By AnnaMaria Stephens
June 26, 2003
Jordan Snodgrass has just finished a DJ set at the Whistle Stop in South Park. Leaning against the booth, he takes a swig of beer and surveys the room. Some 40 people are chatting and playing board games in the small neighborhood bar.
A guy walks up and introduces himself. He says he's a musician, too. They talk shop.
"So what's your music like?" Snodgrass asks.
"Well, you know. Electro-funk. Electro-soul. Electro-whatever," is the reply.
"Electro-whatever" is probably the most politically correct way to describe the music played by DJs Cardboard Box (Snodgrass), Wankchops (Scott Caligure) and Mocoloco (Billy Sprague) every Tuesday night at the Whistle Stop. The event is called Friends Chill, and the three rotating DJs showcase a wide-reaching collection of electronically based music. On any given Tuesday, you might hear mixes of anything from Billie Holiday to Bjork to breakbeat.
Several other area clubs feature "electro-whatever," including performances by Pleaseeasaur, Aspects of Physics and Soul Junk tonight at the Casbah in Middletown.
Though electronic music is not new, an increasing number of musicians are working in a fluid and defiant genre known as Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM, a label that makes Snodgrass cringe.
"That implies pretentiousness," he says. "Plus, it's not really dance music at all. It's more like electronic home-listening music."
Pretentious or not, "intelligent" is likely a nod to Warp Records' seminal 1992 label compilation, "Artificial Intelligence," which features groundbreaking electronic artists such as Autechre and Black Dog (as B12).
Seamlessly melding 1970s spacey ambience with in-your-face '80s techno beats, Warp's trend-setting electronic aesthetic sounds like music made by really smart machines.
The "dance" part is a misnomer, because the musical style is meant more for headphones than thumping club speakers. But IDM does employ many of the same modern technologies and techniques used in electronic dance music.
Characterized by complex rhythms, shifting time signatures and remarkably varied instrumentation and sounds, IDM is eclectic in its influences, drawing on funk, jazz, rock, metal, techno, world, classical and every other imaginable style. Sampled, manipulated and sequenced through increasingly advanced software, the music takes on a bold new life through the skills of its creators.
"It's basically music that doesn't fit into any of the bins at the record store," said Snodgrass, one of a handful of San Diegans making a splash on the national electronic music scene.
The 25-year-old is co-owner of imputor?, a half-local label specializing in IDM. The other half is fellow music nut and high school buddy Darrin Wiener, a 24-year-old San Diego native who moved to Seattle for film school and now runs the Pacific Northwest side of imputor?'s business.
While at UCSD studying computer and cognitive science and writing an honors thesis on the cranial effects of rhythmic drumming, Snodgrass began using machines as a creative outlet. Not only could he record instruments right into the computer for mixing, but he could easily add layer upon layer of digitally created sounds and beats.
Throughout school, Wiener and Snodgrass sent music back and forth to each other via the Internet.
"Around 1997, we decided to start a label," recalls Wiener. "We didn't do it for the money, we did it for the love."
They called it imputor? for its nonsensical allure and their debut release, a 2000 CD-R of Wiener's Plastiq Phantom project, quickly sold out. Their first official label release, Diagram of Suburban Chaos' "Status Negatives" (2002) garnered good press.
"There was an article about it in Spin magazine," says Snodgrass. "And you couldn't even buy it anywhere!" The unexpected publicity landed them a national distribution deal.
Since then, imputor? has distributed 18 albums in the United States, including Aspects of Physics, Pleaseeasaur and DJs on Strike.
Snodgrass attributes much of his label's success to the power of the Internet.
"All it takes is one computer geek to like our music and then it's everywhere. They hear it and pass it along."
To further spread the gospel of electronic home-listening music, Snodgrass helps book and hype shows around San Diego. He put on regular gigs at the Juke Joint Cafe before it closed, and over the past year, has promoted several notable IDM showcases at the Casbah, including tonight's show.
Over the past few years, Snodgrass has met some of his closest friends through IDM, including Friends Chill DJs Scott Caligure, who started the Whistle Stop event a year ago, and Billy Sprague, who runs a local label called Rocket Racer.
"We don't fit in anywhere," says Snodgrass. "We're outcasts."
But they're outcasts together. The IDM community is tightly knit and ever-expanding.
"At our shows, someone always comes up and says, 'Man, I thought I was the only one who liked this stuff!' But they look around and see a couple hundred other people into the same stuff. There's a great interchanging of ideas going on among like-minded people, where before there wasn't really any outlet."
Something for everyone (even polar bears)
Watching someone fiddle with a laptop for an hour doesn't sound that exciting, but many of these artists will surprise you when they unleash their full IDM fury. Here's a look at upcoming IDM shows:
Opening for Pleaseeasaur is Aspects of Physics, a local and more traditionally IDM imputor? labelmate. Featuring ex-members of Thingy and Physics, AOP carefully calibrates a mix of traditional rock instrumentation with electronic beats. San Diego's Soul Junk also opens.
To stock your shelves with electronic home-listening music, swing by Hillcrest's Off the Record, where Friends Chill DJs Scott Caligure and Billy Sprague work. Don't be afraid to ask questions. They probably know a lot more than you do. Lou's Records in Leucadia also carries a good selection and South Park's M-Theory has the hits. Here are some important IDM recordings:
Aphex Twin, "I Care Because You Do"; Squarepusher, "Feed Me Weird Things"; Boards of Canada, "Music Has the Right to Children"; Autechre, "Tri Repetae++"; Prefuse 73, "Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives"
– ANNAMARIA STEPHENS