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Jeff Holland, Nathan Jantz and Dave Alexander are computer experts with enough collective know-how to bring the Pentagon's systems administrator to his knees. But even though the three are more interested in making electronic music than in committing cyber-terrorism, there's still a subversive element to their work. The pieces they make under the umbrella of their Boulder label, Obliq Recordings, are sonic notes from the underground.
Like many fellow electronic musicians, Holland, Jantz and Alexander give different names to various projects in which they're involved, including Multicast, Ted Sturgeon and Freqmodif. But all of their acts share a willingness to go beyond the boundaries of mainstream electronica in search of unchartered territory. The result is "intelligent dance music"--IDM, for short--that's better suited to headphones than raves. At this point, it's a small movement, but according to Holland, who makes his living as a computer cartographer for the City of Boulder's open-space program, it's growing.
"There are about thirty of us in the Denver-Boulder area who are heavily into this kind of electronic music and come together and play," he says. "Most are guys in their twenties and thirties into computer programming and alternative shit. Some of the guys are dreadlocked Web programmers--guys with six-figure salaries who come off like punks but are so good at programming that people will hire them regardless. The whole scene is sort of tied into the anarchist-hacker mentality."
Jantz believes that the performers' recreational pursuits have also played a part in IDM's development. "I think electronic music as a whole seeped into my subconscious over the years from playing countless hours of video games. Andy Schneidkraut, the owner of Albums on the Hill in Boulder, once mentioned to me that he thought video games from the past twenty years had a lot to do with the popularity of electronic music today. I think there's a lot of truth to that."
Both Jantz and Alexander are computer programmers, but their Obliq undertaking came together in an old-fashioned environment--a record store. The pair met while planning a laser show at CU's Fiske Planetarium and subsequently discovered a mutual love of acid house and new beat. Shortly thereafter, Jantz landed a job at Albums on the Hill, and with the encouragement of Schneidkraut, he and Alexander started Albums Up, an upstairs annex that specializes in electronic sounds. Holland, an avid CD collector, got to know the two over the course of regular shopping trips to the outlet, and after swapping some tapes, the three fast friends decided to get together. The exchange that resulted was good for everyone involved.
"Those guys had been working on their programming skills," Holland recalls, "and we had a killer night of high-tech jam sessions. We realized we wanted to put something out, so that's how Obliq really came about. The idea was to do a really nice record label for this sort of head music. It was modeled after some of these small British labels, like FAX, that release limited copies of stuff."
Last year the concept came to fruition with the release of a CD, Obliq Recordings, and the creation of a state-of-the-art Web site, www.obliq.net. Holland was pleasantly surprised by the response, which confirmed to him the degree to which the Internet has rewired the global village. "We sold 350 records in Germany alone, compared to 150 here," he reports.
"The Internet is a phenomenon in itself that is also a big contributor to the evolution of this industry," Jantz adds. "We really could not have a worldwide presence if it wasn't for the Internet."
Still, the Web is more than an international forum. The Obliq members have used it to stay in touch with local aficionados who are refining their own musical techniques. "Everyone seems to have their own style and approach," Jantz says about his Colorado peers. "But there exists a common DIY sensibility that makes it sort of like garage music for the Nineties."
That's a bit of an overstatement: An electronic-music performer needs more than a guitar and a space to play. However, the cost of start-up equipment is no longer as prohibitive as it once was. "It takes a fair amount of knowledge, but the technology has really come down to kids," Holland insists. "Four years ago no one had a CD burner, but now they're all over. Most of the programming and sequencing can be done with simple software. In fact, a lot of guys are hackers and get the cracked programs for free."
The Obliq three use these elements to experimental ends. For the most part, IDM isn't as universally approachable as, say, the music of Prodigy, which still retains pop-song connections. But most sophisticated listeners will find the work of Multicast, the best-known of Obliq's handles, to be entirely accessible. After all, many of the tracks on Obliq 1.2 Multicast LIVE at I.C.A., the first Multicast effort, retain a semblance of structure and melody even when they veer into less traditional areas. Freqmodif, by contrast, is considerably more freeform, thanks to an emphasis on odd sound manipulations and layering, while Ted Sturgeon takes digital editing and signal processing to coldly technical extremes.
Anyone looking for obvious hooks may be disappointed by the Obliq offerings--but the performers are quick to point out that mainstream appeal isn't their goal. The cultivated electro set is excited by innovation, not commercial potential, and Holland feels that Obliq Recordings provides that quality in spades.
"Musically, for me, there's a lot of satisfaction in doing what's going on now," he says. "If this were the Sixties, we'd be playing in an improv jazz band. In the Seventies, we would have been playing in a prog-rock band. In the Eighties, we would have been playing in a punk band. But this is the Nineties, so it's electronic stuff. There's a continuity in that that I like."
What Denver-Boulder IDM boosters lack in numbers and visibility, they make up for in enthusiasm. In January, over two dozen local electronic-music-makers gathered at the Mercury Cafe for a meeting of the Institute for Contextual Arts, a fancy-sounding title for what amounts to an informal group of dedicated envelope-pushers. The NoWhere Festival, which the Obliq threesome staged on a remote site in northeastern Colorado between April 30 and May 2, was an even more impressive assemblage of such kindred spirits.
America has long been accused of bandwagon-jumping when it comes to electronica, in part because high-profile artists like Madonna are only now incorporating what was hot in England three years ago. But Holland thinks that's changing. "Denver used to be about two years behind England as far as electronic music, but now the reverse is true," he insists. "Instead of us imitating them, British guys now are starting to come to the U.S. to find out what's happening here, because there is some really cool stuff here that's markedly different than what they're doing." As proof, he points out that representatives of labels he's idolized are now searching out Obliq products: The players recently contributed a song, "foehn," to Cataract Beats, a compilation on Atlanta's groundbreaking Pitchcadet imprint. (A remixed, reprogrammed version of the same track also turns up on a Multicast twelve-inch set for release in early June.)
Local support for IDM is climbing, too. Albums Up is doing well, and Electronic Air, a program heard Saturday nights on KGNU-FM/88.5, is making waves. "It's a strong show on the current state of underground," Holland says. "And they're good about playing local stuff." So, too, is another KGNU program, Live at the Cabaret, which is scheduled to put the Obliq ones in the spotlight at 7 p.m. Monday, June 7.
The proliferation of electronic music is not without its drawbacks; as Jantz admits, "There is an over-saturation of the market with lots of really bad dance music, which furthers the largely misunderstood notion that 'all electronic dance music sounds the same.'" But at the same time, the new egalitarianism has destroyed the impression that an electronica artist can't enjoy success without the backing of a major label.
"Obliq Recordings is very much representative of all the kinds of stuff going on with electronica," Holland says. "It's music for the intelligent techno fan. But at the same time, it's bedroom music. Sure, there's a lot of knob-twiddling, but anybody can do this.