Mechanical Vodou

Making the machines come alive

"We really wanted to revolt against conventional music, against things that had a real flow. We wanted to take the template of dance music and see what new directions we could go with it," explains Josh Kay, who along with Romulo Del Castillo make up the Miami electronic outfit Phoenecia. Sitting in his meticulously arranged bedroom with Indian sitar music playing softly in the background, Kay seems an unlikely aural guerrilla. In fact with his close-cropped dark hair, cargo pants, T-shirt, and bare feet, the 26-year-old Kay seems the model of laid-back propriety. That facade, however, masks a mind working overtime. "Back in '94 I had been making trance, which is incredibly mechanical," he continues. "It's all based around the metronome. It's always focused on keeping people dancing, on getting their heart rate up to 120 bpm [beats per minute]. So I started thinking: What else can we do? We began messing around with different time signatures, different hi-hat patterns, just trying to screw with the music to see if we could get the machine to break."

Getting the machine to break is a good way of describing Phoenecia's approach to music; skittering beats and frenzied, buzzing pulses often sound like computers screaming out in alternating jags of ecstasy and pain, as if they were trying to break free of their mechanical shells. "I guess that's why people call us experimental electronica," Kay says with a laugh. "Although in the greater scope of things, it's not really that experimental. Fifty years ago people were doing much more experimental work with electronic music."

Phoenecia is only one of the many groups in a burgeoning electronic scene in Miami, one that stands in stark contrast to the slick, commercial strains of clubland. Two decades after the birth of hip-hop, a generation has grown up fully immersed in DJ culture, and you can hear the results in this explosion of activity. At the forefront is Phoenecia's own record label Schematic, which has issued eight twelve-inch singles and a CD compilation Ischemic Folks, along with another Miami pioneer, Seven, and his own prolific label, Chocolate Industries. Directly inspired by their example are a wealth of newer startups like Steven Castro's Beta Bodega label, and dozens more DJs -- from young college students such as Edgar Farinas (a.k.a. Push Button Objects) to veteran South Florida figure Ed Bobb -- all quietly entrenched in their home studios in front of their computers.

Phoenecia makes the machines come alive
Brett Sokol
Phoenecia makes the machines come alive
No need to kiss his ring: Miami's godfather of experimentalism, Ed Bobb
Brett Sokol
No need to kiss his ring: Miami's godfather of experimentalism, Ed Bobb

It's hardly a Miami-only phenomenon, though. Virtually every city in America (and thanks to the Internet, most small towns as well) has a cast of electronica avant-gardists, all working in a postrave vein, drawing on the examples of British oddballs such as Aphex Twin or Autechre. Miami's unique contribution to the movement, which some have termed "idm" (intelligent dance music), is to draw upon the rich reservoir of bass and electro that has been this city's enduring urban soundtrack. Listen to any record from Push Button Objects (which has releases on both Schematic and Chocolate Industries, as well as on several British labels) and beneath the tripped-out breaks, you can hear the telltale imprint of Afrika Bambaataa. Describing this sound, Seven says matter-of-factly: "You put old Luke records in a blender and you come up with Phoenecia."

The resiliency of electro and bass is rooted in more than just a funky feel. It is their stylistic elasticity that provides the major draw; although they may be byways off hip-hop, electro in particular remains refreshingly free of that genre's now-claustrophobic aesthetic strictures. Rather than worrying about hip-hop's imagination-stifling quest to "keep it real," electro sets its sights on nothing less than the search for the perfect beat.

It's that sense of freedom that attracted Phoenecia. Previously Kay and Del Castillo had been recording under the name Soul Oddity, garnering enough attention to sign with the Astralwerks label (currently home to Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers) and release an album in 1996. It was an unhappy marriage.

"We were signed by an A&R guy who really messed with our heads and tried to mold us into something else. He wanted breakdowns and snare rolls in our songs," Kay says, referring to the standard crowd-pleasing elements of trance. "We would give him finished songs and he'd say, 'Can you slow this one down? Can you speed this one up?' When we presented the first four songs for the second album to our A&R guy, he called it 'soulless.'" Shaking his head at the memory, Kay adds, "We'd already started our own label, Schematic, so we decided to put the music out ourselves."

Before that happened, however, Warp (the premier British label for left-field electronica) heard a tape of those songs and offered to issue them. The resulting release gave Kay and Del Castillo more attention than Astralwerks ever did, from tours of Europe to a recent show in New York City with more than 1200 people screaming along to their music. Just as important for the international hiposie, they've helped shine the spotlight on Miami.

"People ask me all the time, 'How is it that Chocolate Industries, Schematic, and all these other labels are springing up here? Why Miami?'" Kay says. "As Phoenecia we took this bass and electro sound and really stretched it out. It forced a lot of electro kids who've grown up here into the future. But I can't take all the credit. It's the culture, too. Look at the stuff that's been big here -- 2 Live Crew, all the freestylers. You turn on the radio in Miami, you're not going to hear guitar music." He pauses, and then adds, "Of course there could be something in the water."

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