Dave Aju has always made strange sounds. Ever since he was a kid, growing up as the youngest of five music lovers in the South Bay, Aju has been mimicking instruments and other interesting noises with his voice. "It's a freakish little quirk I have," he says of the habit with a laugh. "It comes a little more naturally to me than I'd like to admit."
Now he's making music full time in his Panhandle apartment, and those parroting skills are coming in handy. The DJ/producer's new debut full-length, Open Wide, is composed entirely of tracks from his voicebox. Everything from the "909 drum machines" and acidic basslines to the whirring disco "synths" and "high-hat" hits were produced vocally. He then painstakingly tweaked those bits on his laptop to sound more like the instruments he was imitating. The result is an album that's clever but never kitschy: more Björk's Medulla than Bobby McFerrin (you can only occasionally visualize him popping a finger in his cheek).
And despite Aju's smart concept, the beats travel from the brain down south, reminding you to keep moving as you admire the full band he has packed into those pipes.
Aju presents his conceit from the start, in the packaging for Open Wide. If the name of the disc doesn't tip you off, the album art (line drawings of mouths dancing, singing, and flashing tongue) drops an extra hint that there's a lot of lip to this record.
Inside, the range of this motormouth is impressive. The eight minimal dance tracks (and one remix) travel over a number of genres, from Chicago house ("Roundabout") to P-Funk–influenced hip-hop ("Bump") to broken beat reggaetón ("Open Wide") and old-school electro R&B ("With You."). My favorite track is "Crazy Place," which pulses with syncopated breaths and (literally) blown-out beats before a squiggly melody tilts the tempo into Aphex Twin territory. "First Love" is another cool dance number, this one offering Aju's autobiography as told through a list of album titles on top of a deep house groove. By the end of the record, Aju's taken his knowledge of beatboxing history and merged it with his passion for DJ subgenres to create something both pointy-headed and playful. While he isn't the first to try this sort of experiment (Kid Beyond is another local a cappella hero), his foray into the minimal electronic circuit makes the disc especially alluring.
Open Wide is Aju's first full-length collection of songs, but he's been testing the limits of merging electronic and organic material for years. His 12-inch singles experimented with found sounds referenced in their titles: from "Smog Check" to "Talk Shows" to tracks set in a shopping mall. "I'm definitely into conceptual stuff," says Aju, whose real name is Marc Barrite (Dave Aju is just a play on "déjà vu"). "But it's music at the end of the day, and you shouldn't have to know how a song is made to get into it."
His releases have mainly come out, oddly enough, through European labels like Paris' Circus Company (which is releasing Open Wide). Aju has been paying his DJ dues at local clubs like the Attic, Dalva, and Laszlo for years, but he says it's hard to get a break in San Francisco's crowded scene. His real income comes from taking his turntables overseas, where he spends three to four weeks at a stretch performing in cities like Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Geneva, and Warsaw. It all started with a chance connection to Circus Company back when Aju was DJing at an old Haight Street club called Galaxy, and the label head came to the city for a visit.
With a complete record out now in the States, perhaps the attention for Aju will spread to those who live close enough to hear his offbeat squeaks around the Haight. But if not, hey, at least the guy can travel light. His entire collection of Open Wide instruments is contained in that compact space just behind his stubble.