Turning the beat around again
A few months after British magazine NME shouted it from the rooftops, singer Jamie Reynolds pulled the rug out from under “nu rave” -- the sly new term surgically attached to his band, Klaxons. Turns out he made it up to get his band attention.
“It was funny that something that didn’t ever really disappear could in fact be new,” Reynolds said. “And then to put that to as many journalists as possible to get them to talk about nothing.”
“Nu rave” might be a farce, but it hints at something bigger -- a thriving dance-music scene that has spawned several mutations. These strains include the minimalist dance-punk of LCD Soundsystem, the analog classicism of Simian Mobile Disco, the fanatical electro-thrash of Justice, the international amalgam of M.I.A., the agitated funk of !!! (Chk Chk Chk) and the art-schooled disco-sleaze of Cansei de Ser Sexy.
Not only are the pop-and-locking kids in fluorescent T-shirts with Tetris-like graphics crazy for it, England’s music establishment is sold -- Klaxons just snagged the Nationwide Mercury Prize for its psychedelic “Myths of the Near Future,” a debut better described as post-rave paranoia.
Beyond the dance-tent bookings at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival or the playlist at the Echo Park dance night Check Yo’ Ponytail, the current dance-music scene has embraced the once-maligned aesthetics of technology, showmanship and creative appropriation. Synthesized into a live show, the result is communal euphoria.
It’s also a response to the fickle tastes of the indie kids, perhaps the most effective, time-honored catalyst for change.
“There’s this periodic rediscovery by indie rockers that dancing is fun,” said Simon Reynolds, author of the rave and post-punk histories “Generation Ecstasy” and “Rip It Up and Start Again.” “Lots of these bands are going back to the punk-funk thing. . . . Kids hearing it now maybe don’t realize that in the ‘70s, for instance, every white band wanted that Chic guitar sound.”
Disco is one of the touchstones of the new movement, but most influences come from another decade.
In the early to mid-'90s, dance music was considered intellectually vacuous and critically inferior to authenticity-obsessed grunge and indie rock. A few dance acts such as Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Prodigy were able to squeeze through the critical vise and score covers at rockist institutions like Spin magazine.
James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s frontman, considers the division between dance music and rock flimsy, though he doesn’t deny once harboring a bias: “I used to think of dance music as really cheesy.”
Historically, Murphy thinks the genre has suffered from harsher prejudices. “I think that a lot of reaction against disco was racist and homophobic,” he said. “There was this criticism that it wasn’t serious rock white-dude music, sort of like when you’re a little boy and you say, ‘That’s girl music.’ ”
Perhaps it stayed in the shadows because of racism and homophobia, but the specific critiques, that dance music is fatuous and coldly technological, were considered endemic. Nowadays, those qualities are celebrated, an idea that Daft Punk popularized with its 1997 debut, “Homework.”
The Parisian duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, that performs in robot attire designed by rocker-designer Hedi Slimane, have established itself as the godfathers of the current scene. PEACHES, the Canadian artist who sets nasty tangles of guitars against slithery beats, remembers when she first heard Daft Punk.
“I realized that dance music could have a rock attitude without sounding industrial. It was brutal but minimal,” she said via e-mail from Berlin, where she is recording a new album. “I just decided to take my favorite parts from each genre and mix it together. Dance music has the sickest sounds and can be harder sounding than any guitar. There is nothing like a killer rock riff.”
For Sri Lankan native Maya Arulpragasam, known as M.I.A., dance music’s clean surfaces provide an ideal platform for launching bigger political ideas. “It’s really primitive, but also mathematical,” she said from San Francisco, where she was making a video with Spike Jonze. For “Arular,” “I needed to make it danceable while I said some heavy stuff . . . the things going on in Sri Lanka were so shocking and outrageous.”
She also points toward other dance genres that have international muscle -- dancehall or grime, for instance -- as important parts of the equation. “The scene is so morphed, but that’s what makes it different from the ‘90s Ibiza-style dance music. Different kids are bringing different elements to it.”
Steve Aoki, the hustling, jet-setting Angeleno with a record label (Dim Mak) that has evolved into a fashion line (designed by Klaxons’ Jamie Reynolds and Simon Taylor-Davis) and lifestyle brand, posits the harder strains of dance music as the new punk rock.
“Punk as a term is more than a sound; it’s a culture,” he said. “Ten years ago, I got involved with hard-core punk for the screaming guitars and the energy of watching 100 kids jumping along. You can’t even describe that energy.”
Aoki is the American ambassador for much of the European-based dance scene, or as Pedro Winter, head of the Paris-based record label Ed Banger, says, “He’s the Los Angeles me.” Both proudly reference the Dim Mak party at Echoplex the day after Coachella as the frenetic apex of their efforts. That momentum lives on in events such as Dim Mak’s upcoming second annual Neighborhood Festival.
Winter, who manages Daft Punk, has gathered a tribe of artists, including Mr. Oizo and Uffie, around his marquee band Justice, the production duo Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, known for hypnotizing and ferocious concerts. It’s a page stolen not only from Daft Punk but also from Mick Jagger and Slayer.
“We are completely into the rock-star thing,” Winter said. “I’m not into electronic music. I’m into entertainment music.”
At the same time, Aoki and Winter, standing so close to the blazing sun of trend-setting, realize the value in cultivating their artists. “We are throwing parties in Singapore, Berlin and Melbourne,” Winter said. “We are wearing the same sneakers, same coats. This is the crazy part and the funny thing. . . . We are a family who wants to grow together. We take our time. Let’s not do everything in one or two years.”
M.I.A. sees it as a family too, but one that transcends the differences.
“Anything can happen in dance music. You have gay people, white, black people. It doesn’t really have a face. It’s experimental constantly.”
Dance, dance, dance
What: Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Wild Light
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 7 tonight
Price: $31 to $41 (others sold out)
Info: (323) 850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com
Simian Mobile Disco
Where: Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., L.A.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Info: (323) 850-2000; www.attheecho.com
!!! (Chk Chk Chk)
Where: Avalon, 1735 N. Vine, Hollywood
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Info: (323) 462-8900;
Where: Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Info: (323) 464-0808;
Where: Exposition Park, 3911 S. Figueroa St., L.A.
When: 4 p.m. Sept. 29
Price: $40 advance; $45 day of festival