While rapidly developing technology has allowed electronic music to sound less and less mechanical over the last two decades, the patently artificial sounds that Kraftwerk introduced on albums like Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine are as popular now as ever. The seeds the German group planted have flowered in many forms over the years–including hip-hop (via Afrika Bambaataa’s electro-funk), synth pop, and Detroit techno. But recently a new crop of artists in the U.S. and Europe has put a new spin on the old sounds that’s part kitsch appreciation and part heartfelt homage.
The new electro has been a staple of the European scene for half a decade, and now with the ascendance of Detroit’s Ersatz Audio label–home to icy beat-driven acts like Adult. and Perspects–and the more recent entry of Los Angeles indie Emperor Norton, which has English electronic new wavers Ladytron and will soon bring the U.S. The First Album by the French duo Miss Kittin & the Hacker–it seems that it might soon explode here too. Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill electronic punk band, and the German trio Chicks on Speed, with their extra-plastic deconstructions of new wave, have already introduced aspects of the style to the indie-rock audience. And according to Jimmy Johnson, owner of Forced Exposure, a key distributor of electronic music in the U.S., sales of this sort of stuff have quadrupled in the last year.
But if any one album is going to ignite a craze in this country, my money’s on Kittenz and Thee Glitz–a glorious, sprawling mix of synth-pop, electro, and Prince-flavored electronic soul by Chicago’s Felix da Housecat with vocal cameos by Miss Kittin. Felix da Housecat, aka Felix Stallings Jr., is a legend in house music, but this is his most successful full-length recording and his first to be released in the States. Ironically, he says, he intended it as something of a kiss-off to his British record label, London, which had signed him to a five-album deal in the late 90s but has yet to release any of his recordings in the UK. I Know Electrikboy–a 1999 album billed to the Maddkatt Courtship–was supposed to be the first release under the agreement, but after it was issued in Germany on a London subsidiary and the British press got promos, it disappeared.
“I was feeling very bitter when I made Kittenz,” says Stallings. “I make sure that everything I make is good, but I wanted it to be so edgy that the label wouldn’t put it out, wouldn’t understand it.” Phil Howells, his A and R rep at London, agreed that the label would probably never release it, but he personally loved it so much that he helped Stallings wriggle out of his contract. In exchange, Howells was allowed to release the album on his own indie imprint, City Rockers, last year. Emperor Norton licensed it and put it out in the U.S. last week.
Kittenz is miles away from the house sounds Stallings made his name with. At 15, living in Park Forest, the self-taught keyboardist collaborated with fellow future legend DJ Pierre on the underground club hit “Phantasy Girl,” but though he continued to experiment with music at home, his parents discouraged further professional involvement. “They were supportive, but they preferred that I go to college to become something that I wasn’t,” says Stallings with a belly laugh. He went to Alabama State University to study communications, but within a year and a half he’d flunked out and returned to Chicago, where he enrolled at Columbia College. His attitude hadn’t changed much. “I took Pool 101 there; all I did was shoot pool.”
While he was there he got back in touch with Pierre, who had become a major house star and moved to New York. In 1991, just days before final exams, Pierre suggested that Stallings accompany him to England, where he might find a label for some of his new house tracks. After a moment’s hesitation, Stallings agreed to go. “I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now if I hadn’t,” he says.
He sold a track called “Thee Dawn” to the Guerilla label, billing himself as Felix da Housecat, and it launched his solo career. Over the next decade he released an endless stream of singles under nearly as many aliases, including Aphrohead, Sharkimaxx, Wonderboy, and Zeka. “I took that money and bought some new gear,” he says. “I was just doing house for money–it was like a hustle. I had the product, so I’d fly to Europe and move it. I didn’t take it seriously until people started to recognize me.” But he began to tire of the 12-inch-single format. “I realized that the only way I was going to last was to start making albums,” he says, which led to the formation of the Maddkatt Courtship, a more song-oriented project. He also released a clubbier album as Aphrohead in 1995.
Stallings had noticed that hard, minimalist techno by guys like Jeff Mills and Luke Slater was getting hot in Europe, and began to tweak his sound accordingly. Soon electro and soul were pulsing through some of his tracks as well. “I always wanted to make, like, normal music,” he says. “I couldn’t see myself making four-to-the-floor songs on every record.” He had high hopes for I Know Electrikboy, and he still can’t hide his disappointment–but the surprise success of Kittenz and Thee Glitz and his subsequent good reception in his own country have cheered him considerably. “It’s been a good feeling for me,” he says. “But I think it’s just being at the right place at the right time.”
Ever the trendspotter, he’s already looking ahead to his next album, which will also be released by City Rockers and Emperor Norton, but he’s hesitant to predict how it will sound. “It depends where Fischerspooner”–a popular New York group that plays a sweet, melodic synth-pop–“and Chicks on Speed go, if they burn out the sound. I’m going to keep track of what’s going on and see where I gotta go. You can place me with Chicks on Speed, Ladytron, and Le Tigre, but I still think my stuff sounds different. I’ve been into that 80s stuff for ages. I don’t want to come with another album that sounds like the 80s. I gotta be real careful and pay attention.”
Felix da Housecat spins Friday, February 1, at Crobar.