Everyone cursing the influx of tech people to Seattle should meet Kenric McDowell. An electronic-music producer who records under the name Big Phone, he is the antithesis of your most feverish stereotyping. This is no money-obsessed brogrammer.
As a machine-intelligence designer and prototyper at Google, his team recently developed a technique that uses computer-vision and object-recognition algorithms to generate hallucinations. "They feed noise into a computer-vision algorithm and tell it to look for a specific thing," McDowell says. "What you get is a really psychedelic image." When he's not at his day job, he produces very strange and cerebral techno music. His home studio in the Old Rainier Brewery is a spacious pad that abounds with the typical tools of electronic musicians (analog and digital synths, laptops, Ableton, etc.) and more esoteric instruments like shruti box, harmonium, charango, and shakuhachi. Also of note: Both an Everlast punching bag and a Ganesha bead curtain hang from the ceiling. McDowell may be toiling for one of the world's biggest companies, but he strives to have both his technical expertise and his music benefit humanity.
In the notes for his extraordinary new EP, Black Earth App Worship, on local label Peloton Musique, McDowell posits: "Technology should be an offering to the Earth. It is made with the body of the Earth." This sentiment runs counter to the mainstream perception of technology, which is often used to separate humans from nature while its production and disposal harm the planet. Working at Google has given McDowell—who moved here from New York City in 2012 after eight years in the advertising industry—an insider's perspective on our unprecedented technological undertakings.
"Ray Kurzweil [Google's director of engineering] talks about biology being treated as a computational system," McDowell says in his calm, methodical voice. "We're looking at the Anthropocene, the idea that [humans are] changing the earth for the first time. We have extended our powers so far with technology, that without a holistic and spiritual understanding of what it is we're doing, we run the risk of disaster. So when I think about technology being an offering to the earth, that's the best way of understanding how we can take on these monumental tasks with some sense of purpose and responsibility to the future." It makes so much sense that McDowell's now reading Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture, a history of Silicon Valley's radical roots.
Big Phone made a striking first impression in 2013 with Feral Phone Myth, which introduced a deep psychedelic brand of electro-infused techno. This was followed the next year by the club-friendlier ;) EP on Knightriders Recordings, as McDowell combined radiant guitar spangles with opiated dub-techno propulsion à la Porter Ricks and Ricardo Villalobos. Black Earth App Worship, the newest entry in Big Phone's discography, is one of this city's greatest techno releases in the last decade. There's a Persian-rug complexity to the instrumentation that adorns Big Phone's staunch 4/4 kicks and subtle percussive accents on all five tracks. It works exceptionally well as a headphone listen, or for vigorous dancing while on potent hallucinogens.
McDowell has been incorporating those aforementioned acoustic instruments in some of his recent recordings to stunning effect. "I was so fixated on using just intonation to make techno that I stopped using acoustic instruments in my tracks except for flute and things that are tonally flexible. But I've been bringing some more equal-tempered instruments into the mix," he says. This peculiar combination of analog and digital elements—along with an interest in Pythagoras's harmony of the spheres—contributes to the profound otherness of Big Phone's techno productions.
"In the past, I gave myself free rein to explore whatever I wanted," McDowell explains. "Feral Phone Myth was much more ambient and not as club-oriented. With Black Earth App Worship, I'm trying to fall in line a bit more. There's a lot more harmonic motion. I used a lot of generative sequencing structures to create geometric musical patterns. With experimental thinking, the more you can merge it into the accepted norm and system, the more powerful it is." Ever the practical thinker, McDowell shapes his EPs for dance-floor utility and designs his albums "as a space where people can get lost in them and have them be more like worlds, rather than tools." Prominent selectors like France's Laurent Garnier and Portland's Bryan Zentz have championed Big Phone's music. That's impressive for a techno producer whose "inclination is to make something really weird that doesn't follow any rules. I love the structure of techno as a sort of asymptotic thing to strive for."
Big Phone's music has also been influenced by his trips to Peru and Mexico, where he's worked with shamans and learned about traditional healing practices. The shamans' music—which McDowell describes as "acoustic, largely vocal-based with some light percussion and generally longer durations"—plays an important role in those ceremonies, and McDowell strives to apply similar beneficent tones and rhythms in his own tracks.
Electronic musicians have dabbled with shamanism before; it was particularly common in the '90s psytrance genre, where samples of magic-mushroom guru Terence McKenna ran rampant. McDowell is cognizant of the perceived arrogance of Western appropriation here. "We're talking about colonized cultures, and we take their most sacred practices and apply them to our dance parties. At the same time, there is a connection, and it's music-making and healing and collective experiences. And intoxication by some means... or destabilization of your ordinary state of consciousness. That nexus has the potential to transform people and things," he says. "If musicians are interested in that realm, then going to those people in their own environment and understanding their own practices on their own terms is probably the best route to not being superficial."
While Big Phone is one of the best techno producers in Seattle, his profile has remained low, and now he's strategically working to change that. "What I like about techno and electronic music is, you don't have to be young to be successful. In fact, people who've been in it longer are better. So I'm taking a long view on what I'm doing. I also want to be ready to receive attention. I want to nail this live-set thing. I want to get this new EP out there to start the conversation and, at some point in the next year, release the album."
Whereas most electronic musicians seem hell-bent on expanding their "brand" and fostering mindless hedonism (not that there's anything wrong with the latter), McDowell remains focused on higher aspirations. "Having the goal to be profound and healing and beautiful and cathartic and physically exhausting, and to create that connection between performer and audience, or just [connect] the people in the audience with each other—knowing there's potential for all of that keeps me from wanting to sell all my equipment and do something else."