Wire Magazine: Issue 182, April 1999

Global Ear: A survey of sounds from around the Planet
This Month... Minneapolis/St. Paul

Electronica prodigy Jake Mandell sits in the spacious basement of his parent's home in suburban Minneapolis playing connect the dots. Created on a pair of Apple Macs, Mandell's music - an off-kilter drum 'n' bass derivation shaped by a rare compositional intelligence - is cooked up from scratch, and he's showing me how he tweaks the series of onscreen Soundtools boxes until he gets the sound he wants. The pattern resembles a DNA strand. So far he's completed 250 tracks, the best of which appear on his new Worm Interface CD, Parallel Processes.

Mandell works in relative isolation, but when he goes out tonight to play the Twilight Lounge of Jitters coffeehouse he'll be among his peers, such as experimental DJs Dave Lofquist and Rod Smith. Despite Mandell's self-deprecating claim that "I'd be a DJ, except I have no coordination and no sense of rhythm," his performance proves otherwise. Tweaking presets on a laptop, his shifting beats and elastic melodies, reminiscent of his heroes Autechre or Mouse on Mars, win the attention of even the most hardened scenesters. For this is physically satisfying music, rather than a grooveless theoretical exercise.

Mandell's experiments are the tip of a surprisingly large iceberg. Minneapolis/St. Paul is home to a vibrant underground community, and its getting bigger all the time. "There are tons of kids who are just getting started," says Rod Smith, who along with Lofquist coordinates the experimental music nights at The New Atlantis and the Polar Bear Club. "I get tapes from these brilliant new people, and the surprising thing is how many of them have no interest in playing out." Instead, they're happy to make noise in their bedrooms, distribute the results through the post, and get name-checked on Internet mailing lists.

One example is Jonathan Nelson, aka Escape Mechanism, who has recently produced a superb self-titled CD. Heavily influenced by Negativland and the Tape-beatles, it mixes pop culture artefacts, classic pop sequences and comedic spoken word sections. Escape Mechanism, he says, was largely the result of eight months spent in Duluth, three hours north of Minneapolis - several months of which were spent "watching the lake my apartment sat on freeze". Moving back to Minneapolis, Nelson completed the CD, which appropriates often recognisable samples including Thelonious Monk and the local boy made good who used to be known as Prince (who, in the album's most memorable moment, reassures us that "only children can fall down the bathroom drain"). Yet despite piquing the interest of local tastemakers, Nelson has no live plans for his smart, moody beat collages. Then again, a scene centered on isolationism befits Minneapolis/St. Paul's geographical location. Located smack in the middle of the US continent, the closest major city, Chicago, is eight hours away. Six month winters don't help matters any, either. In the mid-80's, when Prince paced the pop charts and The Replacements and Husker Du did much the same for college radio, more than one onlooker noted that all that time indoors forced the musicians to practice out of sheer boredom. With the arrival of cheap sampling and sequencing equipment, the same circumstances - nothing to do and nowhere to go - feed the next generation of Midwestern sonic explorers.

Of course, not all of them are as reticent to perform as Nelson. Jace Krause willingly wrecks PA speakers with his handy collection of analogue effects boxes, performing under the name Lost In Translation. A longtime member of the home-taping noise underground, he began exploring breakbeats while at college in De Kalb, Illinois, where he attended raves thrown by Milwaukee's renegade party crew Drop Bass Network. "At first I'd just go into the chill out room because I was into Ambient at the time," he recalls. "I hated Jungle and gabba. I thought it was too fast." The lanky, bespectacled, gregarious Krause grins maniacally. "Now nothing's fast enough for me." Indeed it isn't, if his side of the 12" EP he shares with fellow noisemaker Substance P is any indication. It is released on Krause's own History Of The Future label, which has some affinity with breakcore labels like Vinyl Communications and DHR, as evidenced by Mechanize Biorhythmic Imperative, the punishing debut CD from Krause's friend Benji Gross, aka Radar Threat. "Everything we've liked over the last ten years finds its way into what we do, Krause explains. "There are a lot of connections between extreme musics, and we're trying to bring those out. It doesn't fit any one place. It's too Techno for the noise scene and too noisy for the Techno scene.

The middle ground has always been surprisingly easy to negotiate in the Twin Cities. With its combination of cheap rents, large student population, liberal attitudes and an ingrained DIY attitude borne of necessity, Minneapolis/St. Paul is an ideal crucible for the experimentally minded musician. There are drawbacks, of course. Those liberal attitudes are often couched inside the notorious 'Minnesota nice', a maddening refusal to be impolite, no matter what. And local radio is increasingly conservative. Even the University of Minnesota's much feted Radio K adheres to a fairly rigid playlist whose parameters measure the distance between Stereolab and the Cardigans.

The live scene, however, is looking up. Though The New Atlantis's current home at Jitters coffeehouse is about to be demolished, the number of live outlets for the new underground is increasing daily. In the Twin Cities as everywhere, local rockers are also discovering the joy of beats, bleeps, bass and sheer noise, and several groups now play out with DJs and experimental artists. When relatively obscure musicians like Mandell and Krause can draw crowds of over 300, something is clearly in the air. As Krause puts it, "Everything good culturally comes out of the Midwest."

- Michaelangelo Matos