We're a Happy Family 

If the Ramones proved that you don't have to play an instrument to start a band, then the spazzy computer geeks behind Oakland's Tigerbeat6 prove you don't even need an instrument.

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Miguel Depedro was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1979, and came to San Diego at the age of five when a bad marriage sent his mom packing. Growing up among army brats and frat boys -- guys prone to picking fights with outsider twerps like himself -- he found little to relate to and developed a healthy distaste for the mainstream. He shunned MTV and commercial radio, opting instead for music his parents liked, such as Janis Joplin and Tangerine Dream.

He was, and still is, an extremely hyperactive kid, to the point where it kept him beyond the reach of the nation's public school system. By middle school Depedro had been demoted to an alternative education program, but by taking classes at community college he earned his high school diploma years ahead of schedule.

Depedro was definitely influenced by the '70s rock of his parents and the hip-hop and heavy metal his brother introduced him to, but it was noise music that gave him what he was looking for: raw, emotional intensity unfettered by lyrics or pretense. Acts like Japan's experimental guru Merzbow had a huge effect, as did the more ambient and experimental records his dad gave him. He quickly ascertained that, with noise, a musician didn't need to know how to read notes or even lay down a beat. Translating ideas into music was as easy as finding a recording device. Plus, his scatterbrained tendencies kept him from mastering any one instrument; the kid was far too impatient to survive music courses long enough to actually learn how to play the piano or guitar.

"My musical inspirations were so obscure that I couldn't find anyone to play with," Depedro says, adding another factor to his insularity. It also didn't help that everyone around him was trying to emulate three-chord punk. "But I couldn't have sounded like Blink 182 even if I wanted to," he says.

With such inclinations, you might expect him to pull a Thurston Moore and just grab a guitar, turn it up, and see what needed breaking, but that possibility was foreclosed one day in 1996. While Depedro was playing with a model rocket, its engine exploded, blowing off part of his finger and severely burning his arm. What might have spelled certain doom for an aspiring guitarist was actually a gift from above: A settlement with the model rocket company gave him the cash to buy brand-new computer gear.

With plenty of recovery time on his, er, hands, Depedro plugged into the Internet and essentially enrolled himself in computer music college. He downloaded cracked software, asked questions, traded programs, and learned all the tricks from other electronic music practitioners, who were a scarce breed locally.

Not that San Diego was a complete pop-culture wasteland. It has played home to such great indie bands as Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt. But these days, if you ask most San Diegans what put the city on the pop cultural map, they'll say this: power-punk! Blink 182 set the cultural standard throughout the late '90s in a city known for its zoo, its marine park, and its proximity to ol' Mex. It also had raves, which, when Depedro arrived on the scene, were already starting to feel more like skating parties at the local roller rink than the acts of drug-addled rebellion they once had been. For any self-respecting musician looking for something more fulfilling than three-chord punk, indie rock, or E-nergized teens, San Diego had few options.

But one of the bright spots was a small label called Vinyl Communications, an organization that became the ideological model for Tigerbeat6. VC was essentially a hardcore-punk label that dabbled in the occasional prank-call, noise, or experimental record. Jagged bands such as Tit Wrench and Cringer set the pace for the roster, which was more intent on wreaking havoc than creating soundtracks for skate videos.

It was hanging around in this insular scene that the teenage Depedro met J Lesser, one of T6's first artists. Raised on a diet of Big Black, Public Enemy, and Negativland, Lesser was all about experimentation for the sake of provocation. A skilled guitarist, he collaborated with respected indie rockers like Rob Crow (Heavy Vegetable and later Pinback) and the math-metal band A Minor Forest before discovering his voice as a solo artist.

"Punk was totally tired," says Lesser. "It had been dead for ten years or more. It was like, 'I'm not gonna kick that body again, let's try something different.'" Combining ironic self-deprecation, unabashed confidence, and one hell of a sadistic streak, Lesser's early antics are perhaps best exemplified by his 1995 release I Hate Me, which came individually packaged with a razor blade and four fake hits of LSD.

Lesser staged his initial performances outside lame punk venues, playing electric guitar over a drum machine until promoters or local authorities shut him down. Other accounts speak of fights and flamethrowers and outbursts which ultimately earned him a reputation that got him banned from many San Diego clubs. The main reaction he got from the puzzled audiences was "'Dance music? That's not punk,'" Lesser recalls. "But the stuff we were doing on VC wasn't dance music. It was just noise and aggression."

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