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Let A Thousand Laptops Boom

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Harry Campbell
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Kelly O
SEAN HORTON Tickling his "keyboard."
Burgeoning on the music scene's fringes for years, experimental electronica will finally get the lavish treatment it deserves in Seattle with this fall's Decibel Festival. Will this ambitious event be embraced, or will electronic music fade into the margins where it usually dwells? Decibel's banking on the PowerBook supplanting Jimi Hendrix's guitar as the city's musical icon of choice.

THE TIME HAS COME to yank electronic music out from society's margins and thrust it onto center stage. As much as I love it, rock music is pushing 50 and showing its age. The genre has hogged the spotlight for too long and it's high time for its more youthful, daring counterpart--electronic music--to grab some media shine. Lollapalooza died for a reason; let us welcome the era of the laptop-music festival.

Electronic-music events currently thrive in Montreal (MUTEK), Detroit (Movement), Barcelona (Sónar), Vancouver (New Forms), Berlin (Transmediale), Australia (Sound Summit), and Linz, Austria (Ars Electronica). Seattle is about to throw its power strips into the ring this year too, though, with the Decibel Festival (September 23-26). Headed by musician/DJ/promoter Sean Horton, Decibel (henceforth Db) is pushing an ambitious agenda for its debut.

Inspired by Movement (a free outdoor gathering set in Horton's hometown) and MUTEK, as well as the rising pool of experimental-electronic talent in the Northwest, our Seattle spearheader--and his 12-strong volunteer staff--fervently believes the time is ripe for our city to shed its grunge-rock rep and start throbbing to glitch-worshipping laptop music.

Horton--a tireless producer/ DJ under the name Nordic Soul, a talent booker for Dreaming in Stereo, a senior music programmer at Play Network in Redmond, and someone who needs little sleep--is ideally positioned to launch Db. With regular weekly nights at LO_FI and ToST, he has many friends in high places; as a gig promoter, Horton has impeccable connections, luring to Seattle excellent yet obscure artists from the Ghostly, Schematic, and Tiger-beat6 labels, as well as IDM illuminati like Funkstörung and Sutekh. The man knows his shit and possesses the energy and determination to see projects through to fruition.

As Horton wisely realizes, Db should heed the example of our Canadian neighbors. MUTEK has become an exemplary event in its five-year history. It showcases both homegrown talent (of which there is plenty) and international artists; it books both high-profile and obscure DJs/producers. MUTEK's curators scan the electronic-music and visual-art fields and pluck the most interesting/innovative people, even if none ever has come close to selling Gold, let alone Platinum, numbers. MUTEK's organizers also knowledgeably trace the parallel, cutting-edge developments of technology and music. Sounds tres geek, non? Yet MUTEK drew 10,000 people from around the globe to this year's fest.

Another factor in MUTEK's favor is governmental support of the arts from Montreal and Canada; in 2004, these entities chipped in $15,000, without which MUTEK simply wouldn't happen. While most American politicians view the arts as ignorable frivolity at best and dangerously subversive at worst, Canadian pols actually see the value in funding arts programs.

"For a festival like this to happen in Seattle, it needs to be broad," Horton stresses. "It can't be as specialized as MUTEK, mainly because the community here is fairly unfamiliar with a lot of the experimental forms of dance music. [Experimental music is] a tough sell for Seattle. So part of my goal is to work with local promoters--Ramiro of Uniting Souls, Naha with Graylife, Zacharia of 360--artists who are doing different types of shows than what I'm doing. You tie that all together, you have house, drum 'n' bass, experimental tech-house, and IDM components."

Horton speculates that most of Db will happen within a three-block radius in Capitol Hill. Concerts will take place at Chop Suey, Capitol Hill Arts Center (CHAC), Oseao Gallery of the Senses, and Barça (possibly Db's official "lounge," where attendees can network and chill in a less stressful and quieter environment), with the headlining act scheduled to play the Showbox. (Underground-tech-house stars Richie Hawtin--AKA Plastikman--and Green Velvet are being wooed, but nothing's confirmed yet.)

"Our goal is to get our name out there and make sure we pull together something that's a quality, professional production," Horton says. He also wants education to play a large role in Db. Discussion panels, music-gear clinics, and a film festival are slated to inform/entertain festivalgoers. "I have been interested in doing a film series exploring the pioneers of electronic music," Northwest Film Forum director Peter Lucas says. "So I connected with the Decibel folks. The film component of the festival will bring historic context, complementing the contemporary artists that are performing. We'll be presenting a number of documentaries exploring the lives and music of electronic pioneers."

Horton says the overall vision is to focus on the similarities between all electronic music: the technology and the more forward-thinking musicians. "I don't see the point in focusing on artists everyone already knows about," he says. "I want to entice people with headlining artists that exem-plify [forward-thinking] music, but have Northwest and lesser-known experimental artists open up or be involved with the festival so they can get some exposure. That's where most of the advancements are being made in terms of live electronic acts, laptop producers."

Horton's dilemma is stark: He seems torn between obsessing on music technology, and thereby risk being dubbed "geeky" by the haters, and attracting casual clubbers who'll never experience the thrill of watching a wave form zigzag across a G4 screen. His challenge is to balance bitrates-and-bytes-intensive clinics about software, synthesis, and sequencing with the ass-shaking euphoria induced by killer sound systems in packed clubs. Again, MUTEK sets the golden example.

"One of the most important factors in MUTEK's success is that it knows its core audience," says Regenerate Industries publicist Dimitri Nasrallah, who worked on this year's MUTEK. "People come back to this festival because it continuously opts to showcase what is new and exciting over what might be more popular. Electronic music doesn't necessarily have the mass following other genres enjoy, which means that another important factor in MUTEK's success is the fact that it perceives itself not as a Montreal festival, but as an international festival. You're not going to find 10,000 kids in any one city in North America that are into this kind of music, so you have to think in terms of regions." Horton, to his credit, is doing just that with Db.

Further enhancing MUTEK's effectiveness is its expansion into a record label (comps featuring artists playing MUTEK sell at venues where they're performing--synergy!) and a retail establishment (the excellent Hub, where it's way too easy to spend too much money). MUTEK organizers Alain Mongeau and Eric Mattson have savvily branded the festival through crucial links to the Wire magazine, M-Audio, Midem Electronic Village, and other companies fostering avant-garde electronica. The MUTEK virus even has spread to Mexico and Chile, where people inspired by the Montreal version transported MUTEK's spirit and aesthetics to Latin climes and sensibilities.

Nevertheless, given its overwhelming artistic success, MUTEK suffers from underfunding. According to Mongeau, MUTEK has only been able to pay 40 percent of its three full-time staff members' salaries and finds it difficult to garner private donations. "MUTEK is still a very frail organization, struggling to find its balance," Mongeau admits.

Beyond those perennial arts organizational battles, MUTEK must deal with mutable aesthetic concerns. "Each year, the festival is faced with addressing the hyperactive speed at which genres and movements crop up and disappear in electronic music," says Nasrallah. "MUTEK has to address this issue without sacrificing its sense of identity in the process. Sometimes the hottest acts are not necessarily the most important on an artistic level, and more often than not, MUTEK's curators will opt for artistic credibility. All this falls under the clause that MUTEK takes its identity very seriously."

Horton seems to take Db's identity just as seriously. Envisioning Db as a Northwest MUTEK (sans benevolent government support), he hopes to get corporate behemoths like Microsoft, Apple, and RealNetworks behind his enormous undertaking, earnest demos of music software programs, panel discussions about digital downloading, and all. "The reason why we're focusing on technology is because it's an overriding thing with all electronic music," Horton states. "We've seen this with modern advancements and laptop battles; the music is progressing at the same rate as the technology. That to me is the overriding theme, because it unites all of these different genres we're talking about.

"We have to make something fun and accessible enough to attract a wider audience beyond the tech heads and producers," Horton continues. "We already have those people's support."

One way of attracting a wider audience is getting exposure on KEXP--the vastly influential radio station airs much rock and world music, but gives short shrift to adventurous electronic releases. Besides the token Sunday-night Expansions program, listener-supported KEXP mostly ignores underground electronic music, which is galling considering the region's deep pool of talent and the presence of a label--Orac Records--in its backyard that's getting love from DJs and publications worldwide. KEXP promotes Seattle rockers; one wonders why it won't do the same for area laptoppers.

"Like a lot of radio stations, [KEXP] has a strict rotation that's based on their listenership and their charts and the way they work with labels to get certain artists out there," says Horton. "I think there are a ton of artists locally that could get played along with international acts and get the same response--maybe even a better response, because they're based here. That would only help perpetuate the electronic-music community."

When asked about his station's dearth of electronic-music programming, music director Don Yates admits, "It's true that Expansions is the only KEXP show that's specifically devoted to electronic music, but we also regularly mix in electronic music during our regular variety music programming. On the more experimental tip, there's also Sonarchy, our adventurous Saturday-night live-music program that often features electronic artists."

But Horton thinks KEXP's efforts are perfunctory at best, and claims never to have heard Db-type music on Sonarchy. "[The station's] 'variety pro- gramming' (John Richards, Amanda Wilde, etc.) will occasionally play the dated, accessible Basement Jaxx, Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, or Fatboy Slim track, but they never play leftfield/new electronica (IDM, techno, glitch, dub, tech-house, electro), even if it is charting well in the CMJ and other charts (e.g., T. Raumschmiere, Matthew Dear, Funk-störung, Boards of Canada, etc.).

"I have [repeatedly] tried to get them to play this music, but I don't think they really keep up on current trends in electronic music, even if it's happening locally (Orac, Omco, Strategy, Lusine, Electric Birds, Jacob London, Jeff Samuel, etc.). I never hear techno on KEXP.

"I will continue to send [Expansions DJs] music, but I don't see that really making a difference, even when it's clear other stations in the U.S. that cover a similar format do play these artists. Like many Seattle DJs in the electronic community, they seem to be either oblivious to new forms of electronic music or heavily rooted in a specific genre/era of electronic music that completely excludes new talent." In the meantime, Horton's getting proactive and enlisting CHAC honchos Randy Engstrom and Bob Redmond to start Decibel Radio at www.staticfactory.org.

Obviously, though, providing strong bills for each of its four nights is Db's top priority. All the clever promotional tactics, well-meaning educational panels, and gearhead clinics cannot overcome a lineup of unknowns, no matter how fascinating their music. Snagging Richie Hawtin or even the Orb (who have a new album out this summer) is the best way to coax people outside of the Northwest to drive great distances, board planes, and reserve hotels for Db.

So who's going to play the inaugural Decibel? It's too early to reveal a full lineup, but Horton and company are working hard to secure yeses from envelope-pushing producers residing in Germany, Canada, Spain, Mexico, England, Detroit, California, and, of course, the North- west. Rumor has it Detroit's legendary Underground Resistance crew is on board. If this happens, it would be a tremendous coup. Hell, if Kraftwerk and Skinny Puppy can play Seattle, why not UR?

"We're working with Renegade Rhythms out of Portland to help facilitate some of the Detroit acts," Horton says. "There's so much talent there and a lot of people who can pull a larger audience."

Horton's trip to this year's MUTEK also was fruitful. "I've gotten over 100 e-mails from promoters, attendants, performers, [and] DJs from around the world since I was there, giving praise, expressing interest in playing," he enthuses. "Some people from Montreal are actually willing to pay their own way to help promote and volunteer at the festival. If we can have that kind of commitment from a local audience, there's nothing Decibel can't do."

Mike Shannon, a Montreal producer who played MUTEK and may enhance Db, too, offers this advice: "[Follow] the path of MUTEK: Harness the strength of the global electronic community and create a bridge with the Decibel festival connecting international artists with artists from the USA."

"The main dilemma we face--and most music festivals face--is funding," Horton says. "As a first-year festival, obviously there's a lot of skepticism. Attracting sponsors and a larger financial backing has been our main hill to climb."

Nasrallah cautions, "If Decibel can take one lesson away from MUTEK, it's that it should start small, because it can always get bigger. But the ceiling in this genre is lower than most. You're not going to end up with a Coachella of electronic music, at least not these days."

It seems like a no-brainer that an electronic-music festival could prosper here. But old musical habits can be as tough to kick as certain drugs. Nevertheless, one can't help feeling that Horton and his dedicated Decibel crew will do everything possible to help Seattle's music scene take that great bleep forward.

The next Decibel benefit show is July 27 at Chop Suey, featuring Ghostly Inter-national artists Matthew Dear, Dabrye, Midwest Product, Lusine, and SV4. See www.dbfestival.com for more info.

SEVENTEEN

Unsolicited Tips for a Solid

Electronic-Music Festival

Secure many sponsors, and not necessarily obvious ones (e.g., Dick's, Toys in Babeland, etc.).

Find an "official" festival restaurant and hotel at which attendees can get discounts.

Don't hire asshole security companies to regulate crowds. They're vibe killers.

Book lots of up-and-coming talent in a variety of styles and try to get more female performers than MUTEK had in 2004 (fewer than 5 out of 60).

Sell attractively designed merchandise with the Decibel logo.

Sell the wares of participating artists at appropriate venues--and take a fair percentage of the profits.

Host an expo where music-oriented companies can display their goods.

Encourage after-parties; they often produce the most memorable festival experiences.

Be lax on drug-law enforcement. This is an electronic-music festival; people want to get out of their heads and dance for epic durations.

Provide free earplugs and water at all venues. It's good karma.

Persuade local record stores to offer discount coupons in festival goody bags.

Advertise in specialist publications like URB, XLR8R, Grooves, Remix, etc., as well as in local media outlets.

Hit up Bill Gates for a million bucks. (A mil's pocket change for him, plus it's a tax-deductible charity donation, right?)

Try to schedule events so there's little overlap at different venues. Don't force people to make hard decisions about what events to attend.

Keep between-set lulls to a minimum. Long waits kill momentum and allow punters to slip out of venues.

Spare no expense with sound systems.

Convince KEXP its DJs should play the music of artists who will be performing at Decibel.

segal@thestranger.com

 

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