Alien Synths and Primary Colors

Synth music may flop in Southern California, but it thrives in Oakland.

“At seventeen I hated punks and wanted to make alien music,” said avowed contrarian Kevin Laird, now 31. “So we made synthesizer music, which was not well received. Synthesizers were unlikely to be viewed as anything but kind of kitschy and weak at the time.” Lo, these many years later, Laird can look back at the driving forces that set him on a musical path in the Nineties, leading up to the here and now with Primary Colors. A veteran of West Coast bands (Beautiful Mutants, Hide and Go Freak, Sexual Big Bird), Laird took up with Michael Wood in 2009 and created this new spawn of “alien music:” clanky, aggressive percussion over synth programming, all made using a four-track recorder as a live instrument. The Oakland duo may have escaped the idea that its music is weak or kitschy, but being a cult band presents a new set of challenges.

Both band members have roots in San Diego, although Wood, 24, did not find his way into the arts until arriving in the Bay Area. “For the most part, I was pretty removed from the San Diego music scene. I spent my high school years in East County playing in dirge-y metal bands that never played shows,” he wrote in an email. “When I moved to San Diego proper, the only performances I did were solo synth acts that opened for noise shows …. The only shows I attended were a handful of noise performances during that period.” As a solo performer, Wood also did modular synth “noise DJ” sets inside of tents in Oakland art spaces.

Though they have an odd-couple quality (Wood the reserved “straight man,” Laird the excitable one) the group started out with a third wheel. The first few Primary Colors shows had Wood programming the noisy synth elements and Laird doing scrap metal percussion, with the addition of their friend Sweettooth on live film projections. Laird lives in a converted West Oakland church that houses Sweettooth’s “Black Hole Cinema” film series. Though scheduling issues led to the projection-less version of the band now, Wood writes, “In my mind, our performances are always open to visual collaboration.”

Laird occasionally plays with newly local Northwest transplant Joey Casio, and together they performed at the Frank Ogawa Plaza occupation before its first eviction. Even though Primary Colors wasn’t one of the Occupy performers, Wood asserts that “many of our songs have loose political interpretations that come from a similar place as the Occupy movement as well as other political frames.” Without claiming the tag of a “political band,” which connotes firebrand folkies, drum-circle jams, and didactic hardcore, the band members hint at a radical agenda when prodded. Laird cites the conservatism of the Nineties San Diego scene he came up in as another incentive to address larger themes. “The country was in much better shape economically, which was reflected in the kind of music people were interested in making. Ironically, in the Clinton era there were many more bands willing to speak to political concerns, and a much broader aesthetic and musical spectrum wedded to political lyrics and content.”

Dog in Red by Primary Colors000

That said, he had reservations about performing at the encampment. In addition to questions as to whether the Occupy generators could handle their power needs, Laird is quick to point out that there are other reasons not to perform in that context. “I am keenly into not over-punkifying or overpromoting representation of white cultural forms at Occupy Oakland. I would rather encourage the entertainment organizers to bring in hip-hop talent or speakers — Angela Davis was great — or the other endemic cultural forms we have around here.”

San Francisco label Dark Entries, which deals almost exclusively in obscure post-punk electronic reissues from the early Eighties, reached out to the band about a new release on vinyl. “It’s pretty cool being on the same label as Neon Judgement and Dark Day,” Laird wrote, assuring, however, that he and Wood don’t want to seem like throwbacks. “We are definitely strongly influenced by this period in music, but I would be loathe to say we’re purists about it.”

The album in question is Fading Collapse, and it’s surprisingly diverse. Wood even manages a Bryan Ferry-style vocal flutter on the title track. As far as influences go, the local tradition of Tuxedomoon or Factrix might get you closer, though many people would consider New York act Suicide to be a godfather of the entire genre. Babyland would be another reference point — inaccurate, but in a neighboring vicinity. It would be another tip-off to point out that Primary Colors spent the summer touring with a relatively obscure synth act called Branes, which would also qualify as simpatico.

The album is a local affair with engineering from Max Brotman (Stress Ape) and contributions from the aforementioned Joey Casio, Marissa Magic, and Vanessa Harris. It will be released on cassette by Oakland label Sanity Muffin before getting the vinyl treatment. It’s also one of the last things recorded at the now-defunct 21 Grand, which adds to the romance — a clandestine project made in an abandoned space. Laird characterizes the band’s “psychogeography” as a melding of two worlds. “Oakland music has an emphasis on the heavy over the fast. It’s cinder-block music. Southern California music is freeway music. Maybe our music is a synthesis of those two feelings.”


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