He Got What He Wanted
John Denver may have single-handedly cemented Colorado's association with grassroots acoustic music when he made the folksy, plaintive strum of an acoustic guitar the signature sound of the Rocky Mountain West. It's a sound that's seen a considerable number of upgrades over the years: Bands like Leftover Salmon and the Samples took the high-elevation sound into more expansive places by coloring between the lines and perfecting the art of the jam. Most recently, the String Cheese Incident has taken a place alongside Phish as an heir to the groovy jam-band throne. But it is DJ Harry, a former Telluride resident currently living in Boulder, who could be the one to push the bumper crop of folksy musical offerings into even more progressive realms.
The String Cheese Remix Project marks the first cohesive mating of the jam-band phenomenon and house music, another of Colorado's growing music scenes. On the recording (to be released July 10 on Instinct/Scifidelity), the mountain-man DJ combines sampled outtakes from the String Cheese Incident's finest album tracks and live shows with mellow, four-on-the-floor electronic programming. The resulting fusion -- perfectly reflected in the sleeve art, which depicts a round of cheese on a turntable -- is a sweet surprise that should please fans of both styles. To Harry, blurring the lines between the two was the whole point.
"When you go to see a band, it doesn't really matter what style of music they're playing -- bluegrass or jazz or big band or rock and roll. When the band and the crowd are hitting a peak and there's a frenzied feeling in the air, that's the feeling that I strive for as a DJ." The reasoning behind the cross-pollination is clear in his mind. "I never broke sound down by genre. It's just about hitting that perfect note, that perfect moment, where everyone is vibrating all at once. That's what I look for."
While the intersection of jam rock and dance music is not an entirely unexplored medium (The Egg appeared five years ago, and several bands, such as Fat Mama, Sound Sector 9 and Lake Trout are currently surfacing nationwide), this subgenre, known as "organica," is still a stripling. Harry entered its grassy frontiers nearly a decade ago, after spending time in San Francisco.
"I went to see the Grateful Dead out at the Oakland Coliseum in 1992. I left the venue, and there were a bunch of DJs set up with generators out in the parking lot. I had never really heard house music before. I knew there was something like that going on, but I hadn't really gotten into it yet." The sound, then new to American shores, made an impression on the bohemian attendees, one that Harry did not fail to notice. "I watched all these hippies coming out of the Oakland Coliseum and going straight out to these DJs and start freaking out on house music, and I said, 'Wow, this is the same thing as the Grateful Dead.' They link all their songs together and create one long medley."
Harry had the good fortune to happen upon the Wicked Crew, a San Francisco DJ collective featuring Jeno and Garth, among others, that laid the foundation beats for the past decade of global dance culture's laid-back house sound. ("Those guys pretty much got it going in San Francisco like we know it today," Harry says.) Then a college student, he started checking out the scene to see what all the buzz was about.
"I went to raves in San Francisco in 1992 and 1993," he says. "That's when the scene was brand-new. There wasn't a status quo or a pre-conceived idea of what dance music was supposed to be or what it was supposed to look like. It was just everyone having a good time." The idea of musical territory that hasn't been co-opted by corporate labels or trendy teenagers is still firm in the DJ's philosophy. "That's when things are at their purest -- at the beginning, when people don't judge it. Everyone goes to check it out, and they form their own opinion."
This explains Harry's ability to find links between what many see as two very different sonic formats.
"House music is all about that," he says, "It's a nameless, faceless music that's about really listening rather than watching [an image]. I always saw the jam-band scene and the house scene as being the same because they take you somewhere with these long, extended solos. And when they bring you back, you realize you've gone somewhere. You have this 'Where was I?' kind of feeling."
Harry's willingness to embrace dualities in his music is, perhaps, an extension of his own life. He frequently alternates between the hustle of big cities like San Francisco and the lure of smaller towns, as evidenced by his 1994 move to Telluride. "I moved to Telluride for the beauty, for the outdoors," he recalls. "I'd heard about the town in the mid-'80s from a high school friend. He said he came from Telluride, and I said, 'What's Telluride?' He said it was this little pocket of paradise.
"I showed up and really fell for it," he says. "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen. It's a small community where everyone knows everyone, and everyone that's there wants to be there, which is different from a lot places. There's just a unique vibe that I haven't been able to find anywhere else." Life in the mountainous valley burg did not quash Harry's newly found enthusiasm for the glistening electronic pastures of house music, however. "I started spinning at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon," he says, referring to his residency at the club many consider to be one of Colorado's finest party joints. "Once again, no one had heard of house music. They'd come down off the mountain and go to the Saloon and hear me playing, and they didn't know what it was. But they were really into it.
"[Dancing to] house music was a vehicle for them, like being on the mountain. There's the high adrenaline rush, the physical exercise and the way it takes your mind to the next level. People don't always think about those aspects of house."
Harry also found a few gigs spinning at parties for the Telluride International Film Festival, but it was his connections at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon that eventually led him to the String Cheese Incident. "I used to go see the String Cheese Incident on Friday nights at a place called the Depot in Telluride. They were playing bluegrass at that time, which is good ol', down-home, let's-dance-a-jig music. It served the same purpose as what I was doing, which is to dance -- you know, having a hoedown with your friends."
Harry met the band through the Saloon's manager, Jesse Aratow. "He ended up being the road manager for String Cheese Incident in 1998, and he'd seen what I'd done down there at the Moon. There was a period there where if you didn't get in by 11:30 p.m. or midnight, you didn't get in, because it was that packed. It was just the thing to do."
Aratow relocated to Boulder a few years later, and Harry followed in 1999; the following year, he asked the house-music buff to join the band on the road for a gig in Oregon. "He asked me if I wanted to spin after a show last July, and I said yeah, because the band had that same kind of vibey sound that I played with my records. I decided to remix a couple of their songs on my own. So I played these during the after-show, and the band liked it, the management like it, and I ended up playing in front of 4,000 people that night who seemed to love it, too."
Harry decided to capitalize on his ties to the increasingly popular grassroots unit. The resulting String Cheese Remix Project goes far beyond the kinds of remix EPs that are normally mixed for rock and pop bands, where popular songs are simply fiddled with a bit to make them accessible to different audiences. The Remix Project manages to achieve a sonic signature that has elements of both the String Cheese Incident's jammiest moments and house music's deepest vibe. The symbiosis is eerie, given the jam format's reliance on live instrumentation and house's use of machine-generated backdrops. The sound falls somewhere between the jazzy feel of Vienna's Kruder & Dorfmeister and the organic California rhythms of San Francisco's Dubtribe Sound System. And the CD's co-release by the venerable New York techno label Instinct and String Cheese's Boulder-based label, Scifidelity, leaves no doubt about the quality of the content.
The samples Harry used for the String Cheese Remix Project derive from both album tracks and shows, with a heavy emphasis on live material. "They multi-track each show," said Harry, "so they've got a huge number of recordings. I worked with their archivist, who told me which shows were really hot. He'd say, 'You've got to hear this version of "Round the Wheel" from July 21.'" Harry's version of that song appears alongside others such as "Rollover," "Absolution" and "Texas" on the nine-track CD.
"I listened for certain hooks that would catch my attention, because that's what I know from house music. There are not a lot of vocals in house, so the instrumental hook has to be really potent. So I would listen for the hottest spots in these archives and just yank that spot out. People have commented, 'I recognize that show, man. That show was just on fire.'"
In Colorado, the disc marks a kind of meeting of local musical minds. It was produced and distributed by Scifidelity with the help of local electronica producers Brian and Doug Cavender and Ben Pound. Pound and the Cavenders, who have been members of the Denver dance-music scene since its inception in the early '90s, provided Harry with technical assists and drum programming to flesh out his house-music chops. As a result, the assembled tracks could find a cozy home at the Snake Pit or Pure -- if Denver's sometimes finicky DJs were willing to wrap themselves around the live-music origins of the jamming hooks and rhythm beds. It might even establish a detente among neo-jam-grass fans and those in the club-chic realm. For Harry, the first step to that kind of success was receiving the approval of the String Cheese bandmembers.
"I was worried they wouldn't like it," he says, "and the band was hesitant in the beginning when I first played them the album. None of them are really into house music; they're coming from a bluegrass perspective. But I have received feedback, and they all seem to like it now.
"These guys make this music for a living," he adds, "and that's what their life is all about. Now they've given it to someone else. I feel honored that they let me do that."
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