Organically Cooking the Dance Floor
Jon McMillion and Nuearth Kitchen Are Making the Most Exciting Electronic Music Seattle Has Seen in Years
When Randy Jones's Orac label went on hiatus in 2008, it left a void in the Northwest's electronic-music scene. For a moment, the hard, minimal-techno-centric From 0-1 label filled that chasm, but its prime mover, Justin Pennell, moved to San Francisco earlier this year. Thankfully, Seattle DJ/producer Jeremy Grant (aka D'jeronimo) has met the challenge of fostering adventurous dance music with his new imprint, Nuearth Kitchen.
Grant has established himself in Seattle as a refined curator via his Oy! Vey! experimental-techno weekly at the Baltic Room and through his and DJ Struggle's Made Like a Tree events and podcasts (www.madelikeatree.com). But starting Nuearth Kitchen (henceforth NEK) proves he's ready to take his vision to unprecedented levels of commitment—albeit in dire times for the music industry.
"I noticed that I was standing at a tipping point throughout the whole of dance-music culture," Grant says. "Dubstep and the analog-house resurgence have both hit plateaus, shoegaze and psychedelia are starting to grow out, club/underground culture as a whole is pretty flat, and... everyone I know has been looking for something new.
"Regardless of [the record industry's] status," he continues, "I think that artists are always able to catch the attention of others, especially in this day and age of blogs and various forms of digital distribution. There are a lot of valuable, free tools out there to use—it's just a matter of wielding them to your advantage." With NEK, Grant aspires to "break some ground and provide interesting, fun, inspiring music—and there is a void for these things right now (not entirely, of course, but I'm personally not getting enough of what I want to be hearing)."
Toward that end, he's launching NEK with Seattle producer Jon McMillion's Jon McMillion LP, a sprawling 13-track double LP that drops this month. (An EP featuring remixes by San Proper, Vakula, and Juju & Jordash follows soon after.) McMillion issued two outstanding left-field techno 12-inches for Orac and a digital EP for Adjunct, but his debut full-length represents a huge creative leap for the man. Jon McMillion LP strikes an Afro-eccentric chord akin to Shabazz Palaces' work, but it's tailored for techno/house-music afterparties rather than hiphop happenings. The pervasive hauntological drift of McMillion's productions suggests deep immersion in psychedelia and cosmic jazz (McMillion's father was a jazz guitarist whose record collection influenced his son's aesthetics) plus house and disco's more idiosyncratic spectra.
Part of what sets McMillion's tracks above most in the tech-house continuum is his mastery of guitar, bass, and keyboards, plus his soulful baritone vocals. He typically jams on these instruments in his Bellevue apartment at crazy hours and then edits the results into epic, densely layered cuts that take you on bizarre mental journeys (you can dance to most of McMillion's songs, but you need to get exceptionally loose in your joints in order to do them justice). Jon McMillion LP sounds like the handiwork of a full band, but McMillion is the sole creator. Sure, he uses Ableton and software-derived beats, but McMillion's music comes across like a gourmet meal composed of the finest organic ingredients compared to the microwaved, fast-food DJ tools that many producers pump out.
When McMillion is in the studio, he doesn't think about transcending genres or expanding on technique. He's not specifically trying to create something that's never been heard before—but that's often the outcome. "First off, [I'm] just trying to come up with something different than the last time," he says. "I don't listen to much dance or electronic music in general, so I'm kind of in a bubble with my productions. I don't approach the studio like, 'Hey, I'm going to make this song that's going to blow everybody's minds.' It's just how I do things.
"I've tried to simplify things. I've tried to make a proper, commercial house song, and I just can't do it. This is just the way it comes out. There's no impulse to make this as strange or as far-out as possible. My mission statement, if there is one, is to not sound like anybody else. I want to be looked upon as an artist who's trying to forge his own ground. I'm not trying to alienate myself from other dance producers; I just want to have something that's distinct and lasting."
Another aspect that distinguishes McMillion from the tech-house hordes is his eclectic musical taste. He didn't get into dance music until he met Randy Jones in the mid-'00s; before that, McMillion—who was a serious skateboarder growing up in the Tri-Cities—favored punk rock, weird Japanese electronic pop, Tropicália, Tony Williams Lifetime, John McLaughlin, Santana, Autechre, Squarepusher, Fennesz, Farmers Manual, and Uwe Schmidt/Atom Heart's many projects. McMillion ignores most of techno and house's gridlike protocols and lets quirks—dazed mutterings, oddly pitched percussion, distorted guitar, mellifluous organ swells—filter into his tracks.
McMillion's perverse, deadpan humor sometimes seeps into his music: See "Love of Parking," an homage to his vehicle-positioning skills set to a soulful yet disorienting disco-house stomp. But some of the tracks possess an air of desperation, like "Somebody Help Me." It's not blatant woe-is-me material, but there is an undercurrent flowing through it.
"That was when I was going through my lull," McMillion explains. "I was in some dark spaces. I like to project some dark imagery and ideas into my music. I see what you're saying about the desperation. That's a piece about a guy going through some stuff and trying to figure it out."
McMillion has experienced some rough patches in the last year or so, both creatively and personally, but he's rebounded. "Meeting Jeremy Grant and hooking up with the Made Like a Tree guys, getting that kind of encouragement and this kind of team foundation with them jump-started me into full production and wanting to deal with labels," McMillion says. "I also attribute some of my latest productions to the things that have been going on in my life. I do feed off of some of these negative things that happen to me or occur in my life. I try to flip that into energy and use it in the studio."
Both under his own name and under his Wig Water Magic alias, McMillion has several other releases in the pipeline for Adjunct and Germany's esteemed Trapez, as well as a collaboration with Grant's Lioncub project for NEK. But not everyone is loving McMillion's strange creations. "I've had a falling out with a few labels, over content and the direction of my songs, and I wasn't really feeling anybody telling me to make things more techno-y or dancier or more 'peak-y.' I don't do 'peak-y.'"
That may be true in the conventional sense, but McMillion's music could elicit plenty of peaklike feelings in listeners' minds—sensations that will outlast club music's ephemerality.
"I want to write songs," McMillion states. "I don't want to make throwaway, dance-floor fodder. I want to make music that has lasting value, something that's unique, something that the witty DJs will latch on to."
Nuearth Kitchen Showcase: Jon McMillion, Randy Jones, D'jeronimo, DJ Struggle, Energy Flash, HMA vs. Lioncub, Fri Sept 17, the Loft, 9 pm, $10, 21+.