Phoenecia makes the machines come alive
Phoenecia makes the machines come alive
Brett Sokol

Mechanical Vodou

"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.

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."

"I just had this sense of frustration. I was living in Miami, and I couldn't hear the kind of music I wanted to listen to," says Seven on the origins of Chocolate Industries in 1995. "I wanted to hear Aphex Twin and A Tribe Called Quest together. Nobody in Miami was doing that. In fact there weren't too many people that dug that kind of music in America then, period." Credited as being one of the first promoters to present jungle DJs to Miami, Seven has carried that groundbreaking approach to his label's output as well. The singles it has released from local artist Guineo, as well as from German drum and bass tricksters Funkstörung, have carved out a distinctive sound for Chocolate Industries. Indeed an abstract hip-hop single from Brooklyn's East Flatbush Project caused such a ruckus that it inspired an entire album of creative remixes from figures as disparate as Britain's Squarepusher and Miami's own turntablist extraordinaire DJ Craze. But Seven isn't necessarily comfortable with the growing level of attention.

"When Edgar [Push Button Objects] and I played in Munich [Germany], we had people who drove for hours to come see us! It was very flattering, but also overwhelming," Seven says. "We get stared at a lot. People go, 'Oh, so that's what you look like. We thought you'd look like computer geeks carrying around little laptops.'"

"Every five years or so, you hear about people starting the Miami music scene, whether it's Nuclear Valdez or the Mavericks," says composer Ed Bobb with a touch of controlled anger creeping into his voice. "Not a music scene, but the music scene. People don't seem to realize that music scenes with international significance have always existed in Miami. It's just a matter of ignorance. Unless people see a high-profile artist like Luther Campbell or Gloria Estefan, they think nothing is happening. Since there have been electronic instruments available on the mass market, there has been electronic music in South Florida."

Bobb could just as easily be speaking about his own life. Called "the godfather of Miami experimentalism" by one local figure, Bobb's personal timeline is a veritable history of Miami's bohemian currents. From being maced and tear-gassed by police as a high school senior during the protests surrounding the 1972 Republican National Convention on Miami Beach, to being an active member of the punk world in the late '70s and early '80s, he's had a finger in a bewildering array of projects. Sitting in his downtown apartment, the 45-year-old Bobb speaks slowly and chooses his words carefully. His reserved demeanor intensifies the aura of a mad scientist's lair; his living room is piled with vintage Moog synthesizers and ancient television sets turned on their side, all competing for space with stacks of records and CDs.

"I was working in a closed system for many years. I discovered musique concréte when I was eight," Bobb recalls, referring to the cut-and-paste sampling technique first pioneered by postwar composers such as Stockhausen. "This was precassette days. My father bought me a little reel-to-reel tape recorder, and just by recording sounds, playing with the pitch control, cutting up the reels, and then putting it back together with Scotch tape, I discovered concréte. I didn't know people had been doing that since the '40s," he says with a grin. "When I was sixteen, I remember listening to the Beatles' White Album and hearing John and Yoko's 'Revolution 9.' I didn't realize then how nonoriginal it was, but at the time, it really turned me around to discovering I wasn't alone, that other people were doing the same thing."

Chuckling to himself, Bobb recalls the seminotorious punk outfit Early Warning System, for which he briefly played keyboards in 1980. "I was kicked out for being too weird," he says, raising an eyebrow. "Too weird for a punk band. I wouldn't play anything the same way twice; it was always juxtaposed against the grain of what the rest of the band was doing." He pauses and says, beaming: "It was wonderful!" That mischievous spirit was given full rein in the Happiness Boys, a project with Stephen Nester that released two records' worth of disturbing synth squiggles and eerie tribal rhythms in 1983 and 1985. "The pattern with electronic music at that time was to say 'Yes, we have a drum machine, but we want to make it sound like actual drums. Yes we have a synthesizer, but we want it to emulate sweet strings.' Our approach was the opposite. We were interested in machines that sounded like machines. The Belgian press dubbed our music 'machine vodou,'" he says. Infused with that forward-thinking spirit, the Happiness Boys' music still sounds utterly fresh, making its way into the collections of both Seven (who was amazed to actually meet Bobb in the flesh) and British outfit Autechre (whose members were more amazed to learn he was in Miami).

In the years since, Bobb has been engaged in various projects, from working with noise guru Rat Bastard to heading up the lolling funk crew Satellite Lounge, as well as teaching classes in music and film at Miami-Dade Community College and the Alliance Independent Film Project. The present burst of energy emanating from Miami's younger crop of avant-gardists has inspired him to return to recording for a larger audience. Several of his soundscapes are slated for release on Beta Bodega. You can also catch his inventive video work at Exedra, a Wednesday evening event at Coral Gables' Meza gallerycafé, which stands as one of the area's few live venues for the electronic underground.

In the Plex design-firm office on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, owner Rich Garrido calmly attends to a computer screen. In contrast his partner Steve Castro is a whirl of activity, spinning records and talking to customers. The Plex serves as the origin for many of the more visually exciting club and rave flyers in Miami; as a new retail outlet for the more daring electronic records that fall between the cracks of the Beach's dance stores; and as ground zero for Castro's Beta Bodega record label.

Castro, a transplanted New Yorker of Costa Rican and Colombian descent, begins intensely explaining the label's name: "The bodega is your corner store, and in urban areas, you'll find a lot more bodegas than Publixes. It's the center, the lifeline, the most dynamic area of the block. You go there to get milk, to get blunts. Every aspect of urban life is there, from drug deals to guys playing dominoes to religious ministering. The idea of the Beta Bodega is to create a bodega set fifteen years down the road, with all the sounds and music you'll hear in the future. This is the recorded version." He continues with a decisive thrust of his head: "And experimental electronic music is the music of the future.... It includes classical, concréte, as well as the 808 and the 303 [small studio devices that are the building blocks for much of dance music]. Hip-hop, techno, it's all in there."

What makes Castro's label particularly notable is not just its artist roster (which includes Push Button Objects, Phoenecia's Romulo Del Castillo, Edward Bobb, and Minnesota idm mainstay Jake Mandell), but its overt politics. As a predominantly instrumental medium, electronica -- like jazz -- is most commonly a vehicle for impressionistic expression, not explicitly political statements or full-frontal assaults on the state. A clue to Castro's maverick approach lies in the first name he rattles off as an influence: Charles Mingus -- the outspoken jazz bassist who never shied from tackling issues of racism and imperialism in his work. A second, more overt clue comes on the inner sleeve of 2K, Beta Bodega's first release. "Printed at the Guerrilla Graphics Training Camp at Plex, 90 miles off the coast of Cuba," Castro reads aloud, smiling. The line may be tongue-in-cheek, but Castro's sentiment isn't. "I'm not a musician, I'm a graphic artist," he says. "So I'm coming with a different perspective. This isn't dance-floor music; it's music for you to sit down and ponder, and I hope as you do that, you'll also think about the message we're trying to bring."

On 2K the message is Panama, and the record's sleeve carries an extensive essay Castro has written on the hypocrisy he sees in the United States's relationship with that nation. "The guys we replaced Noriega with were also drug smugglers; drugs had nothing to do with the invasion of Panama. It's about holding onto the canal and American military bases."

Next up is a record addressing the crisis in Colombia. "The government of Colombia has been denying that these paramilitary death squads even exist. They're killing tons of people," he says with disgust. "Meanwhile everything you read about the FARC [the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is warped and manipulated by the time it gets to the newspapers here."

Castro concedes injecting this type of social consciousness into Miami is something of an uphill battle. Still he's encouraged by what he sees developing musically in Latin America. "In South America the cool kids -- the rebels -- are totally anti-salsa. Anything that goes against the grain, against what their parents listen to, is hot. At first that was Metallica, rock and roll. But now electronic music is starting to seep in. Plastikman just played Venezuela, all the Synewave guys from New York just played Costa Rica. There's more interesting techno going down to Latin America right now than to Miami."

Silent until this point, the Plex's Rich Garrido chimes in: "Here in Miami, you've got a generation of kids listening to their parents tell them how good the other country was. They're holding on to what their parents feed them. But Seven, Schematic, and us -- we've all been contributing little by little to change things. It's all about patience."

Thanks to the Winter Music Conference, Miami has built an international reputation as a haven for progressive DJ culture. Yet as Miami's electronic experimentalists continue to develop and draw worldwide attention, their music remains banished from almost all the dance clubs in South Florida. Aside from one show on WVUM-FM (90.5) (Isis Masoud's Electric Kingdom, Monday and Friday nights at 10:00 p.m.), you won't hear it anywhere on your radio dial either.

Seven is philosophical about the divide between Miami's electronic underground and the gleaming portrait of Miami clubland presented to the world. "A lot of the DJs who play in those clubs are actually pretty smart, but they're not thinking about the long-term meaning of their music. It's for now," he says. "It's meant for a totally different market: people who want to go out, have a drink, have a good time, and then go home. The music is just part of a night out. For our audience the music doesn't disappear when they go home. It's a part of their entire life, rather than just their nightlife."


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