at Karma, January 13


Ohio Gear Node

By Joshua Westlund

K-Rad was deep inside enemy territory. As the Chicago-based electronica foursome set up computers and keyboards on the third floor of Karma, the sprawling River North nightclub, sweaty clubgoers stared blankly at the sullen, drably dressed geeks in their midst.

“How can they DJ with only one turntable?” a buff guy in a dog collar asked his companion, a twiggy woman in stretch pants. “They are not Karma material,” she huffed. The two headed downstairs.

K-Rad hadn’t even started their set yet, but the derision was expected. Most club patrons don’t pay the steep covers at hip nightspots to hear aesthetically demanding music, which is why dull, prefabricated house dominates at clubs like Karma: the beat never changes, so new tracks are instantly familiar. By contrast, K-Rad’s most direct influences–British experimentalists like µ-ziq and Autechre, with their tastes for bitter, noisy textures and scatterbrained beats–have all but refused to engage the dance floor. Their music is proudly asocial, composed in seclusion and intended for solipsistic headphone reveries, not dancing and drugging.

Unlike their forefathers, however, K-Rad have shown a surprising willingness to meet the club kids halfway. They compose entirely new music for every live performance, and tailor these compositions to the venue itself–a method that’s earned them gigs at progressively larger venues (in six months they’ve gone from playing experimental rooms like Nervous Center to trendy hot spots like the Dragon Room). Aware that electronic music performances are better heard than seen, they set up their gear on the dance floor itself. This not only affords near invisibility but also allows them to hear the sound system as the audience does.

K-Rad opened their Karma set with a foulmouthed sample that sounded suspiciously like Elmer Fudd, then quickly built up a playful house groove. Chicago has been and probably always will be dominated by house, and K-Rad’s set (unlike the vast majority of their recorded output) stuck to the metronomically precise four-on-the-floor house paradigm, allowing them to create music simultaneously in the pocket and deviously off kilter. Leaving the basic beat pattern to repeat ad infinitum (and thereby keeping the place jumping) K-Rad were free to go apeshit with the details: jackhammer snares, thick dollops of noise, melodies that swerved like a drunk driver in a snowstorm.

The group’s live performances involve taking previously sequenced tracks and reprogramming them on the fly, with one member manning the computer, rearranging the presequenced samples; another adding new melodies and noises via keyboard; one tweaking equalizer and volume levels (essentially serving as the group’s soundman); and one adding turntable scratches and various pedal effects. The results are essentially real-time sample-based improvisation.

After about an hour, the set ended, and the club’s soundman segued into the same thumping house track that was playing downstairs. Hardly anyone noticed that they’d just heard Chicago’s best electronica group perform. Which was exactly what K-Rad intended.

The group was formed in early 1998 by Darien computer nerds Dan Oliver and Chris Grabowski. That summer Oliver brought in Joe Hahn, a friend from Northwestern who was making similar music on his own, and the three moved into an apartment in Rogers Park. Their around-the-clock music making was not appreciated by their downstairs neighbors, a theater company, and K-Rad eventually relocated to an apartment on Lawrence in Uptown. Oliver left the group, and two new members, Chris Johnson and Mark Hardy, joined. Johnson lives in the apartment with Grabowski and Hahn; Hardy just spends a lot of time there.

Pad K-Rad, as the new digs are known, is an attention deficit disorder patient’s nightmare, a tangle of computers, instruments, cables, and junk. There are four computer workstations (linked to seven hard drives full of samples), a vibraphone, two Moogs, countless other keyboards and synthesizers, a Les Paul guitar (gathering dust), and thousands of records. The only places you can’t record music are the kitchen and the bathroom.

Divining who does what in K-Rad is tough. Every track, even those on K-Rad’s ten self-released albums (available on CD for $5 each through the group’s Web site, www.padk-rad.com), is treated as a work in progress, which means that it can be edited by anyone at any time. In a sense, K-Rad collaborate by screwing up one anothers’ songs.

This method has created a monster. The group’s CDs (which they decorate with spray-paint stencils that look like techno cave paintings) compile less than 10 percent of the group’s tracks, which number well over a thousand. They’re so prolific they’re a scene unto themselves.

The fragmentation of electronica in Chicago and everywhere else into militantly homogenized subgroups–techstep jungle, speed garage, drill ‘n’ bass, whatever–keeps like-minded musicians superficially segregated, thwarting innovation and subverting sample-based music’s ultimate promise: a reorganization of cultural and racial categories that renders them meaningless. The K-Rad crew, however, understand that great music is born of mongrel roots; their music is radically astylistic. While elements of jungle, trip-hop, ambient, electro, and funk struggle to be heard over the din, none dominates the mix.

Their latest album, Ohio Gear Node, is their most diverse and enchanting yet, simultaneously giddy and obscure. It opens with vibraphone and horn samples, which split like protozoa into tiny chunks of sound that bounce through the mix like Superballs. The second track recontextualizes the wail of a bluesman into a hypnotic chant. But the real beauty is in the beats, which constantly mutate. Everything is rhythm, everything is melody–from video game blasters to cricket chirps to taut funky snares.

K-Rad plan to release their first 12-inch single within the next month–and I for one am itching to hear underground Chicago MCs rhyming over their tracks. The group will also pop up on a few forthcoming local electronica compilations, including Obvious:Oblivious, from Illuminance Records. Their plans for the more distant future are murkier. It’s hard to know how a record company would handle K-Rad–the way they work makes the LP practically obsolete. A better way to ingest their music would be to download and remix various MP3s from a song bank–burn your own K-Rad CD–and soon that’s what you’ll be able to do. K-Rad are planning to set up an MP3 site as soon as they get a cable modem connection up and running, allowing Web surfers access to more than 20 hours of otherwise unavailable music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.