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He’s Breaking the Spell of Trance Music

Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer

It’s past midnight at a Hollywood nightclub called Giant, and the thick stage smoke cascading to the dance floor fades away under the stomping feet of the capacity crowd. The entire place is alive with the galloping pulse of progressive house music, and no one is dancing harder than the man up in the spotlight, the musician known simply as BT.

As fans chant his name, the 29-year-old pioneer of trance music bounces in place, and thrusts one finger in the air while his other hand pounds at a keyboard--a pose that suggests the Statue of Liberty on a pogo stick. Through it all, BT wears a blissful smile and seems completely liberated.

But, in fact, the opposite is the case.

You see, BT (short for Brian Transeau) is in search of escape from this music world he helped define. Hoping to present his true musical voice, literally and figuratively, he is moving away from a genre in which performers usually don’t have microphones. His acclaimed new album, “Movement in Still Life,” strays far from the trance genre by mixing a variety of sounds and even vocals, and next month he launches a new tour with--gasp--a rock band in tow.

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This is shocking news from a rave culture hero.

“The dance music publications like to stir the pot--'Trance Defector’ headlines, stuff like that,” BT says. “I have friends making careers out of regurgitating the same idea a thousand times. I’d rather fail at experimentation than prostitute something that I love so much. I’m trying to bring myself out of this box I’ve been framed in, which is ‘the dance music guy.’

“I mean, I love dance music; it’d be a lie to say I didn’t. But it’s a facet, a subset, just part of who I am.”

While it doesn’t compare to, say, the furor of folkie Bob Dylan going electric in 1965, there is some angst involved in a founding father of trance turning to the totems of pop music.

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“On the new album, if you listen to it, trance is hardly there at all, says Raymond Roker, publisher of Urb magazine, which covers underground music. “He’s being artistic. It would be very easy for him to be the trance machine.”

The electronic music revolution predicted a decade ago never arrived in full, but the success of Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim has created avenues of access to the mainstream--and music for film is most decidedly one of them. Moby licensed every song on his 1999 album, “Play,” for use in movies, television and ads to tap audiences that typically would not hear electronic music.

“My big plan,” BT says, “is to put one foot in the world of electronic music and one in film.”

But BT treads into more than those two realms.

His music provided electronic swoon and rush to the Doug Liman film “Go,” but it also accompanies virtual gunfire on a popular video game based on the “Die Hard” movies. His dance music credentials won him those projects, but it was his classical training that came into play when he worked with a 60-piece orchestra to score the upcoming film “Under Suspicion” and when he and Peter Gabriel created the music for Britain’s Millennium Dome celebration to usher in 2000. Gabriel says BT mounts “mesmerizing journeys” with his compositions. “He is not only a virtuoso programmer,” Gabriel says, “but an extremely gifted musician.”

BT will reteam with Gabriel for the singer’s next album, but his first focus will be more films. BT, who sports a boyish smile and a fluffy mop of blond-streaked locks, says it was film scores and classical compositions that wired his creative circuitry, and he is giddy now at the prospect that Hollywood is embracing electronic artists.

“Hollywood has been trying to approximate what we do in the dance community for years instead of getting dance music people involved,” he says. “Sort of faking the funk, if you will. And it’s cool that now they’re giving people like me a chance to actually do stuff.”

He will contribute electronic music (and cameo appearances) to two upcoming films, a remake of “Rollerball,” and “Red Line,” a look at underground car racing. He is most enthusiastic, however, about the “Under Suspicion” score, where he fuses break-beats with romantic strings for the Gene Hackman-Morgan Freeman vehicle scheduled for an October release. “They were, uh, reluctant. They were like: ‘You have a punk rock haircut, you definitely can’t do strings.’ ”

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His Hollywood pursuits prompted BT , who grew up in a small Maryland community, to move last year to a leafy, hillside home in Studio City. While his creative life has seemingly been in perfect tune since then, he says, he has struggled with L.A.'s vast, often impersonal spaces. Raised a Christian and later a student of Buddhism and Taoism, BT exudes a spiritual centeredness. His hardwood floors and white walls are nearly bare to keep the space clear for his meditation, and the bucolic setting of his childhood makes him yearn for a simple life in nature.

“I miss my farm,” he says of his most recent Maryland home, with its cornfield and wooded acres. He rents it out now. “I go back and there’s this family living there, and I just want to go in there and dig in the garden. Drives me crazy.”

Like many of the transplants in Los Angeles, BT claims a love-hate relationship with the sun-washed metropolis. And in one harrowing episode in November, he nearly became a casualty of its urban landscape. The musician took out a classified ad to sell a $10,000 soundboard and arranged a meeting with a prospective buyer. Instead, he was confronted by three armed men who tied him up and apparently mulled killing him before cramming him into a car trunk and fleeing.

The black brace on his broken right foot--suffered while kicking his way out of the trunk--is the only visible trace of the incident. The musician, otherwise buoyant and candid during an interview at his home, becomes somber when the attack is mentioned. “I’m just a country boy,” he says with a faint chuckle. “I had no idea.”

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At age 2, little Brian Transeau became fascinated with the 1920s Steinway piano in his family’s home in Rockville, Md.

“My hands were too small for the piano, and I would get so upset that my parents went out and bought me one of those little Linus-style pianos,” BT recalls. “So I’d sit there and sort of pick out Stevie Wonder songs on it.”

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Three years later, the youngster was playing Rachmaninoff and, three years after that, studying at the Washington Conservatory. But at 12, he found new musical loves.

“I discovered break-dance music and Afrika Bambaataa, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is the infinite sonic palette--screw classical music.’ ”

Viewed as a quirky outsider at school, he found refuge in music. He learned guitar from his Cramps albums, copied the bass patterns of New Order, played drums in a ska band and covered King Crimson songs in another group. He enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but dropped out and mounted a trip to Los Angeles to be discovered. But his music sounded like a short-circuited mess to music industry establishment ears in 1990.

“People were like, ‘Where’s the drummer? What do you do again? Who’s the singer? We sooo don’t get it,’ ” BT says. “Everyone was signing Pearl Jam clone bands at the time, and so I went back to Maryland and lived with my family for a summer.”

Back at home, he cooked up an album with just the gear in his bedroom. Sasha, a British deejay, heard it and flew BT to England, where the young artist got a record contract. Perhaps more momentous, BT discovered rave culture during the trip.

Raves, vast dance parties that are grounded in a tribal vibe and rhythmic electronic music, were an established U.K. subculture by then, but they opened a whole new world to the wide-eyed BT.

“I had never heard English club music, which is really weird because of how it all fit together with what I was doing already. And when I saw 3,000 people, their shirts off, sweating, chanting Sasha’s name . . . I knew I had found my people.”

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By the mid-'90s, BT was a star. “BT has cast a spell on the hearts and dance floors of an entire nation,” was the appraisal of the U.K. music publication Melody Maker.

His 1995 album, “Ima,” became a watershed release on the British dance scene by creating a major new splinter in the genre: the sound that would become known as trance. Epic and sweeping, the music weaved New Age ethos with the throbbing beats of house.

“The reaction was, ‘What the hell is this? Minutes of music with no beats in it--what are people going to do on the dance floor?’ And that was just not happening in what is now called trance or progressive house music. It just felt musically appropriate to me because of the classical and film music I loved.”

While trance spread, BT didn’t linger. His next album, “ESCM,” clearly was an effort to distance himself from trance, and BT says much of trance today no longer casts a spell on him.

“The lowest-common-denominator-sounding trance tracks--with some cheesy top line and then like 140 or 145 beats per minute . . . dude, I can’t deal.”

In a sense, BT also has been an outsider every time he stepped onstage. In a scene dominated by deejays who spin, sample and mix tracks, BT treks to the spotlight with no turntable, no vinyl. “I’m so not a deejay. I’m totally not a deejay at all. I can’t mix a margarita. I have a lot of respect for the craft, but it’s not what I am at all.”

What he is, he says, is a long-frustrated band member who has been living in a deejay world--a musician adept at keyboards and computer consoles as well as guitars. “There’s almost no way to describe how much I miss it,” BT says of playing on stage with a band. “I can’t wait.”


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