The DJ is spinning an energized blur of Baltimore club and hip hop, punctuated by a live performance from Alameda's hyphy exemplar, Trackademicks, all charisma and club hits as he takes the mike in a white track suit. As the evening creeps toward midnight, though, I'm a little anxious about the fate of our headliner, Lemonade . The San Francisco group's eclectic offerings (available only on MySpace) are coarse with psychedelic textures and light on the easy fixes the percussion crosses continents, the vocals are tangles of guttural exclamations, and the melodies spring from all over. The closest connections the tracks bear to modern music are to artists like Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, and Sunburned Hand of the Man fervent experimentalists deep below the dance charts.
The Gucci crowd is downing the hip hop like last-call booze at an open bar, and Africa is quick with the refills: the Pack, T.I., Mac Dre, Ding Dong, M.I.A. Where will he find the link between these quick hitters and a free-jamming, trance-raving, krautrock-via-South American-beats band? Africa's answer is the last song in his set: Liquid Liquid's "Cavern."
As the minimalist-funk precursor to "White Lines" fades out, the three lanky young dudes arranging equipment on stage burst to life. Lemonade's drummer, Alex Pasternak, wearing headphones filled with phantom drum-machine beats, kicks things off. Ben Steidel slaps on the bass, and vocalist Callan Clendenin peers into the crowd from behind a rainbow-striped mask. The homemade costume transforms the frontman into an art-damaged cultist, with a pink brain shooting lightning rods down the side of his face; in his hand is a piece of driftwood picked up during a Big Sur gig. When Clendenin isn't pointing the gnarled wizard stick at revelers below, he's manning a chaos pad, an instrument that clears the passageways to Lemonade's worldly samples Arabic melodies, hyphy drum beats, bits of disco, dub, and Baltimore club. The act's MO is total saturation, a carnival of eerie drones and odd frequencies, of dance hall and dementia with a beat that commands your body's movements even as your mind goes on a different ride. Live, it's an intoxicating bit of voodoo; Pasternak will later tell me that his favorite description of Lemonade's sound is "a techno-Brazilian samba line on mushrooms."
Mass partiers move under hypnotic grooves while Gucci Time otherwise stands still it may be 45 minutes or two hours while Lemonade performs its exorcism. The group's songs are elastic, expanding and contracting depending on whether it's performing on a rock bill or in a DJ lineup. When the set slowly fades to a simmer, Disco Shawn throws "Hustling" by Rick Rock on the turntables, refusing to stop the momentum for a second. Lemonade remains on stage, leaving the equipment alone to bob and weave to the new beats. Again, the transition is seamless. Having never seen Lemonade live before, Disco Shawn and Africa will concur the following week that the show was "awesome" and "well received." I take off well before 2 a.m., feeling like I've emerged from a crazy communal hypnotism that ecstatic place where only a great DJ or dance act can offer transport. Only this destination is also littered with freak flags, which is why I really dig it.
A couple nights later I'm sitting at Pasternak and Clendenin's top-floor flat in the Castro District, views of downtown out the bay windows, a snake-charming mismar instrument on the mantelpiece, and crates and piles of vinyl bookending the turntables by my side. It's after 10 on a weeknight, and the three guys (Steidel has joined us) are drinking Diet Sparks, waking up for a midnight band practice and discussing the past weekend's shows. "The people in the dance music community have been really supportive of us," says an awed Steidel. "I thought that [Lemonade] was going to go more in the direction of us always being the danciest band on the experimental bill, but instead we're usually the weirdest band on the dance bill." He admits feeling initially intimidated about headlining for a crowd going nuts on hip hop. "I was thinking, 'This is going to be horrible we're playing weird, psychedelic, drony techno.' But the dance kids were great."
The 1-year-old trio moves smoothly between gigs at dance clubs (Club Six, Mighty), small bars (the Make-Out Room), and rock venues (El Rio, Bottom of the Hill where they'll perform on Nov. 25 with Les Georges Leningrad); in New York, Liquid Liquid's Salvatore Principato became a temporary percussionist for Lemonade, in exchange for getting a lady friend on the guest list. "I don't think any of our shows have made sense, and that's part of it," says Clendenin. "Our [second] show was at Amnesia and it was a world-beat night for Six Degrees Records; all the world music people loved it."
Global dance music has never found San Francisco's borders closed, but there's a real sense of adventure in Lemonade that goes beyond passport stamps. As much as our late-night chat gets into dance hall, dub, samba, and grime, all of which the group threads into and reinterprets within the fabric of its music, it's the eccentric elements that take the sound to a mystical level the distortion, the delay, the exotic beats and ethnic bazaar melodies. Lemonade isn't so much a musical sponge as a kaleidoscope, the experimental scene and club culture reflecting, rotating, and tumbling through its lens in a fractured intercontinental spectrum.
While Steidel's day job at Amoeba Records brings much new music to the trio, Pasternak's wanderlust also keeps Lemonade fresh. Instead of just hearing the latest Diplo comps, he grabs Brazilian music at the source. "I get a lot of CD-Rs from the marketplaces," he says with a grin. "In Rio, that's where I found my favorite baile funk stuff or in Barcelona, we got a bunch of different stuff from the marketplace, like [music from the] Persian Gulf." As an employee of SkyWest, Pasternak gets his airfare comped, which makes these frequent excursions much easier.
Pasternak, who grew up near Half Moon Bay with Clendenin, studied ethnomusicology in college, focusing on Arab, Jewish, and Brazilian music and spending a year living abroad in Barcelona. The other two band members came to dance music via different destinations Steidel after having a "techno epiphany," Clendenin after hitting crust punk raves in Barcelona. From the beginning, these ex-hardcore kids gelled by accenting one another's eccentricities.
"If it was up to me, I'd be playing samba all day and be jamming on percussion," says Pasternak. Steidel points at Clendenin and adds, "And he'd be making 1977 keyboard new age." But they balance and inspire one another, trusting that Steidel will keep the songs in check. "Ben has the pop structure down," says Pasternak. "We don't play pop music, but he knows when the end of the hook should be."
That last item is tricky for a group that admittedly doesn't care for the pop paradigm, yet is being rapidly embraced by a dance community eager to make remixes. Lemonade has already been asked for its recordings by DJs hot to craft dance edits and create 12-inches. The problem is that these guys have yet to record beyond a couple songs thrown onto a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/bananasandecstasy). They admit that traditional recording methods have proved challenging to a band bent on improv. Nonetheless, they're working on a couple split 7-inches, stoked to be on the freakish fringe of the electronic music continuum. "That's the only scene in San Francisco right now that has anything to it," Clendenin asserts. "The electronic scene is where a lot of people I know from, like, the punk bands and the noise bands are ending up. There's other stuff going on, for sure, [but] a lot of it still seems nostalgic, whereas the electronic thing feels really fresh right now."
He adds that the band isn't interested in joining the conga line for the "post-punk stranglehold on music"; instead, the guys geek out on discussions of things like Sri Lankan vocals, coolie dance rhythms, and Punjabi beats. "America has a pop music enterprise," Clendenin opines, "and the rest of the world, they listen to that, but they're also trading rhythms." He is sure to convey that Lemonade's interest in the international isn't a fad. "[We're] not so much like, 'Wow, listen to their traditional music that they preserved for so many years,'" he explains. "I wanted to hear what the kids in poor neighborhoods were listening to, to either vent their frustrations or to celebrate their culture. Listening to all that stuff was totally inspiring. I never wanted to emulate it; I just wanted to add our own perspective to it. I wanted to be part of that exchange."