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Daydream Believer 

Mickey Tachibana dreams of a museum for electronic music

Wednesday, Jul 24 2002
Although it's world famous, the Drum Machine Museum isn't exactly the most high-profile arts space. In fact, you can't even see the structure from the street. The museum -- along with owner Mickey Tachibana's home -- resides a couple doors down from the lurid Market Street Cinema, sharing a loft complex with other small businesses such as Star Rock, Big Horse Inc., and Ghirardelli Engineering. Of course, even the word "resides" is misleading. These days the Drum Machine Museum lives online at Tachibana's synthesizers and electronic rhythm-makers have been boxed up and stored away in another room, in order to make space for the "Whitebox VIP Lounge."

"Whitebox" is an experimental multimedia performance held once a month in Tachibana's loft. During the shows, electronic experimentalists such as Meatbeat Manifesto cohort Mark Pistel, laptop provocateur O.S.T., and ambient tubaist Tom Heasley perform with video artists like Warren Stringer and Siren, while five "Whitebox" staffers film the proceedings, and Tachibana edits the clips in real time. When the event's over Tachibana presents the two dozen audience members with a new document of what they just saw. Call it cinéma surréalité, with a tweaked-techno soundtrack.

Tachibana wasn't always this hip. Back in the early '90s he was a self-described "middle-class manager," content to play golf, chow down at nice restaurants, and go shopping. He didn't even know what techno and house were, let alone listen to them. Now, big-name artists like Air and Tortoise stop by his apartment to visit, and the electronic elite line up to play 15 feet away from his spice rack. Meanwhile all Tachibana wants is to fulfill his dream of a real, honest-to-goodness museum for electronic music.

Tachibana came to San Francisco in 1994 when Tokyo-based desktop publishing software company Koyosha Printing put him in charge of its first U.S. office. Though he'd been in bands throughout his teenage years -- playing what he calls "Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple kind of things" -- he wasn't into music when he arrived here. "I [was] not playing any kind of music in San Francisco; I play golf," Tachibana says with a laugh as he reclines in his loft with "Whitebox" Technical Director LX Rudis and House Manager Emiko Lewis.

Tachibana doesn't look the part of a business executive. He's got blond streaks running through his unwieldy mop-top, and his jeans and T-shirt are considerably rumpled. He looks far more like a laptop artist than a high-salaried salesman -- although now he's a bit of both. His transformation came about because of the hip 22-year-olds who worked under him at Koyosha. "They are always listening to techno -- you know, Orb, Orbital, Future Sound of London, Squarepusher," Tachibana explains. "Those sounds were totally new to me; I'd never even heard those names before."

In order to communicate better with his younger staff members, he started buying techno albums and leaving them lying around the office. Before long, the resulting conversations turned into an obsession.

After purchasing his first synthesizer around 1997, Tachibana took to visiting the many synth-themed sites on the Web, checking out the different instruments available. There he discovered the drum machine, the device that laid the groundwork for most hip hop and electronic music. Tachibana began acquiring used units, for as little as $10 or as much as $200. Eventually he was spending up to $1,500 a month.

In early 1999 he encountered a hitch: His source of income dried up. Koyosha changed its business model and requested that Tachibana return to Japan to take a new position there. Much to the company's surprise, he refused. "I'd just started getting going here," he says, "and my green card application was just approved."

So, 14 days after being let go, Tachibana formed Drum Machine Museum LLC, which he hoped would someday grow to include an event hall, record and equipment store, library, gallery, and recording studio. (He even drew up a floor plan.) When large donations didn't start pouring in, he put up his Web site, which featured photos, manuals, and beat samples for each of his half-dozen machines. He also designed a logo for the museum and plastered it on T-shirts to sell through the site. But the profits weren't sufficient to balance his continuing drum machine purchases. "My income is rapidly going -- pffftt -- down," he says, using his hand to imitate a plunging graph line.

Deciding to work on his museum model, but on a smaller scale, Tachibana contacted several small synth and drum machine manufacturers overseas to see about distributing their wares. Swiss company Technosaurus agreed, and others followed. Soon Tachibana had a booming business on his hands, dealing with shops and musicians. Gear sites like wrote about him; word spread among artists the world over. When groups such as Tortoise, Spiritualized, Critters Buggin, and the Nortec Collective toured the Bay Area, they'd go by Tachibana's loft in order to play with the enormous number of machines scattered about.

"You just don't see this kind of equipment anywhere," LX Rudis says. "And to have a chance to go hands-on with it ...."

Still, Tachibana wanted more than just another business venture; he wanted to foster what he calls "electric music culture." Toward that goal he began holding drum machine workshops at his house in early 2000, showing people how to use both the old gear he'd acquired and the exotic new instruments he was selling.

"There were machines everywhere," Emiko Lewis recalls of the workshop setting.

"It was a really crazy environment," Rudis agrees. "It would always devolve into this nightmarish technofest. ... Mickey provided a sense of culture, a sense of home, where all these isolated weirdos in San Francisco could come together."

Even with this newfound community, Tachibana wasn't completely happy. "I wanted to become musician, too," he says. "I was still being like businessman." He threw himself into composition, both solo and with sound designer David Molina, crafting droning, skittery ambient techno from his vintage synths and drum machines. Unfortunately, adding one more project proved too difficult for such a busy man. "I [was] doing too many things -- business [started] dropping," he says. "Becoming a musician [made] my life really hard."

His performances at the Lab, Amnesia, and Light did, however, introduce Tachibana to the wide scope of talent in the electronic music scene, which he then decided needed documenting. He ran out and bought a video camera, though he'd never worked one before. A week later, in September 2001, he taped an event at the King Street Garage called "Audio Visual Chaos" that included performances by experimental artists Scott Arford, UFO!, and Black Lung. The second era of the Drum Machine Museum had begun.

By the beginning of 2002 Tachibana was recording shows on a regular basis, selling equipment, and playing his own music. But he still didn't have an integral part of his museum model: a performance space. So he decided to transform his loft into the "Whitebox VIP Lounge," where electronic musicians and visual artists could collaborate in an intimate, supportive setting. It was a great idea -- except that Tachibana didn't get a chance to tell anyone here about it because his brother died and he had to return to Japan for the funeral.

Back in his homeland Tachibana ran into some old co-workers from Koyosha. "They [were] all businessmen; they look old," Tachibana remembers. "They look at me like I'm strange man. I've got dyed hair, T-shirt; they have kids and family. I have to show I'm doing OK somehow. "I have lots of fun; I do shows at my place. Stay tuned!'"

Tachibana made good on his promise almost immediately upon his return, moving all his equipment to the basement to make room. (You can still hear samples, read manuals, and buy machines via the Web site.) The initial "Whitebox VIP Lounge," featuring homemade-synthesizer artist Saul Stokes and computer-malfunction fetishist Scott Pagano, debuted on April 20, 2002. "A lot of people talk crazy stuff," Rudis says with a laugh. "[But i]f Mickey says, '"I've been thinking ...,' oh boy, it's going to happen. And it's probably going to happen in 20 days."

As if he didn't have enough to do already, Tachibana came up with the idea for Drum Machine TV, a monthly public access show. (Rudis jokes that Tachibana stopped sleeping five months ago.) Each program features footage from "Whitebox" plus interviews with performers, music videos, and clips from live gigs. Highlights so far include a disturbing interview with S.F. ambient noise artist O.S.T., a clip of Gold Chains rapping "I Treat Your Cootchie Like a Maze," and a video of a spontaneous dance party at Civic Center Plaza. (The show plays on the second Thursday of each month on Channel 29.)

So Tachibana has his event hall, his equipment store, his library and gallery -- all he needs is a rich benefactor to come along and help pour the concrete for a building. "The next generation will listen more to electronic music than classical or jazz," Tachibana suggests. "It must be natural to have a museum for the music that everybody likes to listen [to]."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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