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Lab Dance

George & Caplin's mutant electronica is the sound of science.

"Warming up the electronics is pretty much the central idea of what we do," remarks Iselin. "If we're working on a song and it's really IDM, really abrasive, then we'll be like, 'All right, let's take the edge off of it, make it a little more smooth.'"

Or, as Stevens puts it, "I don't like songs ramming toward you. I like them all floaty."

Another way George & Caplin maintains an analogue pulse within the digital rigor mortis of electronic music is by abstaining from computers in the studio -- a move practically unheard of in this era of laptop composers and music-editing programs such as Cubase and Pro Tools.

Which one of you guys is Igor? Jeffrey Wentworth 
Stevens (left) and Jason Iselin are George & Caplin.
Which one of you guys is Igor? Jeffrey Wentworth Stevens (left) and Jason Iselin are George & Caplin.

"There's only so much memory this thing can hold," says Stevens, tapping on the battered sampling keyboard that is pretty much the cerebrum of George & Caplin's whole setup. "Sometimes it'll glitch out, and you'll get all these weird filters that are wavering off the beat. It's super archaic, the way we're doing it, but I think it comes out unique that way. I've used a lot of those programs like Pro Tools, and they make everything sound the same. They correct too much. It's harder to create those off-kilter sounds.

"And once you get caught up in the technology, that whole gear-chasing thing, I think you're dead," he continues. "It's just chasing trends. You're never going to catch up. Brian Eno is a big influence on me, and he made stuff in the '70s that sounds as advanced as anything created on Pro Tools."

"We have some nice equipment," sums up Iselin, "and then we have some junk. And sometimes we prefer the junk."

He's not exaggerating. One of the sundry organs dug up and transplanted into George & Caplin's apparatus is an old Speak & Spell toy salvaged from a thrift store. You can hear it occasionally in the group's songs, a silicon-chipped golem slurring and fizzling in a zombie-like approximation of the human voice.

"I just took the back off of it and started shoving paper clips and razor blades in there, taping them down and then pushing buttons," Stevens elaborates. "I'm not any good at electronics, but my mom's whole side of the family is. Her brother is an engineer at NBC, and my grandpa built the first television and radio stations in Iowa. In my grandpa's basement, I always used to solder things together. I had no idea what I was doing."

"He'd rewire model trains, too," chips in Iselin. "He'd be like, 'Let's see what happens when we put the train back on the tracks.'"

"I thought I could make the train go faster, but usually the only thing that happened was smoke," Stevens adds with a mischievous laugh. "I guess I just like taking things apart. I like that mad-scientist feel, when you can't tell what things are going to do. I love mystery."

With that, he grabs the discarded Super Session Player off the floor and starts poking around its insides again. A few blips and beeps later, he conjures forth a grinding shriek that sounds like a duet between a vivisected Atari console and a Martian alarm clock. "I'm just tripping out the little motherboard," he explains. And the deeper he twists his scalpel, the louder and more unnerving it gets. But after a few more seconds of probing, the rhythm settles into a serrated purr, a broken hip-hop beat sutured with threads of static. Without a word, he looks over at Iselin, who nods and picks up his acoustic guitar. His fingers grip the neck in the shape of a basic chord, and he starts strumming softly. The switch has been flipped; the shape under the sheet stirs: Just like that, George & Caplin has conducted life into a new song.

As the drum machine and guitar intertwine like genetic splices, it's clear that there's some kind of weird science going on here. But there are no Bunsen burners, no brains floating in Pyrex jars, no Petri dishes full of alien goo -- not even a single, old-fashioned Van de Graaff generator spitting sinister electric charges into the air. Just two old friends, some secondhand circuitry and an unquenchable curiosity. And although a mob of torch-bearing villagers has started to gather angrily outside the windows of Castle Stevens, braying for blood, the duo known as George & Caplin -- with all the blasphemous daring of a modern Prometheus -- begins to experiment anew.

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