Aspen Times Weekly: It’s still EDM to me

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cover design by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Little that is going on in the music world – stretching from which odd-couple combination appeared together on the Grammys to the touring schedule for a mid-level bluegrass act – gets past Michael Goldberg. But in early December of 2010, when he was looking for a Christmas-week act for his club, Belly Up Aspen, Goldberg came across a name he didn’t know. Something named Skrillex had recently sold out a show at the Fox Theatre, in Boulder, so Goldberg took a shot, adding Skrillex to the all-important holiday season that also included superstar rock acts Jane’s Addiction and the Flaming Lips. Every ticket for the Skrillex show, priced at $25, was snapped up.

“Nobody had heard of him. But very quickly people learned about him,” Goldberg said. “It was overnight.”

So it seems to have gone in the world of electronic dance music, or EDM. Like rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop before it, EDM had an underground, youth-oriented presence for a while, before surfacing in a way that became almost impossible to overlook. TV commercials, even for blue-chip companies (American Airlines) and the most mundane of products (breakfast cereals), have adopted not only the sound but the look of EDM. The current “Harlem Shake” craze might be a dance craze and a video craze, but it began as an EDM craze: the song “Harlem Shake” was released last May by the music producer Baauer, who specializes in an EDM genre known as trap, before going viral on Youtube. There are massive festivals devoted exclusively to EDM; the Electric Daisy Carnival, which began as a one-day event in Southern California, has in the past few years expanded with massive events in Texas, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and Colorado. has shifted much of his attention from his hip-hop group, the enormously popular Black Eyed Peas, to focus on his work as an electronic DJ. Skrillex himself – a 25-year-old California native who was born Sonny Moore – was the center of what might have been EDM’s true coming-out moment, when he earned five Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist, in 2011.

Also like rock and hip-hop, EDM represents not just a sound, but a cultural shift, with clothes, accessories, a visual sensibility and a lingo. “It’s entirely a cultural movement. Undeniably,” Marc Brownstein, a member of the EDM group Conspirator, said.

“It’s giant. It feels like the new rock ‘n’ roll,” Jason Hann, who plays live and electronic drums in the EDM duo EOTO, said. “At this point, it is popular culture.”

Belly Up has become a center of the EDM wave. While the top-most rung of rock acts (Neil Young, Green Day, Bruce Springsteen, U2, etc.) haven’t played the 450-capacity club (yet), those looking to catch the biggest of the big names in EDM could have simply stationed themselves in Aspen. Among those who have played Belly Up are Pretty Lights, a Ft. Collins-born artist who headlined a two-night stand at Red Rocks last summer; Bassnectar, who attracts a traveling band of followers similar to the Deadheads who followed the Grateful Dead; the Australian electro-pop duo Empire of the Sun; and Deadmau5, who appears onstage in oversized mouse ears, as well as Moby, Tiësto, Thievery Corporation, Kaskade, and Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso, both members of the massively popular DJ trio, Swedish House Mafia.

“These are the rock stars of our generation – of my generation,” 24-year-old David Goldberg, Belly Up’s national talent buyer, said. “If you had the frontmen of Coldplay and Muse, two of the biggest bands in modern rock, walking down the street, and Skrillex was next to them, I promise you Skrillex would have more people looking at him.”

EOTO and Conspirator have shows coming up at Belly Up. EOTO, comprised of Hann and Michael Travis – both who also claim membership in the Colorado-based jam band String Cheese Incident – is set for Thursday, March 14. Conspirator, a four-piece group that mixes live instruments and electronic elements, makes its Belly Up debut on March 21.

Electronic dance music has existed, more or less, for years under different names: techno, house, drum and bass. But for the most part, especially in the U.S., it was a fringe style, and was neither particularly commercial nor artistic. The people making electronic dance music were mostly anonymous DJs, mixing records from behind a booth. EDM events, known as raves, were underground, typically thrown in a warehouse rented for the night.

The ’90s saw the first burst of name artists who made their music with computers and electronic devices rather than guitars: Crystal Method, Moby, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher. Much of the reason they were able to establish name recognition was the creativity behind their sounds. Instead of simply mixing up records previously recorded by other artists, in the style of the traditional DJ, they were sculpting new sounds, creating beats, writing songs and inventing ways to present pre-produced music as a stimulating live performance.

By the mid-’00s, it became obvious to Jason Hann that a movement with serious artistic intentions was underway. While playing in String Cheese Incident, he became aware of a new sort of sound, which seemed to be emanating from Burning Man, the radical arts gathering staged each summer in the Nevada desert. Hann honed in on Bassnectar, a musician who specializes in dubstep, a style recognizable for the “wobble,” a bass line with a distinctive “wuh-wuh” sound. Bassnectar was barely registering as a commercial act, but Hann invited him to open some shows for String Cheese.

“It seemed like what the future of music was, what they were doing with sound design,” Hann said, referring to Bassnectar as well as Tipper and Soteg, or Son of the Electric Ghost. “You knew there was something changing the culture out there. You knew right when you heard it. There was authentic creativity, a defiance against the current electronic music then, like trance or straight house music. It was powerfully unique.” In 2006, Hann and fellow String Cheese drummer launched EOTO, a duo that plays entirely improvised shows using drums, programmers and synthesizers.

Marc Brownstein has a similar story. Brownstein was the bassist of the Disco Biscuits, a Philadelphia jam band that had an appreciation for the rhythms and sounds coming from DJs and electronic artists. In 2004, he and Aron Magner, the Disco Biscuits keyboardist, formed Conspirator as a small-time side project.

“Our rock was heavily influenced by electronic music,” he said. “We wanted to learn the art and form a project that used those production techniques.”

Using at least some traditional instrumentation, EOTO and Conspirator – both of whom fall into the EDM subgenre known as livetronica – have sidestepped the “button-pushing” issue. Are these EDM artists doing anything more than hitting “Play” on a keyboard that kicks off some pre-recorded music?

David Goldberg says that some acts, like Deadmau5, confess to doing little more than pushing buttons when he gets onstage. But he notes that Deadmau5, like most current EDM stars, does his own music production beforehand; they’re not just sampling old recordings. And he adds that most EDM artists are doing far more than pushing one button. They are coordinating the sounds, operating foot pedals and hand pedals, timing musical moments to the flow of the crowd.

“It’s grown so much. They’re doing drum lines, beats, synths, chords,” he said. “Not just the top guys, but everyone is musically talented. They’re not playing the chords on a guitar; they’re not playing the drum beats. But it’s real music.”

While that probably won’t convince the fan who believes real music is made by a guitar-bass-keyboard-drums quartet, or by an orchestra, Goldberg points out that, among his contemporaries, it is the traditional musicians who get skoffed at.

“They ask, ‘Why is Bob Marley that great? He just sang and played acoustic guitar People like Skrillex are doing much more onstage,'” he said. “They put down Jimi Hendrix: ‘He only plays one guitar.'”

Of course, what are new music movements for, if not to create battle lines between generations?

“Part of the reason people like EDM is because their older brothers, or their parents, don’t,” Hann said. “That’s the golden rule – they’re not supposed to get this music. You’re supposed to play it loud and do illegal things with it. Jazz was like that, punk, rock ‘n’ roll. It’s got that same history. Every generation before it says, ‘Why are you listening to that? It’s just noise.'”

In fact, EDM is not just noise. EDM has raised the bar enormously on what constitutes a show. Pyrotechnics are customary; Belly Up recently upgraded its LED board, primarily to accommodate the demands of EDM acts. Skrillex travels with a spaceship as a stage prop; on their last tour, EOTO played inside the Lotus Sculpture, a 17-foot flower that also served as a screen for video projections.

“It is definitely about the experience – the dance experience, the light experience, the community experience,” Michael Goldberg, who is an investor in a Denver club, Beta, focused on dance music, said. “Last year we started seeing huge production requests – confetti cannons, cryo, which shoots out jet-like smoke.”

“This is a new time in music – it’s the production era,” David Goldberg said. “Engineers and lighting guys are as much a part of the show as musicians. A drop” – a drop, a foundation of EDM, is a sudden, potent shift in the rhythm or bass line – “in EDM is just like a verse in a song, or a guitar riff. If fireworks go off right then, it makes you feel that much cooler.”

Brownstein, who has one foot in organic, improvisational music and another in the synthesized, production-heavy electronic style, says that EDM will prove to be a phase. “Every bubble explodes. Every genre goes up and comes down,” he said.

Which hardly means the moment has been insignificant. Jazz, rock, hip-hop have also faded from their heights, but have left a vital, lasting impact on music and culture.

“The real question is, What’s going to survive? What’s going to transcend time? That remains to be seen,” Michael Goldberg said. “You can already see, there are people who were the biggest of the big in EDM, and aren’t there anymore. The same thing holds true for all music. Who’s going to be remembered in 20 years?”

David Goldberg says EDM “is not going anywhere,” and in a way he’s almost certainly right. Jazz, rock and hip-hop are no longer the forces they once were, but all have left a profound imprint on the musical styles that followed. EDM has hit a level of artistry that, even when its moment fades, it will leave its fingerprint.

“I have a vision that, when the EDM boom explodes, on the tail end of this, the next thing people might latch onto is a fusion,” Brownstein said. “Not what happened in the 2000s, when a lot of bands were mimicking electronic sounds with instruments. But actual electronic music being played with organic instruments. The next new genre of music? That’s what I’m all about.”

Looking at the rise of EDM makes Brownstein think of Miles Davis. He points out that every 10 years, Davis would look at what was happening in jazz, look at what else was happening in music, and then adjust what he was doing. Davis thus remains as a hallmark of the visionary musician, always adopting the next popular sound into his own.

“If Miles were alive, he’d be working with Skrillex,” Brownstein said. “He’d be pushing these boundaries. He’d be on his MacBook making dubstep, and tweaking it with his horn, making up something new.”