Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Electronic Bloomington Comes of Age
text by Kenneth Shafer photo by Brody Nevins
On one warm night, July 19, 2017, in Bloomington all the following occurred within only a few hours of each other.
In the basement of a South Walnut house a small but fascinated crowd of mostly twenty-somethings were taking advantage of the free Open Tweak V (fifth in a series), as a live electronic performer was knob-twisting and fine-tuning his dual “Eurorack” modules, his Elektron drum machine and sound sampler, and his Korg keyboard synthesizer, churning out a series of hypnotic beats and blips.
“Welcome to the south side of electronic music,” said the host, Iain Donkin though he didn’t bother to explain how the south side of Bloomington differed from the north side. Still, he continued, “Almost everything we do here is Live Personal Appearance (Live PA), and we cover the spectrum of genres – Electronic Dance Music, Trance, Drone, and spontaneous collaborations. This is a venue for discovery, nearly everyone who participates is self trained.”
A few blocks away and less than an hour later, Indiana University music professor Paul Siwko-Bajon played to a somewhat less than sellout crowd of much older people at the Buskirk-Chumley theater. Twenty bucks got one entry to an overview of Synthesizers in Film, branded as Synthfest. Multiple top of the line racked Kurzweil synths were visible on the stage, along with a tower personal computer.
Before the live synth playing, the audience was treated to a short video where classic synth player Jean Jarre was shown in his studio surrounded by scads of electronic music making hardware, only a few of which had attached keyboards. Indicating a preference for what are known as electronic sequencers (hardware boxes that play pre-programmed sequences of notes), Jarre explained how he created one of his classic pieces, Oxygene.
From here, Siwko-Bajon took the stage and played the classics from Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and Jean Jarre, underscoring the importance of synthesizer music as film soundtracks, especially for science fiction movies like Blade Runner and Escape from New York. The crowd was attentive, but did not dance other than with an occasional gratuitous nod of the head, as if they were disguising the fact that they were almost falling asleep as the performance passed their usual bedtime hour of 9:30 pm.
But the night was still young. It was easy, almost too easy, to walk just around the corner, and slip down the steps into the underground of The Root Cellar, where Danger Latte and Kyle Spears were DJing their particular brand of so-called Techno, which is one of the types of electronic music most amenable to dancing. This was Saturday night, after all, and nobody had to be anywhere Sunday morning, and the crowd was not about to let up until the legally-mandated closing hours wee in the morning. The thump thump! thump! thump! thump! of the bass drum on every quarter beat kept everybody jumping.
That such a litany of electronic events could happen so close together in location and time was not always so in Bloomington, and should not be taken for granted. That it did is a clear and pronounced statement that electronic music has firmly arrived in Bloomington.
How did this scene get to this point? Where did it come from? And where might it be going?
This issue initiates a series of articles will address those questions, if not fully answer them. Other follow-up articles will focus on the history of synthesizer and electronic dance music, the explosion into numerous different types, called genres, and even into sub-genres, the evolution of experimental and electronic music in Bloomington, the role of local Disc Jockeys (DJ’s), Live Performers (Live PA), and a bit of a catch-all covering what is called experimental, ambient, and drone electronic music.
The musical culture changes. Electronic and Dance Music is claiming its rightful place in the local music scene as a full-fledged equal with classical, rock, jazz, R&B, blues, folk, and country.
A Short Guide to Dance Music and Electronic Venues in Bloomington
The Bluebird has been at the top of the heap for music venues since the 1970’s, and continues today. Its large capacity, its reputation, and its history all serve to be a draw for big name acts with a healthy smattering of local artists thrown in. When the big names come in, the cover can be expensive, but that does not deter a crowded attendance. When most of the students leave town for the summer, the Bluebird will feature more local acts.
There’s a big dance floor right in front of the performance stage, which also accommodates what is usually the best light show for these events. By midnight it is often standing room only, and that is even shoulder to shoulder.
Music wise, The Bluebird seems to feature more of the Hip Hop derivative genres of dance music.
The Root Cellar
This club is one of the favorites of the DJs. It regularly features EDM and live electronic acts, and as its name implies, it is underground, being in back of The Farm restaurant. As well as a nominal size dance floor, there is some seating, and off to the side several cubby holes with comfortable lounge sofas that serve as “chill rooms” to provide a little sonic distance from the boom boom boom of the music.
It also seems to attract a more diverse crowd than some of the other venues, and a poster at the door cautions entrants to leave their bigotry at home.
The Root Cellar is very supportive of local acts, and seems to often provide entry without any cover charge.
The Video Saloon has its EDM dance floor right at street level, across from the Bluebird, and customers often traffic between the two. EDM acts are presented on a somewhat infrequent and irregular basis and have been known to be without a cover charge.
Serendipity has a light, airy feel, located in the same space as the legendary Second Story. The stage is at one end, the bar at right angles to it, with a dance area the length of the club. You’re more likely to encounter an international type crowd here, as it also regularly hosts Latin dance nights.
As advertised, Serendipity is a martini bar – with a peculiar twist of also featuring PBR on tap.
The Blockhouse is a somewhat hidden gem nestled in the same cluster that includes Serendipity and The Back Door. You get to it by going downstairs – to an underground, a characteristic which it shares with the Root Cellar, and which has all the flavor of “underground” Techno clubs in the Detroit area. Being underground, it’s possible, but not easy, to take a break outside, but just like truly urban Techno underground clubs, there are two or three “chill rooms” where you can get just a little bit away from the volume of the kick drum, and have a chat with the friend you just made.
It does not have the capacity to generally handle big name acts, though regional one and smaller national acts do pass through. It is one of the venues that is especially hospitable to local EDM DJ’s and live performers.
Strictly speaking, Open Tweak is a Bloomington House Show network kind of place rather than a “club.” This is an experimental electronic event as part of the Bloomingtron network. (Read carefully now, there is that “r” in Bloomingtron that makes all the difference.) Another underground venue, it is located in the basement of a house on South Walnut Street.
Players Pub is as little bit off the beaten path, being further south, but still within easy walking distance if you’re going “clubbing” to multiple destinations. Cover charges are modest, and this is the only place where you can get food, really good food, late into the evening. The red beans and rice are highly recommended.
The dance floor is open and inviting, and for those taking a break, there is also easy access to the sidewalk patio which is taken full advantage of in the summer.
Players Pub draws a steady, but not packed, crowd, and its schedule is consistent – dance music every Friday night starting at 11:30 PM, after the headliner music act has left the stage.
DJs usually bring a light show and maybe fog machines, and the dance crowd seems to be easier than average to accommodate making new friends. It also features a wide variety of DJs, and doesn’t seem to play favorites.
The Back Door
The Back Door is easily the most festive of the clubs. As Bloomington’s premier LGBTQ venue, you are likely to see costumes and fashions any day of the week, not just during Halloween or a Friday the 13th. A disco ball provides the shimmering light. The Back Door is more likely to feature what is known as “House” music than most of the other clubs.
During a recent visit on a Friday the 13th, a patron dressed with a giant Earth globe for a head claimed that “global warming” was the scariest thing going on, as the dance music provided the release from the madness of the world.
The Back Door is also one of the more consistent hosts for dance music, featuring it every Friday and Saturday night. There is a cover, but it is modest.
What to say about Recess? Well, it seems to have more in common culturally with its sister watering hole Kilroy’s on Kirkwood than any of the other electronic venues. It’s an experiment of an “18 and over” venue, being launched only a few months ago. A spate of bad publicity over questionable marketing slogans was climaxed by a public rebuke by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.
Few of the local DJ’s we interviewed had much experience with it. Recess looks to be booking national acts, possibly augmented by a set of local DJs who do not circulate much beyond Recess’s confines.
Its proximity close to campus and the fraternities and sororities on Third Street naturally make it a big favorite of the college crowd.
Electronic / EDM Bloomington Venue Roundtable
The Ryder asked many of club owners and managers about town a number of questions about the growing scene for Electronic and Dance Music in Bloomington. Panelists in this discussion are Nicci B at The Back Door, Dave Kubiak of the Bluebird, David James of The Blockhouse, Joe Estivill of Players Pub, and Danny McKinley of The Root Cellar.
The Ryder: How often do you offer entertainment that can be considered electronic or Electronic Dance Music?
Nicci B: MADDOG and Pixie are our resident Friday and Saturday night DJs and both invaluable to our business and the culture we’ve created at The Back Door.
Joe Estivill: Weekly, Fridays at 11:30 PM.
Danny McKinley: Three to six times a month, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on who is looking for gigs and how recently others have played.
David James: We do a wide variety of music – rock and roll, jazz, Hip Hop – and we do EDM at least once a month.
Dave Kubiak: For the current semester, about three times a month, counting both local and national acts. We often book TR0LL and Shy Guy Says and local acts after national acts for Thursday night shows. Our national and local acts support each other both ways – it’s give and take.
The Ryder: How do you feel this entertainment is received by your customers? Are they enthusiastic, do they dance a lot? How is your attendance? What can you say about your customers interaction with these types of acts?
Nicci B: I can tell you that, regardless of the genre, dance music is and has always been at the center of queer culture and specifically queer night life — we dance to celebrate, we dance to mourn, we dance to protest, we dance to rage, we dance to escape.
Joe Estivill: This is a new audience for us. They do dance a lot.
Danny McKinley: There are a lot of positive reaction from the public and customers for this style of music. Most who come for EDM nights are very enthusiastic and spend as much time dancing as their bodies will let them. Generally our attendance is outstanding, even on nights that would normally be slower or even nights when there is a lot of competition from other clubs doing similar events.
David James: Attendance is performer dependent.
Dave Kubiak: Promotion is critical to attendance. The underlying principle as to what the Bluebird is morphs over time. Some things are the same but the music genres change. I want the Bluebird to be the place that everyone wants to experience. Interaction with the audience is great with our EDM acts. We would still like to take it up another level, but there can be a lot of production involved, since some national acts literally fly in with only a suitcase for their setup, and we have to arrange the rest, like the light show.
The Ryder: Do you feel there are differences between electronic / EDM acts and your other live acts (rock bands, shows, skits, etc.) – how does EDM fit into your overall offerings?
Joe Estivill: It’s a bit different than most of our acts as they are solo artists, most of our acts are bands. It’s a great complement to our other offerings as we like to mix it up.
Danny McKinley: There is a huge difference in the styles of EDM even within the genre. I couldn’t really say, other than some of the crowd types, most people who come to our club and stay are generally in a good mood and are enthusiastic about the entertainment they are seeing/hearing. I couldn’t really respond to the question if you are trying to get at whether or not one type of night is better than the other or if crowds are more positive or negative. As an overall offering, we try to offer a good safe time with quality entertainment/ music and our EDM artists fit right with this category quite well.
David James: Oh, yeah! We welcome good people and good music. And the EDM community is a welcome one.
Dave Kubiak: EDM can be polarizing, kind of like country music. Either you really like it or you don’t at all.
The Ryder: Do EDM DJ’s offer you a cost advantage in what you pay your acts?
Joe Estivill: No, everyone works for the door.
Danny McKinley: We offer all performers more or less the same rates. I guess the only ‘bargain’ that maybe we get is that most of the current EDM DJs like to perform in small groups. When this happens we do see pull of different crowds where some of our performers are solo and not only have to push through with a longer endurance, but also have to try to pull from all crowds by their lonesome. (one hour or five hours, the performances these people do, have to be exhausting)
David James: No, EDM does not offer a cost advantage to us.
Dave Kubiak: The biggest difference is that EDM or live electronic acts are usually only one or two performers. But what has changed is this – it used to be that rock acts, of several performers, traveled a circuit of about three hundred miles radius. And they play four or five nights in a row. For EDM, the national acts travel nationally, and may fly in from two thousand miles or more, and only for one night. So the expenses can be greater.
The Ryder: What do you see as the near and/or long-term future for electronic / EDM for your club?
Joe Estivill: Continue to grow our weekly gig.
Danny McKinley: I see it being a regular in our rotation of entertainment. As the scene grows more and more great DJs keep popping up. I’m really quite impressed at the number of really excellent DJs that have come out of seemingly nowhere. (Eighteen months ago, I was having a trouble filling my calendar and now I have trouble making room for everybody)
David James: EDM and Electronic will be around for years to come! It is relatively new compared to other types of music.
Dave Kubiak: We’re on the music bus, let’s see where it takes us. Certainly through the spring semester.
The Ryder: Any specific Electronic / EDM artists that you have hosted that you would like to specifically mention?
Joe Estivill: I enjoy the different styles of the DJ’s. No favorites quite yet.
Danny McKinley: DJ Angst and E-Trash, MADDOG, TR0LL, Derz, Lemondoza, Longuy, Danger Latte, Kyle Spears, Sweater Disco, Lowe, Plastic Sounds, Deep Sense, FIIT, and I am sure I’m forgetting many more, but these are some of the very excellent and very different styled EDM DJs and producers that we have hosted/ particularly enjoyed.
Dave Kubiak: We’re getting the networking of people in place. Attendance is a consequence of more than contact via social media. The best is when a friend tells another friend.
The Ryder: Any general comments you’d like to make that you would find quotable?
Nicci B: I think anytime you get a critical mass of queers together in one space a dance party becomes less of a possibility and more of an inevitability–it’s just what we do.
Joe Estivill: Come dance!
Danny McKinley: DJ Angst said it best, “When it comes to EDM/electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.” Though you may quote me, please make sure DJ Angst gets credit for the “ALL. NIGHT. LONG.” tag. It’s his tag for his parties, it’s just a very true statement and positive statement for the genre.
Dave Kubiak: I’m happy The Ryder is writing this piece. And I’m happy that TR0LL (Troy Michael) and Shy Guy Says have been so instrumental to the success of this kind of music. Troy has been working very, very hard to uplift the DJ and EDM scene all over town.
A Too Brief History of Electronic and Dance Music
There’s no way a magazine article can do full justice to exploring the roots of electronic music and its dance music variation, but justice be damned, there can be no significant understanding without at least touching on the history.
The modern incarnation of the electronic synthesizer can be largely attributed to inventors and engineers Robert Moog and Donald Buchla, who designed and produced their units beginning in the mid-1960’s. As with any new technology, these early units were quite expensive, and so their use was restricted to only film producers and big name rock acts who could carry the cash to buy them.
It would not be until the 1980’s that we began to see the popularization and democratization of electronic music. This trend was made by the confluence of four tendencies, two technological, one sociocultural, and one that can only be thought of as a completely fortuitous accident.
The first technological breakthrough was the advent of the microprocessor. It is no coincidence that the affordability of electronic synthesizers occurred at the same time as the introduction of the personal computer. IBM’s first floppy-based PC and PC/XT with a hard disk, released in 1981-1982 were powered by an Intel 8088 processor. The 8088, running at 4.77 mHz, soon found competition from a Z80 manufactured by Zilog, which ran at a “blazingly” fast 7.16 mHz.
Those of you with a fine-tuned sense of irony will chuckle at the fact that Zilog during 1980 – 1989 was a short-lived subsidiary of Exxon, which implies that Big Oil had a substantive role in the creation and promulgation of this type of music.
Just as the microprocessor was to make computing available to the masses, so would it do so for making electronic synthesizer music available to musicians, driving down the prices tremendously. In short order, synthesizers and drum machines using the Z80 as their engine hit the market, classic and very influential hardware like Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 5 and Prophet 10 polyphonic synths and Drumtrax drum machine, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Oberheim OB-8 polyphonic, the Memory Moog, Roland MC4 Microcomposer / Sequencer, the Moog Source, the Akai 2700, and others.
The second groundbreaking technological advance was the creation of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard in 1983. Prior to it, synthesizers and keyboards could inter-operate only by an analog electrical standard called CV / Gate (for Control Voltage), and there were two competing incompatible implementations, one followed by Sequential Circuits, Moog, and Roland, and another by and Korg and Yamaha. Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi collaborated and released the standard into the public domain, the invention of which would have possibly made them billionaires today if they had tried to patent it themselves. The MIDI interface allows practitioners to interconnect all kinds of electronic equipment, synths, drum machines, samplers, effects units, drum machines, even light shows – the list goes on and on.
The third significant influence is sociocultural. As a backlash to the indulgent excesses of the progressive rock era, with its overly produced sounds, punk rock made its debut in the late 1970’s, followed by its cousin New Wave. This created some breathing room for electronic experimentation that had not existed before. Building upon the disco sound, today’s dance music can also be heard in its synth-pop forerunners of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Dan Sicko documents this in his treatise “Techno Rebels – The Renegades of Electronic Funk”:
“One could hear New Wave’s offbeat and eclectic ingredients working themselves out in Detroit’s early electronic records, where groups like Human League, the B52’s, and Visage were reconciled with Eurodisco, the midwestern funk of George Clinton, Zapp, the Ohio Players, and subconsciously, the Soul of Motown.”
The last influence to mention is nothing more and nothing less than a historical and serendipitous accident of immense proportions.
In the early 1980’s, the Roland Corporation released two compact electronic music boxes: the TB-303 Bassline synthesizer, and its companion TR-606 Drumatix drum machine, which could be synchronized together by a 5-pin cable which was the forerunner of the MIDI cable. These were explicitly but ineffectively marketed to rock guitarists, to provide a rhythm section for them to practice with alone.
It was not long before this was recognized as a complete commercial failure. The drums of the TR-606, well, being analog electronics, just didn’t sound like real drums. And neither did the mechanical sounding electronic bass of the TB-303 sound like a real electric bass guitar. Scores of TR-606’s and TB-303’s hit the pawn shops. This was to have wholly unintended and unforeseen consequences.
From a 2002 article in Wired magazine:
“Earl “Spanky” Smith picked up a 303 in a Chicago secondhand music store and took it back to his place, where his musical partner, Nathaniel Jones, tinkered with the box. Jones, who was beginning to DJ under the name Pierre, played with a row of knobs – Resonance, Decay, and Cut Off Freq – for adjusting the bassline; the controls were meant to be set, then left alone during recording or rehearsal. But Pierre programmed a bassline, hit the Run button, then cranked each of the knobs to its upper limit as the bassline was playing back. The 303 reacted with a piercing, almost obscene screech.
“Spanky was saying, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it!'” Pierre remembers. “It wasn’t meant to squeak and squeal and all that kinda stuff. We just knew it sounded weird and energetic and funky. We thought, ‘Wow, this thing is really a jolt of lightning!’ So we taped it and took the tape to [legendary DJ] Ron Hardy’s place, the Music Box. We played it, and by the third time people were going crazy.”
Though they didn’t know it at the time, by adding the warped, druggy 303 sound to then-standard club beats, Pierre and Spanky had invented a new genre of dance music: acid house.
In no time at all, electronic and dance music trailblazers in Chicago and Detroit were picking up these boxes at the pawn shops for pennies on the dollar, as they began the popularization of this wholly new type of music. They found a music fanbase who reveled in the sheer artificiality of those sounds! Today, those same boxes sell on ebay for as much as ten times their original 1982 dollars.
Roland ceased production of the TB-303 many years ago. But its recognizable squeaky squawky sound lives on in many, many hardware emulations and sampled sounds. In fact, Roland recently introduced machines which use digital emulation of the TB-303’s analog sounds, the TB-3 Bassline and a lookalike clone, the TB-03 Bassline. Other firms such as Cyclone Analogic, Abstrakt Instruments, Analogue Solutions, and x0xb0x manufacture clones, and how well they replicate the sound of the original Roland TB-303 is a subject of endless debate in facebook synthesizer group forums.
As far as drum machines go, Roland at about the same time extended upon the TR-606 by releasing the TR-808 which was a big improvement with its multiple audio outputs for the different drums, and the TR-909, which was the first drum machine to implement MIDI.
These four machines were pivotal to the evolution of disco into the multiple electronic genres of dance music. And their sounds carry on through today. In fact, there are those music critics who contend that the manufacturer and model of music hardware used is essentially indicative of the genre of electronic music being produced.
The Early Bloomington Experimental and Electronic Scene
Bloomington has a heritage of experimental music going back nearly forever. In the mid-1970’s an avant-garde band called MX-80 used no synthesizers, but did use their dual live drummers and electric guitars in such an unusual and eclectic way that they (nearly) defied description during that heavy-duty rock era. Self-proclaimed fans of musical anarchist Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, they were alternately characterized as art dada, proto punk, or perhaps most accurately of all, acid punk. Their music was so out of the mainstream rock at the time that no music club in town would book them, and they faced the ignominy of performing multiple times only at the auditorium of the Monroe County Public Library.
Thus locally unappreciated if not downright scorned for their ahead-of-their-time sound (their dual drummers presaged the multiple drum machines now prevalent in dance music), they headed out to greener pastures in San Francisco, where they hooked up with kindred spirits Tuxedomoon and The Residents, both of whom are still actively making music today. Continuing to use traditional rock instruments, but adding a healthy mix of electronic effects and synths, they pushed the envelope of experimental synth-punk.
The Residents, in particular, explicitly stage in-your-face anonymity into their act, as their live appearances and album covers always feature them wearing giant eyeball heads, a performance meme that is also used to great effect by the French dance band Daft Punk, who hide behind Schwarzenegger de-fleshed Terminator style robotic costumes, and even Bloomington’s own Shy Guy Says, who uses a giant round-eyed emoji as his visual persona.
But the most significant roots of the Bloomington electronic scene are traceable back to local electronic enthusiast Mark Kunoff, who started a Bloomington Electronic website in 2010 which was active through early 2015, when it was overtaken by its companion Bloomington Electronic facebook page. Bloomington Electronic was a virtual meeting space for the community’s electronic musicians to congregate, collaborate, and publicize their (rather limited) number of shows. During these early years, unlike today, live acts predominated over DJ acts, although DJs were also welcome. Interviews with local performers were prominently and regularly featured.
Under the brand Speed of Sound, Bloomington Electronic sponsored quite a number of shows at the Bluebird, Back Door, the Root Cellar, and the now defunct Rachel’s Café, featuring acts at the time like Shy Guy Says, DJ Flourish, Beauklu, Dioxin One, DJ Gigante, Ersatz Modem, the Audiodics, and many others.
The music was Drum ‘n’ Bass (DnB), Dubstep, Experimental, Ambient / Drone, House, and various amalgamations that defied any single genre.
This early trailblazing, mostly by live acts, slowly but steadily gave way to the “Electronic DJ”, most of whom emphasized more “danceable” beats as opposed to “experimental eclecticism.”
They were able to build upon the continuity of dance music in the LGBTQ scene. A bar called Bullwinkle’s (so-called because it was ensconced in the former Moose Lodge building) held a consistent program of DJ’s playing dance music throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and beyond. Bullwinkle’s was located beneath the alt-rock, New Wave, punk club Second Story, but both closed in 2006.
More than one local DJ and live performer challenged this writer’s initial contention that beyond this historical niche the DJ scene had no significant presence in Bloomington 18 months ago, but in fact had been percolating for quite a while.
DJ Angst, who has a strong preference of House music, explained “There has been a lively dance music scene for the past five years. When we started back in 2011 it was definitely a little quieter with less events, so our Riot Bootique event was pretty unique, but we always drew a great crowd and had some really big parties. What has definitely changed is the number of DJs and the number of events.”
DJ Troll confirmed that the scene has really taken off the last couple of years: “I started DJing about 18 months ago. I think that inspired new up and coming DJs to go for it and start planning shows. It honestly could have been one of those, “If he can do it so can I,” situations. I have noticed the amount of local DJs at least tripled since I started.”
MADDOG agreed: “The electronic scene in Bloomington has always been here. That’s the beauty of this town. There is music here for everyone of every genre. You just need to look for it. A lot of my inspiration for doing what I do came from watching friends perform at house parties and what used to be The Jungle Room in the early-mid 2000’s. Guys like Action Jackson, Sleepy T, Phnm, Flufftronix, Figure, and Wally Wonder who have all gone on to make names for themselves outside of Bloomington. I spent my late teens-early 20s watching these dudes and just being in awe of them. It wasn’t until I got a little older and more confident in myself as a woman that I realized this is something I can do too.”
Bad Psychic recalled: “I remember going to my first “rave” at the Hotspot (where Btown Diner now resides) in ‘97 or 98’. The scene here in the US was really taking off then. That place was always busy and would draw kids from all over the Midwest sometimes to see a specific DJ. Of course the scene is not the same as it were back then, but I’m happy to see it’s slowly come back in the past decade or so.
“Well when I started Bad Psychic 4 years ago, I was playing shows with Ray Creature all the time because they were the only other band in town doing something similar to what I was doing. I’ll never forget when Natascha Buehnerkemper Jacob (drummer, vocals for Ray Creature) pulled me aside as I was working at The Runcible Spoon and introduced herself to me. “Hey! Are you Bad Psychic? I’m in the band Ray Creature and I live in a house called Butt Temple. Do you wanna play a show with us there some time?” It was the kind of classic Bloomington interaction I live for. There was also Dust From A Thousand Years, they’ve been playing in Bloomington a long time. Also Hunter Child and Drekka. And then there were the noise dudes of the Artifex Guild/Auris Apothecary realm (Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Lather, Noon, John Flannely, etc) who messed around with electronics. That was over 4 years ago. But I would agree that lately electronic music has been taking off more in Bloomington, which is exciting to see.
“Also around that time, Amy Luxenburger was doing this incredible project called Amy & The Dancebox. She recorded her songs with Jon Booth of Ray Creature in 2014. Her album, Good Report Card, is perfect and so touching. She wrote the whole album on a Casio keyboard with her friend Catherine Jewett singing harmonies. She passed away not long after the songs were recorded and we’re all so lucky to have her songs preserved, to have this memory of her.”
Another DJ, Sweater Disco, also challenged the contention that the recent spate of electronic dance events is a new phenomenon: “That’s absolutely false, dance music has had a place in the underground Bloomington scene for quite some time. A friend of mine, who’s also an audio engineer/live-sound engineer in town, has been around for several years (more than 4) and has told us stories about large warehouse parties, and dance music events that have evolved and been thrown for years.
“A promoter/friend in Indianapolis has also commented on Bloomington’s history of dance music, referencing loft parties and warehouse parties, similar to what I’ve heard from other older dance music fans. I remember hearing about shows at Dunnkirk and the Bluebird (2012-2014ish?) with huge national acts like Zeds Dead, Kill the Noise, DJ Craze, RL Grime, Baauer, and Boyz Noise. The Bluebird even had Bassnectar headline there in 2010, and Deadmau5, Feed Me, and Le Castle Vania did an impromptu show there in 2011 after a rained-out show in Bloomington.”
“I would say that dance music “took off” (became more visible in this generation of students’ college culture) about one to two years ago, mostly due to frats picking up on EDM, and more college kids coming to school with some DJ experience already.”
Another DJ, Danger Latte, confirmed the increase in popularity lately: “Yea! It’s pretty crazy, it’s like we all came from nowhere all around the same time. My journey started while living in Chicago, when I discovered house music by going to street festivals and warehouse parties. After moving back to Bloomington the obsession with the music grew to the point where I felt like I had no other choice than to start DJing in the fall of 2015. Later that year I discovered Techno, which grew into an even bigger obsession, especially when I realized that it was a seldom played genre at most venues in Bloomington.”
A live act going by the stage name of FIIT still sees the local electronic scene in its early stage: “Locally to Bloomington, EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is still very fresh. When I first started performing live (summer 2015), I was not aware of any other pure electronic dance oriented acts. A lot of my first FIIT shows were in basements of houses often booked with rock acts that may have included electronic elements into their music with a synthesizer or a drum machine, or booked with experimental live PA (aka Personal Appearance) acts. The setting of these venues was fine, but they did not stimulate a dance atmosphere. Since Acid/Techno is a dance music, I was on the search for a better space and acts with similar intentions. This is about the time I met up with a group of local DJ’s (Body Mechanics) that were playing Acid/Techno music in their sets and at a particular club (Root Cellar). They put me on a few of their shows as a live act and it worked out perfectly.”
The Electronic Scene in Bloomington Now
There was a time when FM radio was the primary conduit to introduce new music to a community, but local radio stations no longer satisfy that function, though there are a couple notable exceptions.
Community radio WFHB has a Dance Music program called Beat Party, every Saturday night from 10 pm to midnite. Featuring four or five DJ’s that rotate on a regular basis, like Goodhands, Deejayspikes, Slique Monique, Dancin’ Don, Zeitgeist, MADDOG, and Mark. WFHB’s Program Schedule, available on their website, has a place to click on the DJ’s name and see their playlists for all of their recent broadcasts, a very good resource if you’re trying to associating musician names with music.
MADDOG explains: “Beat Party is pretty unique – there’s no rules really. You’re not restricted to EDM, House, or Hip Hop. I know I personally like playing late 80s – early 90s House and Club with some late 90s – early 2000s Trance. But if I can squeeze in some World music or Afro/Latin/Brazilian beats then I do.
“I know some DJs on the show are more Urban or Hip Hop based while others are more dance or club oriented. I don’t think it really matters as long as it makes you move. That’s kind of the great thing about WFHB and Local Radio in general – you can tune in whenever and always get something different. It’s not like tuning into a Top 40 station where you kind of always know what you’re going to get.
“EDM and dance music have become much more mainstream in the past few years. So I would think there is some cross-over in ‘sound’ you know what I mean? With mainstream radio and my sets on and off WFHB.
“Also as a DJ you get a lot of ‘requests.’ It’s not something that I condone but people kind of think that’s a thing you do – go up to the DJ and ask them to play your song. You hear that line in music all the time ‘Hey so and so DJ play my favorite song!’ so I think people kind of think that’s a thing. But what I’m getting at – is because of that – at the club I’ll sometimes play something that is a little more well known that you may hear on popular radio or MTV (if people still watch that ha!) People kind of freak out if they don’t hear Beyonce. So for instance if I’m at The Back Door or another “dance club” I may throw in a top 40 remix here and there to keep people engaged.
Indiana University radio WIUX (99.1 FM) likewise is another place on the radio dial. Though there is a fair amount of IU sports “talk radio” and a concentration of college radio “indie rock,” you’re far more likely to encounter electronic or dance music here than elsewhere. The signal is not powerful, so its range is limited, but it reaches through most of Bloomington proper.
WIUX Event DJ Director Ethan Brown has a program called Inbound, Tuesdays 8 pm – 10 pm, which features predominantly house and dance music. Also, WIUX sends representatives to some national electronic music festivals, with website coverage via reporter’s narratives and some musical excerpts. Recently Moogfest 2017, Durham NC, and Movement 2017 – Detroit Electronic Music Festival have both been covered in considerable depth, with lots of reviews.
Aside from these local exceptions, those looking for dance music airplay turn to alternatives like Spotify, or music Soundcloud or Youtube url’s passed around on facebook. Those who have Sirius XM satellite radio receivers, increasingly popular options on autos, can find four channels of interest. They are BPM (Channel 51), Electric Area (Channel 52), Chill (Channel 53), and Studio 54 (Channel 54.) An Internet streaming option is also available with Sirius XM.
Which brings us to how in Bloomington the dance music scene is primarily a club scene, rather than a radio scene. One can find these events even in home basement venues, via the Bloomington House Show Network facebook page. These are mostly too numerous and erratic to discuss in depth.
That leaves us with the club scene to cover. The first installment in this series, published last month, did this from the point of view of the club owners, managers, and booking agents.
But now let’s put the audience first, front and center.
Not to take the obvious for granted, they were asked by The Ryder at a number of recent events: “Uh, just why are you here?” Here are a sample of their responses, nearly all of the attendees in their early to mid-twenties.
John: “I like the energy. It’s a diverse crowd. Anybody can dance with anybody. I go out at least every couple weeks.”
Matt, wearing a Chicago Cubs sweatshirt: “I like the looseness – the absence of rules. Everything feels free. I don’t like music out of a jukebox – I want to see a performance!”
Kendra: “There’s complete freedom of expression. You can be anybody you want to. Nobody asks questions, because nobody cares what you do with the rest of your time. Music drowns out a complicated world – and we can all connect. The main point is – it’s all good! There’s a beat we can all get on with – all of us together! To have a good time! I try to go every week.”
Mariah: “I like going to the festivals too, and not only electronic ones, but also like the Rothbury Music Festival.”
Emily: “It’s not just couples dancing. It’s everybody going with the flow. It’s PLUR – Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. And acceptance. Everybody is so nice – nobody is mean. Why, even uptight people can be comfortable with this dance music! Why, just look at them go – you just can’t make a fool of yourself!”
They mentioned attending with friends, but also meeting lots of new people too. They also contrasted the scene with what they saw as negative aspects of some of the “collegiate” hang-outs: “Some places, all the guys want to know is what sorority you’re in – that’s just too much like a clique! Nobody asks you that here! And people are nicer besides.”
Now to move on to interviewing one couple – as a couple. See if their answers were any different. Not really. Their names were Max and Ally. Max was wearing a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt.
Max and Ally: “We go out once or twice a week, usually on weekends. Sure, our circle of friends like this music too and we often find out about events from them, but going to these events is how you make friends too. We usually learn of happenings via facebook. We sometimes go because we like the club but also sometimes because we like the DJ who is playing.”
Now at first glance there’s not much different here than what was present at the Summer of Love 1967 in San Francisco, or Woodstock, or Monterey Pop – but peel one layer away from the onion and there is one very, very important difference: The drum machine does not get tired. It does not stop. It keeps perfect time. And it does not miss a single beat.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this and its consequences.
Danny McKinley of the Root Cellar touched on this when he said, echo’ing one of his mainstay DJ’s: “DJ Angst said it best, ‘When it comes to EDM / electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.’”
That’s right. The performances feature non-stop, seamless transitions from music segment to segment, the whole night long. There’s no lead vocalist announcing, “OK, we’re gonna take a fifteen minute break and then be back to play another set.” There’s no interruption when one band leaves the stage and the next one comes on. There’s no occasional slow, sappy ballad to give the musicians a bit of rest before they return to their frenetic rockin’ pace. There’s no narrative interlude with the obligatory and now overused, “Hey, Bloomington, we love ya and let me introduce the band!”
Once the DJ, or the live act, presses the Play button on the first of dual DJ decks, or the sequencer, there’s no stopping until the night is over and last call for drinks has been announced. Dual decks, whereby the DJ cues up the next tune, matches the beat together with the one already playing, sees to that. One after another after another. And the dual decks allow one DJ to leave and another to come on smoothly.
Paradoxically, the freedom of expression, the feeling of equality, the connectedness of it all, which those interviewed all articulated, is actually a recognition of their submission to The Beat.
When you’ve got the groove on, nothing else much matters. And The Dance is as much a ritualistic subservience as it is an expression of self identity or group solidarity. Sure, you can wear a lizard costume as a couple of dancers did at the Video Saloon, or dress up like a peapod as did one dancing fool enthusiast at Player’s Pub, but you’re still a slave to the master clock resident in the electronic hardware.
Give yourself over to the music, and the music will set you free.