the art of noise
DJ C, performing tonight as Electro Organic Sound System, is lulling the evening to a close at the "Tricks and Beats" Halloween party, put on by Boston's leading advocates for the jungle/drum n bass scene: the Toneburst Collective.
A crowd of about thirty listens to and watches C perform from his stage-in-the-round, set up on folding tables in the middle of the Massachusetts College of Art cafeteria. C hovers over keyboards, samplers, and mixers dressed in a fuzzy cape and a facemask, sporting a big red "C" on his chest. Some onlookers have taken to head-bobbing as C eases in a lethargic hip-hop beat from the sampler over the resonating ambient-dub bassline. Others stare confusedly at the cape-clad "Super C," wondering just what it is that they are hearing.
Most of the partygoers at "Tricks and Beats" have been dancing up a storm to the hard jungle beats playing upstairs, while the room housing Cs' stage is much more sparsely populated. "There were some people there who didn't understand what was going on," says C, a.k.a. Jake Trussell. "Some people would come up to me and ask for requests or if they could rap freestyle, and it didn't occur to them at all that I was performing, that I was effectively on stage."
Jake Trussell's approach to the music on this night incorporates sounds and beats into electronic soundscapes rather than more danceable hardstepping jungle. Jake and the other Toneburst artists who perform live make up the experimental music component of the collective which, although a vital facet, is frequently overlooked. Jake co-founded Toneburst with other local electronic artists and college radio DJs as a venue for experimental music, to create a space where jungle, ambient, and noise musicians could have an audience. Now, with write-ups in The Boston Phoenix and Mixmag-USA triumphantly emphasizing Toneburst's impact on establishing a local jungle scene amidst the supremacy of house, techno, alternative, and ska in Boston, it seems as if the artful presence of Jake's and others music is being overlooked. With an acclaimed CD under his belt, and a Toneburst Compilation CD in the works, Jake Trussell is excited about the attention and respect that Toneburst is commanding. At the same time, he is careful about maintaining the integrity of his music and the Toneburst ideology.
Most of the Toneburst crew works in a distillery turned artist studio complex in South Boston. Jake's sound system is set up in the middle of the room; his own personal stage-in-the-round. This squared off area consists of three folding tables, on which sit a computer, a mixer, and an analogue keyboard, respectively. The fourth side of the square holds two turntables, numerous CD players, and a DAT machine, sitting on a stretch of plywood that is suspended from the ceiling.
The room itself has painted bare-brick walls. Exposed pipes run the length of the room and sheets of clear plastic serve as ceiling tile. About a dozen or more old televisions sit in one corner, with boxes of power cords, wires, and appliance refuse. Two other corners hold chambers enclosed by hanging sheets. There are couches, computers, toys, and other knickknacks strewn all over the place.
Jake removes his hood, exposing a fine case of bed head, arrayed in short brown wisps around his scalp. He directs my attention to a futon doubling as a coat rack. "You can just, sort of, throw your coat and stuff here." The precision with which he composes and performs his music is complemented by his laid back manner and messy space in real life. Jenn Leong, a studio-mate, Toneburst collaborator, and Jake's teammate in the video projection venture Synergy Promixions, had spent the morning setting up his sound equipment and now busies herself by tidying up the junk across the room.
Jake explains that anywhere from two to six people work in the room at a given time. He points out the designated areas of his Toneburst studio-mates, their possessions, varying from homemade candles to African bongo drums adds eclectic charm to the makeshift quarters. This is truly an artists pad.
"Both my parents were artists, actually," Jake says, pointing out the paintings on the wall that his father had done. They suggest 70's graffiti. Jake Trussell, 25, grew up in West Newbury, Massachusetts, a former farm town turned bedroom community for Boston commuters. He also spent a great deal of time in its neiboring town, Newburyport, a former port city turned artist colony and tourist destination. His father had developed as an artist in these small New England towns years before the scene developed in the area. In Newburyport, a mural of hieroglyphs, painted by Mr. Trussell, covers a highway wall.
Jake's father exposed him to music's abstract possibilities while Jake was still learning to walk and talk. "My father used to make instruments out of metal and wood and things like that. He would have friends over, and they would jam, and they'd give me stuff to play, even when I was a baby."
His love for beats followed him to high school, where he became swept up into the hip-hop culture of the late '80s. He began making recordings with a four-track recorder, his electric guitar and drum set as well as a turntable he received for his high school graduation in 1990. Jake developed his technique by meshing hip-hop beats with rock riffs on the recorder. About this time, he also became acquainted with what he considers his most influential music styles. His father's love for reggae spawned Jake's interest in dub, reggae's deep-bassed, stoned out cousin. The ambient music of Brian Eno was also an inspiration.
One would expect to hear the loud rumblings of elaborate jungle bass and snares blasting through the corridors of Jake's studio. Instead the music of his roots looms quietly, almost subliminally, in the background; the old-school dub mastery of Sly and Robby. Later on, some brassy sixties lounge music kicks in. Occasionally he stares at the speakers in front of him, taking in the music, appreciating and analyzing its structure.
Upon closer inspection, some of the clutter and junk in the room emerges as abstract art.. Among the piles of abandoned media appliances, a circuit board finds a home on an empty wall. On the wall across the room, the shell of a boom box has been glued up. "Jake got board one night," says Jenn. "He decided to take things apart and glue them onto walls." Seeing the remains of a disemboweled radio on display as art reflects Jakes' knack for taking the conventional and making it abstract (even with his title: "DJ C" is something he prefers to see as "DJ SEE."). Instead of using the device to experience an art, the device becomes art itself.
In 1991, Jake found himself in a record store listening to a song by the Orb called Backside of the Moon. "That track was a mixture of a really phat hip-hop break, a dub bass line, and ambient washes of sound on top of it," Jake says. "These were the three styles that I personally was listening to at the time, and I was like 'Holy shit!' Now I had this revelation of where music could go."
He had this experience in mind while at community college, taking a music technology class. "It was basically a class on how to use a sampler, and I was just psyched about that because I knew that was the tool of hip-hop." Jake took an unconventional approach to using the sampler. Instead of just sampling a sound and playing it back on a keyboard, he used it to build beats and loops. It was a technique that not even his teacher had realized. "For some reason, not many people back then knew samplers could be used for looping and making beats, and that's where I started learning."
With his enrollment at the Massachusetts College of Art, Jake began hearing electronic music regularly on WZBC, Boston College's radio station. The mixture of ambient dub and psychedelic electronic noises mixed with sampled beats inspired him to start making serious music. Using a recently bought analogue keyboard and a looping sampler, Jake recorded his "primitive" electronic music on his four-track recorder. He released three cassettes as "C," very humbly titled C-A, C-B, C. His fourth cassette, he entitled Electro Organic. He also released it's companion the Electro Organic Dub Mixes. "It was this idea that I had been thinking of a lot. I was thinking of things coming together, like electronic culture in general, not even electronic music, but technology coming to this level in culture were it could create organic feeling out of itself. That's what I was starting to realize, that's what was happening in electronic music, which is why I was starting to like it a lot." He was fascinated by how the electronic tools of creation in music could create living forms of sound.
Jake recorded his debut CD as Electro Organic Sound System, released in 1996 through his label Bliss. He emphasizes electro organic as not just a name, but as the style and the philosophy behind the music. Incorporating his musical specialties, dub, ambient, and sampled beats, the hour long Herbanism flows smoothly through forms of chill-out electronica and distorted psychedelic jungle. The songs tend to fall into repetition, but this allows the movements of the ambient sounds and dub bass lines to evolve naturally, without forcing themselves. It's almost like listening to machinery breathing.
Jake used his CD to open doors for him at WZBC. Gene Sweeny, a DJ there, was interested in what he was doing and invited him to perform on his show. He would also appear on Jace Clayton's MIT radio show, Radio Interference. From the beginning, Jace (a.k.a. /rupture) says he was impressed by how Jake was attuned to the spiritual, hearing side of the music, rather than just wanting to hear hardcore beats. "He was on time, I was late with car problems," recalls Jace, referring to Jake's first appearance on the show. "I had to begin my show while he was still setting up. I remember running into the live studio between records to see if he was ready, and finding him standing there, hardly setup, just listening. I was playing some fresh new beats, you see, and he was absorbed."
Through these radio show collaborations, this small crew of DJs and musicians decided to put on their own event, showcasing their audio experimentalism with video installation art. The show took place at Art Space in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in November of 1996. Despite a low turnout, Jake and company knew that they were on to something important, an oasis of art-core performances amidst Boston's more commercial club and music culture. This was the genesis of Toneburst.
Jake leaves the couch and approaches the "wall of Toneburst." Every flier and article ever associated with Toneburst is tacked or taped up here. He gives a chronological outline of events, from the Art Space show over a year ago to the "Tricks and Beats" event this past Halloween to the weekly Microtone events, which were put on hiatus in mid-November. Not much has changed in a year, aside from the Toneburst logo and the names of some of the artists on the bill. The events are still cheep (five dollars), the talent is still fresh, and the collective is still a bright, though often overshadowed star in Boston's music scene.
For a recording by an underground artist (let alone an American electronic artist), Herbanism was met with substantial critical acclaim. Yet being underground and experimental seems to stigmatize Jake's work as too avant-garde for the general audiences in the eyes of many local promoters. In his article entitled "The Junglists are Coming" in the December 5th issue of The Boston Phoenix, Marcus Wholsen observes that although jungle is spun with gusto at Toneburst events, "From a musical standpoint, Toneburst members are not drum n bass purists." It tags Herbanism as representing "Toneburst's particular take on drum n bass." When asked about his experiences with Al Fougy, dubbed as Boston's leading promoter of jungle music, Jake hints that relations with Fougy are a bit stressed. "The first time I worked with him, it was because he liked the music and wanted me to perform live at his club night. The second time, it was because he just needed a live act to put on the bill. I give him nuf' respect for being Boston's premire jungle promoter and he obviously has a great love for the music, but I don't know weather the respect is mutual."
Getting signed to a major label is another issue that Jake approaches with caution. A label called Certain Might Music had approached him a year ago offering to buy the CD, effectively making them the owners of Jake's music. "I wasn't into that," Jake says, so he sent them three tracks of new material for what was a potentially new CD. The label had originally received the new material with enthusiasm. "I worked my ass off to get the rest of the album together and I gave it to them, and they decided they didn't like it. Maybe they just didn't like it, but it was also because I had this lawyer, and I was trying really hard to get my rights taken care of in the contract. It was funny because they said that they were the hottest new label and they were going to be really be out there, and I hadn't heard any of their stuff, and I still haven't seen any of their stuff."
Keeping musical integrity is essential to Jake's work. He explains that the conundrum of signing to a major label, for the sake of getting better exposure and a higher income, introduces the risk of damaging the music's integrity. Even in regards to seeking out prominent, respectable labels, such as Shadow and Asphodel, Jake feels, "It's better for me to build things up and then let them come to me."
"I would like to be able to be an artist who can make a living from my art," Jake says as he caresses his turntable like an old friend. The gesture indicates his loyalty to the music and his respect for what it has done for him. "My purpose for putting all this work into something is because it's something I love to do and I see the potential to be able to survive off doing this."
His foresight for Toneburst is positive, yet he is still watchful of its actions like a protective parent. "With Toneburst, I think there are different levels. There's the level of providing the people of Boston with quality entertainment, the lev