The other night, something wicked roamed the grounds at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman: Punk rockers! Everywhere! With piercings and ripped jeans and backpacks with homemade patches. Man, were they ever angry, with metal studs through their noses and dyed, spiked hair. One girl was wearing fishnet stockings that were so shredded it almost seemed as if she’d done it intentionally! Inside the club, it was chaos, and those lyrics! “F— this” and “F— that” — it’s like these wayward kids didn’t care for anything! It was totally shocking.
Oh wait, no it wasn’t.
Actually, it was kind of depressing, perhaps even a bit alarming. Not in the way that Tipper Gore might be alarmed, but because these kids were very clearly rebellious and ballsy, yet were congregating to celebrate a truly stagnant genre of music. There they were, stranded on Punk Rock Island, like those Japanese soldiers marooned on tiny Pacific archipelagos who, long after World War II, were still waiting for the enemy to show up. It’s been well over two decades since Jello Biafra first screamed “California Über Alles,” and where are we now? Well, East Bay heroes like Green Day and the Transplants’ Tim Armstrong willfully filch the world’s pocketbooks with their Orange County-style power-pop, and three of the Dead Kennedys are caught up in never-ending lawsuits with the fourth over royalties and their right to cash in on punk’s mass acceptance.
Not to say that punk wasn’t great. It was. And it proved that anyone could play, record, or release music. The DIY ethic has since spread to every genre, from hip-hop to alt.country, forever changing the way bands and labels run themselves. But isn’t it time we started asking the staid “anarchy” set some serious questions? Like, “What have you done for me lately?”
Imagine the shivers that would shoot down the backs of Bay Area punk purists when told that the answer can probably be found in Oakland’s offbeat indie label, Tigerbeat6. Led by Miguel Depedro, aka Kid606, T6 peddles a spectrum of electronica, hip-hop, rock, and experimental music. The upstart is home to exhibitionist computer nerds, awkward MCs, robotic synth geeks, pop-music pirates, and dudes who trade C++ code strings over the Internet. Its roster includes the No Wave dance crunch of SF’s Numbers; the swarthy, bargain-basement beats of MC and programmer Gold Chains; the Newark, New Jersey industrial hip-hop of Dälek; and the digital, stolen-pop-music mash-ups of artists such as San Francisco’s Wobbly, Spain’s DJ/rupture, and 23-year-old Kid606 himself.
There’s a reason The Wire magazine put Depedro on its October 2001 cover and Stuff magazine included him in its list of the 100 Most Dangerous Men on Earth. There’s a reason why Depeche Mode has tapped him for remixes and why Aphex Twin’s label jocks the artists he signs. In the short-attention-span theater of pop culture, where nothing’s shocking and everything’s been done, Tigerbeat6’s DIY approach of “Fuck it” has spawned its own empire.
The label’s aesthetic is as varied as the quality of its releases (some stuff sucks, some stuff is amazing), yet there’s something about T6’s underlying ethos — shitting on convention, laughing at copyright laws, and generally freaking everyone out — that’ll make you feel like your grandpa listening to a Minor Threat song: “What is this crazy music? Who are these crazy kids? I wanna take a nap!”
Taped to the front door of a large Victorian near Lake Merritt is a sign requesting that delivery persons “knock loud and often.” Step inside the Tigerbeat6 headquarters and you’ll understand why: Music is constantly blaring. Muffled chirps and warbles seethe between the walls, and errant bass notes shake the floorboards, coloring every conversation with a soundtrack.
The house has the look and feel of a home inhabited by transients — which in this case means “always on tour.” What little furniture there is doesn’t match, the wall shelves remain empty, and loads of boxes are scattered about in various stages of being packed or unpacked. The only things that seem organized are the records, hundreds of them, which line the shelves of Depedro’s makeshift office. Music gear is stacked everywhere, and his bedroom looks like the deck of the Starship Enterprise: computers, synthesizers, and other knob-addled machinery, with a bed where Captain Kirk’s throne should be.
Before sitting down with Miguel Depedro, you may want to consider popping some Ritalin. Less a conversationalist than a compulsive lecturer, his thoughts metastasize out of one another like cells in a tumor. Shorter and chubbier than one would expect, with thinning black hair and a piercing gaze, he appears more like a wound-up nebbish than the thoughtful Calvin Klein cK one model of his press photos. While highly intelligent, Depedro is also, as his musical nom de plume suggests, like a little kid. He’s easily distracted, wildly enthusiastic about his own ideas, enamored with all different kinds of music, and prone to blurting things out before fully thinking them through. But one thing he ain’t is modest. “It’s weird to always feel like you’re at the beginning of that domino effect,” he says, discussing Tigerbeat6’s reputation as a vanguard label. “People just want to call what I’m doing ‘new,’ which is cool. But it’s also the same thing that Jimi Hendrix was doing, and Throbbing Gristle. It’s just sound and electricity.” That may be true, but so is a vacuum cleaner and no one’s calling the maid at the Travelodge the next Bo Diddley. The fact that he’s so sure of himself is a trifle disconcerting, not unlike listening to a politician describe his plans for cleaning up the neighborhood.
Buried beneath Depedro’s attempt at diffidence, however, is a valuable point. Technology may have changed, but the attitude is still the same. If punk was a matter of challenging culture, then Depedro and his gang are the latest radicals whose music could actually be defiant and progressive enough to be called nonconformist.
Miguel Depedro was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1979, and came to San Diego at the age of five when a bad marriage sent his mom packing. Growing up among army brats and frat boys — guys prone to picking fights with outsider twerps like himself — he found little to relate to and developed a healthy distaste for the mainstream. He shunned MTV and commercial radio, opting instead for music his parents liked, such as Janis Joplin and Tangerine Dream.
He was, and still is, an extremely hyperactive kid, to the point where it kept him beyond the reach of the nation’s public school system. By middle school Depedro had been demoted to an alternative education program, but by taking classes at community college he earned his high school diploma years ahead of schedule.
Depedro was definitely influenced by the ’70s rock of his parents and the hip-hop and heavy metal his brother introduced him to, but it was noise music that gave him what he was looking for: raw, emotional intensity unfettered by lyrics or pretense. Acts like Japan’s experimental guru Merzbow had a huge effect, as did the more ambient and experimental records his dad gave him. He quickly ascertained that, with noise, a musician didn’t need to know how to read notes or even lay down a beat. Translating ideas into music was as easy as finding a recording device. Plus, his scatterbrained tendencies kept him from mastering any one instrument; the kid was far too impatient to survive music courses long enough to actually learn how to play the piano or guitar.
“My musical inspirations were so obscure that I couldn’t find anyone to play with,” Depedro says, adding another factor to his insularity. It also didn’t help that everyone around him was trying to emulate three-chord punk. “But I couldn’t have sounded like Blink 182 even if I wanted to,” he says.
With such inclinations, you might expect him to pull a Thurston Moore and just grab a guitar, turn it up, and see what needed breaking, but that possibility was foreclosed one day in 1996. While Depedro was playing with a model rocket, its engine exploded, blowing off part of his finger and severely burning his arm. What might have spelled certain doom for an aspiring guitarist was actually a gift from above: A settlement with the model rocket company gave him the cash to buy brand-new computer gear.
With plenty of recovery time on his, er, hands, Depedro plugged into the Internet and essentially enrolled himself in computer music college. He downloaded cracked software, asked questions, traded programs, and learned all the tricks from other electronic music practitioners, who were a scarce breed locally.
Not that San Diego was a complete pop-culture wasteland. It has played home to such great indie bands as Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt. But these days, if you ask most San Diegans what put the city on the pop cultural map, they’ll say this: power-punk! Blink 182 set the cultural standard throughout the late ’90s in a city known for its zoo, its marine park, and its proximity to ol’ Mex. It also had raves, which, when Depedro arrived on the scene, were already starting to feel more like skating parties at the local roller rink than the acts of drug-addled rebellion they once had been. For any self-respecting musician looking for something more fulfilling than three-chord punk, indie rock, or E-nergized teens, San Diego had few options.
But one of the bright spots was a small label called Vinyl Communications, an organization that became the ideological model for Tigerbeat6. VC was essentially a hardcore-punk label that dabbled in the occasional prank-call, noise, or experimental record. Jagged bands such as Tit Wrench and Cringer set the pace for the roster, which was more intent on wreaking havoc than creating soundtracks for skate videos.
It was hanging around in this insular scene that the teenage Depedro met J Lesser, one of T6’s first artists. Raised on a diet of Big Black, Public Enemy, and Negativland, Lesser was all about experimentation for the sake of provocation. A skilled guitarist, he collaborated with respected indie rockers like Rob Crow (Heavy Vegetable and later Pinback) and the math-metal band A Minor Forest before discovering his voice as a solo artist.
“Punk was totally tired,” says Lesser. “It had been dead for ten years or more. It was like, ‘I’m not gonna kick that body again, let’s try something different.'” Combining ironic self-deprecation, unabashed confidence, and one hell of a sadistic streak, Lesser’s early antics are perhaps best exemplified by his 1995 release I Hate Me, which came individually packaged with a razor blade and four fake hits of LSD.
Lesser staged his initial performances outside lame punk venues, playing electric guitar over a drum machine until promoters or local authorities shut him down. Other accounts speak of fights and flamethrowers and outbursts which ultimately earned him a reputation that got him banned from many San Diego clubs. The main reaction he got from the puzzled audiences was “‘Dance music? That’s not punk,'” Lesser recalls. “But the stuff we were doing on VC wasn’t dance music. It was just noise and aggression.”
Which is exactly what Kid606’s Vinyl Communications debut, Don’t Sweat the Technics, delivered. It was also the sound that attracted the ear of the eccentric Mike Patton, former Mr. Bungle singer and current co-owner of Ipecac Recordings. When Patton heard a recording that Depedro’s brother had smuggled in for him at one of his shows (the teenage Miguel was too young to enter the club) the versatile musician was instantly sold. The collection of distended beats and angry glitches was just the sort of weird shit that Patton was into. The resulting record deal yielded Kid606’s full-length, Down with the Scene, and bestowed enough cash to found Tigerbeat6.
A veritable circus of avant-‘tards, the Tigerbeat6 discography reads like a carnival sideshow. You’ve got raunchy hip-hoppers, prepubescent programmers, girls who think they’re boys, and boys who think they’re robots. You’ve also got music that shifts between soothing ambient electronica, jittery No Wave rock, and downright aggressive noise. “I think being different is the unifying thing,” says Depedro. “I mean, you go to an insane asylum and they’re not all the same kind of insane, but they’re all insane.”
Cex, aka 21-year-old computer music prodigy Rjyan Kidwell, released his debut record three years ago. Although his early sound echoed the gentle, atmospheric glitch work of Aphex Twin, Cex quickly tired of simply standing up on stage manipulating his PowerBook. Instead, he took an odd and some would say misguided turn, cultivating a strange brand of hip-hop which featured some dorky freestyle rapping over unimpressive beats that betrayed the talent he’d shown as a programmer. The formula was only a few shakes better than the last Vanilla Ice record. But his genius lay in his self-conscious stage antics, which included berating the audience, stripping down to his skivvies, and lambasting every corner of the music industry. His thoroughly entertaining DIY dive into hip-hop sucked so hard that it was actually kind of invigorating in the same way the Ramones were: It proved that you don’t have to know how to play music in order to make it.
Aside from Kid606 himself, the T6 act that has received the most critical attention is Blectum from Blechdom, comprised of the now-defunct duo of Blevin Blectum and Kevin Blechdom, two boisterous female Mills College grad students. Sometimes dressing up as Siamese twins, the women would use a laptop, samplers, and effects boxes to create heavy digital assaults full of pops, squeaks, blithers, blips, and bleeps. Although they used to revel in clearing a room full of people with their questionable musical performances, their finest work came from sampled video and audio footage of TV and movie personalities Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Blectum and Blechdom turned the twins’ outsize acting work into a noisy, post-modern critique of television and pop culture by taking Olsen clips and sampling them, almost like drum beats. Needless to say, they felt at home on T6. “The idea was that Tigerbeat6 was a label that would only release music that no other labels were willing to release,” Kevin Blechdom e-mails from her home in Germany. “To me, this meant that it was a label of rejects and freaks and people who didn’t fit in anywhere else.”
Other examples of Tigerbeat’s M.O. include artists such as SF’s Gold Chains, who essentially presses “play” on his laptop before commencing to flail around the stage like a libidinous Disco Duck; Crack W.A.R., a group whose jilted electro creates a soundtrack for sex, drugs, and a feeling not unlike the strangest haunted house ride you’ve ever been on; and Zeinbock Koph, featuring former members of art-rock extremists Pink and Brown, who play sexed-up industrial that makes New York’s bawdy electroclash sound like the Teletubbies.
They’re freaks all right, but because the T6 roster started out by rockin’ their laptops, their fan base consisted primarily of a particular kind of person: the IDM fan. Referred to by Lesser as “Gearhounds,” fans of IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, consider themselves the intelligentsia of the progressive music scene. They read magazines such as The Wire and turn out to shows solely to get a glimpse of what gear the practitioners are using. Experiencing a typical IDM musician perform is about as exciting as watching a light breeze: Why would anyone expect people to dance to music that sounds like Beep ……….. boop ………… click ………… beep ……………?
From day one, this crowd was the enemy; the chin-stroking tendencies of these wallflowers were exactly what Tigerbeat6 didn’t want to be associated with. (Lesser takes a jab at IDM in his song “MENSA Dance Squad.”)
But it wasn’t just the freaks and geeks who had to talk to the hand. Eventually, as the title of Kid606’s Down with the Scene suggests, the label began to reject being directly placed into any genre or association, based on the idea that music scenes inhibit progress more than they foster it. But of course, as Depedro himself might concede, being different can actually be a scene magnet. In the case of Tigerbeat6, where you’ve got a bunch of dorks trying to one-up each other’s skewed vision of music and performance, you not only have a scene, but one that gets accused of being pretentious.
All that creative one-upping has also fostered something that could kindly be described as piracy, aka copyright infringement. In releases from Kid606, DJ/rupture, Wobbly, and DJ Broken Window, the musicians have stolen material from sources ranging from Clear Channel, the megahuge entertainment company, to Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster. In order to pull this off, Depedro has released these records through a “subsidiary” imprint, Violent Turd, which is theoretically located in New Zealand. Given the potential for lawsuits, it’s a gamble that could cost him his label.
But without renegade sampling we would never have gotten this year’s release, The Action-Packed Mentalist Kicks out the Fucking Jams, which comes labeled with the qualification “All songs not written by Kid606.” Topping out at more than an hour, Fucking Jams finds Depedro kidnapping dozens of past and present pop paramours — Eminem, Timbaland, Craig David, the Bangles, Radiohead, Black Sabbath — and tossing their tunes through his digital wringer. The Kid’s bulldozer beats smack the songs around like a tiger toying with its prey. He even goes so far as to take Missy Elliott’s lyric, “Copywritten, so please don’t copy me,” from “Get Ur Freak On,” stretching it like digital taffy over an explosion of clicks, blithers, and processed noise. Live, when Kid mans his PowerBook, he turns his butchered pop into harder-than-hardcore techno complete with bowel-bursting bass kicks and overdriven bits of binary noise.
They may be nonconformist, but can a laptop jockey ever be as reckless as a punk rocker? Could there ever be a Sid & Nancy-caliber movie made about a couple like Miguel Depedro and Kevin Blechdom? (The two were actually an item for a short time.) Judging from the behavior on T6’s Paws Across America tour — consisting of Cex, Numbers, and Stars as Eyes, a band that dabbles in spacey electronic ambience — the answer could be a resounding “Fuck yeah!”
A garrulous Cex tries to relate some of the tour’s mania via cell phone from the T6 bus. “We’re still trying to sort through all the things that happened,” he says, referring to the touring party’s dalliance with psychedelic mushrooms, which introduced them to some ancient talking dogs and wise old Indians.
In order to outdo his previous tours, Cex initiated a “rock star” grading system for Paws Across America to ensure that each night was crazier than the one before it, the categories being food, sex, drugs, alcohol, money, audience, conflict/camaraderie, and general debauchery.
While he’s happy to talk about run-ins with psilocybin, what Cex and everyone else want to keep quiet about is another incident that happened a few days later. According to their publicist David Lewis, after one of their shows in the Deep South, some of the tour musicians decided to get drunk and go exploring. They found themselves on a fishing boat and one of the members of Stars as Eyes happened upon a gun. Whether or not it was for the sake of their grading system is unclear, but at some point the gun went off and shot the bands’ tour manager in the leg, which, not surprisingly, caused everyone to freak out.
Although the tour continued on schedule, none of the artists were willing to comment on the incident, nor give any indication of what grade it got. Actual chaos, as opposed to digital, is apparently something the Tigerbeat6 crew is still getting used to.
They may be a bunch of troublemakers who make noise with whatever means are available, but not everyone agrees that the Tigerbeat6 crew fits into the Bay Area’s punk traditions.
“I don’t think that Kid606 relates to the East Bay punk rock scene,” says John the Baker, “band liaison” for Alternative Tentacles. “I run Burnt Ramen Studios and we’re dedicated to the local scene, and nobody from Tigerbeat6 ever contacted me to put together a show to enhance the scene. Punk rock lives on the street, man, not just in a computer. You still gotta be out there. You gotta love people, not just an e-mail address.”
It’s true that T6 artists don’t play Burnt Ramen and Gilman because, hey, laptops and hip-hoppers wouldn’t fit in. But even Baker agrees that just because you don’t look, sound, or behave like a traditional punk band doesn’t mean you can’t beat on the brat with a baseball bat. “Spirit is what it’s all about,” he admits. “You can manipulate any instrument or no instrument and still be punk rock. You can have a laptop and be punk rock; you can have a keyboard and be punk rock. It’s not as much fun for me personally, but if you smash the system with the tools of the system, I’m down.”
Ipecac co-owner Greg Werckman sees a lot of similarities to punk, and he knows of what he speaks, having spent seven years working at Alternative Tentacles himself in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “They take on a lot of the topics that the punks used to take on,” he says. “Maybe it’s no coincidence that punk has gotten to be more like pop music, not challenging in any way and pretty safe. … A lot of the people using the new technology seem to really be stretching the boundaries; maybe the new technology music is the punk for today.”
At the same time, Tigerbeat6 doesn’t fit into the antiquated paradigm of any grassroots punk movement. Although its operation is DIY and its musicians have complete artistic freedom, contrary to old-school punk labels, the focus of T6 is less on the local scene and more on the global. Its catalog has little to do with fostering any genre. “I think a lot of these kids want to break free from the fact that traditionally you’ve had to be a punk to listen to punk music,” says Cex. “Or you’re a metalhead so you listen to metal music. That’s fucking stifling. The world is becoming so multifaceted and you’re just bombarded with so many things. … I think a lot of kids see it as fucking liberating to have one umbrella that covers so many new things and to be able to say, ‘I’m all of these things. I can appreciate a rock band, I can appreciate a guy with a laptop.'”
Depedro goes one step further. “It’s much less about the technology and much more who we are, which is the punk ideal,” he says. “Electronic music is mainly based on technology and sound, and we’re much more interested in ideals and emotional content.”
But what happened to yesterday’s champions of punk rock, Bay Area labels like Alternative Tentacles and Lookout Records? Depedro, ever humble, has a theory. “We have the labels that used to be amazing and trailblazing and groundbreaking and then they found a cash cow and they’re milking the cash cow until its nipples fall off. Lookout should be putting out the Numbers. Alternative Tentacles should have put out everything on Tigerbeat6.”
Regardless, figuring out new ways to scare the shit out of people without sounding histrionic, without regurgitating a formula, without retracing your steps, is the punk ideal. “Punk rock is supposed to make you squirm,” says Alternative Tentacles’ Baker. “It’s not supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to scare the shit out of you.”
And that, in fact, is what Tigerbeat6 is all about.