Lazer Crystal: Josh Johannpeter, Nicholas Read, and Mikale De Graff
Lazer Crystal: Josh Johannpeter, Nicholas Read, and Mikale De Graff Credit: John Sturdy

The two founding members of Lazer Crystal, Mikale De Graff and Nicholas Read, didn’t meet under the most auspicious of circumstances. When De Graff moved to Chicago in 2004 his roommate, he recalls, “had some boyfriends, and I would always kind of befriend them and then they’d disappear. So by the time Nick came around I was like, ‘I’m not even going to try and be this guy’s friend, because I’ll never see him again.'”

Read’s relationship with the roommate didn’t last, but after he talked De Graff into checking out his synthesizer collection—he owns 22 vintage synths, including an ARP Odyssey and a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak—the two of them quickly became friends. Within six months they’d both moved into Camp Gay—a storefront building in Humboldt Park notorious during its brief life span in the mid-aughties for the epicness of its parties, the depth of its squalor, and the fireman’s pole running from the second floor down to the show space on the first—and in short order they started a band, with De Graff on drums and Read on guitar. Now, after nearly six years, a name change, and a radical musical reconfiguration (according to their bio, De Graff now handles “vocals & electronics,” while Read’s responsibilities are “electronics & vocals”) that band is finally putting out its first album: on May 4, the first date of Lazer Crystal’s second European tour, Thrill Jockey will release mcmlxxxpronounced “Nineteen Eighty Thousand.”

Read and De Graff agree that the long wait, though frustrating, was probably for the best. Their early guitar-drums duo, also called mcmlxxx, was half baked, and things only improved slightly when Read’s old friend Nate Murphy—who now lives in Atlanta and travels with Wilco as Glenn Kotche’s drum tech—took over on drums. With De Graff on bass and Read almost exclusively on synths, their sound evolved into a driving, heroic sort of instrumental keyboard rock, soaringly melodic but somewhat soft-edged and unfocused.

They wrote enough material for a full-length, but in 2005 Murphy took the job with Wilco and “instantly was gone six months out of the year on tour with that band,” says Read. When Murphy was out of town they couldn’t play shows or record, and when he quit later that year, Lazer Crystal (as they were by then known) still only had three songs of what might’ve been their first album halfway recorded.

After a series of temporary drummers, including Erik Schwartz from the former Camp Gay band Voltage, Read and De Graff experimented with a four-member, double-drummer setup featuring Josh Johannpeter, one of Bobby Conn’s regular collaborators and De Graff’s bandmate in Mahjongg; and Cooper Crain, who plays in Cave and has a solo project called Bitchin’ Bajas. Within about a year the band had settled on its current trio lineup: De Graff, Read, and Johannpeter.

Toward the end of Murphy’s time with Lazer Crystal, Read and De Graff had started messing around with electronic drum pads and sequenced rhythms. During the protracted transition after his departure, the band’s sound evolved again, this time into something much more dance-floor friendly, with layers of percussion both acoustic and electronic. They quickly earned a fan base that included not only the core demographic at Camp Gay shows—a specific type of electro-hippie punk—but also proper club kids and clean-cut indie rockers. De Graff’s friend Ben Funke of the local label Captcha (at the time called HBSP-2X) put out a Lazer Crystal single, Hot Pink BMX, in 2008 and an EP called EP-1 in early 2009. For Record Store Day that year Funke arranged for the full run of the EP—every one of the 300 vinyl copies had a unique handmade cover—to be displayed gallery style at Permanent, where he worked part-time. Thrill Jockey head Bettina Richards, who’d caught the band on a bill with Pit Er Pat and had started distributing Captcha releases about a month before, bought several personal copies. Emboldened by the news of Richards’s purchase, De Graff called her to ask about the possibility of a Thrill Jockey release. “I wanted to put out Lazer Crystal’s music because it was just pure fun,” she says. “They are serious musicians who do not take themselves too seriously.” She even agreed to have the label fund the recording sessions that began in the fall.

The songs on mcmlxxx sprawl across Krautrock, Italo-disco, prog, and noise, and in keeping with those influences their payoff isn’t in pop hooks so much as it is in really intense vibes. Even without much foreground melody, the music has a focus that Lazer Crystal’s early material lacked—something De Graff and Read say they achieved by giving in to their electro and house fandom.

“All of my friends turned into ravers around ’95,” says Read. In the late 90s he learned step sequencing and other tools for making dance music, and from that point forward, his days as a guitarist were numbered. “I played guitar for a really long time, and I got really sick of writing guitar parts after 15 years or so,” he says. There’s only one guitar part on all of mcmlxxx, and it’s little more than a layer of feedback. De Graff, 30, got turned onto rave culture around the same time. “I can remember taking drugs in high school,” he says, “and listening to the Orb and just being totally blown out of my mind.”

Read and De Graff both cite MTV’s dance-music showcase Amp as a major inspiration, and several tracks on mcmlxxx reflect a nostalgia for the heyday of arena techno and big beat. “Bad Indian” and “Lame Duck” trick out their icy Teutonic drive with streaks of rave decadence, and “Catch the Wave,” with its Klaxon-like synth peals and ersatz talk-box growls, could pass for a gonzo Chemical Brothers outtake.

The inevitable revival of 90s rave culture has produced plenty of acts that dabble in rave signifiers ironically. Much as with the revivals of 80s hip-hop and electro, you get a mix of real appreciation and distancing snark that’s almost impossible for an outside observer to parse. De Graff and Read might seem to be making fun of 90s dance with their dated-sounding synth patches, but their relationship with the music is intimate and genuine. “To me the difference is in how people use influences,” says De Graff. “There are people who directly play on things based on the entertainment value, the irony that surrounds the influence. Then you have pastiche, an automatic kind of thing where you find it’s more coincidental . . . where you pick up on something that you write and it’s like, ‘That reminds me of this.'”

Lazer Crystal are big into retro-futurism—that is, the way people in the past thought the future would turn out—and it’s reflected in everything from their appropriation of Kraftwerkian techno-lust to their shiny 80s-style airbrush visuals. “I had a subscription to Omni magazine when I was growing up,” De Graff says. “I’ve been a real sci-fi nerd my whole life. And yeah, it certainly affects making music quite a bit. I feel like we’re going to miss out on things after we die. Shit’s just going to get insanely Star Trek and I want to be there.”

Read and De Graff wear their influences on their sleeves—except maybe Nine Inch Nails, which they both enjoy a bit more covertly—but their music doesn’t sound like a parade of self-conscious musical references. It’s about moving bodies and maybe expanding minds—like the stuff DJs used to spin at raves—and two Saturdays ago, at a release party for mcmlxxx at the Hideout, they proved it. The air throbbed with tribal boom, the floors shook, and the only illumination in the room was from synth control panels and the band’s own light show. It felt more like a rave than anything happening in a wood-paneled room full of taxidermy has any right to feel. It was hard to see, but here and there the brilliant lasers radiating from the stage would outline someone dancing, lost in some kind of trance.