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Over the course of the last few months I’ve tried to make up for years of personal neglect in the electronic music area. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and the first raves that I experienced as a mid-twenty-something were met with a good amount of disdain from me, partially because of the threat they posed to our scene. I was in a band, and a very popular one at that, in our hometown of Rochester, New York. We spent several years establishing ourselves, and finally enjoyed the fruits of our labors by getting the good nights at the best live music venues in town. We respectably filled the big venues and sold out the smaller ones more than a few times. Then, suddenly, other “talent” was given preference for our Friday and Saturday nights.
Another band taking our good nights would have been rivalrous, but healthy in some ways. We always jockeyed waves of popularity back and forth with other great local bands that were our dear friends as well as good-natured rivals. This was different. We started losing nights to D.J.s. A guy with two turntables and a microphone. A single guy the bar owners had to pay instead of six greedy musicians.
As time went on, more and more of the older college crowd and younger working adult crowds that used to pack the house for bands like ours were now eagerly packing houses and dancing all night to the “untz, untz, untz” of EDM. Some local live music venues changed their brands and business to accommodate the dance club wave. Some closed altogether as live music crowds dwindled. This was, quite frankly, a threat to our way of life – not only our livelihoods (even if only a part-time weed money and attention from the ladies livelihood), but a general shock to our sensibilities as musicians who have spent years honing our crafts on our respective instruments and practicing hours on end to not sound like complete hacks on stage. Now, a guy with a record collection was taking our nights, our clubs, our money, our… entire scene.
That said, my initial reaction to the scene, and EDM music itself, was jaded from the get go. I doubt I ever tried to find any redeeming value in it, and if I did, the ecosystem of EDM back then was fairly narrow. To myself, and to many I know in my generation, EDM music was pre-programmed, repetitive, predictable, and soulless. We saw no value in it and probably even felt disgust towards the new generation of “club kids” that would so willingly go through their young adulthood devoid of the experience of seeing live music on the weekends. We were, without knowing it, slowly but surely becoming those “grumpy old people.” We were becoming the holier-than-thou Woodstock-era hippy parents we loathed with their “you don’t know what real music is” mantra, and we didn’t realize it (as I’m sure they didn’t realize their hypocrisy towards the generations before). I admittedly had, and continued to have, a real problem with EDM.
Fast forwarding more than twenty years from the genesis of this shifting music scene, I found myself (and numerous friends) in the same generational muck we were in then, stereotyping and dismissing the scene and music on the same biased grounds despite the fact that EDM is a much wider ecosystem in so many ways and it has pervaded most aspects of popular culture, defining a generation and giving it a musical art form it can proudly and truly claim as its own, which is the beautiful thing about American music…
We keep on doing it every generation.
We keep reinventing the music and instruments, and therefore the entire culture.
We also keep that timeless tradition of dismissing and downplaying the contributions of any new generation of music, and that’s okay because it helps define the independence and uniqueness of each generation, keeps the spirit of rebellion alive, and upends the status quo.
When it stops happening, Americans should start worrying.
I’m writing the “EDMpathy” series to help expedite others through the journey that I’ve been and continue on as a latent fan of the music and culture, should you decide to let your guard down and attempt to enjoy what has brought joy and pride so many others of the EDM generation.
Step one: Admit you have a problem.
Concede that we became our parents, not willing to be open-minded and challenged by new art forms, minimizing the new generation’s music without giving it much of a chance.
EDM is hard to define in musicological terms, and a challenge to understand the myriad of tools and instruments used in the various styles (especially as every new advance in technology is ingested, thoroughly explored and exploited), and even hard (if not impossible) to define what EDM culture is, as new sub-cultures are constantly spawning and subdividing and the EDM culture becomes more and more diverse. My lessons began only a couple of months ago, but have been rapid with a lot of self-study incorporated as I try to get my head around the most important musical art form to manifest during my lifetime. I’ll begin with the Cleveland band that elevated my thoughts on the subjects of EDM and inspired this series.
While watching the incomparable Cleveland natives Broccoli Samurai perform recently at the House of Blues, I realized that I might actually be a bit more familiar with, and a bigger fan of electronic music/EDM than I had previously given myself credit for. Broccoli helped me realize that my understanding of the electronic music genre started much earlier phase in my life, listening to bands that I never would have associated with today’s EDM culture. With this epiphany, I simultaneously realized what a significant amount of confusion I have about the electronic music genre as a whole, especially concerning the taxonomy of the different types of electronic music. While posting on social media recently, I had used the title “My EDM Week” to summarize the previous week of my life (early March, 2017) where I attended not just one, but three electronic music concerts (cue the Count from Sesame Street… “Thrrreee! Threeee Eeeee Deeeee Emmmmm Concerrrrts! Bwaaa haaa haaa ha!!”) in one week, after not purposely attending an electronic music show since… well… to the best of my memory, ever. I referred to these as “EDM” concerts rather than the broader term, “electronic music,” because pretty much everyone else, including my date to these three shows, had labeled them all as such.
My sudden motivation for seeing shows in this genre was driven in part by new career endeavors in music journalism and concert photography, but also in part due to my girlfriend, or more specifically the nineteen-year age gap between us. We met and went on our first date merely as a platonic get together (I’m being sincere here – that was my expectation and intention. I simply don’t have that much “game”). Her online dating profile was dominated with narrative about her passion for music, travel, and the festival scene, but they were the festivals I hadn’t been to, with the type of music and artists I wasn’t really familiar with. She was cute as hell, but I’m older and not nearly as flush in “cute” so I approached that date as merely as a friendly one to pick her brain and learn more about EDM, the scene surrounding it, and the tribalism of it all while treating her to a nice dinner & enjoying some live music.
As it turns out, beginning with a long impassioned conversation about life and love during our first date and reinforced with almost comical serendipity over subsequent days, weeks, and months… it turns out we were destined to meet, and are now more than just a “thing.” I’m learning new things daily about EDM and other cultural nuances of today’s twenty-somethings. She, in turn, is now a voracious student at Grateful Dead University, minoring in jambands. The symbiosis goes deeper and broader, but this post is about music, so we’ll leave the relationship stories for future days and future posts. Suffice it to say I just had to take advantage of a week-long string of so-called “EDM” artists when I had such a capable and knowledgeable mentor available.
We had three shows lined up, (thankfully none of them on consecutive nights):
I had many questions and curiosities before the Illenium show, most of which I kept to myself. I wanted to experience it rather than have it explained, and part of me values the insights and appreciation that come by not knowing exactly what I’m going to see or hear.
At one point I did ask her unwittingly about the band members, and had it explained to me (not unlike a condescended preschooler being corrected with a slight, “Aw, isn’t he just precious?” tone) that Illenium is not a band. Illenium is a single DJ. I had listened to some Illenium prior to the show, and the sound was similar in style to my girlfriend’s favorite artist, Odesza. I had been previously corrected by her many times when referring to Odesza as “she” (Odesza is two white guys). Despite that reality, Odesza has strong and haunting female vocals on most of their tracks, which causes me to impulsively refer to this artist via singular and feminine identifiers, just as I would a Cher or Adele, but the Odesza vocals (like the Illenium vocals) are tracked in the studio, essentially becoming an asset used by the DJ’s in live performances, a strong identifier of each artist’s sound, but terminally disembodied.
I also felt compelled to ask if there were going to be any instruments being played live at the Illenium show, clarifying this further as “classical” rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards). I was told Illenium uses an electronic drum kit on stage and subsequent research suggested he uses it specifically to add a live component sound of Japanese Taiko drum samples, but that seemed to be it for traditional instruments.
I heard through friends that Infected Mushroom, who we were to see a mere few nights later in the very same room, had a live vocalist and keyboard player, and it seemed they were using a live drummer/kit on stage as well as having a heavy metal-style lead guitarist. Excision, in contrast, seemed to consist of one single DJ with no classic instrumentation.
My curiosity was now piqued. How could three artists/acts be so different in instrumentation, from a single DJ to what seemed to be a fairly standard and classic (in the world of rock) four-piece band, still be equally classified and regarded as “EDM” artists? It obviously wasn’t a standard instrumentation or tool set distinguishing EDM from other genres of music, so I deduced it must be largely about the musical style itself.
These three shows were my first “EDM” shows in quite some time, perhaps the only ones I ever attended under my own volition and with actual focused interest, and certainly the first ones where I can say I was unmarred by copious amounts of psychoactive substances. That choice allowed me to think somewhat clearly about what I was experiencing, and I walked away from the week with a number of confirmations of what I had predicted, as well as some true epiphanies that came as complete surprises to me (and made me realize just how little I knew about “EDM”).
The first (and most significant) epiphany came while trying to define the difference between “Electronic Music” and “Electronic Dance Music (EDM),” which I was no more knowledgeable about after these three shows than I was before, but now I at least knew…
… it was a question that no one seemed to know the answer to.
The sounds of Illenium and Excision were similar in some ways, with Illenium having more of a soul and groove to it and Excision having more of a balls-out energetic and frenetic theme. Infected Mushroom was a departure from both, if for no other reason than visually, with the focus being on the musicians that demanded audience focus and attention. Their sound was decidedly more industrial and European but was certainly still infectiously dance-able and had serious electronic DJ and synth components to the music.
Infected Mushroom stood out against Illenium and Excision in the fact that they are actual musicians, and really fucking good musicians at that. The keyboard player is definitely classically trained, the drummer a studio-drummer metronome, and the guitar player a Slash protege with the look, moves, and skill of classic hard rock guitarists. Then there’s the singer (who looks like he escaped from a mental institution, jumped in the bands van, said, “I’m your new singer now,” and no one was brave or stupid enough to tell him different) that is one of the most charismatic and energetic front-men of a band I’ve seen in years. How he holds up the never-ending bouncing and engaging of the crowd is beyond me, and his commitment lends itself to the “this guy must be insane” judgment.
A further look at the Infected Mushroom website reveals this alleged loony bin escapee (Amit “Duvdev” Duvdevani) and the keyboard player (Erez Eisen) to be the core two members of Infected Mushroom, which came as a surprise to me as I had assumed these were all permanent members of the group. Furthermore, they have dates listed as “DJ Sets” which leads me to believe this core fraction of the performers I saw have at least a couple of different configurations along the traditional instrument band —> DJ spectrum.
All in all, the priority lesson I took with me from the Infected Mushroom show was that there lies great potential advantage in having the traditional focal points of musicians on stage to connect to, especially ones that are entertaining performers and take their stage jobs seriously.
That begs the question:
How does a single DJ command the attention and focus of an audience without traditional musicians and instruments on stage?
…the answer in part two…