Courting the mainstream

Martin Birke wants to make avant-garde electronic music—and he wants you to like it

That’s Martin Birke in the corner (all four of them) with Daniel Panasenko holding the Chapman Stick and Steve Sullivan on the guitar.

That’s Martin Birke in the corner (all four of them) with Daniel Panasenko holding the Chapman Stick and Steve Sullivan on the guitar.

The corner of 18th Street and Capitol Avenue was unusually vibrant for a Wednesday night. A man in a nearby Ford Mustang convertible blasted Foreigner’s “Double Vision.” A black Hummer cruised slowly through the intersection, the hip-hop bass from its stereo reverberating in the air, while parking valets sprinted down the darkening corridors of 18th Street. Young women with designer purses tucked under their arms stood outside a restaurant bursting with customers, where a couple in the throes of some turmoil shared a gentle hug, and the musky scent of new yuppies saturated the air. Martin Birke watched the scene impassively, dressed rather anonymously in a black T-shirt and black pants. He wants this audience.

Birke lit a cigarette—what he called his “last bad habit”—adjusted his eyeglasses and sat back in his chair, clearly a veteran of the interview process. The 37-year-old electronic musician has spent 14 years bumping around the tumultuous music business as a songwriter. He’s had his share of betrayal and has flirted with success. Birke co-founded electro-pop group Casualty Park and co-wrote four albums with the electro-acoustic improvisational group Sandbox Trio. He’s also composed various single releases and collaborations, including some music for Joe Carnahan’s Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Most recently, Birke has been a recording artist on the Greek industrial-rock label Cyberdelia Records and with German company Frank Mark Arts, touring throughout Europe.

Since his return stateside, Birke has been baffled by the lack of attention given to electronic music in America, especially considering the genre’s popularity in Europe. “Electronic-based music is so much more absorbed over there,” Birke said. “They’re more liberal and less corporate.”

Although electronic music has remained largely underground in the United States, Birke hopes to change that with his new project, Genre Peak, also featuring Daniel Panasenko and Steve Sullivan. “I’d like to wake up at least the local area, if not America, [to the idea] that there’s really cool electronic groove music out there that’s not getting attention because of all these schlocky rock bands,” Birke said, citing Blink-182 as a particular irritant.

A polished self-promoter, Birke counts art-rock pioneers Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Yes among his early influences and adds that current influences, like Massive Attack, Recoil and Curve, “are signed to major labels, but you’ll rarely, if ever, hear them on American radio.”

“I admire bands like Massive Attack that are able to get onto Virgin Records,” he said. “They’re smart enough to get Sinead O’Connor and other famous people on their albums. But they’re doing very artistic, very abstract, arranged electronic music. And these are a handful of bands that are squeaking through and getting the attention of the major labels. And that’s where I want to be.”

Birke envisions his music as crossover, something that transcends the stereotype that genres like techno, trip-hop, trance and electronica appeal only to the DJ dance-club scene, where performance is irrelevant. Although Birke prefers the studio, he is thinking about live performances. “I have keyboard samplers, a body suit of samplers, a Chapman Stick player with an amazing rig,” Birke explained. “So, we’re trying to make electronic music more visual, almost like performance art—unlike someone like Kraftwerk behind their laptops. I’m definitely exploring up-tempo music [with Genre Peak].”

Birke’s Web site, at, features links and forums about other electronic artists he hopes people will explore. “The stuff I’m into is reaching hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, and there’s obviously a fan base for it in America, but for some reason American major labels are scared to death to put out stuff like this.”

Lighting another cigarette, Birke paused to scan the bubbling crowd at the Midtown intersection. “To me, that’s the only point of doing music,” he concluded. “Unless you’re trying to do something new and different, why bother?”