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A Subtle Reminder 

Surrealist hip-hop crew returns to the spotlight

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
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While driving through Iowa on their first national tour last February, Bay Area hip-hop experimenters Subtle hit a patch of ice in the middle of the night that threw their van off the road. Keyboardist Dax Pierson wound up in ICU with a broken neck, and spent much of last year in rehab in Houston, Texas; he's still in a wheelchair. After such a horrific experience, frontman and mad poet Doseone, aka Adam Drucker, admits, "I had doubts that I was going to do any more music [at all]. I really didn't know what was going to happen."

A six-way collaboration that melds electronica, improv, and Anticon-style inner journey hip hop, Subtle emerged from three years of bedroom rehearsals with a densely textured style of sublime synths, softly bowed cellos, and lo-fi beats. The group turns that sonic surrealism into a fierce stage show, like the time they played Slim's in all-white suits while Drucker rattled off rhymes with highly articulated body movements like a marionette yanking its own strings.

Pierson has always been at the core of Subtle, however. "He picked everyone in it, we all met him first through Amoeba," Drucker explains. "It was half his friends and half people he had just met, and it was his name, it's his energy, his starting improvs — all these things. So [after the accident] all of a sudden everything's splayed out in front of you — suddenly your history is so apparent and your future is unforeseeable."

But they didn't quit: Drucker and drummer and guitarist Jordan Dalrymple threw themselves into the band's next album, for hero: for fool, which comes out sometime in late summer. "Just trying to improv without Dax sucked; trying to rehearse without Dax sucked. But at the same time, everyone was pushing themselves," Drucker says. "It was pretty intense. We know Dax is pushing for his fingers to wiggle, so we can't whine about making the music that we love making, you know what I mean?"

This Friday Subtle plays to its hometown crowd on the first tour without Pierson. The group is supporting wishingbone, a CD and DVD of new material, short films, and remixes from Mike Patton, Beck, and Ms. John Soda, among others. When it performs this time as a five-piece, you might even catch Pierson's pink wheelchair in the audience. He's living back in the Bay Area again — and while he can't play keys yet, you'll hear him singing again on for hero: for fool.

"The first time we recorded vocals we were all nervous, and then next thing we knew Dax is just fucking sticking it, man. It was amazing," Drucker says of including his bandmate in the recording process. "He had all the harmonies — we had been sending him demos all along, and he was just sticking it, one after another. I just started to cry, hearing this, because he was so hurt when I last saw him. He was on a ventilator. And then here's his fuckin' beautiful voice ... it was really great."

But Drucker says the crew had a breakthrough moment towards the end of its session. "We're sitting there mixing one of Dax's favorite songs on the record, in the studio, and all of a sudden he starts to move his fucking thumb — voluntarily, for the first time. It was the day after the one-year anniversary of our car accident. So it was this total After School Special thing, everybody's just crying, and about two minutes later he's moving it an inch left and right." Drucker says he's not "a religious dude," but he's a well-known sentimentalist — so expect a big, heartfelt, and semimiraculous experience when Subtle returns to the stage.

About The Author

Chris Dahlen

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