New Songs, Old Beats

Synthcore, retro-electro, tech-pop, nouveau-disco, the new new wave, electroclash. Call it what you will, there's a fresh sound percolating in the dance underground, one that builds on the Luddite beat that is techno, draws from the synthetic sounds popularized by such groups as Human League in the '80s and wraps it all together with a flamboyant touch of performance art.

Most pop fans have never heard of artists such as Peaches, the foul-mouthed and campy Canadian whose Casio beats could whip even the most die-hard couch potato into a dance frenzy, or Fischerspooner, the two-man band from New York whose live shows involve elaborate costumes, pyrotechnics, wind machines and gargantuan videos.

But to a growing community of dissatisfied indie rock and dance fans, such artists provide a welcome reprieve from what has become an increasingly static musical universe.

"People are getting tired of seeing a DJ play records," says Felix Da Housecat, the Chicago mix master and electroclash pioneer who was tabbed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of 10 artists to watch this year.

After 15 years as a DJ specializing in house music, the 30-year-old "got bored with it" a few years ago and began adding '80s electronics and vocals to the mix. "I just wanted to make normal songs."

Songs, as in verse-chorus-verse. Songs, as in people actually singing. But songs that can still pack a dance floor till the disco ball stops spinning and the lights are turned up.

"It's some of the best music I've heard in 20 years," says Larry Tee, a 42-year-old DJ and club promoter from New York who is preaching the gospel of electroclash with the fervor of a fresh convert.

"House, trance, international club pop, trip-hop--they were boring me to tears. I just couldn't play what was out there anymore," says Tee, who used to spin dance music in clubs but now plays only electroclash.

Last fall in New York, he coordinated the Electroclash Festival, a showcase that featured 30 bands, including Peaches, Fischerspooner and lesser-known acts such as WIT, a sexy girl duo whose rendition of the Cars' "Just What I Needed" drove the crowd wild.

This year, Tee is planning a second festival as well as a tour that will travel to seven cities, including Los Angeles, this fall. Peaches, Chicks on Speed, Soviet, WIT, Tracy and the Plastics, and two L.A. bands--Mount Sims and Dirty Sanchez--are booked to perform when the Electroclash 2002 tour stops here.

L.A.-based Emperor Norton Records is one of the strongholds for electroclash. The label is best known for its cinematic easy-listening acts like Fantastic Plastic Machine. But, sensing that scene was burning out, Emperor President Steve Pross started signing electro acts in 1999, beginning with Ladytron--a Liverpool band that was described in England's New Musical Express as "art terrorist chic meets Commes des Garcons catwalk show."

The label's roster includes Miss Kittin, a French siren who performs in a rubber nurse's uniform and whose ooh-la-la sing-speak appears on records by three other recently signed Emperor Norton acts: Felix Da Housecat, Golden Boy and the Hacker.

"What attracted me to this kind of music is that it's artist- and song-based," Pross says. "It's a style of music that can be played in clubs, but you don't have to like dance music to enjoy it."

Electroclash has its roots in techno, but is influenced by synth-heavy '80s acts like Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, New Order and Human League. Like the many DJs in the '90s who sampled records from the '70s, the younger retro electro artists are pulling from the music they grew up with.

"All the artists that are involved in electroclash are all nearly 30, and we are just trying to mix techno music and '80s stuff--the first music we ever heard," says the Hacker, a.k.a. Michel Amato, a 29-year-old Frenchman who records and performs with Miss Kittin.

Amato began fusing the two types of music five years ago, but it wasn't until 1999 that this emerging genre started getting underground attention, and only last year that it was slapped with the electroclash label. Although giving the genre a name might make the records easier to find in record stores, which currently place them in the existing indie rock, techno, house and electronic bins, most artists reject the name "electroclash."

Adult, a highly regarded minimalist electro band from Detroit, has "had a subconscious resistance [to the term] since the beginning," says Adam Miller, the husband half of this husband-and-wife duo.

Miller, 31, and Nicola Kuperus, 27, have been creating "the forgotten sounds of tomorrow" since 1997. They object to the term electroclash because they don't want to be lumped in with a genre they see as gimmicky and faddish.

When they performed at last year's Electroclash festival, they were disappointed to follow a woman who did a "Flashdance" routine, stripping off her top and pouring water on herself.

"It would be like somebody putting on a punk rock festival, but in between each band you have a clown--the Clash goes on, then it cuts to a bunch of midgets getting out of a beat-up car, and then the Dead Kennedys. We have a sense of humor, but we're very serious about our music," says Miller, who declined an invitation to participate in this year's festival.

Kuperus adds, "When you're just a band who wants to play music to give people a different choice in the horrible music scene that's out there, it's just really frustrating."

But to bands like Fischerspooner, whose two members--Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer--met at the Art Institute of Chicago in the '90s, performance is precisely the point.

"Because we're not traditional starry-eyed musicians who are desperate for a pop carer, we sort of manhandle the pop show. We build it up and break it down and let things fall apart," Fischer says. " 'Over the top is never enough' is sort of the mentality."

None of the music in Fischerspooner's live performances is live. The vocals are lip-synced and the music is canned to free up the duo for ever more grandiose stage shows that include backup dancers, smoke machines, special effects and improv.

Spooner is known to grab cameras from people in the audience and snap their pictures. He once stopped a song midway through to question a woman in the front row about why she was yawning.

With such spectacles to write about, it's no wonder that there is growing media attention to the sound--from New York and London to Paris and Munich.

British magazines like the Face and New Musical Express have devoted lots of ink to the burgeoning scene, and Rolling Stone, Spin and other U.S. publications are beginning to review some records and profile artists in the genre.

But even with a growing number of electro artists and an ever-broadening fan base, electroclash is mostly a media phenom at present.

"Movement is too strong a word," says Emperor Norton Records' Pross. "It's a set of people with similar influences that are connecting all around the world."

As with everything that's hyped to the hills, whether this "set of people" will appeal to a mainstream audience remains to be seen.

The performance art element might prevent the genre from ever attracting the type of following that translates into platinum record sales or even major-label contracts.

The only bands that have drawn that kind of attention are the Faint, a Nebraska band that was the subject of a major label bidding war but decided to stay with the indie label Saddle Creek; Peaches, whose single "Set it Off" was licensed to Sony Europe; and Fischerspooner, which just signed a $2-million deal with Ministry of Sound, a label with a large presence in the United Kingdom.

"Personally, I don't see electro music crossing over to the mainstream," Pross says. "In America, most genres of music don't do that. What happens is some artist will transcend the genre, but I don't think the genre itself will become mainstream in this country."

But Tee, who has a lot of money invested in making electroclash the Next Big Thing, sees things differently. "One of my jobs is to make sure it goes mainstream," he says, "so that we have another option in the next 10 years other than lame and miserable and worse."

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By Mixing and Matching Styles, They've Got the Retro Beat

Here are four entry points to electroclash:

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The Faint's "Danse Macabre," Saddle Creek (2001). The bridge between rock and electronica, this Nebraska four-piece outfit uses subtle guitar and drum parts to fill out its synth-driven sound.

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Fischerspooner's "#1," FS Studios/Ministry of Sound (2002). The soft, simple and compelling melodies this New York duo layers over robotic but dance-y beats are equally enjoyable in a club or in a living room, but be sure to catch the band live. Wind machines, videos, elaborate costumes and backup dancers make for a memorable show.

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Felix Da Housecat's "Kittenz and Thee Glitz," Emperor Norton (2002). You can take the DJ out of the house, but you can't take the house out of this DJ. His Chicago house music roots are still very much in evidence in funky, complex and club-friendly mixes overdubbed with the heavily accented sing-speak of French chanteuse Miss Kittin.

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Peaches' "The Teaches of Peaches," Kitty-Yo (2000). This Canadian smart aleck has a dirty mind and an even fouler mouth, but her too-naughty-for-radio lyrics, rapped over songs that are equal parts punk, rap and disco, are so catchy that listeners won't want to miss a beat.

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Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

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