To update a memorable diatribe about the media’s infatuation with the term “New Wave” from Penelope Spheeris’ documentary on hardcore punk, The Decline of Western Civilization: “I have excellent news for the world — there is no such thing as the laptop revolution. It does not exist. It’s a figment of some lame bastard’s imagination. It was a polite thing to say when you were trying to explain you weren’t into boring old electronica, but you didn’t dare say ‘abstract beat science’ because you were afraid of getting kicked out of the party and they wouldn’t let you smoke up their weed anymore. There’s hip-hop, techno, jungle, electro, 2-step, house, ambient — but laptop revolution doesn’t mean shit.”
There couldn’t be a more fitting way to open a story about East Bay collective Cat Five than with a sample from a movie. In the group’s cozy studio in Albany, samplers are stacked on top of samplers. The quintet crammed its debut Kataphonics to the bursting point with snippets yanked from B-movies and old novelty records. That and the ubiquitous meowing of a deranged cat.
And the humans behind the machines — Balanceman, Darkat, Tweak-Tech, Dr. Oliver, and DJ Flip-flop — when not responding to direct questions, tend to speak in samples themselves. During a recent session in their studio, Balanceman was replicating the gibberish Osama bin Laden spoke on the previous night’s episode of South Park, while other members were gleefully quoting the spoils from Darkat’s marathon sampling raid on all five sequels of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the Santa Claus splatter films from the ’80s.
This kind of sampledelia — creating new, oblique narratives by cutting and pasting vocal sound bites from diverse sources — has been popular for at least two decades (see Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” from 1981, and Double D. & Steinski’s “Lesson” series from the mid-’80s). Does the fact that Cat Five use laptops instead of bulky outboard samplers to do it really mean anything in particular? A shift in creative medium does not constitute a revolution. Transitioning from drum machines, synthesizers, and outboard samplers to a loaded up iBook isn’t a movement per se, any more than the switch from acoustic to electric guitars was. The tools may change, but it’s ideas that make a revolution.
Yes, the five hail from the East Bay, and yes, at least four members go onstage with portable computers, but really they share nothing else in common with the noise assault or minimal techno kids who have been trumpeted as laptop revolutionaries. There isn’t really much challenging in what Cat Five does — if anything, the group goes out of its way to welcome listeners with open arms. The fractured, imploded rhythm structures of the unfortunately titled “Intelligent Dance Music” scene also are totally absent. Instrumental pop music for the stoner/B-boy crowd is more like it — head nods become foot taps, which turn into hip rotation and then full-on electric boogaloo routines. Kataphonics is almost militantly down- tempo, groove-oriented, hook-driven, and goofy as hell. Somehow though, the meta-hip British journal The Face still managed to herald Cat Five as “The prime example of the Left Coast’s laptop music revolution.” Or did they?
“I actually haven’t seen the quote,” says Balanceman over spicy kim chee at an Korean eatery in Albany.
“Me neither,” says Darkat. The other two members shrug. So maybe the mag didn’t write it at all?
“That’s one of the theories, actually,” offers Dr. Oliver between bites of noodles. “The quote appeared in the liner notes for Kataphonics and no one knows how it got there.”
“Media gremlins,” suggests Darkat. (Billy Jam, owner of their label, Hip Hop Slam, says he’s heard the quote will be appearing in an upcoming issue. But he’s not sure either.)
“But that whole laptop revolution thing, we got nothing to do with that,” says Balanceman. “That’s a bunch of nonlinear kids doing their thing out on their own. I think we’re trying to be more of a band. A lot of the electronic stuff is so faceless and so nameless. … There’s gotta be a little funk in it, or you can’t feel it’s real or comes from people at all.”
Cat Five, on the other hand, gets crowds hyped. Darkat, Balanceman, Tweak-Tech, and Dr. Oliver (DJ Flip-flop joined the group later) had a few hundred trance-accustomed Burning Man revelers sweating through their boas and silver pants at the recent Decompression party in San Francisco. Each member injected kooky samples on the fly as a morphing stream of inviting hip-hop beats churned ceaselessly underneath. There was a sense of spontaneity and chemistry between the players that is practically unheard of for a live electronic music set. The band was improvising in real time with no one having a clue as to where the jam was going.
To prepare for a gig, each member loads his laptop with pertinent source material, and then together the four or five performers “establish a group of samples for a particular track, so we can riff with those and throw them into the mix when we want to,” says Dr. Oliver. “So in a show, the back and forth stuff happens, where we’ll start a little dialogue between two guys, and then maybe someone will pick up on that and take it somewhere else. We kind of chase each other around with the samples.”
Since the audio feed coming out of each player’s equipment is dumped into one mixer without being synched together, mistakes can happen. “Everything that gets messed with, gets messed with live,” Balanceman explains, “so if you hit it wrong, it’s going to sound wrong. I think that’s really the only thing that keeps it sounding like a band.”
This live interplay arose out of many a late-night digital free-for-all at the studios of Vulcan Radio, the 40-watt station that micro-broadcasts at Burning Man each year. (It’s also webcast at www.vulcanradio.com.) Music software, turntables, mini disc recorders, CD players, and the occasional guitar, bass, and drums would clash for airspace.
“Me, the Doctor, and Tweak-Tech used to live together at Vulcan and were all part of the station,” Darkat recounts. “We had been DJing and working through that, and we’d have these wild electronic jams where everyone would bring all their gear down to the studio, plug it in, and just make mad noise. Then Balanceman came into it, and sort of starting getting people to finish stuff and rehearse.”
“When I came in,” Balanceman explains, “it was like, ‘We’ve had fun being disorganized about this, let’s see where we can get with being organized.'” Balanceman was a little wiser to the ways of the recording industry, having put out the solo album Well Balanced Meal on Deluxe in 1999.
“Organized,” it turns out, means a bit more than just regular practices and song lists, though. Darkat, who is also one of the East Bay’s most noted graffiti writers (his tag is “Eskae”), half-jokingly says they’ve become a cult that focuses on “the number five,” and they’re looking for disciples. He also mentions occasionally that the band needs a manifesto. So it’s a bit unclear how serious Balanceman is when he chimes in with a story about the recording he did of a Christian rock group for his job as sound engineer. To ensure that Cat Five’s message was blasphemous enough, he bounced their tenets off a church representative during a recent recording session.
“We did it at this church, and the pastor there asked me, ‘How come I haven’t seen you at this church?’ I told him, ‘First of all, I’m a Jew.’
“‘Well that shouldn’t matter,’ he said.
“So I said, ‘And I made up my own religion.’
“‘You did what? You can’t do that!’
“So I told him we based this religion around cats and digital technology. He got really mad and walked away. Then at the next recording session, somebody came up to me and asked what I said to the pastor. I guess he couldn’t stop talking about it, he was so angry.”
Lack of church approval has launched many a heretical movement (if not outright revolution) and Cat Five seem bolstered by the condemnation of its fledgling sect. Darkat concludes, “Plus, nonprofit status is always good. You can claim religion about all sorts of shit. I don’t see why you couldn’t about sampling.”