Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi WE, the People

By Brendan Doherty

APRIL 13, 1998: 

New York Turntablists Spin Revolution

When bands come to town, they often sing songs of their homeland. At times, they mean very little outside of their context. Sometimes those songs' detail may not resonate, but the themes are universal and the audience can feel it. Other times, artists and their songs manage to provide contrast with the listener's context, illuminating the world as with a black light--details of landscape, heart and mind are seen as new. The latter is the case with New York turntable trio, We, and their trip to the big dirt out West.

Veterans of New York sound-art installations, remixes of David Byrne, Free Kitten and Medeski Martin and Wood records, the members of We--DJ Olive (Gregor Asch), Once 11 (Ignacio Platas) and Lloop (Rich Panciera)--are three of the 50 most important electrons that twiddle and tweak the sounds fantastic. But as Lloop concedes, it is a music that is born of an urban context.

"I've spent 85 percent of my life in the urban areas of Philly and New York," Lloop says, while taking a break from remixing the Silver Apples. "It's true there is an urban influence in lots of this kind of music. It's not concrete, glass and steel as much as isolation from the natural environment, but there are moments where it's soft and pretty. People don't recognize that. Life can be both harsh and relaxing."

The combination of soft scapes and hard dissonance is the characteristic sound of We and a few other turntablists like them. Architects of the "illbient sound," they match subtle soundscapes with dissonant elements, as if the punks were in charge of making the elevator music. Like the blinded observers in Plato's allegory of the cave, even the most masterful musicians, producers and now electronica artists wield murky shadows from the same fire of musical inspiration. Oh, how that fire burns, and oh, how We cast and recast the shadows. On their newest record, As Is, they used junk vinyl from thrift stores and warped it into impressive music.

"We slept under the mixing boards and did the whole thing in three weeks," Lloop says. "We didn't bring any of our records or samples for it. We went to thrift stores and got pop records from Tokyo, polka records and other stuff from the bargain bins and mixed it up with the music that was leftover on tapes in the studio. I think we wanted the challenge of dropping the whole thing all at once, and it worked out."

Much of the music has its roots placed firmly in the past. Older scrap elements fill in and warm the cold sounds of computer-fixed sounds that almost no human could play.

"We're going through a technological revolution," Lloop says. "It's no surprise that David Bowie and others are making and having their records remixed by Electronica artists. I think it's great. It will be in ebb and flow. Music is in a constant process of the status quo looking backwards for fresh blood, fresh inspiration. That's perfectly natural. I'm just glad some of these people who have good skills are being used and getting paid for it."

We, like DJ Shadow and a few others, have brought themselves to the attention of those outside the usual hip-hop and electronic enclaves with their remixing of others' work as well as their own compelling sound textures and song format. But while they play in rock and roll clubs and use rock song format and rock samples, they aren't rock stars. The traditional sit-back-and-stare-at-the-musician-like-he's-television thing doesn't work when the people making the sound are behind banks of computers an turntables. It's like watching someone watch TV.

"It's strange, but I'm like a conga player around a campfire," Lloop says. "Other cultures embrace electronic music but not America. Our culture wants you to be identifiable with your tastes by how you look. Some of the electros are compelled to dress with this hyper-industrial ethic. As a result, here there are more bands with an icon of a disc jockey. What we do is more about the dance floor and the people on it than who's onstage."

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