Snap, crackle, prog-pop

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Why we’re still called Midwestern doesn’t make any sense, really. Not since half the U.S. populace traced the Mississippi while the other half hugged the Eastern seaboard has it been remotely accurate. Even back then, Michigan should have been considered the Northwest. And it’s not like Americans have ever cared much about which hemisphere we’re on, so you can ditch that explanation. Regardless, here we are in a region that can be as mysterious as its unfitting name. Ann Arbor’s Midwest Product, however, has embraced the surrounding weirdness with an introspective, New Wavy electro-pop sound that you’d never find in Utah (the real Midwest).

It’s sort of a cool statement, actually. Especially since the shortsighted music press often narrows in on a city to explain a greater sonic milieu — usually out of laziness. After all, what’s Detroit techno without Chicago house? Most likely the answer is “nonexistent.”

When asked about its name, the trio chimes in one after the other like they’ve scripted the response and timed its delivery. They finish each other’s thoughts in the way that only bandmates can.

“Detroit’s just part of the picture,” explains programming guru/guitarist Ben Mullins. “We’re not all ‘Detroit whut!’ We’re from the suburbs. It’s about this large chunk of America that’s not represented by the major media. It’s white-collar to blue-collar to bloody-collar. [The Midwest] is schizophrenic, but because of that, there’s a lot of emotion and personality here.

“Also,” he continues, “the type of music that we play couldn’t be possible without inexpensive rent, basements — and the fact that winter is annoying as hell. It forces you into the studio. There’s a certain hibernating edge to Midwestern music that doesn’t exist on the coasts.”

“You can’t fuck around,” proclaims bassist Drew Schmeiding in his usual ex-skateboarder/B-boy manner. “I grew up listening to [the Electrifying] Mojo and the Wizard on the radio. Where else could that have happened? It totally inspired me.” Schmeiding doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a part-time yoga instructor. But in Ann Arbor, he fits right in.

Drummer Chad Pratt brings the thought full-circle. “So many people leave Michigan. It’s always New York or San Francisco,” he explains. “We can do what we want right here because there are so many supportive people. Our name is a poke at the people — and particularly the artists — who leave for no good reason.”

Broadening horizons

The band is as energetic and precise as its dialogue. Midwest Product’s debut album, Specifics, drops this week and the group has already made quite a stir on the national front. Its label’s “Idol Tryouts” tour, which wraps up at the Blind Pig this Friday, found the band raising eyebrows, moving asses and clearing merch tables in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.

With Midwest Product, Ann Arbor label Ghostly International ups the ante even higher, adding to an already shocking buzz factor unbefitting an imprint only in its would-be terrible twos. “The Product,” as the members casually refer to themselves, further rounds Ghostly into a boutique label that appeals to a variety of tastes and draws fans out of stagnant scene affiliation. For some reason, people who claim to not like electronic music seem to make an exception for Ghostly.

But the Product empathizes with those who balk at checking out electronic acts. “Ben and I have seen laptop shows where [the artists] were just drinking and looking around,” explains Pratt when justifying the band’s desire to shake the wired shoegazer image. “It looks like they’re surfing the Net. That’s not engaging. [With our live show] we’re mainly thumbing our noses to the laptop musician fad.”

Mullins refuses to use computers as instruments; instead he opts for solid-state tone boxes and keyboards. “There’s more depth in the ways that sound can be created now,” says Mullins who works for a high-end audio gear manufacturer by day. “But in the process, with a handful of exceptions, [electronic hybrid bands] have neglected to incorporate musicality and melody. It wasn’t always like this. There’ve been a lot of groups in the past that used technology and still wrote cool songs. They weren’t just wanking on a Macintosh. We’d [rather] make songs that can be hummed back without boring the crowd in the process.”

Midwest Product writes pensive pop in the tradition of New Order, directly biting the group’s distinctive guitar style with extra delay and explosive, jangly chord hits. In “Reminder,” for instance, the group seems to be quoting the influential Brits more than ripping them off. It’s nostalgia-heavy for sure, but catchy enough to push backward-gazing snobbery aside. Although Midwest Project’s sound is a clear offshoot from New Wave, it takes itself less seriously while keeping the sentimental core firmly intact. Melodies are used as loops, then layered and deconstructed. It’s sort of like what a good DJ does; you don’t always know when they’re in the mix, taking you in or out of a chorus.

The sound is fresh because the approach is refreshing. The trio borrows production cues from the old and new, creating a mood that’s freed from the progression-for-its-own-sake techno trap. The members allow themselves to just be a band, one that happens to rock out by manipulating circuits.

“Some of the electronic sounds that the drums trigger are specifically there to add a kind of sterile or programmed feel to drums,” explains Pratt when asked why his kit looks as though its heart rate is being monitored. “But it’s nothing that Prince or New Order didn’t do in the early ’80s.”

Back in the day

Although just in their mid-20s, the Product boys have been at it for quite some time. Mullins mowed lawns until he had his first makeshift studio as a high school sophomore. Inspired by Nine Inch Nails’ ominous industrial melodies, Mullins now claims to have been “not as badass” as he thought he was, but he still gives plenty of respect to Trent Reznor’s insights. Eventually, he ended up in a band that, according to old friends of his, sounded exactly like Depeche Mode. More recently, Mullins has used his machines to hilarious effects in a karaoke-style ghetto-tech project known as Booty and tha Beast (later changed to Alluponya).

Schmeiding and Pratt were in a band together when they were 16. “I was rapping and Chad was playing drums,” explains Schmeiding. (“Way before 311!” interrupts Pratt to set the record straight.) “At one of our battle of the bands in high school we did an Esham cover.”

Schmeiding, who claims to have grown up a “breakdancing fat kid” is quickly trumped by Mullins who, when the subject is broached, immediately brings up a picture of himself as an 8-year-old in full Adidas regalia on his computer screen. Young Mullins’ arms are folded as if to say “Yo! What up now!?” It’s painfully suburban wannabe, but Mullins takes great pride in his early attempts at being down. Schmeiding, on the other hand, stayed true to form and is currently moonlighting as drummer for Ann Arbor’s popular instrumental hip-hop group Prime #’s.

Pratt’s other band, Morsel, has reached national acclaim, touring extensively and releasing some of the better art-rock albums to come out of the area. In ’94, his Morsel bandmate, Fathead, got him into Aphex Twin. Since then, hyperactive electronic music and the hip hop he grew up on have been more an inspiration than anything European and post-punk. Pratt’s drumming could be described as a cross between James Brown and the drum machine work of Afrika Bambaataa, of Prince and Juan Atkins.

The beauty of Midwest Product is that it is a neo-New Wave band on the surface, but one with a rhythmic soul that’s a few shades darker than you might expect. It simply borrows from everything the members think is meaningful, fun or pretty, then turns it up to 10.

“We’re trying to tap into the pleasure principle of what people anticipate when they’re listening to a song,” waxes Mullins. “I don’t want to be deliberately jarring, but at the same time, I don’t want to be pop-glossy like Britney’s Swedish legion. We’re not avant-garde genre-busters, we’ve just unintentionally embraced a trend in melody returning to electronic music.”

Midwest Product will perform Friday, July 26 at the Blind Pig (208 First Ave., Ann Arbor). For information, call 734-996-8555.

Robert Gorell writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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