"I don't think most people understand electronic music," says Clark Nelson, aka Clark ov Saturn, a vocalist and programmer for Denver's LD-50. "Some people think that you turn on the keyboard like a Casio and press the start button and it just does its own little thing."
LD-50 delivers far more than that. Saturn, keyboardist/programmer Recone Helmut (born Robert Betts), bassist Gobo (Chris Tafoya) and guitarist/ambient-sound terrorist Melville (Mark Melville) are among a wave of musicians using electronics to expand upon the standard guitar-bass-drums sound associated with rock. Their goal is to blend a human touch, symbolized by live, organic performances, with the tools of technology. And unlike those electronics freaks whose shows consist of little more than pushing buttons, these guys actually know how to play musical instruments.
Helmut, Melville and Gobo (who borrowed his pseudonym from a character on Fraggle Rock) formed the band in 1995, choosing as their moniker a term used in scientific circles. Gobo, a former chemist, explains, "When testing out a chemical to see how toxic it is, they feed it to animals, and when 50 percent of the population dies, that becomes the LD-50 of the chemical--that is, the toxicity of that chemical."
"This guy who used to come to all our shows asked us, 'So are you guys really into animal rights?'" Helmut recalls with a laugh. "He thought we were an animal-rights band. Well, I was like, 'Not technically, but I guess I'm for it.' We've never seen him since."
As for Saturn, he came aboard shortly after the original threesome found a tape by his previous project, Electrode Dingus 2026, dangling precipitously from the handle of a urinal at the Mercury Cafe. "I was like, 'Hell, a free tape,'" Gobo notes. "We figured if it was no good we could always record over it." Instead, the performers fell in love with the music, which sounds like Sun Ra wired through the veins of Brian Eno. A lengthy search for Saturn followed, but all involved agree that it was worth the effort. Just two weeks after Saturn joined the fold, the newly expanded LD-50 began recording a demo tape that quickly blossomed into an impressive self-titled EP.
The studio where it was recorded fit LD-50 perfectly, in large part because Helmut helped design it. According to the keyboardist, a man who had overheard him making some interesting noise in his apartment subsequently made him an interesting business proposition. "His parents owned a lot of property in town, and he had a lot of killer musical gear--A-DATS, a mixer, a console," Helmut discloses. "And he basically said, 'Here's a budget, and here's $100 a week. You can live in my building. Don't pay any bills, just build a studio.' So we built this fucking studio."
The situation eventually deteriorated; Helmut says his benefactor turned out to be a "crackhead" and "a real scumbag." But before the individual in question vanished, he sold Helmut a Moog synthesizer and an EPS keyboard at bargain-basement prices. "Basically, if it wasn't for this guy," Helmut says, "I wouldn't be half as much into this shit as I am." He adds that another, more reliable friend recently purchased the building where the studio is located and plans to turn it into a co-op recording facility.
The LD-50 EP, released last April, finds the band using the studio's gadgets and gizmos to good effect. On the surface, the tape's four tunes recall the work of such combos as Ministry and the Revolting Cocks, but listen a little closer and you'll discover multiple layers of sound brimming with samples lifted from unusual sources.
"We rip off all types of media," Helmut confirms. "With a sampler, we can use the news guy from the MacNeil-Lehrer show coughing for a beat. And we have an old Hitler movie with guys marching that make this really cool beat. We just looped it into a computer, and we're like, 'Yeah, you can hear a high hat going over that.' That's what's exciting about all of this; that's what keeps it fresh."
LD-50's opening track, "NYC," exemplifies this approach. The track is laden with snippets of dialogue from the Jon Voight-Dustin Hoffman movie Midnight Cowboy; when placed in the context of the group's industrial sludge, the phrase "You're going to be the best-looking cowboy in the whole parade" becomes both disturbing and humorous. Just as striking is "Twinky," which uses material from a PBS documentary Gobo videotaped. "They intercut two different stories," he reveals, "and there was this amazing contrast between this rich girl who had an eating disorder and was complaining and this guy from the ghetto who had nothing and whose parents were violently killed--and all he could say was that life was good."
In many cases, the samples LD-50 features are more explicit than its lyrics, which on the EP consist largely of barked syllables arranged into a Dadaist collage. What often makes the final cut, Gobo claims, "is a misinterpretation of what someone wanted." The Melville-penned "Tower of Babel," for instance, contains monologues recited in four different languages: French, German, Japanese and Italian. The result is a wall of glossolalia that's haunting and beautiful.
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In presenting such experiments on stage, LD-50 sometimes goes to extremes; the mates describe themselves as "a Jim Rose Circus with beats." Initially, Saturn preferred to perform behind a sheet, so that he appeared to audiences in silhouette. But more recently, he has stepped forward in costumes that he uses while teaching German on a cable TV show called Tele Deutsch ("Sprechen Sie Interactive?," December 19, 1996). A typical LD-50 gig also includes found footage and an evolving light show that utilizes a smoke machine. The idea, Helmut says, is to give clubgoers "something to look at as opposed to just something to listen to."
Stage shenanigans like these have helped LD-50 attract a modest-sized cult following, but the musicians' ambitions don't stop there. "We're the type of people who'll always be playing music," Saturn allows. "And I think all of us would like to make a living at it."
"Yeah," Gobo concurs. "I can see myself as a quadriplegic, clicking my teeth together and still banging away."
LD-50, with Space Mountain Sound System. 10 p.m. Saturday, March 15, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $4, 744-0513.