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The Lesser of Two Evils 

Somewhere between twisted electronica and cacophonic noise lies the challenging work of J Lesser

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
On a recent European tour, electronica provocateur J Lesser experienced a phenomenon he's unaccustomed to: fans. "I've never had people at shows say, "I just bought your new record and it's good,'" remarks the San Francisco resident. "Usually it's more like, "Who the fuck are you?'" Lesser's recent CD on Matador Europe, Gearhound, has gotten attention from leading British music publications like The Wire (positive) and New Musical Express ("If they'd given me a good review, I would have had to hang it all up," Lesser jokes). Some reviewers have gone so far as to hail Gearhound as a groundbreaking work on the cutting edge of electronica. Others have been less laudatory: The Stanford Daily called it "horrible" and "a detriment to humanity."

After sonically challenging both himself and his listeners for over a decade, Lesser finds the sudden surge of attention amusingly surreal. "I guess I just don't take myself all that seriously," chortles the man with the mustache during a recent interview at his Richmond District apartment. "I'm glad that people are listening to it, but I don't really see myself as being the kind of "band' that people become real fans of. It's too reflexive, and I'm sort of giving you shit for listening to the record in the first place."

Lesser crafts his heady tracks in his home studio -- a veritable electronic toy store of classic keyboards, vintage drum machines, CD players, homemade noisemakers, and Macintosh computers. While his instruments of choice often get him lumped into the techno scene, Lesser's music is more in line with such Bay Area experimentalists as Kid 606, Blectum From Blechdom, and Matmos (in which he sometimes performs). Refusing to put limits on his musical efforts, Lesser's skittering digital decompositions and absurd piss-takes have been described as post-electronica or avant-noise. You could also call them the unholy spawn of punk rock and drum 'n' bass.

Lesser, aka J Döerck, got his musical start lurking around the San Diego rock scene, playing with future members of A Minor Forest, Crash Worship, and Thingy. He launched his solo recording project in 1990, taking a name that was a half-in-jest commentary on himself and his music. The first Lesser release was I Hate Me -- a claustrophobic cassette of morose indie-rock and experimental noise that came packaged with a razor blade and fake blotter acid. "It all started off because the band I was in broke up, so I just started recording stuff with a drum machine and a guitar," he says of the I Hate Me period. "I was really pushed into it because this whole relationship I was in exploded, and I had a lot of free time and a burgeoning alcohol problem. It provided a good release."

Soon, Lesser began foisting his peculiar brand of guerrilla noise onto crowds outside San Diego rock shows; he would set up a generator and start playing guitar and drum machine until he was chased away. "I enjoyed being the jackass who would piss off everyone with what I was playing," he recalls. "There was no way to be more punk in San Diego than to be playing electronic music. There was no way to play music that people hated more." Gradually he shifted away from rock composition. "I was just no longer interested in what I could do with a guitar," says the former metalhead. "I had a hunger for sounds that I hadn't really heard before."

Relocating to San Francisco in late 1994, Lesser continued to pursue his electronic interests while playing sporadically in Creeping Death, a Metallica cover band. "There's nothing like playing Gilman Street and [seeing] people doing stage dives," Lesser reminisces about the ad hoc group's ridiculously popular gigs. "I can't imagine any other band that I would play in eliciting a response close to that."

Meanwhile, Lesser was gaining notoriety with each of his releases on San Diego's Vinyl Communications label. The 1997 Lesser CD Welcome to the American Experience ruffled some feathers with its mail-order bride cover and the title of one track, "Markus Popp Can Kiss My Redneck Ass." Supposedly, the aforementioned German electronic musician remained pissed off enough to cancel his scheduled appearance with Lesser three years later. For his part, Lesser -- who says he has nothing but respect for Popp's work -- was looking forward to the show as a chance to explain the title. On an earlier European tour with Matmos, Lesser dined and traveled with Popp, but couldn't find the right moment to tell him it was all just a big goof on the hegemony of European electronica. "I wanted to say, "I'm the guy who did that song, and it has nothing to do with you.' But he's not the kind of guy you could just tell, "Hey, I was just joking! Ain't nuthin', it's cool.' He never figured it out, because I was just "J, the guy in Matmos.'"

Lesser -- who also spins records under the names LSR, 157, and DJ 40-Year-Old Woman, among others -- still carries the spirit of punk confrontation in his often-unpredictable solo performances. "I definitely vacillate between [thinking], "The audience is there for you to fuck with' and "I want people to like this; I want them to get into it.' Because I know I hate it when I go to see a band and someone's just trying to screw with me. Yet that's what I do. It's pretty hypocritical."

It's this sort of schizophrenic approach that makes Gearhound such a formidable listen. Engaging at times and repellent at others, the album is a scrambled foray into the outer limits of electronica and uneasy listening. Ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, sometimes within the course of a single track, the record is a daunting blizzard of sound that unfolds into a twisted opus. The ever-present Lesser sense of humor is there, with track titles like "Matador Records Tax Deduction" and "Obligatory Glitch Worship" (wherein he digitally re-creates the sound of people cheering a fireworks display). The CD's centerpiece, "The Gearhound Suite," is an enigmatic deconstruction of electronic music subculture, divided into four movements: "Lurker," "Chinstroker," "Tablegazer," and "Gearhound Magi." But throughout all the silliness and fun-poking are meticulously arranged drum-machine spasms, cryptic verbal samples, and cut-up digital shards.

Lesser says he invested more thought and emotion in Gearhound than in past works, in part because it was his first "major" release. And while he feels it's his most compositional work yet, he also sees room for improvement: "I was really hoping to make the record more of a rock opera, if you will, [with] themes and grandiose gestures and crap like that, but it just didn't work out that way." Lesser says he'd like to make his next album even more thematic. He's even toying with the idea of scoring for other instruments. "Compared to this electronic stuff, that would be such a challenge. Say you've got a cello and a saxophone. OK, now make a song, and don't fuck around and use [computer signal processing] VST plug-ins or weird effects. And don't make something sappy. You know, I can't imagine anything scarier than that."

One of the perverse charms of Lesser's work is how he deliberately bastardizes electronica clichés. For example, recently he's been trying to avoid things like "phat bass" altogether. "That pretty much throws you out of dance music completely, if you don't have, like, some driving bass line." He laughingly warns that the next record could be a bass-free treble fest: "I don't want the fucking woofers to move once [during] the entire record."

Besides, Lesser insists, he's never really been a dance artist. "I've tried to ape drum 'n' bass, but I kind of make this other thing that's not quite that. I'd like to go on record as saying I've never been to a rave. I've been to a lot of art spaces and such, but no whistles and glowsticks. I never had the stamina for such things." While most techno artists concern themselves with producing tunes that can be easily interchanged with other tracks, Lesser could care less whether his records make it into the mix. "What's important to me is not to have the same sound. I don't think there's a Lesser sound, but I think there's a personality. That's something I don't want to lose, and to make good dance music, generally speaking, you have to be this cold, interchangeable thing that has a funky beat you can play at a club."

Apparently Matador isn't sure how to market an artist like Lesser, at least stateside: The label has decided to make Gearhound available in the U.S. only as a domestic-priced import. Lesser says that while he's a little disappointed, he can't blame the label. "How many records could I possibly sell in the United States? Maybe 5,000? I don't care if it's not in every goddamned store, but it'd be a bummer if there were people who actually wanted to buy the record, and they couldn't do it."

So where's Lesser heading? "There's going to be a lot of failure in this next year. Not that anyone else is going to hear it, but there's going to be a lot of failed attempts at coming up with something that I think is interesting." In the meantime, Lesser is contributing a track -- which he calls "full-on black metal with cut-up guitars" -- to a German compilation. He will play the Rough Trade 25th anniversary festival both alone and with Matmos, and he's got other European festivals and tours planned. Finally, the Whitney Museum wants Disc -- Lesser's collaborative effort with Matmos and Kid 606 that uses skipping CD samples as compositional tools -- to perform. "That your joke band is the one that becomes the most popular seems fitting somehow," Lesser deadpans.

Finally, there's talk of him joining Matmos on a yearlong tour with Björk. "It kind of seems like that would be fucking awesome, just touring for a year," Lesser says of the unusual opportunity. "On the other hand, it's like I've got this thing that's starting to happen for me. Do I really want to disappear for a year?"

About The Author

Mike Rowell


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