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COACHELLA PREVIEW

Electro's alternative current plugs in

New acts inject punk energy and hip-hop swagger into a genre that had 'got boring.'

April 24, 2008|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

Back in January, the Parisian electronica group Justice had a crazy idea. Their aesthetic borrowed heavily from arena rock, so why not hold a triumphant March concert in New York at an actual arena -- the 20,000-capacity Madison Square Garden, perhaps?

After all, the duo's 2007 album "†" for Ed Banger Records was the lodestar of that year's techno trends, full of gut-punch bass lines and synthesizers filtered to sound like heavy-metal guitars. And their set at that year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival had helped them become one of the biggest techno-pop crossovers since fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk.

Music blog comment boards roundly jeered the Garden booking, and anemic ticket sales would likely have barely filled the front rows. (The promoters got the hint and rescheduled their show at the much smaller WaMu Theatre.) There appears to be a ceiling of popularity for an electronica act whose live set consists of ephemeral button-pushing, a glowing crucifix and stylish cigarette smoking.

"Electro got boring, techno died, house came back and now everything is mixed," said Alex Ridha, the young Berlin-based producer behind the electronica act Boys Noize. "Hip-hop kids all over the world discovered electronic music, and indie-rock kids love the 'rock' elements in electronic music now."

Several up-and-coming acts heading to the dance tent at Coachella this weekend are poised to take the reins of alt-electro this year. These artists rely on more traditional means to make dance music fun to watch: punk energy, arty virtuosity and hip-hop swagger.

British quartet Does It Offend You, Yeah? took its name from a line in the British version of "The Office," and the band has regretted it ever since. "We'll be checking into a hotel and the clerk will ask me what our band name is, and I'll just be like, 'Ummm,' " said drummer Rob Bloomfield. "All the wind will be taken out of me."

The group's debut album, "You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into," shares the brutal, slithery bass lines and rock gestures of "†," and the comparison with similarly rising peers, such as Boys Noize, Erol Alkan and Deadmau5, is undeniable.

But instead of Justice's Metallica-size stadium techno, the group evokes a glammed-up basement hard-core band. Each member makes a point to play live instruments, and while the music is rooted in a four-on-the-floor stomp, onstage the band isn't tied to a bank of sequencers. If the chaotic, mosh-heavy videos for songs like "We Are Rockstars" are any indication, the band's grateful for the long leash.

"The fact is that we're a band, and there's something special about live music," Bloomfield said. "The thought of someone pressing 'play' isn't very exciting."

Australia's Midnight Juggernauts, who opened the Justice tour, saw another way to solve the live electronica problem. The band pairs David Bowie's deadpan landscapes with Giorgio Moroder's slasher-flick disco, but the trio isn't afraid of ancient instruments like acoustic guitars. It's club music that sounds best in open fields -- or while double-fisting lighters in the air.

"There are moments when we want people to move, but we also wanted space and for people to get lost in it," said Vincent Juggernaut, the band's singer and keyboardist. "At first we were worried that it might be easier to do a banging DJ set, but we're a different beast."

Along with the Juggernauts' debut, "Dystopia," exuberant new albums by countrymen Cut Copy and the Presets suggest that the scene for such a sound in Australia is bustling. But the band knows it didn't used to be so easy.

"Australia's so far away from everything that there's a tyranny of distance," Juggernaut said. "There didn't used to be many bands like us. We'd go on after a straight-ahead rock band and play this gay disco, and the audience would yell at us to get off the stage."

The particular strain of acts using electronica structures and rock gestures is still largely an underground phenomenon -- except in the world of hip-hop, where it is already a mainstream trend. Coming off a year when Kanye West sampled Daft Punk and T-Pain made the vocoder a must-have hip-hop accessory, the synthesized sass of Kid Sister, the crackling dub of Santogold and the French Jazzercise rap of Yelle is less striking than it might have been in past years. But each has a gum-snapping charisma and an arresting sense of fashion that's deeply refreshing when mainstream hip-hop has so few rising female stars.

"My dad's black and my mom's white, and I bring that out in my music," said Melissa Young, whose Kid Sister moniker evokes her tutelage under West in Chicago. "I grew up listening to [Snoop Dogg's] 'Doggystyle,' and when I was 12 I was sneaking into dance clubs to listen to Cajmere."

Her single "Pro Nails," produced by West's longtime DJ A-Trak, is a blippy, effervescent ode to beauty salons driven by Young's machine-gun rhymes, and one of Young's first tours was with Ed Banger's DJ Mehdi, the electro producer who cut his teeth making beats for French rapper MC Solaar.

Though Paris and Chicago are worlds apart, Young and Mehdi's adolescences as techno-obsessed hip-hop heads had more in common than they expected. They both learned that when you lack musical luxuries, you have to make the most of the basics.

"Mehdi's from the suburbs of Paris, and they're really not nice," Young said. "I'm from the South Side suburbs of Chicago, and they're really not nice. He had to claw his way here, and I think that's why we bonded. We know how to communicate from both cultures."

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august.brown@latimes.com

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