It looks more like Eastern Europe than East 13th Avenue, more Carpathian Mountains than Capitol Hill. The building is straight out of Gothic novel, a Romanesque castle of brick and oak complete with a spire-topped tower straining toward heaven. The front entrance is framed in carved stone, its pointed arch cocked like a malevolent eyebrow above a heavy, iron-ledged door. Stepping inside, you half expect the hysterical cackling of a mad scientist to echo across the corridors. The only thing missing is the gargoyle -- and maybe some lightning.
"This'll take just a second," says Jeffrey Wentworth Stevens from under a tangle of wires and patch cables. The castle-like edifice in which he lives -- an apartment building in an otherwise unassuming downtown neighborhood -- seems to hum with alchemical electricity as he loads a disc into one of many digital contraptions piled like beakers and test tubes all around him. Dubbed Yorkshire Studios, Stevens's living room serves as both rehearsal space and recording studio for his group, the Denver-based electronic outfit known as George & Caplin. Its second and brand-new full-length, Fate's First Lonely Night, is one of the most bracing, breath-arresting records to come out of Colorado in years, a union of filmy texture and gossamer melody that's as experimental as it is enthralling.
While Stevens punches some buttons and tweaks a few faders, the other half of George & Caplin, Jason Iselin, sits silently on a stool with an acoustic guitar, strumming absently. "Right now, we're running Jason's guitar through there, so we'll create a loop..." he explains, pausing to punctuate his demonstration with a few discordant jabs at a keyboard, "...just like that." From a set of speakers on his desk, a pretty arpeggio begins mutating into a blob of monstrously distorted burbles and growls. "When we start writing a song, we might just have a basic loop like that going on underneath everything.
"And then," he adds, flashing a demented, wild-eyed grin that would've made any B-movie Baron von Frankenstein proud, "you get to totally fuck with it."
"Fucking with it" pretty much summarizes George & Caplin's philosophy. Friends since age four, Stevens and Iselin grew up just blocks apart in the remote reaches of Aurora, where they would amuse themselves by dismembering their playthings and piecing them back together. As Stevens recalls, "When we were kids, we'd always take whatever toys our parents gave us and turn them into something they weren't supposed to be. For instance, we'd take Jason's sister's dollhouse and turn it into an arsenal and then combine all these G.I. Joes and Transformers and even our pets."
While one hesitates to ask exactly what the young experimenters did to Sparky and Cuddles, there's no denying that their grisly tinkering still serves them well today. After showing off the sampling capabilities of his equipment, Stevens pulls out a goofy-looking gadget called the "Yahama Super Session Player," a Coleco-era beat box for kids with a few pre-set rhythms and drum pads that you're supposed to tap with your fingers. He turns the gizmo over, revealing a backside that has been ripped off, the guts of the thing hanging out all over the place. The exposed chips and diodes look like a scale model of a set from the movie Tron. Then, with a smirk of morbid glee, Stevens starts jamming a piece of metal into the device's innards, causing short circuits that transform its clunky, primative beats into the horrifying sound of a giant robot attacking Tokyo.
"We loved Herbie Hancock's 'Rockit' when we were little," Iselin confesses. "And 'Axel F.' We were huge on 'Axel F.' That was our tune. We listened to it over and over and over again."
Harold Faltermeyer's theme song for Axel Foley -- Eddie Murphy's character in Beverly Hills Cop -- seems an unlikely inspiration for George & Caplin's pensive, cerebral music. And yet, you can almost hear the vintage electro influence swimming around in the depths of the group's initial release, The Nature of Leaving. At first glance, it appears to reflect the frosted luminescence of '80s synth-pop bands like New Order and Section 25, as well as current IDM pioneers like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Scratch the disc's surface, though, and you'll catch little splinters of android funk and bioengineered soul.
"On our first album, we sampled a lot of tidbits from old '80s R&B records," Stevens confirms.
"Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, J.J. Fad..." lists Iselin.
"That stuff has a strange quality compared to contemporary drum machines," Stevens goes on. "I'll sample a snare from there to get that weird, poppy, '80s electro sound going."
But before you start thinking George & Caplin should change its name to G&C Music Factory, don a pair of headphones and sink into Fate's First Lonely Night. While The Nature of Leaving was ethereal to the point of evaporation, the duo's new disc vibrates with euphony and atmosphere, a permeable membrane through which both prickly noise and fluid ambience pass. On the song "Lightpole Lullaby," bits of needlelike percussion coalesce into an anesthetic buzz as guitars and trumpets form numbing loops. Stevens, in gasps and whispers, drones on like a time-traveling ghost, "I am your tomorrow/I am your tomorrow." On "Implode," beneath an icy shell of synthesizers, the band displays its warm, squishy underbelly: "Ever felt your life away/Feelings push organs in awkward ways."
"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.
"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."
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"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.