Sound of vertigo

Pub date August 12, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

Music can teleport you to far-off lands and spark nostalgia for distant times. It might elicit lost memories or even summon illusions. You may have never visited Istanbul or São Paulo or lived in the 1960s, but music infects the imagination with a visceral experience of the unknown. The effect is uncanny, mesmerizing, beautiful, and even therapeutic.

But what happens when music pushes its ability to displace to an extreme? When music annihilates your familiar sense of space and warp holes your usual expectations of time? Can listening to music transform you? Los Angeles-based beatsmith and DJ the Gaslamp Killer certainly thinks so. "The music I’m looking for is the stuff that will cut through your brain and just make you feel … almost overwhelmed," Gaslamp slowly explains whether arranging cosmic abyss mixtapes like I Spit On Your Grave (Obey, 2008) or crafting his own twisted productions, including his just-released debut solo EP My Troubled Mind (Brainfeeder), Gaslamp displays a developing genius for charting hallucinatory odysseys into vertigo. His haunted, cinematic music unhinges the listener, approaching a surreal dissociation and restoration of the self.

William Benjamin Bensussen didn’t identify as the Gaslamp Killer until some time after moving to Los Angeles three years back. He grew up in another troubled Southern California paradise cloaked in its own rusted mythology: San Diego. There, a restless Bensussen was already broadening his musical horizons in the fifth grade, listening to Too Short, Jimmy Hendrix, and Dre. A few years later he attempted to satiate his curious, nearly frantic energy by freestyle dancing at raves and in b-boy circles — to electronic and hip-hop music respectively. But it was DJ Shadow who bridged those fractured worlds for Bensussen and ignited a desire to dig into jazz, funk, and psychedelic crates. "I started on this frenzy trying to find all the originals. And then I realized that Shadow had sampled half of his stuff, and he wasn’t as much of a genius as I thought he was," Gaslamp recalls, laughing. "That’s when I started looking for older records and thinking, well, maybe I could do this."

Bensussen’s dark nom de plume is a bittersweet tribute to his unlikely origins. As a 19-year-old college dropout, he flipped wax in San Diego’s glittery Gaslamp District to a sometimes hostile crowd. Bensussen remembers bitterly a particular confrontation with a vindictive listener. A strikingly beautiful woman — who intimidated the then-teenage DJ — queried him angrily why he wanted to ruin her time with his fucked up music. Why? Dumbfounded, wounded, and angry, Bensussen drew sadistic nourishment from the provocation. It helped inspire his first mixtape project, the circa-2000 Gaslamp Killers, a lo-fi guzzling of psychotic drums and horror sonic bits. Recently, Bensussen decided to rename himself in light of this original labor of love.

Gaslamp has yet to settle down. He helped found L.A.’s monolithic weekly showcase for uncut beat-driven tracks, the Low End Theory, in the fall of 2006. And he’s secured a close affiliation with Flying Lotus’ bubbling imprint, Brainfeeder. But Bensussen’s troubled mind still wanders, like his music and his words, in perpetual hunger for the rawness of life. "[My music] comes from more of a vicious area," Gaslamp explains, searching for the right words. "Not angry, just passion — but a passion that can’t be sugar-coated."

This unmediated passion takes Gaslamp into many dangerous and strangely ethereal caverns. It also jettisons him to the homes of foreign musicians marked by the same shattered pathos. My Troubled Mind gathers its influences from all over the globe — Turkey, India, Russia, Mexico, Germany, and Italy. But the way Gaslamp employs samples from these regions defies their idiosyncratic place of origin. He has a rare skill for extracting universal otherworldliness from regional sounds. And he implements their fiercely destructive yet uplifting spirituality into his mind-melting compositions. His music and DJ sets become performances, elusive experiences leaving you charred and fiending for more of their ineffable allure. "I’m glad people can’t describe it," Gaslamp says, nearly yelling into the speakerphone. "Once they are able to describe it, that’s when they chew it up, spit it out, and leave it behind. The more indescribable and amazing it is, the more you’ll hold on to your people, your listeners."