It seems like only yesterday that everybody wanted to be a DJ, or at least to have one in his band. This trend peaked in the late '90s, the era that begat the godawful fusion of rap and rock. Frosted-tip nü-metal purveyors linked up with hip-hop turntablists to bring a feeble imitation of the motherfucking ruckus.
Over the past eight years, electronic artists have flipped the script, recruiting musicians to augment their traditionally turntable-, sampler-, and laptop-based live performances. House and techno artists like Basement Jaxx and Underworld were among the first to tour with bands to beef up their sound. New York electro duo Fischerspooner collaborated with guitarists, drummers, and vocalists to create elaborately staged shows, while DFA founder James Murphy moved from producer to frontman of dancepunk-cum-rock-ensemble LCD Soundsystem. More recently, microhouse pioneer Matthew Herbert released his second album with his Big Band, a collaboration with jazz musicians. Electronic gadget-tinkerer Dan Deacon is jumping onboard as well. He will unveil a 15-piece ensemble, of whom half are percussionists, at a performance in New York City on December 11.
Most concertgoers will agree that it's pretty tedious to watch some dude illuminated by a glowing Apple logo clicking a mouse for an hour. Sure, in theory it's the quality of the music that matters, but in practice it's often not enough to justify paying $15 to watch an IT guy at work. The problem with extra bodies onstage, though, is that if it's done wrong, the additional instruments can cheapen the appealing precision of electronic music. There are certainly laptop jockeys who would never make this transition, for practical or aesthetic reasons. But so far, the majority of these electro-live acts seem to have a handle on balancing showmanship with musical integrity.
Matthew Dear, a producer, DJ, and audio artist who also records as Audion, Jabberjaw, and False, is on the road with an enhanced lineup. Matthew Dear's Big Hands adds guitar and drums to create a more organic rendition of his icy but engaging minimal techno. Including these instruments makes sense for his live show, he says, since he uses them in the studio. "I never wanted to sit up there with a laptop and a vocal mike," he says. "That wouldn't engage the audience like I needed."
However, different circumstances call for different configurations, and Dear makes the separation clear. He explains that his alter egos that adhere to a stricter dance music format are still performed as such. Audion "is played in a club environment, in which people are supposed to dance and not pay attention so much to the performer," he says. "Big Hands, however, is a stage show."
At the other end of the spectrum, in-demand mash-up manipulator Girl Talk (né Gregg Gillis), isn't about to change his traveling gigs. "I'm really excited about the bare-bones nature of just a human being interacting with a laptop," he says. "I like how direct and uncompromising that can be."
But Gillis really has no use for a backing band. He's a rarity in the DJ world, in that a Girl Talk show is more house party than nerdy knob noodling. Audiences lose their shit and get stupid, thanks in large part to his exuberant performance style and penchant for crowd participation. "When it's just you and a computer, you can get involved to a degree that's more difficult in a traditional-style band," he says. "I can jump in the crowd, get people onstage, whatever."
Perhaps electronic artists should look to hip-hop for inspiration (the Roots) and forewarning (Mos Def) when deciding whether to add live instrumentation to their music. Some, like Girl Talk, will probably never need to. But watching musicians truly perform is immeasurably more entertaining than wondering whether someone onstage is simply checking e-mail — so long as guitar solos don't outnumber BPMs.