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Low End Theory: High-concept music

A new generation of experimental artists is using dazzling instrument technologies to create new genres of music at a club night in Lincoln Heights.

October 04, 2009|August Brown

Each Wednesday, shows at Low End Theory draw hundreds of fans, many of whom subscribe to a membership club for frequent visitors. Satellite communities for the Low End sound have emerged in Montreal and Glasgow, Scotland, cities never considered hotbeds for beat-heavy music. But even far-flung practitioners of this bass-centric experimental music see the L.A. contingent as standard bearers, both in the music's quality and in the potential star power of its players.

"In the U.K., producers are really reticent. If you stand stock still while perfectly beat-matching, that's considered a good set," said Mary Anne Hobbs, a DJ for BBC Radio 1 who produced "West Coast Rocks," a documentary largely on Low End Theory; she performed at the club late last month. "In L.A., you're at the epicenter of a city of performers. Flying Lotus is his generation's Jimi Hendrix, he literally tears a room apart."

The artists' fierce charisma is integral to LET's appeal. So is its markedly diverse fan base, which represents an unlikely cross-section of racial, musical and economic demographics. Moo said that the late Heath Ledger, a Daedelus fan, came to the club one night and went completely unnoticed.

"There's almost a Studio 54 aspect to it," Darlington said. "It's the promise of a good club, where people from all creative worlds on the fringe of L.A. can come, and actresses can come too."


Next generation

Eclecticism might define the Low End Theory sound, but new technology is its foundation. These artists eschew the traditional hip-hop and techno setup, forsaking turntables and samplers for far more cutting-edge devices.

At a recent headlining set at the Roxy (where, Moo said, Bjork was in the audience), the three members of the Glitch Mob stood before a black tablet with a touch-activated screen called a Lemur. By pressing, swiping and tracing patterns on the screen, they manipulated software to create and edit sounds that previously had been saved on their laptops, all while thrashing about the front of the stage.

Similarly, a typical Flying Lotus performance finds Ellison behind a nest of cables, software controller pads and an array of mixing equipment that he plays with an almost shamanic quality befitting his musical lineage -- he's the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane. In concert, Daedelus makes judicious use of a Monome, an instrument with a grid of 256 illuminated buttons that, when pressed and illuminated, control sequences of samples and software.

The technology allows for nearly endless possibilities when it comes to making and tweaking electronic music in a live setting without the complications of a live band; these new devices allow a laptop to be played just like a regular instrument.

"The problem with an electronic performance is that there's no relationship between what you're seeing and the sound you're hearing," said Gareth Williams, the artist, promotions and content manager of JazzMutant, the company that developed the Lemur. "With these controllers you take away the smoke and mirrors."


The business end

Although some of the Low End artists are signed to high-profile labels (Lotus to the renowned U.K. electronica label Warp, Daedelus to the London- and Montreal-based Ninja Tune), much of the scene runs through Alpha Pup Records, Moo's label and studio, which operates out of his three-room downtown L.A. office. Eighty percent of Alpha Pup's sales are digital downloads offered through major online retailers such as iTunes and boutique sites such as Boomkat and Bleep.

Moo, who once worked as a label manager at Sony BMG, has abandoned most customary physical and digital distribution arrangements, however. He prefers to personally cut deals with the sites themselves and for his artists to release a constant flow of free digital mixtapes, remixes and singles. These tracks also show up in a monthly Low End Theory podcast, which draws tens of thousands of listeners each month, many of whom don't attend the club night.

That approach, he and the LET performers believe, helps to keep fans interested in his artists and to build the kind of brand loyalty that can translate into positive word of mouth and future sales.

"We did a tour of Eastern Europe, and over there the idea of paying for music is just absurd," Boreta said. "To them it's all free. But when we played Budapest we sold 800 tickets. We believe in the commerce of buying albums, but that ship has sunk."

Moo, who runs the label along with his wife, a staff of three paid employees and four interns, used his background in designing data architecture systems for companies to engineer Alpha Pup's accounting system, which tracks every song and album sold worldwide. He said a transparent model for paying artists is a necessity.

"To chase after your money, you've got to know what you're owed," Moo said. "When you're starving, but your record's selling and you're not seeing any of it, you feel burned. I'm trying to save these kids a lot of heartache."

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