Plugging In

Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar

Ask the artists performing on the impressive electronic dance package at the Hollywood Palladium on Friday about their goals, and you get remarkably similar answers:

"Getting people excited," says Brian Transeau, who performs as BT.

"Just play records and have fun," says deejay David Holmes.

Simple enough. But as leading figures in the genre known variously as techno, electronica and electronic dance music, they found that their fairly straightforward goal of fun was turned into a complex, serious pursuit last year by crushing media and music business hype.

"There was all this pressure about, 'You're going to miss the boat,' " says Alex Gifford, one half of the Propellerheads. "And we said, 'Damn it! We didn't start out running for any boats.' "

Which isn't to say that they haven't reaped benefits from the gold rush. Each of these acts, as well as Los Angeles-based Crystal Method, which headlines Friday's show, scored new contracts and increased exposure last year.

Crystal Method is seeing dramatic results. Its debut album, "Las Vegas," released last year by Geffen-distributed Outpost Records, is selling about 10,000 copies a week and has passed the 200,000-copy total. Several tracks from the album have become staples of the sports world, played in hockey arenas and on CBS' Winter Olympics coverage.

England's Propellerheads were the object of a U.S. bidding war before signing with DreamWorks Records last year. Their debut album doesn't come out for another month, but the single "History Repeating," featuring vocals by Shirley Bassey, is already becoming a club and radio favorite. Maryland native BT has not only seen solid sales for his two Warner Bros. albums, but also recently made a deal with Mercury Records for his own label, through which he plans to sign and break emerging acts.

British act Fatboy Slim's "Goin' Out of My Head" has become ubiquitous on alternative radio and, like Crystal Method, in sports contexts. Dubliner Holmes' "Let's Get Killed" earned high critical praise and, with the jaunty track "Don't Die Just Yet," is turning into a radio favorite as well.

"The upside of all the hype last year is that it exposed a lot of Americans to the idea of music created other than by the traditional guitar-rock band," says Transeau. "People are really learning quickly to feel and interpret this music."

Still, these five acts (L.A. deejay Taylor will open the show) are all quite different in terms of sound, philosophy and direction. Friday's show--in a setting and at a time more accommodating to many newcomers than the standard all-night rave--offers a chance to sample a rich, varied palette.

Here's a look at the four new players (Crystal Method was recently profiled in depth by Calendar).


BT: Brian Transeau--known as much for his buoyant enthusiasm in concert as for the lush, melodic flourishes of his music--has been experimenting with electronic music and tape loops since he was 12. But unlike many in this field, he is a real, trained musician with a classical piano background.

"For me it's almost strange to be associated with something called electronica," says Transeau, 27. "What I do is electronic in a final, manipulative stage. But it always starts as organic and human. We did a performance for a TV show in France with me at a grand piano and a seven-piece string section and a tabla and sarod--not a synthesizer in sight!"

Now he's concerned about getting swept into the "hit" mentality of the current pop scene.

"Going back 10 years, bands like R.E.M. were really nurtured by their record companies," he says. "The object is to make great music that evolves and that you can track over the course of five or 10 albums."


PROPELLERHEADS: The London duo's attitude is summed up in its "History Repeating," which scoffs at the notion that electronic dance music is something new. All it is, says Alex Gifford, is the latest hybrid of old things.

In their case it combines the rock roots of Gifford, 33, who in the past played with such English groups as the punk-rooted Stranglers, and Will White, 24, a pure child of hip-hop. The future for the duo lies in new ways to bring the two elements together. Witness two tracks newly recorded for the U.S. version of their album--collaborations with American hip-hop acts De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers.

"They were right into it and said that we should do more stuff together," says Gifford of the hip-hoppers. "To get that reaction from people we consider originators of the style was amazing. This way we can do something that's new to us and new to them, a fresh thing."


FATBOY SLIM: Norman Cook, 34, has just finished his next single, "The Rockefeller Skank." And coming off the international success of "Goin' Out of My Head"--with its sample of the Who's "I Can't Explain"--it's no surprise that this one, too, features prominent rock guitar sounds.

"I'd just been deejaying in Bali and it was a big surf hotel," he says. "So this is my Dick Dale single."

Cook--who's also recorded and remixed under the names Mighty Dub Cats, Freak Power and Pizza Man--insists that he's not merely trying to repeat a hit formula. But he does acknowledge that having had a hit has changed his artistic process.

"It's taken me time to do the new one because I know people are going to listen to it," he says.

What thrills him most, though, is that people are hearing it in very populist contexts.

"That's when my mum gets to hear it and know I'm doing well," he says. "I go, 'I've got quite a reputation as a remixer,' and she goes, 'All right.' But when she hears it on television in adverts and things, then she's impressed."


DAVID HOLMES: The soundscapes of Holmes' "Let's Get Killed," punctuated with dialogue taped on the streets of New York, make for a fascinating travelogue. But Holmes says it's just the first step in an artistic journey full of possibilities.

"I try to change the rules constantly," he says. "I just like concocting the maddest samples with the maddest musicians and try to make sense of it."

The biggest step, though, will likely come after his next album, when he plans to put an actual band together for concerts.

"I'm not ready to perform live yet," says Holmes, still purely a deejay. "The next record, we'll be ready and then we'll go on the road. It does seem very important in America, but I want to take my time and do it properly so it will blow people's minds."

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