Rethinking Techno

Emeryville's Emanate Records wants to be known -- but not necessarily famous -- for producing intelligent electronic dance music

When I moved here, I thought there would be so much more cutting-edge art and weird, left-field electronic music -- just more weird experimental stuff, people wanting to do something different," Deno Vichas says of his relocation from Portland to Emeryville. "But I moved here and when you go out, all you hear is drum 'n' bass, drum 'n' bass. I didn't have to move from Portland to hear bad drum 'n' bass -- I could hear it there. I was expecting San Francisco to be some mecca of weird electronic music."

Vichas had been producing complex electronic music for years in his home studio -- most recently under the moniker if.then.else -- without releasing any of it. The lack of response he received from labels he sent demos to, as well as the state of the local experimental music scene, frustrated him enough to start his own label, Emanate, when he got here.

For a label barely a year old and with only four releases, Emanate has carved out a respectable niche in the so-called intelligent dance music movement. In the age of corporate record company consolidation, that's not an easy feat, but Emanate has supported itself with a group of like-minded knob-twiddlers. Each of the core Emanate artists -- featured on the first release, the Emanatedcompilation -- followed nonlinear paths to produce "made for listening" electronic music. Most spent years making dramatically different kinds of music. Xian Hawkins, who records on the label as Sybarite, and Arrow Kleeman, who records as Lilienthal, were in a rock band in Brooklyn and played together in the reunion of late-'60s cult avant-garde band the Silver Apples. Solenoid, born David Chandler, has been involved in the noise scene for years, occasionally playing with "circuit-bent Speak and Spells" onstage as Mr. Pharmacist, and releasing chopped-up sound collages "for people with short attention spans, but very caffeinated, disposable states of mind" as Office Products. OST, also known as Chris Douglas, mentored with local ambient legend Jonah Sharp and spun techno as a DJ in the early years of the San Francisco scene. Vichas himself played bass in school jazz bands and attended jazz camps as a teenager.

Doing It All: Deno Vichas of Emanate Records.
Akim Aginsky
Doing It All: Deno Vichas of Emanate Records.



Deno Vichas' official Web site


Emanated Compilation
"Insert Silence"
Download an MP3 of track one from Emanate Records' compilation CD

Download an MP3 of an unreleased track by Deno Vichas

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With such unusual credentials, it's not surprising the work Emanate's artists do with sequencers, synthesizers, and samplers sticks out a little from traditional dance music. All the songs released on Emanate so far employ programmed beats, but the rhythmic patterns are usually syncopated and textured rather than locked into a straightforward groove. Vichas sums up the difference as "songs versus tracks. A lot of techno that comes out is just drums and a bass line, with no sense of song. I mean, I can make loops that sound interesting for seven minutes too; that's not much of a challenge. I'm very concerned about song structure and melody, and still try to do something new and different, kind of change it up a little bit."

"We all criticize each other for being perfectionists," Vichas says of his labelmates. "Everyone's always saying, 'Yeah, I wrote this, it's not very good, I don't think I'll put it out, whatever.'"

Since his artists live across the country (and now the world, with recent signee Aspen from New Zealand), Vichas receives CD-Rs of their latest works-in-progress in the mail, and he guides their developing ideas to a sound suitable for release on the label. While putting together an upcoming compilation, Vichas has been passing over scores of tracks that don't quite fit his vision. Solenoid has been sending him a disc a week for his upcoming double EP, and "I'm being really picky with him," Vichas says. "We're good friends, so he doesn't take it personally when I say, 'Dave, that song fucking sucks.' He likes to use really gnarly, crunchy distortion pedals and they hum really loudly. I think it's pretty inappropriate for a commercial release -- pretty lo-fi sounding. We've been talking about how to get crunchy distortion without the noise."

Solenoid, as an avid indie record buyer himself, expects such high standards from a label owner. "Just from buying so many records over the years, I realized the pattern [label owners] go through when they start getting that money back from that initial investment of pressing stuff and they get a little less careful about spending it," he says from his home in Portland. "Consequently they're not as picky, and really they should be. Even if they have bad taste, they should be very specifically picky toward that. Being general is common, but being specific is more unique."

Vichas booked many of the acts on the Emanate roster at the monthly "Insight" party he used to hold at 111 Minna Street. For the fliers, he silk-screened the information onto strips of mylar, index cards, random snapshots he found at a salvage shop, and old CDs a library was throwing out. "It's amazing how much stuff people throw away," he says. "We generate so much garbage and filth. Nothing ever gets used with it. That's what my fliers were about -- totally recycling." The fliers also stood out wonderfully in the sea of cardboard handouts littering the entries to local record shops.

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