Cords. Pedals. Buttons. Plugs and pieces. What is electronic music but a soundtrack of electricity flowing from one plastic part to another; a collection of volts humming and vibrating in an ironically harmonious fashion that somehow manages to tantalize our organic bones and flesh? Treasure Island’s Saturday lineup is dedicated to the electronic elements of today’s sound waves, but the event’s artist grouping distorts the genre’s seemingly obvious definition to one that is tattered with new sound bytes and unlikely additions.
Out goes the assumption that “electronic music” equals tranquilized club kids, and in come the offshoots of chill wave, electro-pop, electro-rock, folktronica, dance rock, and all kinds of made-up names. From the dance-party infiltrators, LCD Soundsystem, to the “next level shit” of Die Antwoord, each of the 13 acts playing Saturday’s Island stage hold unique qualities. DeadMau5 and Kruder and Dorfmeister remain strictly digital; Little Dragon and Holy Fuck incorporate traditional instruments; French duo Jamaica bans synth completely, while Miike Snow and Wallpaper might consider their vintage plug-in pianos family members. When it comes to defining today’s electronic scene, DJs and professional remixers definitely count, but the full set of rules is still TBD.
Music is what frees us from our overloaded lives, cutting through our webbed-out existence with sounds that take us “away from it all,” yet electronic music seems to work as both an escape and a reminder. Aren’t we tired of hearing our computers bleep? How about those ridiculously catchy videogame noises and horrid ringtones that rot the brain? Electronically-inclined musicians are adding such sounds to their repertoire, disguising them with mustaches and wigs, tangling them with bass and dreamy melodies then handing them back in a totally rad new package.
It’s a streamlined recycling process, melting, molding, and converting junk sounds into something that injects new movement into our robot routines. No, not everything has been thought of before — here is one area where fresh sounds are being discovered.
In fact, things are so new and up in the air that some bands included in the electronic half of this weekend don’t even consider themselves part of the genre. Sarah Barthel, half of the newest blog sensation Phantogram, is one example, though she and bandmate Josh Carter use a fair amount of outlet-powered instruments like samplers, synths, beat machines, and loop machines. “Sound has so many options today. It’s mind boggling and amazing,” she says while riding in a tour van to Atlanta.
Phantogram’s mysterious electro-rock doesn’t necessarily call out “brand new” when it spins, mostly due to its throwbacks to ’90s trip-hop. But similar to a fair portion of Saturday’s bill, the duo is living somewhere off the classic genre map.
“People will ask, ‘Where’s your drummer? Why don’t you have one?” and I just tell them, ‘We don’t want one,'” Barthel says with a laugh, remembering that just moments prior she had expressed her excitement over Phantogram’s newest addition to the tour family— a real drummer to replace their box with buttons. “In general, we’re just trying to go for a different aesthetic. And typically, more traditional elements like a live drummer wouldn’t fit that. But right now, it’s totally working.”
Electronic music today is full of contradictions — as many loopholes as loops. Anything goes and nothing fits quite right, which is why Antoine Hilarie of Jamaica doesn’t even know how to answer the question, What is electronic music?
“I don’t have the slightest idea, to be honest,” he says, before taking it a philosophical step farther and questioning the point of my question altogether. “Genre-defining is a bit obsolete in my opinion. These days I only listen to bands I like, whether they’re rap, electronic music, rock, or folk.”
It’s a genre that can incorporate all genres, meaning it’s own definition is completely lost for words. But none of the bands on Saturday will be playing unplugged. And if the power does disconnect any of our electric artists, we’ll have a very quiet island.
TREASURE ISLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL
Sat/16, noon–11 p.m.; Sun/17, noon–10:30 p.m.;
Treasure Island, SF