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 Emanated compilation — 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.

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.

Vichas devotes energy to the packaging for his records and CDs as well. The most recent release — a white 7-inch from Sybarite — had a clear jacket and hand-painted numbers indicating which of the 490 pressed each copy was. The if.then.else and Lilienthal CDs came in folding cardboard books rather than plastic jewel cases.

“I don't like when people put some cheesy picture on a jewel case and just shove it out there,” Vichas says. “People want to separate art and music — but they're one thing, they're both art. One you look at and one you listen to. I think the packaging should be art — or as much art as is realistic — to make the package a whole.”

Since Vichas operates the label as a long-term project, he's setting it up to run as self-sufficiently as possible. “I want to turn it into a lifetime project where it never ends, just keeps on going,” he says. “Instead of paying a few hundred dollars to master each record at a studio, I bought a $2,000 box and I do it myself. It pays for itself after six records.” He also designed the covers for the compilation and the if.then.else album, and Lilienthal and Sybarite — both former art students — designed theirs. Everything except the manufacturing and cover printing is done in house; Vichas runs the Web site (www.syncopated.net/emanate), assembles and stores the product, and sends press copies out himself.

So far, the label's nearly breaking even, and a considerable inventory of previous releases remains, so a small profit in the future is possible. For now, Vichas works on hardware for a mom-and-pop computer company; Solenoid does systems administration for a public library; and Lilienthal works for a lamp designer part time. Each wishes he could be making music as a career, but would rather retain creative autonomy than adapt his music for larger audiences.

At the same time, that's not to say a living can't be made from an electronic indie label that shies from the mainstream. Sheffield, England's Warp Records, home to a few artists influential to Emanate's roster such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, celebrated its 10th anniversary last month and commands a sizable chunk of the international market. Vichas looks to successful, uncompromising indies like British/Canadian label Ninja Tune as inspiration for his project. “They have two offices and 12 employees — their employees do what they love to do, they make a living off it, they put out awesome music. I think they sell about 20,000 copies of their releases — for electronic music, I think that's a really good number. I talk to people who run dance and techno labels and to them 1,000 or 2,000 copies is really good. I think that's shit. One thousand records is nothing. Granted, I'm not selling that now, but I think in a couple of years I could sell 5,000 copies of a record.”

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