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POP MUSIC

That Noise Is Really Raw Material

Intelligent Dance Music makers like Matmos use found sounds to push boundaries.

April 08, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer

The gurgle and slurp of a liposuction machine may not seem like music to most of us, but it is to the ears of Matmos. The San Francisco duo is one of the groups at the forefront of Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM, a movement that has been fusing experimental electronica with the collage sensibility of hip-hop and the do-it-yourself ethos of punk for more than a decade.

On their new Matador album, "A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure," Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt armed themselves with DAT recorders to investigate the musical possibilities of rhinoplasty, Lasik eye surgery and other operations.

As collaborators on Bjrk's forthcoming album, "Vespertine," they constructed beats from the sound of shuffling cards and crackling ice cubes -sounds many pop fans would categorize less as music than noise.

But one man's trash is another's treasure, and to Matmos and other IDM pioneers, it's all about expanding definitions.

"I was getting my teeth worked on and asked [the dentist], 'What's this great music you're listening to?"' says Matmos' Daniel, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in literature.

"He said, 'I'm not playing any music,' and it turned out it was one of the panels of the ceiling that wasn't quite in place properly and the fan was jiggling it, so it was the air-conditioning sort of playing the ceiling."

For IDM artists, music isn't a purely aural experience: It can be inspired as much by a scent, a texture or a color as by a sound.

Rooted in musique concrete, the mid-20th century French technique of splicing real-world sounds into songs, IDM as a movement has been quietly percolating underground since the '80s, when English experimental electronic acts such as Aphex Twin and other bands on Warp Records began to develop a cult following.

For most of the past decade the scene has been centered in England, where Squarepusher, Autechre (which plays the El Rey Theatre on May 19) and others took the base that Aphex Twin was working from and pushed even harder against sonic boundaries to invent new noises. Today, the locus seems to have shifted to California-Electric Company works in L.A. and a plethora of acts occupy San Francisco, where the scene is dominated by Matmos and Kid606.

Because of its work with Bjrk, Matmos may receive the lion's share of media attention for contributions to IDM. But for the past year, Kid606 has been widely hailed as the vanguard of the movement.

Unlike Matmos, which tries to preserve the integrity of its found sounds, the irreverent and prolific 21-year-old IDM it-boy samples from TV, radio and real-world recordings, processing and tweaking the sounds through his computer so they come out bent into beautifully chaotic rhythms and melodies. The original source material is often barely distinguishable.

A native of Venezuela who moved to San Diego as a child and to San Francisco only recently, Kid606 released his first full-length record, "Don't Sweat the Technics," in 1998 on Vinyl Communications, and followed it with the critically acclaimed "Down With the Scene" (Ipecac) last year. He has released several others on his own label, Tigerbeat6, including his latest, "GQ on the EQ," and collaborated with so many other artists and released so many records on so many different labels around the world that even he has a hard time keeping track of where and what they all are.

Such productivity is typical of this expanding scene, where a computer is the only tool an artist needs. Some songs never even make it to CD, but are circulated online as MP3 files. In a twist on the two-turntables-and-a-microphone DJ culture, most live shows are performed with only a laptop.

As the computer becomes more of a populist medium and a tool for making music, it appears IDM is shaping up to be the new punk. As one Village Voice reviewer quipped, the scene may contain more producers than consumers.

The genre is just beginning to nudge its way into the mainstream-even Eminem's "Stan" used the sound of a pencil writing on paper as its rhythm. But how far IDM can reach out remains to be seen.

"There's a certain group of disenchanted youth who are into computers and sick of hearing guitars that will take this music to heart," says Kid606, whose real name is Miguel Depedro. "I think a lot of it has to do with the commercialization of techno."

It's ironic that IDM is benefiting from the popularity of dance culture. Despite sharing a similar audience-primarily men in their late teens and early 20s-those in the IDM community distance themselves from ravers and what they jokingly refer to as SDM, the stupid dance music they dismiss as being too much about the body and not enough about the mind.

While much IDM is danceable, it may not be consistently so. A song could start out with a beat only to lose it halfway through.

"You'd have to be a pretty adventurous DJ to try to roll out any of our songs on the dance floor," jokes Matmos' Schmidt, a San Francisco Art Institute professor.

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