Machines of loving grace

Brendan M. Gillen is talking about the Great Disappointment, a spectacular non-event in the 1840s when evangelicals wrongly predicted the end of the world. Erika Sherman, his partner in the enigmatic man-woman-machine group Ectomorph, reclines in a chair and listens, a finger brushing away strands of red hair from her eyes. She’s on the opposite side of a sun-kissed backyard deck in this pretty Ann Arbor neighborhood, an unlikely spot to be talking about the apocalypse. But Gillen and Sherman are only warming up to the coming darkness, which is just beginning to fall on the afternoon.

The topic of the day is supposed to be music, specifically the long-awaited Ectomorph releases that are anticipated this fall — the first on the duo’s Interdimensional Transmissions label since the “Breakthrough” and “Dada” singles in 2000. But before the subject can turn to Ectomorph itself, a series of sidebars take the interview in the direction of the new papacy of Karl Ratzinger, the novels of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs, and Star Trek, which Gillen says he admires despite the “military utopianism” it suggests.

“She turned me on to the show,” Gillen says, sipping a small glass of vodka on ice, his eyes fixed on his partner. “She got me into the Internet, into e-mail. Thanks a lot, Erika.”

Gillen takes the lead during this sprawling conversation that spans weird world history, centuries of Americana and pop culture trivia, until it fixes on his passionate relationship to music, which began with “a beatnik father into jazz and pop ... who had the Velvet Underground’s Banana LP that actually peeled.

“My dad took me to see U2, and to see John Cage, who brought a cow onstage and performed with the cowbell. We went to see Throne of Blood and A Clockwork Orange at the Punch and Judy Theatre. We drove around the city listening to WLBS on the radio. ...”

Freeze it.

Gillen, who was born in Detroit in 1971, was barely 10 years old at the time that Detroit radio was slinging exuberant disco heat like Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” crossover dance pop by Prince and songs by New Order, Kraftwerk, Laisons Dangereuses and other leftfield electro invaders from Europe. Then came the Electrifyin’ Mojo and the Wizard, Jeff Mills, on WJLB and WDRQ. Out came Gillen’s tape recorder.

“I was making cassettes in second grade,” Gillen says.

Later he created his own radio show, Crush Collision, which aired on Ann Arbor’s WCBN.

Sherman, who is four years younger than Gillen, says she also started taping music while growing up in Long Island. She came to Ann Arbor in the early 1990s, graduated from the University of Michigan’s Residential College, and stayed.

When Sherman and Gillen met in 1993, an embryonic version of Ectomorph was already forming. The group then consisted of Gillen and the mysterious Gerald (no last name available), who pushed his talents even further underground with Drexicya and Dopplereffekt (remember “Porno Actress”?).

Sherman joined Ectomorph in ’96, because Gillen says he wanted “female energy in the band. All my favorite groups, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, the Velvets, New Order, had women.”

“Maybe women have a way of talking to the machines, creating a dialogue that’s both synthetic and organic,” Sherman says. Gillen says: “Electronic music should be totally organic, with human ideas given a voice through machines. Ectomorph is all about people applying electronics to real time performance. It’s like playing the tuba or cello. I’m not into standing in front of crowd turning a knob or typing on a keyboard. What can be more boring than that?”

Step down into the Ectomorph studio and witness the proof. There, along each wall, are rows and rows of vintage analog equipment, and a small blue instrument about which Gillen boasts, “That’s some awesome Lee Perry phasing shit right there. It’s totally the shit.”

He turns on the music and the new single, “Chromed Out,” bounces out, propelled by percussive elements courtesy of collaborator Sal Principato of Liquid Liquid. Still skeletal and funky — a trademark of the Ectomorph sound — the song crunches with deep bass lines and a cheeky acid-disco melody; the B-side, “XXX,” dives headlong into Chicago acid house with underpinnings of Detroit Ghetto-tech. Its intent is to scramble your brains, get you hard, make you wet.

“This is the future of the music, a total integration of the body and the machine, until you can’t tell one from the other,” Gillen says, looking over his shoulder at Sherman. “I can’t even remember exactly how we made this track, can you?”

“No,” she says, “I can’t.”

“Perfect,” Gillen says.


See Also:

When the machines rock
by Walter Wasacz
Sick electro-punk meets sci-fi intellectualism in the dance tracks of T. Raumschmiere.

Ectomorph’s single “Chromed Out/XXX,” is scheduled for release on Interdimensional Transmissions in October, with the group’s debut LP out later this year.

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