Rising From the Lake of Dracula
As front man for Lake of Dracula, James Marlon Magas regularly challenged people’s notions of what makes a singer, sounding like an earnest crooner whose vocal chords were being yanked out of his throat. His chaotic trio was part of Chicago’s “no-wave” scene in the late 90s; along with the Scissor Girls, the Flying Luttenbachers, Zeek Sheck, Trenchmouth, and others, Lake of Dracula saluted the no-wave bands of the late 70s (DNA, Mars, the Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks) and succeeded in pushing the needle even farther into the red. The band’s self-titled debut, released in 1997 on the local Skin Graft label, was one of the best records produced by the Chicago no-wavers, but Lake of Dracula split up later that year, leaving Magas in the difficult position of having to top utter cacophony.
“I was pretty bored with a lot of what was going on, and I didn’t really feel like starting another band,” says Magas, lamenting the underground rock scene’s lack of imagination. But then he saw Quintron and Wolf Eyes, two bands with connections to the no-wave scene, using drum machines. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty easy. You can make the machines do the work.'” Magas knew nothing about techno or electronic gear, but he bought himself a Roland MC-505, which allowed him to integrate synthetic rhythm tracks, bass lines, and polyphonic melody lines. As he was teaching himself to program the machine he began listening to electronic dance music for the first time in his life, and three years later his twin obsessions occupy most of his time. Since fall 2000 he and his wife, Bridgette Wilson, have operated Weekend Records and Soap, a Wicker Park shop that specializes in underground electronic music and Wilson’s homemade soap. And a few weeks ago Detroit’s Ersatz Audio imprint released Bad Blood, Magas’s second EP of minimal electronic music. Lake of Dracula may have celebrated confusion, but Bad Blood is just as unnerving in its creepy, machinelike repetition.
“I got into a lot of the electronic stuff because it was really fun,” says Magas. “It could be danceable and really abstract and weird at the same time.” Weekend Records reflects his catholic taste in electronic music, stocking everything from electro-acoustic composition to laptop improv to minimal techno to glitchy IDM. The store doesn’t bother to distinguish between various subgenres, though its niche is the current manifestation of electro, which embraces the cool futurism of early electronic pop music: in addition to the icy, robotic minimalism of Ersatz Audio (Adult, Perspects, Le Car), electro encompasses the kitschy techno-soul-pop of Chicago’s own Felix da Housecat and the neo-80s fare of the German label International Deejay Gigolos (Miss Kittin & the Hacker, Fischerspooner, and Japanese Telecom).
Magas unveiled his appealingly primitive MC-505 music on the self-released EP Double-Sided Magas (2000): stripped-down and boxed in, the music pulses stiffly as deep but simple bass tones and melodic synth squiggles dance around the programmed rhythms. The record sold only 350 copies, but its mechanical intensity impressed Adam Lee Miller, co-owner of Ersatz Audio, and last fall Magas traveled to Detroit to record Bad Blood at Miller’s studio. “I wanted to go to him with an open mind because the records [Ersatz] do sound really good and powerful,” says Magas. “The record I did sounded quiet and murky.” The new record retains the robotic twitchiness of Double-Sided Magas, but the beats kick much harder, the synthesizers throb more insistently, and even without the basic building blocks of rock–guitar, bass, and drums–the tracks are honest to God head bangers.
“Nothing would please me more than to see a crowd full of heshers connecting to my music,” says Magas. “I’m basically making electronic rock, so I want to reach the rock audience too, not just the electronic crowd.” The same openness characterizes Weekend Records and Soap, whose staff are happy to share their enthusiasm for electronic music with those who wander into the store. Magas, who’ll celebrate his record’s release this Friday with a show at the Empty Bottle, is delighted to see the two musical worlds colliding. “It’s going to get exciting when you don’t just have isolated events–DJs just watching other DJs, or crusty punks who won’t let go of their flannel shirts and guitars. I’ve seen them start to mix together. I’m more excited about music than I can ever remember.”
The sixth annual Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music begins next Thursday, April 25, with the usual program of local and international attractions. Triage, featuring reedist Dave Rempis, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Tim Daisy, has become one of the city’s most dependable and flexible free-jazz units. But the highlight of the evening promises to be the trio of Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, German bassist Torsten Muller, and local tabletop guitarist and electronics whiz Kevin Drumm. At the recent All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles, I saw Gustafsson do a brief cameo with Drumm and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo that significantly raised the room temperature. Muller’s appearance coincides with the Atavistic reissue of White Earth Streak (1981), a series of quicksilver improvisations featuring him, guitarist Davey Williams, trombonist Gunter Christmann, and viola and violin maestro LaDonna Smith.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.