Plumbers try installing a fountainhead
Loose-knit Midtown group Command Collective aims to enlighten with homegrown electronic music
For the few patrons who happened to find themselves in Midtown’s now-shuttered Cafe Paris one quiet night in 1998, Donald Bell was a sight to behold. Calling himself “Chachi Jones,” the California State University, Sacramento, literature major lugged his entire computer setup (with its tower CPU) into the tiny jazz dive and then proceeded to bend over his keyboard and emit an assault of bass lines and beats that he sampled from his bass guitar and thrift-store-bought records.
Bell’s first show was both a liberating and a sobering experience. He realized he could be an agile live performer with his electronics, but the venue’s owner at the time told the musician he’d never play under his roof again.
Bell took that rejection as a sign that performing electronic music in Sacramento was going to be a challenge. That is why he and three other like-minded artists banded together to form Command Collective with the goal of making an impact on the zeitgeist of a town that gave the world acts like Cake and Tesla but that had no clue about what to do with the more progressive art form of electronica.
The 2-year-old group is made up of Bell, Fruitbat, Dusty Brown and Tycho, each a bedroom-studio musician who fled the suburbs to get cultured in exotic-looking Midtown. The Collective is now trying to make electronic music that is not spun by a DJ more appreciated in the old government town through the Collective’s local showcases. Its Saturday gig at downtown’s Espresso Metro will be its fifth test of how many new ears it can reach.
Bell argued that Sacramento’s music scene is at a crossroads. “We’re totally in this crossover phase in the city, where Sac pop will be superceded by something bigger,” the 25-year-old Web designer said while sitting in his apartment’s studio room. “If I could have any hand in broadening how people perceive the music scene in Sacramento, then I’ll feel good about myself.” He hopes more Sacramentans gradually will accept electronic music, much like in San Francisco, where many in the Collective often get open-arms receptions.
Fruitbat, or Evan Schneider, and Brown both have garnered a sizable fan base in the Bay Area throughout their seven years of performing. Last January, they joined a Sacramento-only showcase of electronica artists and DJs at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge, where, by Brown’s estimate, more than 450 people showed up.
“When San Francisco people say, ‘Oh, electronic music by people from out of town?’ swarms of them will come to hear,” Brown, 23, remarked. “And it’s just heartbreaking to contrast that with Sacramento.” Brown recalled that he played a show at Sacramento’s Club Elements the night after the DNA Lounge show, to just a handful of spectators. Schneider, 27, pointed to his living-room wall, covered with dozens of fliers for local shows that he either performed in or promoted, and lamented, “All of this just passed under Sacramento on the underground tip.”
The Collective formed when Bell and his friend Scott Hansen, a.k.a. Tycho, decided to connect with other electronic musicians who were scattered throughout Sacramento and felt alienated from the city’s DJ-centric rave and jungle techno scenes. Bell often found himself playing between folk acts and Pink Floyd cover bands during open-mic nights at the Capitol Garage, while Brown was shunned by many ravers who were uncomfortable with a non-DJ performer.
“The Collective is like a mother support group for us because we’d play these shows with punk bands and electronic groups with fans who couldn’t relate to us,” Brown recalled. Thanks to their pooling of resources and connections to many venues, the Collective eventually performed to crowds of 20 to 60 people at Capitol Garage, Club Elements and Espresso Metro. The group’s Web site and concert fliers are signified by Hansen’s psychedelic, 1970s supergraphics-style designs that are meant to appeal to strangers’ curiosities. “With my artwork, I basically don’t want people to understand what it is about,” Hansen, 26, remarked. “They’ll have to come to the shows to find out.”
Bell senses that being part of a creative wellspring in a specific region is now the most efficient way of catching the attention of prestigious record labels. “Cold-mailing your demos to labels is a joke. … There are so many people sending mediocre work to them,” he said. “It’s better to be recognized as being part of a certain scene.” His favorite model is the Tigerbeat6 Posse, a circle of Bay Area artists such as Kid 606, Lesser, and Blectum From Blechdom, who are credited for injecting a do-it-yourself punk spirit into electronica with the music they released on the Oakland-based Tigerbeat6 label. Everyone in the Collective either self-released demo CDs for promotion and gig merchandise or put out work on small labels like Crunch Pod Media and Lunatic Works. Hansen and Brown each gained commercial and critical success this past year, as the former had a No. 1 hit on MP3.com’s electronica chart, and the latter won the first Sammie in the new electronica category.
According to Bell, the increasingly popular practice of buying cheap software and audio hardware and making electronic music is much like plugging in a Fender guitar in your parents’ garage. “It’s very democratic, and it’s the closest thing we’ve got to folk music,” he said. Schneider contends that electronic music is just as challenging to compose as music in any acoustic genre. “It’s never easy to carve a mandolin out of a tree,” he said. “There’s just as much trouble in making something out of an electrical device, in our time.”
This folkie spirit is like a single light beam that shines through the Collective’s glass prism and then breaks apart into a rainbow of different ideas about what electronic music could be like. As Chachi Jones, Bell aims to prick listeners’ ears with “misfired” noises produced by children’s audio toys, like the Speak & Spell he short-circuited at home. Then, he accompanies those with synthesizer melodies that drift like ghosts, and beats like fists. Fruitbat (Schneider is a nocturnal vegetarian, you see), approaches music like a bioengineer poking around in a petri dish to mate together the various beasts of dub reggae, industrial noise, hip-hop and jungle techno. Brown seeks to keep audiences’ feet from landing with his symphony of moody jazz organ melodies and ecstatic breakbeats. On the other hand, Tycho seeks to relax with his haze of childlike keyboard melodies and laid-back beats that vaguely recall Boards of Canada.
Translating such studio concoctions into live performance has always been a challenge for electronic musicians. Some artists simply load all of their work into their laptops and sit behind their monitors to click sound files. Others bring nearly their entire studio on stage with banks of keyboards and sequencers to recreate every song from scratch.
Bell and Hansen both agree that electronic music is usually a bore to witness live, so they employ video imagery on big screens behind them, as they hunch over their laptops. “Electronic music is like a blank canvas that can give so many messages to different people,” Hansen observed. “But I want to convey much more than the song itself.” At shows, the graphic designer often plays videos filled with his angular, monochromatic portraits of women and children. Bell insists that electronic shows should never be compared with any rock performance. “The way we make music is like crafting a film … in refining every minute detail,” he remarked. “Asking us to put on a live show is like asking to see Apocalypse Now be re-filmed in one take.”
Brown mentioned his sensitivity toward the audience while playing keyboards—he’ll change his set list whenever the audience gets restless. His sister and frequent collaborator, Jessica, seems to strike a chord in Sacramentans with her operatically trained voice. “For some reason, people here are very attracted to singers … which is why people are always asking me if my sister is singing at my gig,” he said.
Given the finicky nature of Sacramento’s music tastes, the Collective is sometimes uncertain about its future. Post-techno duo Park Avenue Music recently left the Collective in frustration about what it believes is the city’s incorrigible lack of interest in electronica, to focus on more open-minded communities.
“I often think that the [local] fan base will hit a plateau at some point, where you can’t get any more people to see you,” Brown said. He argued that, in general, Sacramento’s preferences are determined by corporate tastemakers, so if MTV and Top-10 radio play more electronic music, more townsfolk will flock to local electronic shows.
Even if the Collective does not sell out Arco Arena a decade from now, the artists at least want to bury one pet peeve. “The popular misconception of electronic musicians is that they are all pasty-faced white kids who sit in front of their computers all day,” Bell quipped.
“That’s off-base because big hip-hop producers, like Dr. Dre and Timbaland, are doing the same thing!” he added. “If you strip away all of their multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns with the hired strippers and the [champagne], they’re really all electronic-music geeks.”