The final countdown
With its latest album, the electronica project Genre Peak contemplates its end
When Martin Birke blindly sent off a demo to Steve Jansen, a founding member of the English new wave band Japan, he couldn’t believe it when Jansen actually responded. Not only that, Jansen replied with his own version of the track.
Birke kept up the momentum, emailing demos to more of his musical heroes and, again and again, receiving positive feedback from just about everyone.
“I’m always surprised when someone I grew up listening to wants to work with me,” Birke says. “Not that I don’t have any confidence in myself. It’s just such an oversaturated market, such an oversaturated industry.”
The result of all that digital communication is Your Sleekest Engine, Birke’s fourth full-length album with his recording project Genre Peak, which he modeled after Massive Attack. That means lots of collaborators and guest musicians—about 20 people have directly worked on a Genre Peak record since its inception 10 years ago—as well as an often dark, experimental electronica style. Birke, electronic percussionist, composer and sometimes singer, and producer Christopher Scott Cooper are the only constants.
Birke’s approach to songwriting is somewhat iconoclastic. And European.
“I overintellectualize music,” Birke says. “I don’t listen to radio. I have very extreme taste in music that isn’t popular in the U.S. at all.”
His tastes—and his music’s success—are much more rooted in the United Kingdom, specifically. Still, a couple of songs on Your Sleekest Engine demonstrate a pop sensibility—more so than much of Genre Peak’s other, more ambient work—along with forays into jazz, funk and industrial sounds.
Over the course of two years, Birke brought on Jansen, Jon Hassell (Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel), Richard Barbieri (Japan), Matt Malley (Counting Crows), Lesley Braden (Fast Arrow), Mick Karn (Japan) and others to form Your Sleekest Engine. The toughest part? Surprisingly, not convincing so many big names to join the effort, rather, the mixing, since everyone recorded in different studios at different sample rates.
Birke thinks this might be Genre Peak’s greatest work, and perhaps, its finale. It’d be tough to top, and Birke’s interested in diving further into film scores to pay the bills. But first, the record-release show takes place on Saturday, March 26, at Shine. It’s the first live band Birke has assembled for Genre Peak that actually sounds like Genre Peak. But because of the challenge—and the fact that bandmates are in their 40s or 50s with kids—March 26 might also mark the group’s one and only show.
“It’s not like a guitar band or a garage band,” Birke says. “It’s a lot harder to do this stuff live and retain some semblance of the original recording.”
If this is all sounding a little pretentious, be assured that Birke is no egomaniac. Collaborating with people and seeing how the music changes beyond his control is the whole point of Genre Peak.
“The fun part is not knowing what the other person is gonna bring,” he says. “If I did everything myself and produced everything myself, every song would pretty much sound the same.”
And there’s definitely no fun in that.