Finding the command center for local electronic music group Her Space Holiday isn't easy. You cross the Bay Bridge, head south on 101 for awhile, and then hop over to Highway 92. A couple exits later, you bank past a gas station, then hang a right and enter the lawn-and-garden labyrinth of suburban San Mateo.
Her Space Holiday (consisting of Marc Bianchi and Keely Chanteloup) live here with their respective parents during the few months that they're not out on tour. They're planning on buying a house together next year, but for now Bianchi kicks out his beautifully low-key jams in his sister's childhood bedroom.
It's in this gear-filled room -- still haunted with the ghosts of canopy beds and flowered wallpaper -- that Michael Stipe recorded his vocals for Bianchi's recent REM remixes. It's also in this same room that Bianchi crafted his seventh release, Manic Expressive, which the notoriously snarky NME hailed as "close to perfect."
And it is to this same room that I have come on a mission. For today, Bianchi has graciously consented to pass on the skills that will launch my career in the world of beat-making, and, eventually, propel me to stardom as Oakland's answer to Fatboy Slim.
I will admit something straight away. Drunk on Bianchi's pre-interview assurances that anyone can make electronic music, I had already loaded up my rickety laptop with Acid (available free at www.sonicfoundry.com) and Soundforge, the idiot-proof, industry-standard programs for budding electronic musicians. I was not what you would call a natural. So I was very eager to hear Marc's words of wisdom on how I could jump-start my already sagging career in electronic music.
After we'd settled into the control room, Marc opened an Acid window and loaded in some .WAV-file beats to illustrate the basics. Acid is a visual editing program -- it turns every sound and noise into a ribbon of color that can be copied, pasted, stretched, and clipped at will. With the casual ease of a retiree scattering birdseed in the park, Marc tossed out some hi-hat samples and kick-drum hits. Simple. Easy.
But when he hit "play," the thumping, clattering beat sounded so funky and lifelike that I almost peed myself. To the detriment of my journalistic integrity, I also started hooting like a drunken hillbilly, clapping my hands and slapping my knee in excited wonder. Could I make beats come alive like that?
"Anyone can," Marc said, kindly.
And then, because I asked him to, Marc closed the practice beat, and opened the Acid file from one of the songs off Manic Expressive. Immediately I saw there were going to be problems. My earlier baffled attempts with the Acid program had resulted in a monitor that resembled a plate of New California cuisine -- a few parsimonious lines of color perched prissily on a metronomic grid. The Her Space Holiday song "Keystroke," on the other hand, looked like a white trash Christmas dinner -- color-drunk ribbons of Jell-O red and Twinkie yellow careening en masse across the screen, dropping out and flinging themselves back in again as the song required.
Marc ticked off all the things going on in the song ("This is a detuned ice pick hitting a block of ice," "That's the distorted sound of a camera rewinding") and offered some good advice about pre-made drum loop construction kits and the importance of mixing in a measured amount of ugliness to help amplify the beautiful. But in my tangled head, I had already distilled Marc's wisdom into two basic rules:
1) Get as many colors on the screen as possible.
2) When in doubt, move the purple things over to the right.
Marc and I said our good-byes after I had wasted enough of his time, and I went home and loaded up Acid again. The only .WAV files I could find on my computer were the error beeps that come with Microsoft Office. I collaged two of them with a simple beat I found free on the Internet.
It sounded awful. But then I moved the purple sample over to the right, the sounds fell into place. The mess of loops became something that could almost be interpreted as dance music. If you weren't picky about what you danced to.
Suddenly, electronic music seemed doable. Given enough time, I could actually see myself making something that might make other people hoot like a hillbilly. It all reminded me of Marc's parting words. "The only difference between me and somebody else who wants to make a record," he said with his trademark modesty, "is that I'm going to let myself make a record. All people have to do is let themselves make a record. You just have to not let yourself stand in the way of what you want to do."
To which I and my arsenal of Microsoft error beeps say: Watch out, Slim, there's a new fatboy in town.
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