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Kit Clayton's approach to techno launches him into new experimental realms (provided the software doesn't crash)

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999

Chances are very good that, right now, Kit Clayton is pushing a button. Actually, he might be sliding a lever, turning a knob, plugging something in, or turning a synthesizer on. But he's probably interacting with some sort of machine in the studio he's assembled in his Western Addition basement -- regardless of what time it happens to be.

Clayton currently has so many forthcoming musical projects that it's possible he's left one or two off the laundry list he recites during one of the rare moments he's away from his electronic equipment. "There's an EP just out on [German label] Scape, with an LP to follow it up, a new LP on Drop Beat [from Oakland], a track for a compilation on a Detroit label called Seventh City, a couple of tracks for some labels that don't have names yet, and a few releases for Orthworn Musorks." Orthworn Musorks, incidentally, is an imprint he's launching with his girlfriend, bringing the number of labels Clayton co-owns and operates to four.

Some electronic music producers can manage to keep up similar production schedules because they've developed a formula, and, with a few subtle tweaks to the variables, can punch out a track every week or so. But Clayton not only lacks a magic recipe for creating a new song, he's even without a broad genre from which to start. Some of his tracks can safely be called minimal techno, while others are composed largely of noise and don't have beats at all. Stefan Betke, who owns Scape, describes Clayton's new EP as "urban dub," while other upcoming projects involve vocals (from his girlfriend, Sue Costabile), guitars and other rock elements, and "layers of completely strange and non-metric sound material." Instead of striving to create a trademark sound, Clayton crafts an array of tracks that elicit different responses, intended for different environments.

"Some of the stuff I work on is completely dance, some of the stuff I work on is completely non-dance, and some of the stuff kind of approaches one from the other side," he says. "Some people only like stuff that has solid beats and don't like the extremes -- other people like the extremes, but only one of the extremes. I don't necessarily see them as so different."

Listening to a 12-inch on his Cytrax label helps explain what he means. Two of the four songs might be called DJ-oriented -- with repetitive beats and sleek after-hours club melodies -- while the other two work more as sound sculptures that some might lump into the experimental category. "It's sort of a blurry world, whether people typify it as experimental or ambient or sound collage, when perhaps it's nothing of the above," says Clayton.

Recently, certain well-known techno artists like Aphex Twin and Plastikman have moved further away from dance floors and into abstract realms in which the listener is lucky to get something to snap a finger to; when dance music decides to push boundaries, the dance element is often the first thing to go. Serious music requires a chair and a pair of earphones, the theory goes; an attitude that's led to reactionary terms like "big dumb techno."

"It used to be that a lot of people just wanted something so easy to latch onto when they danced -- they didn't feel comfortable with stuff that was a little more amorphous," says Clayton. "But more and more people are getting comfortable dancing to things that are not easy to dance to. Not to sound corny, but that's a very powerful aspect of music, just being able to feel it physically and respond to it physically. Moving with bass [rhythms] or something like that is oftentimes much more satisfying than hearing something that's brilliantly composed, but lacking that kind of visceral feedback. I'm definitely interested in keeping some of my music in a format that people can experience in that way."

Clayton's basement studio also doubles as his office and lab for his "day" job (such distinctions of the clock are mostly irrelevant) as a software developer. A gleam comes to his eye as he divulges the duties of his alter ego, as a kid with a sweet tooth might if he just got hired at a candy store. "I work on audio software called MSP, which is a graphical framework that allows people to string together objects to perform a custom process or algorithm for performing music. You can basically devise systems that will randomly or not so randomly make music according to guidelines you prescribe."

In other words, it's an open environment for altering, subverting, and obliterating musical formulas -- an uncanny fit for Clayton's own artistic explorations. "It all bleeds over," he says. "Sometimes I'll have something specific I'm doing for work and I'll take that and exploit it musically as parts of tracks or even an entire piece. It's kind of crazy, because I work from home, so there's not a whole lot of delineation between what is work, what is music, what is neither."

Clayton learned his craft in the electronic music lab at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, where he was able to research the academic use of the studio, as well as its dance music applications. He composed a few interactive pieces for computer and cello and computer and saxophone, but saw more opportunities for innovation in the burgeoning dance music field. In the academic scene, "as in all institutions, a few people become figureheads and less risks are taken now with the music."

Both the academic and the more popular approaches to electronic music run into significant obstacles when artists attempt to perform their work live. Many university performances still consist of playing tape loops, and many dance musicians are criticized for putting on shows that seem fairly canned.

"The reason for that is it's really difficult to make dance music on the fly and have it be really improvisational, because there's a lot of rigid time constraints," says Clayton. "Just to be one person and change 50 things that are happening is very difficult to do live." For his upcoming tour of Germany, he's put a great deal of time into working out flexible systems, using MSP, for making his live show more improvisational. "A lot of people have a problem with non-live musics," he says. "I don't see anything wrong with someone just putting a CD on and playing it. But what I don't like is how people have to pretend they're doing a lot of stuff and generating it on the fly."

But Clayton hasn't worked out all the kinks from his setup, and he's feeling slightly anxious as his first European gigs loom. At a show he did two weeks ago in Chicago, his system crashed and he wasn't able to restore it before he was scheduled to perform. The closing act had to go on instead. Clayton ended up playing afterward, but it was too close a call. He's back to the basement studio to see how he can revise his approach.

Though his method of operating labels, producing records, and tweaking live shows isn't a hugely profitable one, Clayton is content for now with his reclusive lifestyle. "There's something that happens to music when people focus on it as something to do for a living," he says. "It changes in some regard. You feel like you have all this financial pressure on you. Unless you're one of the few artists that gets to make a good amount of money off strange, not very commercially appealing music, you're forced to compromise.

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Darren Keast


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