Corralling a conversation with Jeff Taylor into an interview is like directing a flock of airborne balloons into a line while standing on the ground. Ideas, anecdotes, and tangentially related insights into this or that sort of rise up off the ground whenever they’re ready, and it’s up to you to pursue one or let it float into the stratosphere. Taylor’s intellect and broad range of interests — science fiction, ’80s new wave bands, computer programming, film, rave culture, advanced robotics, and new-school electro music, among others — aren’t meant to be hemmed in to a two-dimensional dialogue about his career milestones or what the theoretical implications of his various musical projects might be.
So rather than force-fitting his polygonal thought patterns into a linear chronology, it would be more respectful of the Jeff Taylor galaxy to present them as nonsequential, self-contained chunks of information. Let the order or connections between them be your own….
In Search of Wayward Teenage Fans
Although he’s been making electronic music for over a decade, only in the last year has Taylor performed it live. Because of technology that’s changing the face of music production, he can now load up his laptop with an all-in-one studio application and do more than he ever could have by lugging his outboard drum machines and synthesizers to a gig. Much of the attention this digital signal processing (DSP) revolution has garnered has been through the work of artists working in the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) context, an armchair intellectual’s scene that doesn’t excite Taylor at all.
“I’ve had trouble finding the right audience for what I’m doing,” he says. “I need to feel like people are really into it, and San Francisco is really flaky right now when it comes to crowd energy. The problem is that the people who know who I am and would come to see me are old, chin-scratching fucks. They don’t dance, they might bob their head a little bit, and they may like it, but that’s not why you make dance music. I really need to find the drug-crazed nineteen-year-olds who jump around and go nuts to dark, twisted music.”
who now lives in Berkeley, came of age in Alameda during the ’80s. As a restless teenage suburbanite, he poked around the fringes of the decade’s bloated mainstream culture for anything novel or slightly subversive. He was the only kid at his school to have a computer, and he put it to use hacking into various systems whenever he got his hands on an early modem. He was also a fiend for music that was technology- and keyboard-driven.
“I was really into bands like Japan and This Mortal Coil,” he remembers, “and a lot of the new wave stuff like Yazoo, Vitamin Z, and Ultravox. And I was big on Duran Duran. I found myself really enjoying the instrumental work on their songs — a lot of really interesting electronic stuff was happening underneath all the crappy pop stuff — same as early Depeche Mode. By the time I got around to making music, I was more influenced by Dead Can Dance and the Cocteau Twins and all that Euro-alternative stuff.”
When not at the video arcade, Taylor spent much of his time hanging out with skaters, breakdancing, and trying to get into alternative/industrial clubs like Alameda’s Twilight Zone. He explains, “From breaking, I started listening to things like Mantronix, which was kind of the beginning of breakbeat techno. That’s also when I really got into Kraftwerk, especially the Computer World album. Being into the whole computer culture and programming and seeing what it was promising, and comparing that to the stuff the album was predicting, was very trippy. It talked about how computers would be at the center of our economy, our culture, and how they would drive everything — business, entertainment, all of it. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, far-out fantasy.'”
Relaxation Taken to the Maximum
Sometime toward the middle of the last decade, Taylor had a big idea to blend audio and visual art into some new medium. He soon realized that such an undertaking would require more time than he himself had to spare, but as the Buddhists say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So he formed an audio/visual band called Alloy with San Francisco visual artist Nick Philip, who designed some of the earliest Bay Area rave fliers and created the first video for MTV’s electronic music show Amp (for the techno group Sun Electric). Alloy’s modus operandi is for Taylor to produce soupy, Future Sound of London-influenced downtempo soundscapes and for Philip to create video and still images out of and around them. Third member Simon Colley augments the bottom-end with lurking, dubby basslines that add an organic, quasi-live jam feel to the venture.
Recently, Philip got turned on to the massive chill-out scene that’s been exploding in the UK, a semi-underground post-rave phenomenon that’s right in line with Alloy’s vision of integrated sound and image. Spearheaded by the esteemed Big Chill festival (described on its Web site as “a way of life dedicated to transforming the spirit of our times”), the movement embraces an eclectic mix of performers from the ambient, trip-hop, world music, and psychedelic electronica milieus, and most also have a heavy visual component to their shows. Philip struck up a relationship with organizer Pete Lawrence, who invited Alloy to perform a combination music and visual set at the Big Chill Enchanted Garden party in July, and a track from the group called “Vague Electricity” was included on the festival’s compilation Glisten.
HAL, the Worlds Next Techno Superstar
Around 1994, while working at music software company Opcode, Taylor came up with a concept for a system that would not only analyze musical sounds but learn how to put them together, just as a composer would. “The idea was that it would not only be able to compose music,” he says, “but it would be this large branching structure with all these little micromanagers, large governing managers, and at the top would be a producer module that would control the whole thing.” With no whiteboard in reach, he’s left to trace out the system’s architecture in the air with his hands. “The computer would make the decisions at all these different levels, from the composition and arrangement to the characteristics of the sounds themselves. Then I would feed it a bunch of sequences I had done before — like old drum patterns, basslines, and melodies that I liked — so it would know stylistically how to make something based on what I had done in the past. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it made an album that sounded like me but I never wrote any of it?'”
While the technology wasn’t available at the time to pull it off, he says that it definitely is now. “I reckon in eight years, a lot of music will be computer generated,” he predicts. “A lot. In fact, the concept of the artist will become more and more that of the programmer as the artist.”
Sinister, Maximalist Electro
In an arcade game from 1982, a lion-headed megalomaniacal bad guy bellowed the statement, “I am Sinistar!” Taylor adapted the moniker, personalized the capitalization, and declared himself SINiSTAR — and started writing dark electro-funk befitting his name. But the material he’s been working on recently (currently unreleased) has little in common with the current electro resurgence happening in pockets of England, Germany, and Holland, with its razor-sharp synthesizer angles and stripped-bare, often repetitive drum machine patterns. SINiSTAR is oriented more toward songs than tracks, and swirling, all-encompassing backdrops rather than skeletal rhythms and jarring melodic stabs.
“I love tracky music, and I’m sure that I’ll do some work that’s more minimal eventually,” he says. “But my background is in luscious atmospherics, not raw minimalist structures. I’m still exploring.”
No One-Trip Wonder
Taylor attended his first illegal warehouse party about five months after the rave virus began infecting Bay Area nightlife, and it wasn’t long before he was experimenting with beats on his own. He sent a tape to the San Francisco remix service Twitch (there were literally no local electronic dance music labels at the time), which put him into contact with Jon Druckman and Mike Wetheim, two other musicians with early cases of techno-lust.
The outcome of their collaboration was “Trip Harder,” a record released by the freshly minted Twitch label under the name Ultraviolet Catastrophe. “We had no idea what we had done at the time,” he says. “We liked it, but didn’t know that it could be anything.” That song basically established the Bay Area funky breaks sound that would dominate local DJ playlists for years to come. “Trip Harder” ultimately made it onto the Chemical Brothers’ wildly successful Brothers Gonna Work It Out mix CD and earned for its three creators what Taylor will only state as being a tremendous amount of money.
With such unfathomed beginner’s luck, he admits that beating the one-hit-wonder stigma has been hard and that his expectations were a bit warped as a result of it. “I was so blown away with how well we did that I felt from then on that the music should sell itself, that you don’t have to promote it. But that’s totally untrue; it was a shallow-minded way of looking at that side of the music industry.”
Now, nine years and a number of aliases wiser, Taylor adds with a wink, “I’ve definitely come to terms with that, so shameless self-promotion, here I go!”