There was a time when boyish machismo didn’t factor into the making of electronic music. Yet within the last few years, it seems that artists working with sporadic beats have been pumping up the testosterone, trying to crawl out of the shadows of innovators such as Aphex Twin and Autechre. Without naming names, let’s just say that a lot of talent has been wasted on shortsighted programming that sounds like the electronic equivalent of Frank Zappa’s less-memorable work (i.e. too much overt instrumental wanking). And if IDM (intelligent dance music) is still the working term for sporadic-beat electronica, then Telefon Tel Aviv has accidentally evolved IDM’s definition. With soft melodies and an array of acoustic instruments, TTA has become IDM’s recommended long-distance carrier into the organic world.
Hefty Records artists Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper (aka TTA) are fully aware of the dynamic that they’ve created on this record by balancing live instruments with digital components. In doing so, it was important to TTV that its music didn’t alienate people.
“We wanted to make something that wasn’t just about the process or technique,” says Cooper. “Although there is a lot of technical stuff that we toiled over, we didn’t want that to be the focus of the tracks.”
Adds Eustis, “The trend of trying to be the most technical has gone on a bit too long, and for me, that kind of childish behavior defeats the purpose of making good music. I wanted to make a record that my dad could jam out to in his Caddy.”
The music of New Orleans natives TTA, while drawing influences from all over, is steeped in the sounds of the Big Easy. While this might seem like an unlikely home to TTA’s sound, it makes more sense when Eustis explains.
“New Orleans definitely gave birth to TTA — we draw a lot of influence from the local rap scene in New Orleans. There is definitely something very Southern about our music — it’s kind of hot and mellow. But if our record is mellow, it still hits harder than typical IDM — if you play it in a [good] car system. It thumps a lot more like top-40 R&B than indie electronic music.”
TTA’s live sets are an exercise in instrument juggling. Acoustic guitars, bass, a Rhodes organ and various keyboards are juxtaposed with the meandering, glitchy sounds from the group’s computers.
“It would be a lot easier for us to just bring in a couple of laptops,” says Cooper. “But we never liked doing it that way. I guess we always have to make it as hard as possible for ourselves. I feel that when someone pays to see us, we should try our hardest to make it worthwhile.”
Although instrumental hybridization is nothing new in electronic music, not many groups can really make it work fluidly. For this reason, Telefon Tel Aviv might appeal to fans of Tortoise, Mouse on Mars or even Herbie Hancock. By weaving in and out of different genres, Tel Aviv hopes to appeal to a wide variety of music lovers. In this sense, it seems biased to simply refer to TTA as “electronic music.” Speaking of electronic music’s infatuation with its own form, Eustis explains how TTA wishes to avoid that pigeonhole:
“There’s a lot of stuff out these days that has no tune, and to me that’s a bum-out. I guess our stuff is ambient in many ways, but as far as IDM, that really isn’t where we wanted to go. The electronic aspect to our music is secondary, so we would never really fit in a world where so much weight is given to one’s electronicism.”
Still, one can’t help but notice Tel Aviv’s tight grasp on ornate programming. But that’s exactly where TTA get the big thumbs-up. TTA’s music isn’t pushy. Rather, it seems to calmly ask the listener to stop analyzing and start grooving or even meditating — not to mention other practical uses for its tunes.
Other artists have also helped to pave the way for Eustis and Cooper’s creation of melodic sounds over hyperactive electronics. Cooper hopes that soon even more people will be receptive to the subtle side of electronic beats:
“Bands like Boards of Canada and Matmos have crossed into quite a few realms. I hope that because of them, and big indie labels like Matador backing them, electronic music’s fan base in the United States isn’t just fixed on one style. There are always gonna be purists who aren’t happy unless you alienate everyone but them and a few thousand others in the world who will get it.”
As far as metro Detroiters are concerned, though, TTA is confident that good taste and open minds are par for the course.
“Detroit and Ann Arbor are the shit,” says Eustis. “The kids there are music enthusiasts. That’s our favorite place to play. I’m looking forward to Audiofold. It should be off the hook.”Robert Gorell writes about the other side of electronics for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]