Psychocelebrity, Squarepusher at the Regency

I moved around a lot as a kid. For a while I lived in the Middle East, where it’s really hard to get good music. Which means for four years I essentially survived on popular movie soundtracks.

When I moved back to America in 1998, a friend from my AP English class named Forest Fisher introduced me to Squarepusher. I immediately bought Feed Me Weird Things, Big Loada, and Budakhan Mindphone on Amazon, and these albums irrevocably changed my life. I would listen to UFOs Over Leytonstone on repeat for hours. To this day my tracks tend to start out with a simple contrapuntal melodic/rhythmic combo and spiral fractally out of control (a formula which, in terms of Ufabulum, is taken to such extremes it becomes a form of self-parody).

Squarepusher is one of the pioneers of drum and bass, although the genre is unrecognizable from what he was playing at the time (amen breaks notwithstanding). He’s a brilliant bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and live producer. He programs his own synth algorithms, and for this most recent show he even programmed his own lightning display. It was my first time seeing him, and I’ve got a couple of gripes and a lot of gushing to do, so let’s get to it.

First gripe: not enough bass guitar. The live show is a straight run through of Ufabulum, track by track. The concept was “every sound comes from the box”, which means no bass guitar whatsoever. Luckily there were a couple Japanese bonus tracks which feature his traditional waist-height rack setup and six-string fretted bass, so he ended the show with a bit of that action. Whew.

Second gripe: too short. He played from 9:45 til 10:45 with no encore, and after driving up from Los Angeles to San Francisco just to see him it was hard not to feel a little shafted. When the lights went up, we all looked at each other more than a little confused.

But that particular bit––No Encore (horror music)––stuck in my craw. As I drove back I turned off my radio, which means I’m Thinking About Something Totally Serious You Guys. I harkened back to my first concert ever, Ben Folds Five in ’99 for my 17th birthday. When they did the encore, I was confused out of my mind. Because, really, encores are stupid. You know it, I know it, my 17-year-old self knew it. In the ancient times, like 1930, performers used to actually come out and do a crowd favorite a second time, but now encores are just traditionally sanctioned breaks in the music. And you know what sucks? Breaks in the music. Maybe that’s why dance festivals don’t have encores: people are actually dancing, so why interrupt their bliss?

Clearly, he must have known people would resent him for denying an encore. But isn’t not giving a shit what other people think what Squarepusher’s musical genius is all about? Exhibitionism is a prerequisite to enjoying one’s own celebrity. To be otherwise is to be the tortured soul, a la Johnny Depp or countless others, doomed to be famous while in truth just wanting to be left alone. But there is a type of person who is literally turned on simply by the thought of many eyes being on them at once. The obvious examples: Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Madonna, Bono. Blecch. The media––the world––seeks out these people. They are not particularly common. But it seems like they’re everywhere, for the same reason people are scared of sharks. People of this particular mental disorder are goldmines for the corporate dissemination of entertainment media. The arts have become impossibly backward due to the entertainment industry’s exploitation of this psychological phenomena.

But in a world full of the LOOK-AT-MEs and the masses who validate and vindicate them, there are the Saving Graces, and I believe Tom Jenkinson is one of them. He is a musician without ego. Take a moment to let that sink in. I’d honestly wager he’s so devoid of ego he might be a little autistic. He’s definitely got the focusing aspect, the obsession with music aspect, and I can guarantee that (despite his enthusiastic calls for cheers between tracks) the man never smiled once during his performance. But he didn’t frown, either. He just stood up there in his LED helmet and played. Which he did do, by way of live editing on the spot, on par with Plaid and nearly with Autechre at just how adept the man’s fingers are. All right, that got a little fanboy-ish. Anyhoo.

My conclusion was to end up feeling guilty about resenting his lack of encore. His show was meticulously crafted, the lights, the live tweaking, all of it was an incredibly cohesive work of art that he––with all his hermetically antisocial quirks––still wanted to disseminate to the masses. He doesn’t like attention (to the point he had security clear the whole block before scurrying to his tour bus), he certainly doesn’t like celebrity, but what he does like is that deep feeling of connection, which every musician on earth understands. You spend your whole life looking inward, trying to stay true and honest about what speaks to your soul in terms of lyric and sound, and then you look out over the audience and realize that they share those deep abstractions with you. They share it on a level you never thought possible. This, at its heart, is what making music is all about, and that’s what Squarepusher gave us. No tradition, no glitz, no fluff. He gave us an hour of pure soul experience, and it just so happens to sync up with my nervous system in ways that’s hard for me to put into words.

Speaking of the LED helmet, this is what the show looked like:

It was one part Radiohead Light Wall, one part Daft Punk Pyramid-Bot, and one part Winamp visualization if it was programmed by a mad genius with synesthesia. Each track had its own shape identity, which responded to the sound frequencies to varying degrees. When he played live bass (bottom right), the waveform was easily visible and affective amongst the visualizations. I personally love the look of a waveform in live visuals; it gives me the feeling my eyes are as close to relating to the sound as possible. I believe at one point I may have given myself whiplash from the wild dancing. Worth it.

Finally, the sound was the best I’ve ever heard, ever. I have seen the likes of Autechre, Matmos, Plaid, Daft Punk, and Radiohead, all known for their impeccable live sound (more or less in that order). But this show blew them all away. I’ve never heard anything like it, and that alone was worth the drive. I believe it stemmed from how the bass was treated. Usually, live shows crank the bass frequencies to achieve maximum earthquake status, but here the bass was crisp. That’s the only word for it.

It was insanely loud, but for the first time in my life I had to take out my earplugs. With them in, I felt like I was looking at Starry Night with sunglasses. I figure after a lifetime of protecting my ears, I’d earned this one hour of pure audio bliss. And that is what matters to me, and Tom, most.

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Paul

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