(Small program note)
This is supposed to be a weekly blog, and I seem to have missed a week. But what actually happened was, I started writing, and then I wrote some more, and then the post turned into an entirely different thing, and then I had to edit it all down until it made sense.
So, here is a very philosophical, kinda abstract thing that it took me nearly a week to write. I hope it is of interest to you, since this kind of “philosophy of psytrance” stuff is important to me, and the act of writing it makes it much clearer in my head.
The good news is, we have major irOri news happening this week, so the next blog post will come out on Wednesday, like it’s goddamn supposed to, and we will be back on track.
(Finish program note)
Expecting the Unexpected
As a producer and label manager, and - yes - even occasional DJ, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly makes psytrance so pleasing to me. Yes, there’s the drugs, and the overall hedonistic vibe of the parties etc. That’s fun, I suppose, but what is it in the music itself that keeps me so in love? I never liked dance music as a kid. I mean pop, sure, but music oriented specifically to the dancefloor always kind of turned me off. Keep in mind, this would have been like the 90’s (I am aged) and dance music at that time was, well, fucking cheesy. It was lame and predictable and the sounds mostly sucked. (“But GOA,” you cry! “Twisted Records, brah!” Yeah that was happening in the 90’s but I didn’t know about it then.) Even today, most electronic dance music suuuuuuuucks. Why is it, then, that some time in the early 2000s I became obsessed with psytrance, and haven’t been able to let it go for more than a decade? What is it about this music that is so fucking great?
The basic conclusion I’ve come to is that it has to do with the balance between anticipation/expectation and surprise/novelty. When we are listening to really any dance music, but trance in particular, there is a certain need for the music to give us what we are looking for. For example, if we don’t have that basic rhythmic structure (kicks on the quarter notes, offbeat hats etc etc) nearly all the time, we don’t really know how to get down. We expect that snare to land in roughly the same place that it has been for the last 4 minutes of the track. We anticipate that the kick will land on the next quarter note, and we shake our collective asses accordingly. In pop and classical and jazz-type music, this question of anticipation goes into western music theory. A chord pattern builds tension and then resolves. We are trained by a lifetime of four-chord songs to expect that when we hear that I->IV->V progression, you can be damn sure that we’re about to go back to the IV, then the I again etc. .
So then what happens when the thing we expect to happen doesn’t? When the kick suddenly drops out mid-bar, or instead of going to the chorus like we did last time, we slam without warning into some weird kind of bridge? Well, for me, that’s when the music gets really really trippy. That’s the stuff that really pleases me as a listener. A truly psychedelic sound, or track, or DJ set, to me, is one that is almost gives you what you want, then yanks the rug out from under you. Really good psytrance is so great because it’s the fucking best at being sneaky like that. It plays with our expectations, it knows what we’ve been trained to expect from years of parties and decades of music generally, and it acts like it’s gonna give us that, but at the last minute goes in a totally unexpected direction, and we are glued to the dancefloor, sweating and incoherent, laughing and dancing and enjoying our lives.
So let’s talk about this thing that people say. They say that this or that music is quote-unquote “undanceable.” Of course, other people are dancing to this very same music somewhere on earth pretty much every weekend, so really what they mean to say is, “I don’t have any context for this music. I don’t know what to expect or anticipate, so it is all surprises, and I can’t enjoy music that is solely surprises.” And indeed, who but the geekiest most masochistic douchebags among us would have any fun listening to music that never, ever gave them what they wanted? It’s supposed to be a fucking party, not a torture session. So we shall forgive those “it’s undanceable” people, and remind ourselves that they just meant to say, “I don’t know how to enjoy this.”
On the flip side, there is cheese. Cheese, in my humble opinion, is music that gives us exactly what we want it to give, all the time, without any surprises. And don’t get me wrong, there are times when I want just exactly that. I am exhausted from a long night of having my expectations challenged, or just home from work, and all I want is to vibe out on some brainless shit. But let’s not kid ourselves. Music that gives us exactly what we want is brainless shit. (I never said it’s easy to make, it takes a great deal of skill and careful work to make brainless shit. But it’s still brainless shit.) This is why people claim to hate pop music, and yet keep on buying it. This is why the top charts of beatport are filled with terrible, boring, repetitive garbage. This is why Big Room House (“EDM”). Because, no matter what they say, people don’t want too much surprise. They want to be comfortable with what’s coming out of the 10kw sound system, jiggling their internal organs and taking over their entire headspace. Especially when they’re totally fried.
When I was a younger musician, I explicitly wanted to “break psytrance.” I’d go into my studio and just write the smashiest shit I could, with sudden massive starts and stops, weird comical interludes and the weirdest, most arrhythmic sounds that I could come up. I had something I wanted to get out of me, and I did. And I got, shall we say, a reputation. People stopped booking me. When I did get a chance to perform, nobody danced. At best, they all just sort of stood around and whispered to each other. So, I made a conscious effort to incorporate real groove and funk and joy into my music. I also slowed down my BPMs rather dramatically. The sound design stayed super weird, but I started to incorporate some elements that people could recognize as being, you know, psytrance. And guess what? People started dancing. Furiously.
My point is, there’s got to be a balance. If we, as producers and performers use only sounds, techniques and structures that are tried-and-true (I’m looking at you, Mr. Triplet-Bass-on-Every-Track.) The kids will for-sure dance, but our music will be soulless, boring garbage. At the same time, if we fall too far onto the side of novelty and experimentation, we will spend our days staring at empty dancefloors and angry promoters.
If I may close with a plug, DJ Jun from Japan is the fucking maestro of this balance. He has this incredibly technical mixing technique where he manages to slam from one track to another in just such a way that you never would have seen it coming, but in retrospect it just makes perfect sense, and more importantly you never lose the groove. I saw him one time while living in Hiroshima, and spent five hours absolutely drooling on myself, feet stomping, booty shaking entirely of its own volition. It was the most psychedelic thing I’d ever fucking seen. My last few months in Japan were spent running around the country, trying to see Jun play as many times as I could, just soak up his technique and style. I think his secret (besides just plain great mixer skills and track selection) is that he plays everything from Parvati to Psykovsky in one set, and he never rests for even one second. Just as you’re (or he is) starting to get too comfortable with the groove, starting to become complacent, he yanks it out from under you, and (and this is the important part) replaces it with something totally different, but even funkier. So the experience is one of nearly constant surprise and shock and joy, but the booty never, ever stops moving. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?