It's a fear that invades thinking about music as well: Musicians whose work is defined with the unfortunate and useless fudge-word "electronica" claim that the bits and bytes that make up their sound are simply mirrors of the Pre-Millennium Tension that's clutching the modern world. And, of course, there are the critics who've assailed those sounds as anesthetizing "real" music.
Amy X Neuburg understands all this. But since she's been playing games with technology for years in the Bay Area -- and making it work as music -- she's not going to apologize. As the leader of Amy X Neuburg and Men, she's not using modern technology to dive headlong into a vision of our sonic future, but merely to arrive at a diverse musical synthesis. After releasing Songs 91 to 85 in 1993, an album she characterizes as strictly "'80s techno-pop," she assembled her Men: Herb Heinz, Joel Davel, Micah Ball, and J.T. Quillian III. The original goal was to perform the songs live for a showcase. But what started as a simple act of promotion turned into a way to harness music of the past and instrumentation of the present, combining it into a theatrical form of modern pop. Imagine Depeche Mode in a good mood, or Marilyn Manson with a melody.
From song to song, there are hints of the jazz-opera-cabaret works of Kurt Weill and the mad flourishes of art-rock structures and time signatures. (Heinz suggests King Crimson, though as a guitarist he's not especially fascinated with guitar-god noodling.) And then there's Neuburg's own voice, which leaps from beat poetry to hymns to high-speed Finnish folk singalongs to the downright operatic. All of this virtuosity is displayed on the band's far-reaching 1995 debut, Utechma, and shows up again on Sports Chips Booty, slated for release early next year.
And it was all an accident. "The Kurt Weill [influence] just came along," says Neuburg. "We realized we were called Amy X Neuburg & Men ... and I decided, 'Let's really play with that, let's play with the Men thing.' So I started writing songs where I'd sing a little something and they'd sing a little something back. It just turned into something that started reminding people of Kurt Weill. It's not that I wasn't familiar with his work, just that it wasn't what I had in mind when we started."
That the music spins away from Weill as much as it's drawn to his work has a lot to do with instrumentation. Excepting Heinz's standard-issue electric guitar, most of the members work on new -- and novel -- electronic tools: Neuburg on drumpads; Ball on the Chapman Stick, a 12-string instrument designed to handle bass and melody simultaneously; Davel on a computerized marimba, as well as the Lightning II, another MIDI-basted instrument that uses a pair of wands played in air to craft an ethereal wash of sound, similar to the eerie pitches and tones of a theremin. Davel helped design the Lightning with Don Buchla, the longtime Berkeley-based instrument designer who, along with contemporary Robert Moog, pioneered and defined the modern synthesizer.
The result can sometimes be dizzying, even off-putting -- another case of modern sensory overload. It's rock meets synthpop meets The Threepenny Opera meets the Cabaret Voltaire circa 1919 meets Laurie Anderson; if you're not careful, all of it hitting you at once can be overwhelming. "This is what we do," Neuburg says, shrugging off any concern. "I come from a classically trained tradition, and a musical theater tradition. My songs -- you can hear a lot of musical theater, Weill and ..."
Heinz interrupts. "We're pretentious."
Well, not quite; it's just that in a world where any number of bands can be described as "hard to categorize," you can file Utechma pretty much anywhere in the record store. Neuburg sees the humor in that, sitting backstage at Venue 9, musing that she can't call her music "electronic" because people now assume you mean -- and here she lets out a choogla-choogla sound, imitating a techno beat. "Make sure you transcribe that," she says.
The art-rock/cabaret/post-opera ensemble has spent the past month performing Wednesday nights at Venue 9 in SOMA, whose own schedule of dance, poetry, film, and music matches the group's eclecticism. The show is built around projected slides, kazoos thrown into the crowd (for the Finnish folk singalong), Ball's bounding across the stage, Quillian's lounge-lizard-on-speed vocals and dancing. So maybe it is just cabaret -- the back-and-forth with the audience, the theatrics, a cover of Brecht-Weill's "Alabama Song," which the Doors popularized in 1967. But the theme of "performance" rarely strays too far from music itself. "The theater thing for us is a big deal," says Heinz. "We really want to present our music in a theater for a number of reasons: a space where people can sit and face us, preferably not have too many drinks clattering, people walking around, getting up. We used to do out-and-out theater in clubs, and it was really hard because people weren't willing to sit there and tune in."
Heinz, Davel, and Neuburg all know each other from Oakland's Mills College, where they studied in the school's Center for Contemporary Music. Later, they went on to form the multimedia theater ensemble MAP, as Neuburg also worked with the AXIS Dance Company and Robert Ashley's modern opera ensemble. The three also assist in running IS Productions, an Oakland-based studio and musicians' cooperative.
The musicians inspire one another, something evident on Heinz's first solo CD, Failure, released earlier this year. Neuburg and Davel contributed to half the tracks, though the songs are couched in more straightforward guitar-rock themes than anything on Utechma, which is mostly a synth-driven affair. The songs range from "Not What I Wanted"'s satirical look at egotism to the genuine pop hooks of the title track. "Part of my interest is to surprise or even confound people a little," Heinz says. "And you can do that more effectively when you seduce them into wanting to listen instead of assaulting them."
The album's title lays out the music's focus on, well, failure: not getting what you want, being lied to, trying to explain yourself and not getting the words right. "On Failure I have set out to fail," as he puts it in the liner notes, though Heinz claims the record as a modest success; "It's failing about as well as I expected," he says. He confides that he wants to call his next album Another Album, making "another ironic comment about how people don't need my music," he jokes.
Critics' chief complaint about electronic instrumentation is that it often takes the human being out of the compositional process; push a button, and a sound results that the musician can lay claim to, even if he or she added little to its creation. But in this case, there's always Neuburg's voice -- with a three-and-a-half octave range, she gets to try on a number of musical hats, be it a straight pop ballad like "Into that Hole," the echoing, multi-tracked vocals on "Humility," or the new "Big Barbecue," a track on which the avant-garde meets the musical overture. "The voice is an instrument," she says, by way of reminder. "There are voices there, which really adds this element of sharing and sincerity."
Composing with electronic instruments becomes its own call-and-response process. "They influence us by what they can do," says Davel. "There's a creative element to working with [them]. You get halfway through something ... and you find something you didn't expect, and it may take you in a different direction. Especially when [Neuburg] comes in with a song that's got the melody, got the elements, but it doesn't have the sounds. Usually, we work out the sounds, and the sounds may rearrange the song. For me, it's instrument-building. [With] each new song, I build a new instrument to some extent."
"We all think of ourselves as composers," says Neuburg. "It's enabled me to write and create my own music. Otherwise, I just would've been a singer doing Mozart."
Amy X Neuburg & Men play every Wednesday in January at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom). Tickets are $6-$10; call 415-289-2000.