A trip beyond space disco through the super sounds of Oslo and San Francisco
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I hear a new world calling me. It's beeping transmissions from some faraway place in the future and the past where a mysterious craft hovers near calypso rock and choruses of friendly voices some human, some not echo or call to each other. It's a free-floating territory charted by someone obsessed with creating and sharing sounds that would otherwise go unheard. Only those with a similar obsession seem to respond to its clarion call.
I hear a new world, so strange and so real. Something tells me this world has ties to Norway and the Bay Area, that it streams from Oslo to San Francisco and back. Along the way it opens doors some familiar, some not to unheard-of zones. In Norway it can't help isoutf8g and celebrating a conga rhythm from a vintage Michael Jackson track. It also combines the famous chords of Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra and the roller coaster sensuality of Donna Summer's Giorgio Moroderproduced "I Feel Love" in order to fill and feel space with as much pleasure as possible. In San Francisco it forms warm electronic waves, uses white magic to surf those waves' white diamond tips at midnight, and then wakes up the next morning with a heartbreaking conversational hymn.
I hear a new world, haunting me from beyond the known realms of space disco, the shorthand term writers have applied to the music of Norway's Lindstrøm (who has combined Strauss with Summer), Prins Thomas, and Todd Terje (the aforementioned Jackson mix master). It asks me to explore the songs of San Francisco musicians who offer clues to and share those Norwegians' vast and prodigious love of sound and song. It suggests I contact Sorcerer (a.k.a. Daniel Judd) and Hatchback (a.k.a. Sam Grawe), brothers in oceanic melody and rhythm, who have both been remixed by Thomas. It tells me to talk with Dominique Leone, whose gorgeous and deranged pop will soon be released by Lindstrøm on his Feedelity label. It implores that I reach across this small town of super sounds to speak with Arp's Alexis Georgopoulos, who has forged a cluster of electro-Nordic projects in which beauty emerges with a sunlike glow from intensity.
I hear a new world, calling me to chart links between musicians in San Francisco and in Norway, to discover that neighboring, unacquainted San Francisco sound makers can share friendships with the same Norwegian musicians. Perhaps this musical passage from Norway to our Bay is pure folly. Perhaps the seaside Northern European kingdom recently voted the most peaceful country in the world by the Global Peace Index doesn't share the same spirit as coastal Northern California. Perhaps the country that remained neutral in World War I and rebelled against insurgent World War II Nazism doesn't have much in common with Bay Area resistance. Perhaps Oslo and San Francisco only share a pocket-size but ferocious love of black metal. I still hear a new world how can I tell what's in store for me?
Donna Summer has already come and gone on the jukebox of the Van Ness corner bar with the bright yellow sign as Sorcerer's Daniel Judd looks at the cover art for Prins Thomas's Cosmo Galactic Prism (Eskimo). Thomas's epic, oft-resplendent two-CD mix opens with "I Hear a New World," the title track of producer Joe Meek's innovative 1960 exploration of the outer spaces of stereo and studio sound. It then segues into the country twang and power-chord dub of "Devil Weed and Me," by the late-'70s Nashville, Tenn., session-player supergroup Area Code 615. "It's funny that the CD starts that way," Judd says with characteristic almost-sly-or-shy understatement. "My friend Sam [Grawe, of Hatchback,] is a big fan of Area Code 615, and I love "I Hear a New World." The fact [Thomas] put those two songs together is weird, like he was reading our minds."
Encyclopedic musical passions bring serendipity. But Thomas and Judd's bond dives deeper: Thomas has remixed "Surfing at Midnight," the slow-blooming single from White Magic (Tirk), the first album Judd has recorded as Sorcerer. White Magic is a casual labor of love (all too rare in these studied-yet-throwaway days) that's easy to fall for on the first listen. Judd who sometimes writes about music for the Web site Dream Chimney is still capable of the Johnny Marrlike rush, push, and spangled jangle he brought to the band Call and Response, but freed from group strictures he lands on a relaxed approach to writing and recording that allows for gorgeous chord changes, compositions that morph, and keyboards and guitars that shimmer.
White Magic's track listing primarily consists of two-word titles "Airbrush Dragon," "Egyptian Sunset," "Bamboo Brainwave" that inspire visualization, and on MySpace, Judd invents a variety of apt and funny pseudogenres, such as "'80s montage music," to describe the Sorcerer sound. "So many friends, when I played [Sorcerer's] music for them, would say, 'This would be great for an '80s movie scene or a montage,'" he explains when asked about the various substyle terms he coined on a lark. "I definitely grew up during that period and watched the movies, so it's ingrained. I thought I might as well just go for it. I like having some humor and playfulness, like Thomas Fehlmann, the Kompakt [label] guy who was in the Orb.... At some point [more recently] electronic music got caught up in always trying to do something new. That's fun for the musician but not always for the listener. In my stuff the beat isn't what's making you go, 'Oh wow.' If it's happening, it's from the chords."
Judd and his girlfriend recently moved from Oakland where he'd also spent much of his early childhood with a mom who loves Prince into the Mission. Sorcerer, however, can usually be found loitering on either side of a magic door where kitsch transforms into loveliness. One side of that door definitely opens onto the beach. White Magic's "Blind Yachtsman" is a love child born from Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and yacht rock. Judd often draws on whatever he's listening to or watching, but other seafaring Sorcerer songs, such as "Surfing at Midnight" and "Hawaiian Island," flow directly from his experiences while surfing and scuba diving.
"Maybe the beach represents this free place, away from computers and technology," Judd posits when I mention that Norwegian counterparts such as Terje (whose MySpace interests are "Coconuts, Hawaiian sunsets, moose/dolphins/unicorn/practically everything in a sunset") share his fondness for littoral motifs. Whether discussing his girlfriend's most recent Midnites for Maniacsready movie rental (Side Out, a beach volleyball drama starring C. Thomas Howell) or a weekend visit to Nippon Goldfish Co. on Geary ("You're so close to the animals, and they look kind of crazy"), Judd keeps returning to the waterfront. "In the ocean," he notes, "you feel like there's almost no rules. You're having fun, and it's almost dangerous fun a kind that you don't find in the city."
A setting sun, bisected by clouds, hovers over darkening ocean waves on the cover of In Light, the first album by San Francisco's Arp; the title, drawn in slim neon-tube cursive by San Francisco artist Tauba Auerbach, is suspended from the upper left-hand corner of a tangerine and gold sky. The summer sun happens to be setting outside the upper Guerrero living room window of Arp's Alexis Georgopoulos as he talks about this image (partly inspired by the melancholic found-film cosmograms of visual artist Tacita Dean) and how it relates to the music on the album, which will be released by the Oslo label Smalltown Supersound next month.
"An overwhelming number of people still tend to think of electronic music as being cold," Georgopoulos says while sitar notes from an LP quietly resonate through his and roommate Kathryn Anne Davis's blue-walled apartment, where a large chunk of coral rests on a clear Plexiglas coffee table. "I wanted to make something that was warm, that had human qualities, that was a little worn, and that along with the imagery of the record dealt with memory, the degradation of memory, and revisionist memory. I also wanted to make something that referenced landscape and light and natural things in a way that wasn't new age." I point to a fat tome about the protonew age label ECM on a nearby bookcase, which Georgopoulos built. "Protonew age music, if you select carefully, can be amazing," he responds. "Even the kernels of early sequencing in Ash Ra Tempel sound really radiant."
If a new age of electronic music spanning from San Francisco to Oslo is dawning (or setting), then Georgopoulos a chief member of Tussle until just after the group recorded last year's Telescope Mind (Smalltown Supersound) has taken it to the bridge and maybe even been the bridge. In 2002, after writing about the graphic design of Smalltown Supersound's Kim Hiorthøy for Tokion, Georgopoulos who edits the music section of SOMA magazine and sometimes contributes to the Guardian offered to put together a Bay Area showcase at Club Six for the label. "I don't think he had done anything like that before; he just wanted to have us over, which was very generous," label owner Joakim Hoaglund recalls via e-mail before turning to a discussion of his and Georgopoulos's latest collaboration. With Arp, "it's a relief [for me] to do a small personal project. Maybe it's just me, but I feel [In Light] has this great and unique mix of US West Coast art and culture with European avant-gardism and kraut rock. It's a very special album."
Clutter and clusters are on Georgopoulos's mind as we discuss music and its surroundings. "I was a huge stacker [of books and records]," he says when I mention his well-ordered home studio. "But I take after my mother she's very neat and feels like she can't do the work she needs to do unless things are organized." The first-generation American child of parents from France and Greece, Georgopoulos has chosen the dreamy, maternal lull of a track titled "St. Tropez" to open In Light before "Potentialities" surges out of speakers (or from headphones) with a subtly rising force that's ultimately awesome to behold. Most of In Light's seven meditative tracks were first showcased in a 2006 group exhibition at New Langton Arts, where up to two listeners could climb into a feather bed enclosed in a small podlike space. "It wasn't cerebral. It wasn't about dissecting a suspended space," Georgopoulos says. "Though with a lot of [Arp]'s music, suspension is one of the effects I'm trying to create."
For Georgopoulos, Arp's state of suspension runs counter to different kinds of tension. While discussing his love for the analog organ-drum machine sounds employed by groups such as Cluster (a few of whose albums have just been reissued by Oakland label Water), Suicide, and Spacemen 3, he notes that "too much electronic [today] sounds like coke-related music." In contrast, Arp's electronic music is humane a rarity not just in electronic music but also on the streets of San Francisco during the Gavin Newsom era, when homelessness has become more difficult and abject and attitudes toward it more hostile. "I can't remember the last time I left the house and didn't have a confrontation with a very disturbing sight, and after a long time that really starts to chip away at you," Georgopoulos says. "I drove a cab for four years, until 2004, and when I think about it I can't believe that I did. It suited my life at the time, but you're interacting with [people on] PCP, meth, and all kinds of shit you just never know. Now that I don't drive a cab I'm hardly ever in the Tenderloin."
Wearing a pair of shades, Prins Thomas is chatting with the doorman of his hotel in the Tenderloin when I stumble out of a taxi to interview him. It's a sunny, hot late afternoon, but Thomas who has just woken up isn't exactly on Norway time or California time. Later in the evening he'll be DJing Gun Club's night at Temple Nightclub. Right now, though it's too late for lunch and too early for dinner, the moment calls for a meal, so we settle into a restaurant on Polk Street. "I used to play in Oslo for the same people again and again," he says after we order food. "Now I can travel and meet like minds. It's inspiring to meet people who can help you out and who you can help out."
In San Francisco two such people are Sorcerer's Judd and Hatchback's Grawe. Only after remixing tracks by Judd's and Grawe's solo projects did Thomas discover (by following Web links) that they also record together as Windsurf. Next year he plans to release some Windsurf recordings on a new label, Internasjonal, that will step outside the Norwegian and dance music confines of his established label, Full Pupp. This season, though, he and Lindstrøm have released in addition to a variety of vinyl projects a full-length collaboration (Reinterpretations, the beat-driven follow-up compilation to their 2006 debut on Eskimo) and individual mix CDs. Lindstrøm has contributed a chapter to the mix series Late Night Tales (released by the label of the same name), while Thomas has unleashed Cosmo Galactic Prism (Eskimo), a two-and-a-half-hour CD cornucopia that moves from strange and delightful multigenre tracks by Glissandro 70 (the bizarrely beautiful "Bolan Muppets") and Metalchicks (the awesome "Tears for Fears/Conspiracy") through Hawkwind into the classic disco of "Get Down Boy" by Paper Dolls.
"I thought it fit the whole collection as an introduction," Thomas says when I ask him about Cosmo Galactic Prism's opener, "I Hear a New World," which Arp's Georgopoulos also says he's included in mixes. "It kind of sets the tone it's so freaky that anything that comes after it is going to sound pretty normal. When I first heard it I couldn't tell if it was new or old. There's a similar quality to a track by Art Blakey called "Oscalypso" [from the 195657 album Drum Suite, now on Dusty Groove]. The drums are so distorted that it sounds relevant next to new, compressed dance music, even though it's 50 years old."
It isn't surprising that Thomas's expansive love for and knowledge of music stems from his family. "My stepfather has been as obsessed with music [as I am]," he explains while charting Lindstrøm's background in country and gospel bands and his own early days DJing hip-hop records at youth clubs. Thomas's stepfather "would play Ry Cooder and the Sex Pistols for me. He had the Robert Christgau Consumer Guide books, which are great. I think it's funny how [Christgau] can write similarly about an Eric Clapton album and a Chic album. For me, it really isn't about bad music or good music, but about music that excites you and music that doesn't."
It also probably isn't surprising that one genre Thomas's stepfather didn't like prog rock figures heavily in his and Lindstrøm's music. As for newer terms or styles, like Lindstrøm (who good-naturedly told me, "I guess the good thing is that some people are telling me I invented a genre"), Thomas has a sense of humor about the phrase space disco. "It could have been a lot worse," he says. "It could have been called crunk or syrup [Houston's cough syrupinfluenced hip-hop sound]. In my hometown, at underage school dances 15-year-old girls used to soak their tampons in moonshine. I guess that's the Norwegian version of syrup."
When I meet Dominique Leone, he's sitting in a San Francisco café that might have the highest number of laptops per square foot. Leone has one too, but instead of staring into its screen he's feverishly using a pencil to draw on a page in a sky blue Strathmore sketchbook. I'm not surprised, because scribbler nonpareil Sol LeWitt caps a list of audio and visual influences on Leone's MySpace page. That site also offers an opportunity to hear the gorgeous song "Conversational," on which Leone's spare keyboard arrangement and ascendant choirboy-gone-slightly-cuckoo voice update the plaintive yet celestial highlights ("I'll Be Home," "Living Without You") of Harry Nilsson's classic 1970 cover collection Nilsson Sings Newman (Buddha).
Leone's MySpace page contains audio treats, but what about his sketchbook page? It turns out he's drawing, in his words, "a giant skyscraper-sized robot that streams music and scents into the air and every 10 minutes or so spews out free kittens." Indeed, Leone's sketch does look a bit like that, so when he says he'll try his hand at an idea I have a constellation that playfully demonstrates links between San Francisco and Norway musicians I take him up on the offer.
Though Leone doesn't include himself in the finished rendering ("More an exploding molecule than a constellation," he says), which accompanies this article, he belongs in a nearby orbit, thanks to his collaborations with Lindstrøm. In addition to providing the quiet heart of that artist's Late Night Tales mix, "Conversational" is also featured on an EP, simply titled Dominique Leone, that Lindstrøm is releasing next month on Feedelity (with art by Hiorthøy) as a precursor to Leone's album. The gonzo centerpiece of the EP is "Clairevoyage a Medley Performed by the 16th Rebels of Mung," on which Lindstrøm and Oslo Bee Gees maniacs Mungolian Jet Set, responding to Leone's song "Claire" (on the EP's B-side), construct a 12-minutes-plus propulsive fantasia that builds to a helium-voiced climax not far from the munchkin antics of Meek's "I Hear a New World." Leone is no slouch at reaching countertenor octaves naturally or through tape manipulation. But since the EP also credits Mungolian figures named Katzenjammer and Izzy Tizzy as vocalists, it's anyone's guess as to who has inhaled a few balloons before singing.
Leone says he grew up listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and the latter's influence is especially apparent in the semielated, semiagitated high harmonies that fly through intricately braided compositions like his "Nous Tombons dans Elle." A self-described "band nerd" in high school and music major at Texas Tech University, he feels a kinship with the more overtly postmodern academic songwriting approaches of friends such as Matmos and Kevin Blechdom. To Lindstrøm, though, he's a 21st-century answer to the progressive pop of Todd Rundgren (who happens to be a favorite of Sorcerer as well). "I remember the first time Lindstrøm wrote to me [about my music]. He was talking about Paul McCartney, but his big thing was Rundgren," Leone says with a laugh. "I wasn't a big Rundgren fan, but [Lindstrøm] wasn't the first person to listen to my music and mention Rundgren.
"The first track ['Forelopic Bit'] on Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas is, to me, the best example of how to make a dance track from prog and fusion influences," Leone notes before adding some observations that probably stem from his experience as a freelance music writer for Pitchfork more than from his far-flung everyday listening tastes, which have ranged from salsa to bluegrass over the past few months. "A lot of people are trying to [bring prog and fusion to dance floors] right now. You can go out [to a club] and hear these Balearic and beardo DJs just playing tracks. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. But Lindstrøm is one of the few guys who are actually trying to make original songs incorporating those influences."
Sam Grawe of Hatchback and Windsurf sings the praises of his Sony tape recorder as I place my old, cheap, and wonderful Panasonic next to some glasses of wine on a table in his home recording studio. Plastic owl wall fixtures and a rug with shaded steps of color that resemble the volume bars of a digital stereo rest above and below the assortment of keyboards (including that prized prog possession, the Rhodes) in the room. "You can listen to instrumentals as background music, but I've always been into [moments] when music connects you with what's happening or what you're doing," Grawe says. "So much of my [youth] was spent driving around the rural countryside and finding the perfect song. Sound can fulfill an opening or void in your emotional experience. Images can be part of it, smell can be part of it, but sound can take it to another level."
Grawe's sympathy for trusty old tape recorders, his playfully decorated recording space, and the attentiveness to setting in his reminiscence all make sense by day he is the editor in chief of the modern architecture and design magazine Dwell. By night and whenever else he can find the time, he listens to and makes music. It's an enduring passion that goes back to high school years spent using MIDI to put music theory into practice and compose fugues in the manner of Rick Wakeman and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. "The guy who stocked the import section [at a nearby record store] was some crazy prog freak," Grawe remembers. "A friend of mine had The Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock, so I could read about some crazy Italian or German band and then go to the mall and buy the CD."
"White Diamond," the 21st-century prog rock of Gibraltar that Hatchback has just made public (on the UK label This Is Not an Exit), showcases the fuguelike interplay between simplicity and complexity in Grawe's compositions. While a 17-minute remix by Prins Thomas adds club elements, the original version, with its hallucinatory, starlit varieties of arpeggio, makes for an ideal personal soundtrack. Hatchback's next 12-inch release on This Is Not an Exit, a track called "Jet Lag," is funkier yet similarly majestic, layered, and emotive. In both cases vocals would be a pointless distraction synthesizers seem to sing to one another, becoming increasingly, endearingly creaturelike by song's end. "Friends chide me for not knowing the words to songs I've heard a thousand times," Grawe says after testifying to his love for the film scores of Vangelis, Piero Umiliani, and Francis Lai. "But often a little synth part [in a song] is more interesting to me."
Grawe sings on some of the Windsurf songs that he and Judd have recorded for Prins Thomas to release on Internasjonal. Windsurf allows him to tap into a longtime interest in duos and groups ranging from the many projects of Yellow Magic Orchestra's Haruomi Hosono and Neu!'s Michael Rother (Grawe recently contributed liner notes to an upcoming reissue of Rother's first solo album, 1977's Flammende Herzen, by Oakland's Water) to ... Steely Dan. "To a lot of people they embody what's wrong with music," Grawe says of the last. "But to me they embody everything that's right. Not only is their music well crafted, but some of their lyrics, to me, are on a par with [Bob] Dylan."
As for Oslo and San Francisco, Grawe who recently created a Venn diagram for Mike Bee of Amoeba Music that illustrates the fusion of influences within Sorcerer, Hatchback, and Windsurf welcomes the growing, glowing galactic prism formed by artists from both areas who have an affinity for one another's music. "I think it's interesting that all these records happened without [the people involved] ever meeting in person or sometimes even talking on the phone," Grawe says. "It's all been through the Internet. It was great to finally see [Thomas] when he came to town and hang out, have dinner, and play records. We connected instantly."
To trace musical connections between a pair of geographical areas is reductive. The artists I've written about love music from a number of other countries (Germany and Brazil, to name just two) and cumulatively have friendships with contemporary musicians from all over the globe. But in focusing on sonic signals being sent forth between Norway and our Bay, signals that have yielded some of my favorite recordings of the past year, I also discovered unexpected commonalities that open into new words about and worlds of sound. Almost all of the San Francisco musicians I spoke with also write about music, and three of them are journalists, for example. It seems the divisions between writers and musicians continue to blur, leading to the formation of a new music of the spheres.
When Joe Meek composed and recorded I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy (RPM) in England in 1960, his intense, obsessive love of music and sound resulted in the audio equivalent of what is called visionary. But he remained isolated. Today it's great to see and hear figures such as Meek and disco innovator Arthur Russell living on, their spirits floating through many people's songs and being revived in upcoming documentaries. Meek heard a new world of sound, calling him and haunting him. He couldn't tell what was in store for him, but his new world of sound has arrived. It spans from Norway and our Bay to the farthest reaches of inner and outer space.