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Dealing With the Devil 

How two Van Halen fans became major label electronica stars and lived to tell about it. So far.

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
It means man's struggle with his own personal demons." Alameda's Mikael Johnston is explaining his band's name. "In the legend, Mephistopheles tempts Faust to sell his soul for fame and fortune. "Mephisto' is synonymous with temptation, and "odyssey' is like a metaphor for life. Temptation through life -- man's own temptation and the choices we make. That's what I meant when I made up the name."

The irony of the band's name lies in the fact that it was chosen back in 1991, nearly seven years before Mephisto Odyssey became the first American electronic music outfit to sign to Warner Bros. A six-album deal with what many consider to be the world's most powerful record label is about as alluring a temptation as any underground house act can imagine. It means funds to make videos, the budget to collaborate with almost any artist alive, and the chance at accessing a national audience.

It also poses an infinite number of opportunities for a group to lose its soul. Major labels are notoriously nearsighted when it comes to marketing; that's why the majority of dance music comes out on independent labels. While Mephisto Odyssey isn't thinking of its deal as a pact with the devil, the group is proceeding very carefully.

"Warner allows us to expose our music to such a wide audience, and they've allowed us to do that with very little tampering," Johnston says. "Yeah, we do have to think about making music that might appeal to a broader audience while still keeping the respect and integrity of the original music. But it's not a huge compromise. It's not like we have to make pop jingles."

What Warner Bros. asked for specifically was a fair number of tracks with vocals, a common request by American labels trying to break what is still a low-selling musical genre. Mephisto Odyssey's two original members, Johnston and Zurich-born Orpheos DeJournette, were happy to comply since they had initially bonded at age 15 over guitars and Van Halen.

During the 1980s, the two classically trained guitarists went their separate ways, with Johnston playing in rock bands and DeJournette performing with local goth group In the Name Of. At the start of the new decade, however, they decided to record together again. Johnston, who had recently taken a class on electronic studio techniques, wanted to add a MIDI stripe to their four-track tapes so they could use nontraditional instruments.

DeJournette remembers his initial reaction to the idea. "I was like, "No way; I'm going to get an eight-track and be a rock star. Fuck that computer shit.'"

But he came around a few weeks later after meeting Jeff Taylor and hearing his composition "Trip Harder." The song, released under the name Ultraviolet Catastrophe, would become the first really successful electronic dance track to come out of the Bay Area. It also inspired another twosome in its early development, the Chemical Brothers (they, in turn, included "Trip Harder" on their mix CD Brothers Gonna Work It Out). Later, Johnston talked to them about the track. "They also felt that it was just the right style at the right time, and it changed the direction for a lot of people. It was very different than anything else that was happening in the scene."

When Taylor took Johnston and DeJournette to their first rave in 1991, the frustrated rockers decided they had found their home. "What stuck with us was that the music had a vibe and a feeling of togetherness with humanity that we weren't feeling in the mainstream music market or even in the other underground scenes," Johnston recounts. "That aspect became very attractive, as did the fact that people were making this music with their own home studios and putting it out on their own and getting it played for large numbers of people."

By 1993 the duo had launched Mephisto Records with their first song, "Dream of the Black Dahlia." Both the track and label were pivotal in defining the nascent San Francisco house sound -- psychedelic, jazzy, and breakbeat-leaning. Promoting the record brought them into contact with Barre Eves, owner of Berkeley's Primal record store, who later joined the group as its live show DJ and musical contributor.

Like Crystal Method before it, Mephisto Odyssey signed to Hollywood's City of Angels, an independent label that is often a stepping stone for commercial dance acts. At the release party for their debut album Catching the Skinny, DeJournette and Johnston were introduced to Troy Wallace, A&R man at Warner Bros.

Wallace liked their work so much that he arranged a remix project for the Jane's Addiction reunion track "So What." (No other official remixes have been granted of the seminal alternametal band's music.) The effort sold 50,000 copies, absolute pay dirt for an underground group with a mostly regional following. Warner Bros. was impressed, and started a two-year courting process.

"We signed a demo deal with them, which means that they pay you to record some songs to see if they think you will be marketable," DeJournette says. "Warner is really slow to sign someone. If they think you're OK, they'll tippy-toe around you for a while. They're in no hurry to do anything -- they've got their established stars, they don't need to frantically sign new bands."

Because Mephisto Odyssey was straddling two fan bases -- grass-roots devotees and more rock-familiar buyers -- the group adopted a two-pronged release strategy. For the dance market, it continued to put out extended, DJ-friendly vinyl singles. For the potentially massive home-listening audience, it composed The Deep Red Connection, a collection of 13 more traditionally structured songs touching on almost every major electronic subgenre, with guest vocalists on over half the tracks. Oakland's Bigg Sauce adds a hip hop flavor to "I'm the Man," while dancehall toaster Mad Lion stirs in some Jamaican spice on "Soundman Connection." On "Jump" and "Killah," the group teams with local, about-to-break junglist MC Jamalski. Hoping to garner some alternative radio play, the group features Static-X singer Wayne Static and guitarist Koichi Fukudawith on the first single, "Crash."

Besides the desire for vocals, Warner Bros. has maintained a fairly hands-off policy.

"They've given us freedom to create, even when they didn't totally understand what the hell we were talking about," remarks Johnston. "So we've evolved, Warner's helped us evolve, and I even think we've helped Warner evolve in a little way."

So much creative leeway puts the burden of proof on Mephisto Odyssey itself. In order to keep the label interested in releasing its next album, the band figures it'll have to sell around 100,000 copies of The Deep Red Connection, a formidable number in the currently lukewarm dance market. And since it is the first domestic dance act to sign to Warner Bros. and only the second local house act to go major (Dubtribe Soundsystem was the first), Johnston feels responsible for the future success of the fertile but underexposed Bay Area scene.

"If you as a reader reading this interview want to hear more diverse music," Johnston says, "and you want to see that evolve and progress to the next level, then support our albums and go out and support our shows. Because if not, the American labels won't sign any more artists that are doing what we're doing, because they're very fickle. Once they decide something's not viable in the market, they drop it."

About The Author

Darren Keast


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