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Brandt Brauer Frick defies electronic-music conventions

Brandt Brauer Frick's "Mr. Machine" manipulates classical instruments to arrive at a sound meant for late-night raving
The abiding problem with seeing electronic music live is that what you're hearing often has no relationship to what's happening onstage. Whether it's a DJ cross-fading or a dubstepper banging on a sampler pad, a guy behind a laptop could be doing almost anything -- perhaps just hitting the spacebar.

The German electronic dance trio Brandt Brauer Frick pulled the curtain back in the video for its well-received single, "Bop." Over its nine minutes, the experimental electronic group takes the stage on a cheeky fake-TV show, "Minimal Parade," and methodically shows you how it's done. The song starts with a whack on a muted drum, then on the side of a xylophone, with stick claps and a bit of synthesized bass to build a handmade house beat. Then clones of the band members join them and build it out -– dissonant pianos, vocal slivers and a human-sized shaker add up to an orchestra of many Daniel Brandts, Jan Brauers and Paul Fricks making some of the most beguiling dance music in recent years.

The clip is a funny riff on the depersonalization of wonky electronic music and also a kind of brave open-source guide to their process. The formula yielded two acclaimed albums, including last month's "Mr. Machine," that manipulate classical instruments to arrive at a sound meant for late-night raving. The band has two dates in Southern California this week, including the Satellite on Thursday and the Luckman on Saturday, part of a rare U.S. tour that continues the buzz from its 2011 Coachella performance, which turned heads for defying nearly every stereotype about electronic dance music -- the biggest being that it's all just cutting and pasting.

"A lot of my studies were in weird, noisy, avant-garde music," Frick said. “But when we started playing them in this dance context, it felt surprisingly fresh."

If it sounds gimmicky on paper, on record BBF's musical logic quickly coheres. Its sounds are less about swooning romance and more about the repetition, drone and sound-art legacies of Steve Reich and John Cage. Its members have formal music training (Frick's at the Berlin University of the Arts) and swap instruments constantly, and although their sonic palette comes from the reedy, organic timbres of a chamber orchestra, they dice them up into samples and loops that interlock into surprisingly sinuous beats and melodies.

They aren't playing techno on classical instruments -- they're sampling themselves to make an especially handmade kind of club music. "Pretend" gets a sense of impending doom from timpani hits, while a skittish marimba gives the song its swing, and guest vocalist Emika gives a frosty spin on the already-deadpan vocal style of Nico.

"You Make Me Real" takes liberties with atonality and ambience, and "On Powdered Ground (Mixed Lines)" creeps like a highbrow update of a slasher-movie score. But the record's high points come on songs such as "Mi Corazon," when all the interlocking percussive elements catch like watch gears, a funk-steeped bass line propels it forward and the band arrives at the same catharsis and physical pleasure of techno by taking an entirely different path.

"It is heavily edited, but only to take it to a next level," Frick said. "We have a lot of really dirty sounds and do things like pluck strings inside the piano, but we also want it really clear so you can hear each element."

But as any crossover act knows, sometimes doing two things well means it's twice as hard to find your audience. Should they be playing acoustically treated concert halls to crowds of classical fans in evening wear, or sweat-damp warehouse parties with kids slipping pills to one another in a heaving throng?

The answer, surprisingly, has been yes to both. Stephen Bolles, who handles U.S. marketing for the band's label (the esteemed German dance imprint !K7), had the task of building that crowd in an American market where mainstream rave culture is a recent import and classical audiences have been steadily graying.

"They’ve played concert halls and gotten interest from serious classical journals," Bolles said. "But then I also saw them at Coco 66, a club in Brooklyn with just an incredible sound system, and if there was any doubt this was dance music, that cleared it right up."

Recently, the band has been touring Europe with a 10-piece ensemble, largely re-creating the intricacies of its albums and ditching much of the looping. The band will stick to the traditional three-piece configuration for this U.S. round, but it's a setting that the group actually prefers in some ways, as it's free to wander off the sheet music. You don't want to lose all the mystery, after all.

"The three-piece version really is rave music," Frick said. "It starts slower, but by the end it turns into really intense techno."

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-- August Brown

Brandt Brauer Frick

Where: The Satellite, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Price: $12

Info: www.thesatellitela.com

Where: Luckman Fine Arts Complex, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Price: $25

Info: www.luckmanarts.org

Photo credit: Girlie Action

 

 
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