A love affair with a well-placed sample gave birth to pH10
In the beginning, there was the sample. And the love of that sample led directly to the creation of pH10, an electronic outfit with a hard-edged sound and a long, storied history.
"Wax Trax proved to me that electronic-based music could be as heavy as the punk rock and metal I was listening to before that," explains Robert Betts, the man behind pH10. "It started the love affair with the well-placed sample. That was an extension of the Public Enemy thing; that showed me that production was where it's at."
"I actually met Hank Shocklee at an event," he goes on. "I got to sit there and talk to him about it for like ten minutes. It's not the instrument; it's the attitude and aggression in your heart. He proved that."
For his part, Betts has provided some additional data to support this notion. His love of Public Enemy and the Wax Trax stable helped set him on the course toward the kind of speaker-shredding electronic style he's been perfecting for almost fifteen years, but it was local legend Foreskin 500 that provided the final push to get him started down the path leading to pH10. Although he'd been drumming in hardcore and punk bands since he was seventeen, it took a Foreskin show to help Betts realize how well electronic elements could work in a live setting. "I was into sample-based music before Foreskin 500," he recalls, "but they filled a niche in the live scene."
It's a lesson he's never forgotten. His performances these days are accompanied by the same kind of elaborate lights-and-smoke-machines stage show, controlled by his wife and current pH10 partner, Sarah. He's also been known to wear elaborate helmets — part of the inspiration for his stage name, Recone Helmut — of his own design, outfitted with strobe lights, mirrors and more. It's a far cry from the typical "dude behind a laptop" setup of so many electronic acts.
"If we've had anything that's really worked in our favor, it's that," Betts points out. "Really doing tours, journalists coming to our shows and saying, 'Holy shit, I've never seen an electronic act doing that.' I think it's something they'd like to see more often. I think there's something in the back of your mind if you're all about the performance, where you're like, 'This is going to rule live. This is going to be loud and aggressive when I play it live.' At the end of the day, I'm making these records so I can perform them live. That's definitely more the point than getting anyone to deejay it in a set."
Betts's first explorations with electronics came in an outfit called She's Junk. Basically a hardcore band with a sampler, She's Junk didn't last long and never recorded, but it eventually became LD-50, an industrial act that saw Betts emerge from behind the drums to concentrate on synths and samples. The sound of that act, captured in a four-track demo, was pure industrial, clearly indebted to now-classic albums such as Ministry's The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste. "That record changed my life," Betts admits. "What was so cool about that stuff is that it was so heavy but it had the dance beat. The whole industrial movement — not specific to Wax Trax, but they kind of epitomized it. I can't even tell you how many demos I sent those guys."
It was during the LD-50 days that Betts met his future pH10 partner, Clark ov Saturn. At the time, Saturn was working in education, doing a distance learning program called TeleDeutsch that taught German to high school and junior high kids via cable access and pursuing his own, odd musical ambitions. "He had a band, a wacky one-man, very '90s kind of thing," Betts remembers. "I found a tape of his on a urinal at the Mercury Cafe. We realized he was the TeleDeutsch guy, and we went and saw him. We told him, 'We have an act you're going to be perfect for. Come and join us.'"
Saturn agreed and joined the fray as a frontman of sorts — the sort that hid behind a screen showing various film loops while performing, which pissed audiences off to no end, Betts recalls. Ironically, though, Saturn was a great match for LD-50; bringing him on board paved the way for the beginning of the end of that band.
"The important thing was now I had an ally, because Clark was fully an electronic guy," Betts says. "I was in a band with a guitarist and a bass player, and now I had an electronic ally — so we dumped them and moved on."
Clearly kindred spirits, Betts and Saturn became pH10, a chemistry-inspired name that evolved from the former moniker. The sound evolved along with the name: Industrial no more, pH10 embraced the dance underground and became a drum-and-bass/breakbeat outfit, a shift Betts acknowledges as happening largely because of Saturn's influence. Together they put out two albums — Sci-Fidelity in 2000 and Quarks and Gluons in 2002 — and had some success touring, including a six-week tour of Europe. In the course of working on another record, Betts began to feel that the partnership was no longer working out, so he and Saturn parted ways after writing an album and a half's worth of material and then scrapping it.
Saturn started a minimal techno outfit called Socks and Sandals but had one more major contribution to make toward pH10. It was he who introduced Betts to Sarah, the woman who is now his partner in both music and life. Betts ended up sticking with pH10 and started a fruitful collaboration with MC Pete Miser. Together they produced "Needless to Say," a track that generated a fair amount of interest and got play on college radio. The collaboration with Miser continued through the next album, the varied Helmutvision, through the remix album BK United, which focused on the hip-hop end of pH10's sound, and on through Betts's latest effort, Well Connected. The hip-hop material that emerged from that joint project is among pH10's strongest, but Betts doubts he'll be moving toward hip-hop production full-time.
"Most MCs, even famous MCs, they're just not good," he offers. "They're full of shit, the rhymes aren't that good. It's hard to find good ones. The two that I've found [Miser and I-45] that were worth working with have been making records as long as I have."
The material on Well Connected is, arguably, all over the map. There are some tracks, such as "Bulldozin" and "BK United," that put the focus on the MCs and function as fairly straightforward hip-hop. Then there are tracks like "Serious Delerium" that hew pretty closely to the drum-and-bass sound, and finally, odd ducks like "Yiggplant," which introduces some guitar and is almost a throwback to the glory days of industrial.
But throughout all of these varied styles, there is a consistent aesthetic that favors thick, twisted analog timbres bathed in grimy, buzzing distortion and riddles the whole mix with pop-culture samples both obscure and recognizable — including an absolutely killer use of a Barry Manilow interview. It's an approach that's honed to near perfection on tracks such as "Intro" and "79MC" that slow the tempos down, putting the emphasis on the ebb and flow of sound around the rhythms. It's not an easy sound to categorize, but Betts is used to critics not quite getting his music.
"Reviewers say, 'These guys don't realize that drum and bass is so over,'" he explains. "What we get a lot of is, 'If this came out ten years ago, this would be as big as any of those bands are — but it's not ten years ago.' I feel if I go ahead and make this record with all of the slower stuff that's hard to classify, then that's a good thing. We were never really even drum and bass, anyway. That was just the closest thing."
Whether or not the new sound is embraced by critics and audiences, Betts himself is certain he's finally found exactly what he's been reaching for all along. "I haven't been this excited since the first record," he admits. "I can't wait to make the next record. I think this sound is what pH10 will be known for."
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