Down the driveway, the front door to the house is open, but it's a warm day, and folks don't need to be paranoid and lock everything up in the hills of Mill Valley. So I'm not sure if I've made it to the home of Jack Dangers, best known as the brain of Meat Beat Manifesto. I squeak out a tentative hello.
The place doesn't quite feel right; it's too quiet. But then a noise suddenly pierces the silence. It's that clichéd, almost nails-on-the-chalkboard sound used in horror movies to build tension. Only today it doesn't register as a cliché: It sounds fucking creepy. No one knows I'm here on this assignment, and I'm pretty sure there's nobody nearby who could hear me scream.
A cat scurries by, but it's a fluffy calico rather than a demonic black one. Finally, out comes Dangers, with a cup of tea in his hand and a warm smile on offer.
Jack Dangers is a musical godfather to a lot of electronic-based artists who thrived in the '90s, from Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor (who used to open for Meat Beat Manifesto -- a project Dangers designed to allow him to collaborate with a loose list of others), with their razor-edged industrial sounds, to rave-era U.K. giants such as Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. MBM's 18-year career includes several acclaimed albums that stretch from the menacing (1990's 99%) to the hip hop funky (2002's RUOK?). Though Dangers has always been a revered musician's musician, producing on albums by artists as diverse as Reznor, Public Enemy, and Depeche Mode, he resisted the spotlight of the U.K. scene to marry and settle in Northern California, where he's made music under less pressured circumstances.
Now Meat Beat Manifesto -- in its current incarnation, Dangers plus longtime collaborators Lynn Farmer on drums, Mark Pistel on keyboards, and Ben Stokes on visuals -- has embarked on its first tour in seven years. In many ways the live show is a complete look at the group's career through a modern lens, a neat summation of nearly two decades' worth of experiences. The act will present songs from the entire catalog in what may seem like a startling new context, but is in fact true to the way many of the old songs were constructed: using clips from films. Dangers and Stokes (Dangers' partner in the Tino Corp. project and label, which features an animated Cuban bandleader named Tino) will edit video of these clips live, in time to the music (which is also performed totally live, unlike many computer-based performances); the musicians will stand on the side of the stage so as not to detract from the main visual attraction.
This is not to say that MBM puts its sound second to its cinema. The group has always been about combining the best (and, sometimes, the rudest) elements of styles such as dub, funk, hip hop, industrial, techno, and jazz, and Dangers' role has long been one of conductor. Take the band's current full-length, At the Center, part of the "Blue Series" (for which Dangers also produced DJ Spooky and Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo's Drums of Death), a collection of albums released on Thirsty Ear Recordings that aims to capture a free-form spirit of experimentation among diverse jazz, electronic, and rock musicians. Center includes collaborations with Peter Gordon (flute), Dave King (drums and percussion), and Craig Taborn (piano, keyboards, and clavinet); Dangers acted almost like a DJ, controlling the proceedings, adding effects like echo and reverb, and weaving bass lines and rhythms in and out of the mix. His credits on the album read "bass, bass flute, bass clarinet, everything else."
It's not a radical departure for Meat Beat Manifesto, particularly given the group's more recent albums (including 1998's Actual Sounds + Voices, which featured Herbie Hancock contributors Pat Gleeson and Bennie Maupin), but it highlights the easygoing, laid-back side of the project. At the Center is closer to the jazz of John Coltrane or even Sun Ra than the more brash and confrontational direction that was a part of the band's past. Suffice it to say that Nine Inch Nails would no longer be an appropriate tourmate. And that's probably got a lot to do with Jack Dangers being a much happier person now.
"[Journalists overseas] ask me why I settled in Marin County. To me, it's the opposite of where I grew up. Besides," he says, motioning around the studio, "I'm mostly here, so this is Marin to me anyway."
Dangers (not his real name, but he prefers his anonymity) came from humble beginnings. He was born and grew up in Swindon, in the West Country of England, where his family didn't own a telephone. He took over his father's job sweeping up at a factory after his dad contracted cancer from the asbestos in the building. At the time -- the mid-'80s -- his salvation was playing in the band Perennial Divide, which he joined with friend Jonny Stephens. The two took on a side project in 1987 and named it Meat Beat Manifesto. MBM eventually outstripped its predecessor and took on a life of its own.
Dangers' working-class ethic is still intact, as evidenced by his life in Marin: The Mill Valley house is not extravagant (though his Mount Tam view is grand), nor is it full of needless trappings. His living room reveals the interests one might imagine: records, films, video games, musical instruments. (That bone-chilling sound I heard on the way in turns out to come from a rather harmless and nifty metal instrument called a waterphone, a hollow cup filled with water surrounded by tines that change pitch according to the amount of fluid in the cup, a favorite of soundtrack composers like Lalo Schifrin of The Amityville Horror, among other movies.)
There are a few perks to Dangers' modest success, though. He doesn't drive or own a car, but he does own an EMS Synthi 100, a rare piece of equipment that is the music enthusiast's equivalent to the auto fiend's classic Lamborghini Murciélago. The 600-pound behemoth, made in 1974, has fetched upward of $60,000 from collectors. Dangers had to remove a window in his studio and hire six men to pulley this model up from the ground 30 feet below. It looks like a gorgeous art piece that should go in a synthesizer museum, but so does most of the vintage equipment in the tidy studio.
Dangers' records are housed in protective plastic and organized according to broad categories such as "soundtracks" and "'60s." Looking at them brings us to the issue of sampling, a method Dangers has used liberally in his music over the years. I ask how the recent changes in music law -- including crackdowns on sampling -- have affected his process.
"What changes were there?" he deadpans, breaking a poker face with a giggle. "I've been collared a couple of times after the fact and gotten a slap on the wrist. I sampled a huge chunk of Horace Silver on 99% for the intro of 'Hello Teenage America,' so I was always waiting for that."
Nowadays, Dangers prefers grabbing portions of things in the public domain, like the announcer reading bizarre old want ads whose voice runs through MBM's At the Center ("Willing to exchange unborn baby for cottage").
"You're gonna get more trouble from sampling a Warner Bros.-distributed film than [Texan televangelist] Robert Tilton speaking in tongues," he counsels.
Not that he has always practiced what he preaches. Turns out that a lot of MBM's samples over the years have come from movies, particularly when Dangers still lived in the U.K. (he moved to California in 1994) and couldn't get a lot of cool records he would have wanted to draw from. He says his music might have been different had he not had to rely on films. His movie knowledge appears to parallel what he knows about music -- that is, it's encyclopedic, or, as he puts it, "almost autistic" -- and the songs in MBM's catalog now stand as a neat collection of some of his favorite cinematic bits and pieces of all time.
Among the images that Dangers and Stokes will manipulate at the Center live show in time to key music samples are Marianne Faithfull enjoying a fondue break (from 1968's Girl on a Motorcycle), Frankenstein having a stoner moment while smoking a fat stogie (from the 1931 horror classic with Boris Karloff), and Fugitive-era Harrison Ford (circa 1993) running and repeatedly yelling, "Get down! Get down!"
"The video burns itself in almost more strongly than just the audio," he says of his memories of sampling films. "And it's fun, because you can combine images and say something. Like there's a track where I've got the end of Dr. Strangelove, where Slim Pickens is on the nuclear bomb, raving. I've got that as a sample, and then I've got George Bush doing a speech and the banjo scene from Deliverance. Those three things together more or less to me sum up everyday life right now in America."
And that, my friends, is truly frightening.