging content delivery platforms. We want to be involved in peoples’ lives in our communities again.’

I put together a presentation; I put together this whole sort of definition of what that would be. And then they went out and they tried to find a show. And then a couple months later, they approached me and said, ‘We can’t find anyone to do this. Do you want to do it?’ My passion is music first and secondly getting cool ideas, cool products—I know it’s cynical to say music is a product, but it is—into the hands of the people who are going to appreciate it the most. And this was just another one of those challenges. From a 91X standpoint and a show standpoint, they wanted us to build a community again. 91X did not have a community for a long time.

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