Since 1992, Nebula 9 has been Colorado's best (and most popular) electronic-dance duo. But no more. At a time when the rest of the country finally seems to be catching up with the act's style of music, the team of Jim Stout and Julian Bradley has split. Stout, however, is determined not to wind up as a footnote in Denver music history. "I'm looking at getting a full-length out under my own name by Christmas," he says, adding with a laugh, "just in time for the shopping season."
Stout grew up in Texas, a state that's not exactly known as a breeding ground for electronica practitioners. His introduction to the sound that he would later make his own came at age thirteen, when he caught a Houston concert by French electro-composer Jean-Michel Jarre. Truth be told, the florid playing of Jarre (whose brother Maurice is a sought-after creator of film soundtracks) is worlds away from most dance music; it's closer in spirit to progressive rock. But to Stout, Jarre's multi-layered keyboard stylings sounded like the future. In fact, the laser-rific spectacular made such a deep impression on the kid that he promptly went home and asked his parents for a synthesizer.
Thanks to the skills taught to him by his mother, a classically trained musician, Stout quickly learned the ins and outs of his new toy. His fledgling programming abilities led to positions at gear shops and apprenticeships at Houston studios. Even then, he remembers, "I wanted to make dance music. But everybody told me I needed to get a real job or go to school." He was accepted at Boston's Berklee College of Music, but after learning how expensive attending the institution would be, "I asked some of the people working at the studios if they thought it was worth it. They all told me I had more knowledge and experience than any member of the graduating class at one of those schools. So I killed that idea."
Instead, Stout formed a solo act, Machine 13. But, he says, "Houston was totally clueless about my electronic music--so I moved to Denver." His first night in town, he attended a party thrown by Bradley. "We became friends before I even realized he was a rave promoter," Stout notes. "We were both into the new techno sound, so Julian suggested we play as a band at his next rave, a Halloween event at the old 23rd Parrish space." The bash in question--1992's "A Nightmare on Blake Street"--was marred by misunderstandings between the culturally diverse attendees and was eventually shut down by Denver-area cops. But years later, scenesters still describe it as one of the best parties ever thrown in the state, in part because it was where Nebula 9 was conceived.
Before long, Stout, the musical backbone of the band, established Nebula 9's sonic thumbprint: a fast, light version of techno-trance whose metallic edge lacked the abrasive qualities of either industrial or hard trance. The meat of Nebula's tracks consisted of simple keyboard arrangements intertwined with minimalist rhythm beds and processed through an impressive array of studio equipment. The accessibility of the style, coupled with Bradley's energetic promotion, resulted in a quick climb to local fame for the combo. "We ended up playing at many of the first raves in Colorado during 1992-1993, and as a result, Nebula 9 became a staple on the after-hours event scene," Stout attests. "We performed at the same parties as Hipp-E and Larry Bishop, two of Denver's pioneer techno DJs. And we opened for Moby and Autechre, who are giants of techno."
After a couple of years spent rubbing shoulders with such artists during area appearances, Stout says, "I realized that Nebula 9 needed to make some changes. We had pretty much played the local scene out and were ready to go further--so we decided to go national." Stout promptly got a gig remixing "Never Get Enough," a single by the Warner Bros./Sire act Waterlillies; his two mixes appeared alongside variations by house-music legend Junior Vasquez (a longtime Madonna associate) and major-label mixologist Ben Grosse (who's worked with k.d. lang). During the same period, he spent $10,000 "designing a rig for touring that would be very portable yet be able to create the Nebula 9 sound live. We had samplers, mixers, effects banks, keyboards, mikes and everything else, all of which had to be reconfigured in small sizes so that we could move the equipment around easily."
Such musical utensils sound as if they have more in common with a NASA satellite launch then a live show, but they're absolutely necessary for the making of music in the Space Age. Unlike, say, the early Bob Dylan, who was able to travel with little more than a guitar, Nebula 9 simply could not perform without the assistance of its electronic friends. But the effort was certainly worthwhile. Stout and Bradley introduced themselves to New York City's tastemakers during a New Year's Eve, 1994, turn at Limelight, the descendent of Studio 54, and subsequently worked at two of the metropolis's other famous late-night venues, the Tunnel and Velvet. "We started making a lot of contacts, got shows booked and put out some EPs and singles," Stout elaborates. "Julian was the king of networking, so that kept us moving around the country throughout the next two years. We played Miami, Seattle, San Francisco and everywhere else. We even did some Canadian shows. And at the end of 1995, we played this absolutely huge party in Los Angeles called Circa. For a band from Denver, Colorado, to make it to L.A. and play at a party like Circa was incredible. Nebula 9 had a momentum that just wouldn't stop."
Unfortunately, 1996 was not nearly as good a year as the one that preceded it. The outfit played several shows a month and started its own label, Carma Studio Recordings; the imprint's slogan was "JackInLogOnGetFaded." An EP, Contact Me, appeared as well, and Stout completed three remixes of "Superfamily," the lead single from the Foreskin 500 disc Starbent but Superfreaked. But despite such efforts, the celebrity achieved by electronica purveyors like the Chemical Brothers eluded Nebula 9. A return visit to Southern California for Circa '96 went badly, too; as the twosome were preparing to perform in front of 15,000 people, Stout reveals, "The L.A. riot police shut the party down. CNN showed up with cameras, and the whole place was crazy. We had to pull our collars up over our faces in order to breathe through the tear gas they shot into the crowd. Julian and I hid underneath the stage with all of our equipment, expecting looters to make off with it at gunpoint or something. But we did end up snaking some champagne and having a bit of a celebration while we waited for the situation to calm down."
In Stout's opinion, the Circa fiasco was a microcosm of the problems that led to Nebula 9's dissolution. "We were doing a lot of shows and working hard without seeing many of the accomplishments that should go with that. Julian focused more on integrating himself into the band musically and let the promotion and management of the band go. We became lopsided, and working as a 'band' seemed to be more of a hassle than I had originally thought. The image of being a band is very glamorous, but the whole process is tiring and nerve-racking--and I think we both got tired of fighting with flight attendants when hauling our equipment aboard an airplane for an out-of-town show." He admits that "Nebula 9 did not evolve the way it should have. It's all a bit disappointing."
The timing of the breakup means that a completed Nebula 9 album that Foreskin 500's Mark Brooks was planning to issue on his new label, Boom Boom, will not be hitting stores in the foreseeable future. But rather than lamenting this disappointment, Stout is rewriting the material from the project and penning fresh tracks that he hopes to bring to life at a brand-new studio, Digital World Audio, that's currently under construction. "It's my baby," he enthuses. "The main room can accommodate 32-track recording with an automated console. I'm pouring every dime I have into this place." His first project at Digital World Audio will be a twelve-inch single that he'll release under his own moniker. "Coming up with a band name when it's just me, one person, seems kind of ridiculous to me," he says. "However, I am going to use my 'porn star' name, Matthew Bower, on all the remixes I do for other artists. And I'm getting together with the Sugar Twist Kids; they have an event called Kerplunk! every Wednesday at Tracks 2000. I'm getting excited about doing some performances soon."
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Given the higher commercial profile of electronica, Stout is equally passionate about the state of music--and dismissive of complaints by listeners who are afraid of changes. "So many people seem to be nostalgic for the sound of 'real' drums and 'real' guitar and 'real' bass," he allows. "But I personally don't like those sounds. I just don't get the whole obsession with rock and roll. It doesn't appeal to me at all. The object with electronica is not to duplicate the sound of a rock band. I like samplers and synthesizers and drum machines. I like tweaked-out effects. I like music that is exciting to listen to--and I don't hear that kind of music coming out of rock and roll. It's all been done so many countless times. After Jimi Hendrix, what's left? I think rock-and-roll guitar heroes are a dying breed--although you can still throw a rock into a crowd and hit a guitar player every time."
By contrast, Stout views himself not as an instrumentalist, but as something more amorphous. As he puts it, "You can create these sounds that just roll around in your head--sounds that have never been heard before--and in the world of the electronic studio, you are only limited by your own creativity. You become the producer and the musician at the same time. When people ask me what instrument I play, I don't know how to respond. I mean, I 'play' the studio."
Making music and getting it heard are two very different things--and Stout is still deciding on the best way to accomplish the latter. But he believes that the future is bright. "I think people are ready for electronic music," he says. "With technology flooding every aspect of life and computers on every desk, it's time for a style of music that matches up to the world we live in.