Dax Pierson’s tapestried compositions evoke the entire history of electronic music, from Kraftwerk at its most cerebral to Autechre at its most haunting. But his new album also is a history of abilities lost and regained, of an artistic spirit reborn and reinvented.
“Don’t take your physical abilities for granted/for you could lose them/at the snap of a neck.“
Thus intones an eerie looping voice at the beginning of Pierson’s astonishing new cassette album Live In Oakland, released for streaming and preorders this week by local experimental label Ratskin Records.
Oakland’s Pierson is not your typical synth and drum machine hobbyist. He’s essentially a quadriplegic, but his performance and composition techniques are more versatile and advanced than the most highly mobile musicians around. While on tour with his former band Subtle in 2005, Pierson was seriously injured in a tour van accident that left him paralyzed from his torso down. Although his arms have mobility, his fingers do not. He moves around on a wheelchair — sampled as a percussion instrument on the B-side of this album — and works on computers and synthesizers with the aid of a stylus or new apps. It’s been more than a decade since Pierson released any music, but at Ratskin’s request, he’s back and better than ever.
“What took me so long?” he mused with a laugh. “The things that I needed weren’t around yet, and they’ve only been around since the iPad, where I can control every aspect of the music.” During those ten years, Pierson taught himself how to work with advanced digital music technology, with intermittent bouts of illness that left him bedridden for a year at a time.
“After a long span in bed,” he said, “it could take me a year or two just to regain my strength enough to hold my head up, let alone spend long sessions moving a trackball mouse and raising my arms long enough to interact with an iPad.” But now he’s up and at it.
As homemade music becomes more mainstream, even topping Billboard charts, Pierson is in many ways a manifestation of digital technology’s limitless potential to enable artists of any background. Just a few years ago, it was unthinkable for Pierson to be able to perform live with affordable, non-specialized devices available to a broader consumer market. Now he dazzles live audiences every year.
“Nowadays, live performance is like 50 percent DJing,” he quipped. “I’m still sliding faders up, after all.”
Pierson describes the booming market of iOS music programs and modules as a “wild west” or “new frontier” emerging in the past several years. At a gradual but increasing pace, technology is starting to catch up with Pierson’s creativity. The injury may have limited his body, but his artistic talents are reaching new heights faster than touchscreens and interfaces have adapted.
To demonstrate, Pierson hunches over one of his iPads on his worktable and demonstrates a piano roll app, a drum machine, composition program, and even a randomized tone generator. Behind him, an array of vintage analog synthesizers sits connected to myriad effects racks and a desktop computer. In the decade since his injury, he’s put together an impressive laboratory of musical miracles.
“I had to put together a workflow that wasn’t already there,” he explained. “Things are still in development, and it seems like the users are dictating how they develop. A lot of software developers are new to this, and they’re noticing gaps in the market.”
Ratskin Records founder Michael Daddona, himself an electronic musician, says he’s astounded by the complexity and sophistication of Pierson’s home studio.
“Even though he’s created a workflow that works with his disability, it’s still a hybridization of many iOS processes that have never been configured this way before,” Daddona said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”
In other words, a fully mobile musician could do what Pierson has, but none have ever accomplished it. So who is really disabled here?
Nevertheless, Dax Pierson’s new music is the sound of working within frustrating limitations. A self-trained musician who was first inspired by Prince as a teenager, Pierson likens his musical approach to the spontaneity of jazz and the urgency of punk, but the technology he’s mastered still doesn’t get him there.
“Improvising was a main part of my technique, and that’s been the most challenging thing to do now,” Pierson lamented. “I haven’t done any live collaboration with anyone because I haven’t quite gotten my head around how to deal with that yet — because my actions are slower. Getting even a bassline down takes a while. Everything you hear takes a lot longer than someone with working arms and fingers would need to get it all out.”
The song “Treading Water” samples a recording from a doctor’s appointment in which Pierson is updated on the degenerating condition of his spine. He’s developed a bone spur, and the third and fourth vertebrae of his lumbar spine are slowly being fused together — but the upside of a degenerating spine is that a loss of motion means the eventual arthritis will be pain-free. He’s treading water both as a physical body and creative force, losing as much ground as he gains. It’s an open question whether or not technology will someday enable him to swim upstream, even though he’s already ahead of the curve.
The eerie rhythms lurch erratically, not unlike the forward march of science against the suffering left waiting for its cure, before a closing number of throbbing, danceable techno swings and grooves to the wheelchair percussion. Elsewhere, there are sweeping, almost orchestral oceans of synth drones, painting abstract sound poems in the air.
“When I produce music, I still hear a band, and what’s why some of it is so maximal,” Pierson said. What’s more astonishing is that Pierson was driven almost innately to work so hard on realizing the sounds in his head, but with virtually no ambitions of performing or publishing. He had to be asked.
“My first two shows since the injury were at birthday parties,” Pierson said with a laugh. His first performance at a genuine musical concert, with opening acts and a paying audience, didn’t happen until 2015, and is documented on the A-side of the album. “Since my injury, no one even asked me to put out any recorded music until Mike [Daddona] came along,” he added. “That’s when I first started thinking about putting together a finished work as opposed to just learning.”
Perhaps Pierson’s musical talent is ultimately one of listening — to himself, to all sorts of music, to the world around him. His record library is lined with discs ranging from the avant-garde classical compositions of John Cage to the soul-jazz machinations of Charles Mingus, from Public Enemy to Black Sabbath. The new album is no less eclectic.
“It all blends together,” he said of his expansive repertoire of influences. “I’ve tried at times in my life to focus on a specific genre, but it’s never been easy for me.”
Indeed, almost nothing has been easy for Dax Pierson. But now we all know it was clearly worth the wait.