By Miles Raymer
Walking into the Andersonville bar Simon’s to meet with the guys from Velva, I wasn’t sure who to look for. In the only photos I’d seen of them, they were heavily made up and dressed in their stage costumes, which look like relics from when everyone thought the future would bring clingy metallic bodysuits.
But Lord Lofgren, aka front man Timothy Lofgren, was wearing a fatigue jacket and a face-obscuring hair-and-beard combo. Skinheaded beatmaker/VJ Dreamdaze, aka Brian Dunn, sported a T-shirt emblazoned with a line of code only an IT guy would understand. (Multi-instrumentalist Adam Szwarek, aka Cybernaut, couldn’t make it to the interview.) I guess I should’ve expected geeks: their work displays both a geek’s love for technology and a geek’s love for tearing technology up and making something different out of it. That something in this case is songs that pile up glitchy drum machines, circuit-bent toy sounds, eight-bit video game noises, and customized analog synth guitars (including the “space axe” and “Guitari”).
But is it OK to call them geeks? “That’s safe to say,” said Lofgren. He’d already handed me a lenticular photo of the band and shown me some of the mutant plush animals that he sews.
Over the past decade geek culture has really become an independent scene unto itself, and it’s not just about slash fiction and role-playing games. Proudly nerdy otaku have birthed several musical movements. Nerdcore rappers rhyme about Internet memes and Asperger’s. Eight-bit aficionados use the archaic beeps and bloops of NES-era video games as raw material for surprisingly club-friendly dance music. On the more experimental end there are the circuit benders, who twist the electronic guts of toys and simple synthesizers to turn them into noise-spewing tools of anarchy.
Despite its genesis among hard-core convention-going geeks, some of the music is starting to break into the mainstream. “Now you see laptop people all over the place, eight-bit people all over the place,” Lofgren said. “The circuit-bent crowd’s coming around.”
While Velva incorporates a bit of all these movements, it doesn’t quite fit into any of them, skirting the tribalism geeks are so into. “These eight-bit artists, some of them will sing over it, or they’ll have multiple things going, like a more abstract song, a more dance-oriented song,” said Lofgren. “But we want more traditional structures—verse-chorus-verse, that kind of thing—that people can connect with.”
And unlike other geek-pride acts, which tend to be a little one-dimensional, Velva digs deeper to create something more complex. While the group incorporates Pulp Fiction dialogue and the “All your base are belong to us” Internet meme into “Nanogangsters,” other tracks are harsh and industrial enough to evoke Throbbing Gristle. The group’s not interested in easy postmodern referencing, and Dunn is firmly opposed to recycling time-tested dance beats. “I’ll never do a boom-boom-boom,” he said. “There’s always glitch, it’s always cut up. I start with that structure but then mutate it off the face of the earth.”
“Even as far back as 2000 I was incorporating video game sounds and elements into tracks,” Lofgren added, “but they were more rudimentary samples. I’d been coming across artists doing full tracks with Game Boys and I picked one up. I started composing some tracks with LSDJ and Nanoloop [two composition programs] and I have a MIDI NES system and I use that to plug into a MIDI keyboard and I can compose straight up with a Nintendo.”
Lofgren started Velva about a decade back, but the band’s current lineup has been together about four years. Szwarek sent a message to Velva’s MySpace page listing his influences and gear (sci-fi and B movies; original instruments like the MIDI-synth “ztar”) and offering his services. “I called him immediately,” Lofgren said. “He said, ‘Hello?’ I said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ We were like long lost brothers.”
Lofgren went through his friends list in search of a DJ and found Dreamdaze, then a solo artist who made IDM electronic music and abstract videos that he’d project on himself. “Someone had left him a comment that said like, ‘Man, when you put on a show you really put on a show!’ So I e-mailed him and asked, ‘What is it that you did to really put on a show?’ And then he didn’t e-mail me back because he was busy. So I sent him an e-mail like, ‘How dare you not e-mail me back? I asked you that two weeks ago!'”
I asked what Dunn had done to impress the commenter. “I was the laptop guy that performed on stilts,” he explained. Dunn still wears the stilts, which, obscured by his white robe, send him towering eight feet onstage.
Velva’s music can easily stand on its own, but the trio’s committed to the multimedia experience. Dunn’s Dada-influenced video compositions, which combine snatches of found and homemade video with digital landscapes that might result from a more well-thought-out version of the “visualizer” effect on iTunes, are projected onto the band during shows. “Any sample I use or any video I use I tend to mangle in a way that makes it new,” Dunn says. “Cutting it, twisting it, remixing it, for lack of a better word.”
“Do you just want to watch a bunch of dudes in jean jackets sit there and look pissed off?” Lofgren asks. “I want people to go home after and say, ‘Aw man, for 45 minutes I forgot about all the other shit that’s pissing me off.'”
“That’s why we bring our audience candy,” Dunn said. He wasn’t joking: during the song “Marshmellow Kisses,” the band tosses out little ribbon-tied bags of Swedish Fish, Sour Patch Kids, chocolate, and the like.
Everything in the videos, Lofgren went on, “has a theme, and I’ll give Brian a theme for his piece, and everything he comes up with, even if it’s a little on the disturbing side, it’s fine by me.”
“Have you ever let me use the German woman humping a guy?” Dunn asked.
When I asked whether they’d thought about making a DVD they said yes, immediately and in unison. “We shot a video, but we need to finish the special effects on all of the laser shooting,” said Lofgren.
So how much of the video has laser shooting?
“Most of it.”v
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