Master of His Domain
Musician Todd Bradley's friends aren't the people in your neighborhood. Instead of kicking back on a modulated sofa with a cold can o' Coors, they'd prefer to chat on the Internet about WAV files, audio compression and the most current analog-to-digital conversion methods. Actually, Bradley's friends aren't even the people in his neighborhood. Rather, they are a bizarre group of technophiles scattered around the globe, a network of Netheads for whom musical collaboration rarely has to include a live, human interface. They include the extroverted Swedish techno artist Master Zap; the Tennessee-based Grandmaster Dumbass (who has spent Halloween dressing up as "Jeffy the Christian Brontosaurus" and handing out tapes of his own computer-generated music to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters); and Bob the Robot, a non-human entity who nevertheless has experienced some considerable trouble with his mechanical member.
Yet what Bradley sees in this group of seemingly disparate personalities is individual talents, folks who can contribute, one track at a time, to the collaborative and sometimes confusing body of work produced by 404 Not Found, an experimental electronic collective he started in 1996. It's a project born and raised in his Broomfield studio, the A7 Audio Research Lab, a homemade affair composed of both proletariat software and high-tech hodgepodgery. Among the hum of machinery -- the synthesizers, monitors and keypads and blinking, buzzing equalizers -- there's a distinct sense that Bradley is on to something. A former software engineer who by day provides technical support to those less savvy than he, Bradley might well be the most creative, prolific local composer that no one local has ever heard of.
Understanding what Bradley is on to, however, demands a fair amount of technical prowess. Asked to describe his piecemeal approach in simple terms, he offers the following: "Various tracks are done in different ways. For the most part, we start off with songs in a program called CakeWalk Pro Audio. It's integrated, so for the most part, I lay down the basic tracks as MIDI tracks, later play those and record the audio aspect of it using a task-am DAT machine built to convert the analog output..."
What this all means to the layperson is that Bradley collects samples and audio tracks from multiple collaborators and sources -- spoken-word pieces, bits of answering-machine messages, occasional speeches from ill-fated cult leaders -- then manipulates and later mixes them with his own considerable talents as a keyboardist. He is, in essence, an audio alchemist mixing up something tasty in his own bathtub.
Eclectronic, Bradley's most recent project with 404 Not Found, is an ambitious one -- eighteen tracks long and two and a half years in the making. It's the band's fourth full-length album since 1997's Something Is Wrong, which found favor with Internet audiences for the Bob the Robot-fronted song "There's Something Wrong With My Penis." ("It once did function, but now it's broke/I rode my bike and it stuck in a spoke," Bob sang, an eloquent and empathetic machine if there ever was one.) Eclectronic finds Bradley at his globe-hopping compositional best, collaborating with musicians and fans from San Francisco to Switzerland to produce a record that is at once fun, futuristic and funny as hell. It alternates between pure silliness and intelligent and true expressions of emotion and angst. It's a lo-fi endeavor that might summon memories of the sound effects in Atari games or Doctor Demento radio broadcasts. At once complicated and simple, it's what might have happened if the Ween brothers had eschewed live instruments for Casios and sound cards, or if Daniel Johnston had upped his computer skills and made a soundtrack for a sci-fi children's show.
Throughout the release, Bob the Robot serves as a sexually deviant Master of Ceremonies, providing both the introduction as well as vocals for two dramatically warped remixes of the same monologue. "I liked the idea of a robot coming to grips with his own sexuality," Bradley says of Bob, who is amused to discover that he's used the phrase "human member" to describe his fellow players in the band. "Did I say 'human member'? Oh, I guess I did. Human member, human member. Ha! Ha! Ha!" Bob says on "Welcome From Bob the Robot." The EuroPop and Fanatic Drums remixes were done by FranÇoise Giorgianni, the Swiss president of the 404 Not Found fan club. On all three tracks, Bob's "voice" is created by entering Bradley's words into a text-to-voice program that's now standard issue on most PCs.
Other notable tracks include "Slam the Competition," a hilarious vocal improvisation by Bradley cohort Steve Genoff, which sounds a bit like Zorak from Space Ghost giving a locker room pep talk to a team full of extraterrestrial athletes. The vocal track on "Please Ignore Me" is taken from a poem written by Master Zap; the title is one of many Internet insider jokes on Eclectronic and refers to a phrase that chat-room participants use when running test messages. "I thought the poem was so funny," Bradley says. "Zap's Swedish, so it had this kind of English-as-a-second-language quality to it. I wanted someone with a German accent to read it, but I don't know any Germans. Eventually, I found this guy I work with to do it. He's from Italy, but a lot of people think his accent sounds Eastern European, so that was close enough."
One of the more unique collaborations is "Mongoloid Think Tank," a continuation of a project started by Stamen 3, a member of San Francisco's comedy band the Anarchy Steering Committee, which originally posted the vocal track on www.mp3.com and invited others to play with it. Stamen's vocals are mixed with those of another www.mp3.com artist, and -- who else? -- The Voicemail Guy. The song explores the dehumanizing effect of a corporate life spent in a cubicle: "I think this job is making me stupid/My career is on a trajectory not suitable for aircraft." And "My Penis on Planet X" features CU student and spoken-word artist Scott Siders letting listeners in on an internal power struggle with his own genitalia. Fittingly, the release concludes with "This Definitely Ends the Broadcast Day," which features sound bites of Heaven's Gate leader Marshall Applewhite giving a speech just days before he served his sneaker-clad followers some mighty potent Jell-O shots back in 1997.
Don't expect this album to pop up in the "Local" bins at area record stores. This is an Internet-only affair, a disc that finds Bradley navigating the brave new world of Web distribution in lieu of traditional methods such as selling albums on consignment or mining the barren and constrictive musical landscape for the rare record or distribution deal. 404 Not Found's music is distributed solely through the Net, via the band's Web site (http://listen.to/404notfound), www.mp3.com or the two online music distribution companies Bradley employs, CD Baby and EarBuzz. That more and more independent bands and artists have discovered and exploited the potential of Web music outlets is nothing new, yet most use the technology as a supplement to more traditional methods. Not Bradley. As a musician, his existence depends entirely on the Internet; he is invisible as an artist outside the realm of electronic exchange. But Bradley's not worried. Technologies like Mp3 have made it not only possible, but viable, economical, for any hack with a computer and half a tune in his head to record, upload and distribute music to those who might -- and often do -- discover it through chance or carefully conducted Web searches. And Bradley is smarter than the average hack. Much smarter.
"Being in the computer business and before that being a computer hobbyist, I have a knack that a lot of people don't have. It's all stuff I pretty much taught myself through reading, lots of reading. Yet it's easy enough to use these days that anyone can do it," he says. "With this technology, there's the ability to record your music, do what I did and distribute it throughout the world. You no longer have to get sucked up into the music machine. There's a lot of people who believe it's going to change the entire music industry. It's very exciting."
Bradley spent the better part of the past two decades toiling in various bands -- from playing guitar in The Affect, a Night Ranger/Police cover band in high school, to doing keyboards and bass duty in the Trendy Llamas, a "dorm band" based at CU-Boulder, where he eventually received a master's degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1992. For him, the obvious appeal of self-produced electronic music lies in the development of technologies that allow today's more self-determined musicians to create and produce music on par with the most high-tech recordings of a few years ago. "I first became interested in recording my own music probably in the mid-Eighties, when it became possible for the average human being to record something of at least near-perfect quality with equipment that was affordable. It was like three or four months' salary. This is stuff that only, say, Michael Jackson could have afforded ten years ago.
"I've been writing music and playing in bands for probably the better part of twenty years now," Bradley adds, "and for the first sixteen of that, I bet that my music reached no more than 1,000 people, through shows and recordings. In the two years I've been publishing on the Internet, I've reached thousands of people around the world."
Some might say that the beauty -- and the danger -- of the Web is that it allows users to invent themselves in whatever image they desire, to create themselves as characters. Yet in Bradley's case, it's allowed him to fully realize the character that he already is: a computer geek with a serious penchant for Extreme Frisbee ("It keeps me in something resembling fitness") and computer gaming (current favorites include Give Me the Brain, Lord of the Fries and Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond). He's read Pyramid gaming magazine with as much fervor as Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and he trusts his Internet audience enough to post not only his home address, but detailed directions to his house on his Web site. So for Bradley, the Internet has allowed him to connect with an audience of people whose hobbies -- and tastes in music -- just might be odd or specific enough to get what 404 Not Found is all about.
"Most people in the world," says Bradley, "if they listened to 404 Not Found, they'll have the same reaction my father had: 'This is music?' With this technology, a bunch of weird computer people have somehow found this music, and it clicks with them. I've got people from all over the world getting into this scene. I don't know what it would look like if you looked at the exact geographic center of who is buying our CDs, but it certainly wouldn't be Boulder. It wouldn't be Denver. We're here, but in many ways, it's hard to say we're a local band. We've got very little connection to the scene here."
Bradley, however, wouldn't mind getting more involved with Boulder's lively electronica scene. 404 Not Found has performed live only once due to Bradley's distaste for electronica bands that do little more with a live performance than broadcast pre-recorded material. "When I go see live music, I want to see good musicians who are instrumentalists, doing things that have a sense of humanism, improvisation, some surprise element," he says. "So much of my stuff has been so ridiculously unorthodox, it's been difficult for me to perform with a traditional kind of band. We could do maybe a spoken-word set to improvised electronic music, but generally, our stuff isn't something you're gonna go to for a two-hour show. Maybe we'll do a couple of songs to kind of warm up the crowd at a rave or something."
For now, Bradley's taking a bit of a rest from his recording obsession, happily exhausted from the years spent in production on Eclectronic. Regrettably, though, he says that the band's initial plans to release a Christmas album this year just don't seem to be coming together.
"I wish I could say there was still a good chance for a Christmas album," he laments. "I wrote one Christmas song after Pat Buchanan first threatened that he was going to run for president, in 1992. It was called, 'My Friend, Pat Buchanan.' I think that would work really well on a 404 Not Found Christmas album. Eclectronic was just such a frenzy of work. Right now I'm just kind of taking it easy."
Ah, well. There's always next year. In the meantime, it's easy to imagine a Bob the Robot rendition of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" for plenty of yuletide cheer.
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