Ben There, Done That

Ben Wa throws caution -- and its dub following -- to the wind with its new electro offering

The limits of a career as techno superstars become apparent to the two members of Ben Wa at around 9 p.m. during an interview at their comfortably worn recording studio and practice space. That's when the Oakland-based duo comes face to face with its lousy fashion sense.

There have been more than a few beers consumed at this point, but the alcohol doesn't help soften the blow. In their work boots and beat-up clothes, Anthony “House” Chaba (programming/bass) and Eric “Dr. Ware” Ware (programming/keyboards) look more like twin refugees from a Sears clearance sale than the intimidatingly hip electronica heads you'd expect. When asked to account for their poor sartorial showing, House and Dr. Ware look at their clothes and fall into a dispirited silence.

“Shit,” says House, pulling gently on his generic brown T-shirt. Across the room on the studio's couch, Dr. Ware is lost in similar contemplation of his drab outfit.

“Shit,” Dr. Ware agrees. Then, looking over at House, he says, “We even have the same kind of T-shirt on.”

House pauses, and, with all the solemnity of a judge passing down a life sentence, sighs, “Pocket tees.”

For Ben Wa, the unfashionable pocket tees are part of a general obliviousness to trends that makes the twosome an anomaly in the hyper-current world of electronica. Ben Wa's boys don't DJ, they don't read the mixmaster magazines, and they don't keep up on the latest dance microgenres. At thirtysomething years old, they're too far along to be mass-marketable.

And yet House and Dr. Ware have consistently made impressive, intuitive records that have left critics grasping for superlatives. Now, three years after its buzz-garnering Devil Dub debut, Ben Wa is back with Disciples of Retro-Tech — a dilettante's dabbling in electro, the early '80s genre born of electronic pop and hip hop. As an electro album, however, Disciples of Retro-Tech will make techno purists windmill in their graves, as the band's version of electro is unfocused, contradictory, and scattershot. The record is an act of musical tourism from two guys whose trip itinerary has no clear stops and knows no concrete borders — and it may be one of the best things to happen to East Bay techno all year.

For Ben Wa, the problem with techno starts with the computer.

“Both of us spent just about our whole lives playing very spontaneously in rooms full of people,” says House (a name that's short for “Butthouse”). “It gets excruciatingly difficult to work with the computer so intensely. Any time you buy a new piece of gear, it can just really distract you from actually making music. You get absorbed into the minutiae of the whole thing. And then that really drags you down.”

Ironically, it was the challenge of working closely with a PC that drew House and Dr. Ware to electronica back in the late '90s. Both had spent a decade as musicians in local bands like the Limbomaniacs, Big Janitor, and MCM & the Monster, even putting in stints as hired hands on soundtracks for TV commercials.

Dr. Ware and House were looking for something new musically, something that would lift them above the plateau of proficiency they'd hit in their live playing. House had fantasized about doing a dub record since he was a teenager; when he and Dr. Ware started discussing an electronica-based “dub hop” record, they both realized they'd found their entree into computer-powered music.

Created largely by manipulating live parts played by local musicians like Buckethead, Brain, and Mirv, 1998's Devil Dub taught the duo that electronica's learning curve can be brutal. Trying to get all the contraptions — sampler, sequencers, mixers, and processor-challenged computers — to sync up nearly undid the musicians.

Devil Dub was a nightmare,” says Dr. Ware, taking a sip of his beer.

“It was pretty ridiculous,” House agrees. “If I actually thought about trying to do that now, I would think it was completely stupid.”

For the album's release party, Ben Wa scored a major coup in getting legendary Jamaican dub producer Scientist to join the duo onstage at the Justice League. For dubheads like House and Dr. Ware, Scientist's appearance was the best endorsement their musical hybrid could have garnered. Of course, reviews like electro/rap magazine URB's, in which Devil Dub was called “one of the most crucial records of any genre released this year,” were nice too.

More business-savvy players would have milked the props and hunkered down in dub land, putting out a series of albums that mined this specific sound. But the urge to try something new and more upbeat led the band to try its hand at electro, a style it had revered since the music first appeared in the early '80s.

The result, Disciples of Retro-Tech (released by Emeryville's Stray Records), does to electro what Ben Wa's debut did to dub, using it as a base of operations for playful forays into the nether regions of the band's musical imagination. Utilizing an armada of retro-sounding keyboards and effects, the group creates a beatfest hearkening back to a time when synthesizers were distinctly synthetic.

The record starts with “Bad Robot,” in which a vocodered voice admonishes a naughty electronic pet as sexy Dirty Mind-era Prince keyboards pulse seductively. The tune's sweaty overtones and wah-wahed guitar bits reappear throughout the album, adding a counterpoint of organicness to the computerized mix.

According to House, that contrast between natural and artificial — between noises created by humans and those created by a machine — plays an intentionally central role in Disciples of Retro-Tech.

“I'm interested in evolutionary psychology, the mechanism of what a human being is,” he explains. “What its development is, and how it is we come to think and believe certain things — the programming of the human machine.”

Dr. Ware sets an empty beer bottle on the table. House looks over and laughs. “I mean we don't actually sit around and talk about things like that, but I think it's always something that's there. In a kitschy way, it comes through in our music.”

While there is plenty of '80s kitsch on Disciples of Retro-Tech (check out the cartoonish synthesizer break on “Binary Mary” or the Kraftwerky computer melodies underneath “Krylon Warrior”), Ben Wa is too talented to opt for nostalgia's easy payoff. Some of the best songs on the album — “Shrödinger's Cock,” “Sinthesize,” “Destroy All Lines” — speed things up to a Chemical Brothers frenzy, using dynamics of build/climax/resolve that electro's pioneers never bothered with.

The variety of the styles, melodies, and beats — from funk to house to hip hop — sets Disciples of Retro-Tech apart from most of its one-trick competitors in the electronica world. For House, it's just a matter of keeping things interesting for the listeners. “What pleases one booty and keeps it rockin' till the break of dawn may leave another booty wandering lonely as a cloud. We wanted to make a record for the vast ecumenical booty masses, one which would bring divergent booty ideologies together.”

The “anything goes” approach reflects the kind of omnivorous spirit that will likely keep the musicians on the periphery of the scene forever, which is fine by them. “Electronic music is one of the more staid genres I've ever tinkered around in,” says House. “You go and hang out, and people are really serious about … stuff. About what exactly, I'm not sure.”

The genre's conservatism was something the group witnessed close up while attending the electronic music industry's annual Miami Winter Music Conference this year. Ben Wa had flown in to play a showcase, but the more time the act spent around the conference hotel and swimming pool, the less interest it had in the whole affair.

“They had these three idiot pundits up on the stage,” House recalls, shifting agitatedly in his seat, “and people would come up and play their CDs on the soundboard. Pretty much hands down, they'd tell everybody who did anything original or slightly interesting that it wasn't commercial enough and that they should change the beat to be four on the floor! Nobody threw a single beer bottle at them!”

And with that, House pulls on his bottle and offers the last word from electronica's exhilaratingly unfashionable frontier. “I guess I was guilty too,” he says, grinning. “I should have fucking pegged those fuckers.”

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