Microwave man

Rod Modell does not immediately look the type to receive paranormal interplanetary information that he converts — by tweaking various sound machines — into some of the most strangely beautiful music on earth.

But look again. Go deeper and you begin to suspect that, yep, he sure does. You don't see it so much as you hear it in the spraying hisses and languid drones that mark his music, both as a solo artist and via his collaborations with other sonic art experimentalists, as well as in music of his groups, deepchord and Echospace. You also hear it in word after word, as he talks about a career in techno minimalism that spans from the mid-1980s to the present.

As you listen, you can't help but look up at Modell. After all, he's 6-foot-6, a cinnamon bear of a man with blond highlights atop a head that he says once held a shock of Goth-hair that could reach most ceilings. It comes as no surprise, then, when Modell, who's 38, says such bands as Cabaret Voltaire ("The Covenent, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord might be my all time favorite record") and Severed Heads were among his first musical influences. Or that he and his friends once hooked up with Skinny Puppy after a local concert and then crashed the afterparty at Detroit's City Club "because we all looked like we were with the band. They just nodded and let us in."

We're sitting in Modell's dining room in a small white house about 60 miles northeast of Detroit, near a point where the St. Clair River opens up into Lake Huron. The beach is visible from the window. There's a lighthouse just downriver near the Blue Water Bridge, which connects Port Huron to Sarnia, Ontario. The late August heat is stifling outside, but severe thunderstorms are in the forecast. Soon, electric sound and light from the heavens will boom, crash and streak through the air.

A more perfect day to talk to a guy who's spent more than half his life painstakingly constructing and deconstructing static couldn't have been scripted.

Modell talks rapidly as he winds through his personal history. He begins at the middle, then works his way backward and forward, shifting around in his chair as he recalls the times he hung out at Gus Zoppi and Huber and Breese music stores. Or who he bumped into while shopping for vinyl at Detroit's Buy Rite or Record Time in Roseville (at the latter, he met Mark Ernestus, one of the two Berlin-based originators of the Basic Channel, Chain Reaction and Rhythm & Sound projects to which Modell's music is frequently compared).

He's now spent 22 years making serious music in small, dark rooms while living in relative obscurity. He takes me up the stairs of his residence to reveal a small workspace that contains only a few pieces of equipment. "People have always thought I had this huge studio, but I didn't ... and now I have it really stripped down," Modell says. "I used to chase after all kinds of gear, buying what I thought could produce the most perfect sound. But it never did. Now I think imperfection and simplicity are much, much better." He once bought the ultra-rare Fairlight 2X digital sampler, a computerized toy favored by artists as varied as Klaus Schulze, Mike Oldfield and the Captain & Tennille. The unit was priced at around $60,000 when it was introduced in the early 1980s. "Now, though, I'd rather use shitty samplers and guitar pedals for effects," he says.

Modell's musical history has been documented on fanboy websites in Germany and the U.K., but, oddly, little has been written about him in Detroit. Strange since Modell was born in the city and spent his early childhood in the old Poletown neighborhood on Grandy near Chene Street. His family moved to Harper Woods, then Arizona briefly, before returning to Michigan. Modell graduated from Clinton Township's Chippewa Valley High School in 1987, but he's been living in St. Clair County for nearly 20 years. For a time, Modell and his deepchord partner Mike Schommer shared a work-live space in Eastern Market.

In 1996, he released (with Chris Troy) an ambient LP on Kim Cascone's San Francisco-based Silent label called V 1.0-1, on which he gave performer credits to "digital audio graphs, granular synthesis, microwave communications and psycho-acoustics." The group's formal name was Waveform Transmission and the CD was reissued last year on Italy's Silentes imprint. Also released on Silentes are two other Modell full lengths — Electromagnetic-Etheric Systems Approach and Plays Michael Mantra, the latter featuring music inspired by the California-based ambient music composer. Additionally, Modell did some mastering for Rich Hawtin's Minus label, working on tracks by Detroit's Theorem (Dale Lawrence) and Germany's Niederflur (aka Christopher Bleckmann and Hannes Wenner of Misc.) for the company. He also produced soundtrack material for the documentary, Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, on the Discovery Channel.

But it was deepchord — which in 2000 began releasing dubby, flow-motion tracks suitable for slow dance floor grind or bedroom chill — that caught the attention of techno purists around the world. The group made a rare live appearance at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2001. The set was later remastered by Echospace and Ron Murphy at Detroit's famed National Sound Corporation and released as Vantage Isle in a limited edition of 1,200 copies.

Schommer has been inactive of late, living in Port Sanilac with his wife Jenny and three young children. But Modell has managed to keep the deepchord mantle alive, using it to "present" his Echospace project, which he shares with Chicago's Steve Hitchell (who's recorded under the moniker Soultek and runs a label called Souldubsounds). Modell says the duo's debut LP, The Coldest Season, was made "the old-fashioned way ... using analog equipment and by sending CD-Rs back and forth to Chicago. We don't use the computer as the focal point of the studio. I supplied the raw 'food' — the basslines, loops and percussion — and Steve assembled it."

The result is a shimmering 80-minute, nine-song suite that grabs your ears from the first propulsive jet stream and doesn't let go until the last track, "Empyrean," disappears via a slow fade. The first piece, "The Point of Aries," introduces an alien soundscape where beats rise and fall or simply charge ahead, albeit weirdly, with dense layers of echo, delay and other effects.

Highlights are everywhere. You hear the droning "Aequinaxium," "Ocean of Emptiness," "Sunset," and "Winter in Seney" once and you secretly wish they would go on forever. On "Abraxas," "Celestialis" and "Elysian," stabbing synthlines prick at the brain with the body responding by shuffling, swaying and occasionally two-stepping to the beats. When it works, Modell calls the end result "a psychotropic highball."

The sound is dirty, but not bleak and never gray. Modell says his sonic palette has plenty of color in it and he's right. They might be muted, but colors these are. He and Hitchell don't filter out the "mistakes" created by the recording process. It's all a part of the group's aesthetic — Modell describes it as "an overall physiology of tone" — making the sound more akin to a living, breathing animal than most other modern electronic music.

"Too much made now is stripped clean and so sterile," he says. "Where are the overtones? Where are the harmonics? For that to happen, you have to leave the shit in, not scrub it out."

As dark clouds approach from the west and the river begins to chop, Modell puts on his sunglasses to block out what's left of the sun. We hear the blue-green water flow in the background. And that's all we hear.


Deepchord Presents Echospace The Coldest Season is out now on Modern Love.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer based in Hamtramck. Send comments to [email protected]