When New York's Superstar DJ Keoki first entered the Denver dance community two years ago, everyone knew about it: Keoki--whose latest doings are chronicled in Feedback, page 80--made sure of that. But he was not the only nationally recognized DJ holed up in Colorado at the time. From 1996 until a few short weeks ago, Brendan McCarthy, aka Aquatherium, was making some of the nation's most exciting electronic music in the Mile High City--and although he recently returned to San Francisco, where he got his start, he promises that Denver has not seen the last of him.
On the surface, McCarthy's story is a familiar one--the usual chemistry-kit-geek-turns-party-monster routine. But the tale has a few interesting variations. While growing up in the San Jose-Santa Cruz area of California in the early Eighties, he was turned on to electronica by the recordings of Vince Clark and Yazoo. Soon after, he began creating sounds of his own using the most rudimentary of tools. "I started making my own music with two tape decks and a stereo splitter connected to my keyboard," he recalls. "I would record one tape, rewind it, and then play another track on top of that. It was a primitive way of dubbing and mixing, and I later realized that I was working along the same line as a sequencer or a MIDI system. I didn't know it at the time, but the idea, the instinct, was there."
After taking several college classes that solidified his nascent concepts about programming and engineering, McCarthy headed to San Francisco in 1990 and quickly took up residence in club land. "I entered the rave scene and did a lot of drugs and lived with dealers," he admits. "It was crazy, but the guys selling the drugs knew all the DJs and the hardcore ravers who ran the scene. I'd sleep all day, get up at 7 p.m., eat some food and then go party."
One of the most popular haunts for San Francisco nightlifers back then was BPM, a terrific vinyl store on Polk Street that was three flights below Third Floor, an aptly named organization that attracted many of the finest remixers of the early Nineties. "A lot of the best dance music came through San Francisco, and to be honest, BPM and Third Floor were responsible for breaking the genre in that city," McCarthy says. "There were other record stores, but BPM had all the house, all the techno, all the trip-hop. And the Third Floor had all the producers"--Spacetime Continuum, Black Dog Productions, the Hardkiss family, DJ EFX (Raul Recinos) and DJ DIGIT (Jeremy Cowan) among them.
Thanks to DIGIT, whom he met at BPM, McCarthy was part of this distinguished staff between 1992 and 1994, living and working in a space previously occupied by Single Cell Orchestra. The building was recently gutted and turned into an art gallery/salon, but in Third Floor's prime, it was celebrity central. David Bowie and Rozalla were only two of the stars whose CDs or singles were stamped with the simple line "Recorded way up on the third floor." As McCarthy acknowledges, "It was a happening place. I remember being stoned out of my mind in the studio one night when I saw this gigantic creature coming towards me out of the corner of my eye. I look up at this seven-foot drag queen in heels and a wig. She said, 'Hi, my name is RuPaul.' She had come to see how our remixes for the new single were coming along."
The biggest smash with which McCarthy was associated while at Third Floor was "The Crying Game," a Pet Shop Boys-produced tune featuring hired gun Boy George that shared its title with the successful film. It's an achievement that fills McCarthy with pride; he kept a twelve-inch-single version of the provocative electro-ballad pinned to the wall of his Denver apartment like a college diploma.
Other Third Floor experiences were less positive. "I had some ups and downs," McCarthy admits. "Like the time I didn't get credit for my remix of Deee-Lite's 'Bring Me Your Love'; I did the editing, the sampling, the engineering and most of the arrangement, but Jeremy's name is on it. I was just starting out, and it was a great opportunity, but nobody knew it was me.
"That kind of drama always happens when you have that much money going around and all those egos flaring," he continues. "The Third Floor was definitely a growth experience. I learned about the industry and how to make dance music, and I learned not to give a fuck what other people think about you. All that matters is believing in yourself."
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After the Third Floor crew concluded that San Francisco, in McCarthy's words, "didn't have much to offer us anymore," its members picked up and moved to London, a city equally famous for its innovative club environment. During the year and a half they spent there, they founded Freshly Squeezed, a label that McCarthy says "was fab at first. Gay, straight, black, white: Everybody just wanted to party and do their drugs and listen to the greatest DJs every day of the week." But arguments about management, money and writing credits eventually made the coke-and-ecstasy-fueled bashes that characterized McCarthy's London stay unbearable. As a result, he began looking for somewhere to re-energize, and after speaking to his friends Jim Stout and Julian Bradley of Denver's defunct Nebula 9, he decided to seek refuge in the Rocky Mountains.
Like Keoki, McCarthy found Denver to be a refreshing haven from the maddening pace of the cultural capitals where he'd lived. But not everything was to his liking. "I don't think some of the promoters here are educating the people," he charges. "So many parties play breakbeats and drum-and-bass all night long with no variation. They don't know who Kraftwerk is. And when one of the greatest DJs came to Denver, a man who toured the planet and invented half the sounds that we dance to today--I'm talking about Chicago's Derrick Carter--hardly anyone showed up. But some label-backed group like the Crystal Method shows up and they pull in 3,000 people. That's fucked up. This city needs some more reading material, for one thing. People need to read about what's going on around the States and in England and France. Magazines and newspapers reach a lot of people, but Denver was out of the loop until recently."
McCarthy wasn't, however. He kept busy as a performer, producer and after-hours DJ, formed friendships with talented locals such as DJ Skunk and assembled his first full-length, 1997's Nutronic (issued by Moist Records), in his own Capital Hill studio. The collection pulls together several years' worth of recordings, and like "Feelin' Real Good," a pumping Aquatherium track that's part of the 1993 compilation California Dreaming, it maintains a streamlined efficiency by simmering its electronic ingredients in a broth of frenzied activity. No psychedelic noodling or trance-inducing repetition for McCarthy: On tracks like the brisk "In the City" and the efficient "Get On Up," his programming uses emotional keyboard splashes and boom-chicka-boom rhythm beds that are festive and fast-paced--the perfect soundtrack for racing speedboats. Elsewhere, the twangy "Track 7" and the groove-heavy "Discoacidfunkh" (recently released on twelve-inch with a Jim Stout remix) find McCarthy drawing on his Seventies childhood. And his firm grasp of bottom-heavy bass lines lends dance-floor credentials to such songs as "Liveshow," a highlight of Melt, a roundup of work by Colorado electronic artists put out by Boulder's Club Records.
As good as Nutronic is, though, McCarthy isn't completely happy with it: "I was so eager to put out a CD, and I think I rushed this one," he says. To avoid falling into that trap again, McCarthy decided to go back to San Francisco for the recording of his sophomore full-length, on which he is collaborating with Rasoul, a producer and former Third Floor compatriot. When the disc is completed, McCarthy is planning to tour, and he reveals that Denver will be one of his stops. He hopes Coloradans will be impressed with his progress. "I consider myself a musician first, then a DJ," he says. "I like the feel of DJing, but I get more satisfaction out of making my own music, because there are endless possibilities of sounds, arrangements and effects I can work with.