Dirk Dresselhaus has just woken up from a strange, unsettling slumber, and he sits slumped over the breakfast table, rubbing at his rumpled head. Later, when he recounted the story, he didn't tell us what he was eating. But since he is German, let's imagine that he prods absently at a sausage with his fork. It doesn't matter. Dresselhaus himself can hardly keep his mind on his breakfast, full as it is with disturbing images from the night before: a frog, a tortoise, a knife, an ungodly grafting. The images sprout words and swim through his head like pollywogs testing out their tails. He pushes aside his plate, grabs a pad of paper, and begins to write:
"I had a dream
I cut a frog in half
A turtle too
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To plant the top
Of the tortoise on
The poor frog's legs"
With the night's dream crystallized on paper in front of him, Dresselhaus retires to the studio, sings the words in a slow, lilting voice, and then, with his guitar and notebook computer, proceeds to record the most breathtaking pop song of 2002.
Of course, not many people heard "Frogtoise" because Schneider TM -- as Dresselhaus bills himself, slapping a trademark onto his longstanding nickname simply because "it's such a common name in Germany" -- is not a pop star like Justin Timberlake, Avril Lavigne, or Nelly. A soft-spoken young man with a magic laptop and a penchant for funny sunglasses, Schneider TM may not be a global superstar, but his music is pop perfected. Granted, his digitally spritzed tunes don't sound like the clean-scrubbed ditties of mainstream radio fare. Folding New Wave, indie-rock, and country elements into a highly abstracted brand of electronica, they offer a dizzying swirl of fidgety edits, brushed-silver textures, shimmering acoustic guitars, and vocals fractured six ways from Sunday. You know the fabled green flash shooting from the sun just before it dips below the horizon? Dresselhaus's music is like that in sound looped over and over.
Dresselhaus spent well over a decade playing in obscure indie-rock bands like Hip Young Things and Locust Fudge before starting his solo career. When Hip Young Things imploded in 1997, he bought a drum machine and recorded a spare, beat-driven twelve-inch single; the record's fractured rhythms and quirky acid techno offered a kind of ironic wave goodbye at his previous career. On Schneider TM's 1998 debut Moist, Dresselhaus expanded his range, dabbling in the palette of countrymen like Mouse on Mars -- known for a particularly whimsical brand of electronic post-pop -- while preserving the forward motion of the rhythm section. But before long, Dresselhaus returned to his indie-rock roots as if he were looking up an old flame.
In 2000, collaborating with KPT.michi.gan on the joint Binokular EP, Dresselhaus revisited the Smiths' "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out." "Michael [Beckett, a.k.a. KPT.michi.gan] and I were on tour in '99," recalls Dresselhaus, "and we just had a couple of tapes with us, one with The Queen Is Dead on one side. We hadn't listened to it in about ten years; somehow we'd both sold all our Smiths records, to get rid of a certain period in our lives, maybe." But that song sparked something in the two musicians, who used keening electronics underneath Dresselhaus's striated vocals to translate its teen angst into something stranger and sadder.
The tune, titled "The Light 3000" and rereleased this spring on Schneider TM's 6 Peace EP, is one of those songs that uncovers a kind of long-forgotten wistfulness. As such, it's an aural experience that's unrepeatable: Dresselhaus could make another Smiths recording, a New Order cover, or even a track from Sonic Youth's Sister, and it would be just another song. "The Light 3000" is a singularity, the kind of song on which you can hear pop's possibilities being explored and expanded.
"It's a beautiful song," says Dresselhaus, downplaying his own role in the re-creation. "Such great lyrics! I mean, who is writing these kinds of lyrics nowadays? Nobody would dare, because nobody feels this big love. It's really deep soul music, I think, like Marvin Gaye or something. It's so easy to sing about things you hate, but it's so difficult to sing real love songs. Morrissey is really a hero."
Dresselhaus's heroes are all over Zoomer, Schneider TM's 2002 album. Beneath the sugarcoated glitches and the pixel-crusted rhythms, vocals inspired by Brian Wilson's seventeen-part harmonies glow like heat lamps. "Reality Check" references both Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and the Cure, surely the first time the two have been mentioned in the same place.
"I knew what I wanted to write about, and I started thinking about the Cure," recalls Dresselhaus. "One reference came to the other, like a word game. And when I finished, I thought, 'Oh ho! It's kind of reference pop.'" He insists, though, that the practice isn't "scientific" (a phrase only a German would use). "Sometimes I don't even know I'm doing this -- I'm just a fan of music that saved my life." But he admits that his borrowings aren't always so subconscious. "Did you notice the eight-bar Lou Reed sample, from 'Follow the Leader' on [Reed's album] Rock and Roll Heart?" he asks. "I used it because I wanted him to sue me," he says, almost proudly, "because I'm such a big fan of his work. I thought I might get to meet him that way."
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