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Going for Broke 

Broker/Dealer scores a tidy windfall with its minimalist brand of techno

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
You might be forgiven for having wondered, at some point in the past year, if the San Francisco dance music scene had gone corporate. Out of nowhere, it seemed, an entity called Broker/Dealer was appearing on flier after flier, sharing the bill with such artists as Twerk and Kit Clayton, at shows sponsored by local organizations like Gen Art and blasthaus. The name, however, doesn't indicate some new version of synergy in which clubgoers brush up on securities trading tips while shaking their asses to electronic music. Instead, Broker/Dealer's Ryan Fitzgerald and Ryan Bishop -- often known around town as "the two Ryans" -- make electronic music, pure and simple. In a scene glutted with copycat DJ acts and laptop button-pushers, the duo has carved out a niche by crafting bubbly, melodic techno unlike any other in San Francisco. (And yes, you can dance to it, though the house denizens of the Endup might be a bit perplexed by the cushiony beats.) The pair has also created a successful weekly party called "Pop," recently put on hiatus after a run at the Tenderloin's An Sibin, and thrown well-regarded one-offs that introduced the city to artists from France, Japan, and Mexico. In the midst of all this, Broker/Dealer recorded two singles for Germany's Traum Records and lined up an album deal with San Francisco's own Asphodel imprint. Not bad for some two years of work, squeezed in between day (and night) jobs.

You don't really need to know that a broker/dealer is an "individual or firm, other than a bank, which is in the business of buying and selling securities for itself and others" (according to to dig Broker/Dealer's music. Even Bishop, who works by day in the print department for Charles Schwab, professes to be oblivious to such financial matters. The pair actually appropriated the name from a series of cassettes produced by Bishop's father. "My dad does this fake radio program at work," explains Bishop. "It's an insurance company, and they record this simulated radio show" -- a kind of audio memo series -- "then give it to the people in the office on cassettes that say 'For broker/dealer use only.' He had tons of these cassettes that he'd always be giving to me to tape over for music, and they all had that label. So we had all these tapes that we'd recorded on the radio, and they all had 'broker/dealer' on them. It just seemed like the perfect name."

Sure, but a perfect name for what? Even Fitzgerald and Bishop weren't certain what they wanted to do when they first hooked up in 1996 while studying at UC Santa Barbara. There, the twosome performed live on the university's radio station, KCSB-FM (91.9), under the less-than-ideal name of Dream Chimney, improvising ambient sound by using turntables and rudimentary gear. By the time they moved to San Francisco in 1998, armed with an archive of radio tapes bearing the "broker/dealer" moniker, they had the new identity all set. "We had the name, we even had T-shirts made up; we had everything going, but no content," laughs Fitzgerald. With the radio show a thing of the past, they were casting about for new ways to hone their sampler skills, and for two years they worked on individual bedroom projects.

Broker/Dealer's first San Francisco performance -- and first opportunity to put the new name to use -- was a pair of tandem solo sets at a friend's party in 2001, in which the two Ryans set up their machines side by side and played tag-team style, alternating songs. Encouraged by the fusion of their styles, the artists began collaborating in earnest. When Fitzgerald happened to mention a second gig to his bosses at Foreign Cinema -- as he was scrambling to finish his shift and make it to the house party for a 4 a.m. set -- they offered the duo a slot at Laszlo, the bar next door. Thus, "Pop" was born. (Full disclosure: I DJed at "Pop" once before the club moved to An Sibin.) Over the next few months the two Ryans jumped feet first into the world of party promoting, live performance, and rudimentary turntablism.

But unlike many DJs, who are by nature a bandwagon-jumping breed, Fitzgerald and Bishop were inspired by what wasn't happening in San Francisco. "One reason we started the club is that no one was playing the music that we liked," stresses Bishop. They were smitten with the sounds of German minimal techno, specifically the airy style coming out of such Cologne labels as Kompakt and Traum. "Once we turned on to that," recalls Bishop, "it got us into making music more. It just snapped, once we found out about Burger/Ink and Thomas Brinkmann, Kompakt, stuff like that." The Cologne artists pushed Broker/ Dealer to create porous, punchy tracks, fusing together disco bass lines, dub effects, and ambient synth washes.

The subsequent tunes didn't sound like anyone else's in the Bay Area. The duo's kick drums and tempos may have recalled native house music, but its melodic nuances -- scraps of '80s keyboards, brightly hued chords, and a hyperactive low end -- set it apart. San Francisco minimal techno had long been affiliated with "difficult" artists like Twerk, Kit Clayton, and Sutekh, who fracture laptop beats into a fizz of distortion, but Broker/Dealer's brand of techno offered a sunnier proposition. "The name of the club was all based on a quote we read from Burger/Ink," Fitzgerald says of "Pop," "saying, 'We don't think of this music as experimental and weird, it's just pop music.'"

Indeed, Broker/Dealer's creations gleefully plunders Top 40 hits. The duo's first effort, "Haulin' Oats," released on a split 12-inch for Los Angeles' Sentrall Records, reconfigures a riff from Hall & Oates, patching a tightly gaited drumbeat to sunny wisps of flanged guitar and keyboard. A move straight from the so-cheesy-it's-cool playbook, the theft points to Broker/Dealer's greatest strength: the underhanded wit that makes its music so delightful.

At a time when more and more "live" sets feature laptop-only displays of button-punching, Broker/Dealer distinguishes itself by actually making its music in real time. Armed with an array of samplers, sequencers, synthesizers, and "a whole banquet table of gear," as Fitzgerald puts it, the two run through carefully rehearsed sets, working off visual cues and handwritten notes, blending elements into one long, twisting amalgamation. "We just remix ourselves live, basically," says Bishop. "It's almost like DJing," agrees Fitzgerald, "in that we'll mix parts of one song into parts of the next, and they'll overlap in the middle. A DJ couldn't actually play our songs the way we do, because we've got complete control over every element."

The method -- often augmented by Matt Biederman's live visuals, which sync to Broker/Dealer's interlocking beats and phrases -- helps avoid making people stare at a glowing Apple logo all night. "We hope that what you see translates into what you're hearing," explains Fitzgerald. "We watched the video that was made at a gig at the DNA, and there are actually times where you can see Ryan do something, and you can hear the sound change. You'll see me click something and you'll hear that drop out, and then we'll both do something together, and it all comes back, and it's like, 'OK, I see who's doing what.' It's such a hard thing to tackle, the performance aspect of this music." But it's crucial, they suggest, if the audience is going to feel invested in the process.

Even more striking is the fact that Broker/Dealer's records, up until this point, have essentially been live recordings, cut in the group's home studio in one take, with no overdubs. Still, the off-the-cuff product was good enough to draw the attention of Riley Reinhold of Germany's well-regarded Traum label, whom the two Ryans met while attending Montreal's MUTEK music festival two years ago. After hearing the duo's demo CD-R, Reinhold put out two Broker/Dealer 12-inches and a compilation track -- thus bringing the act full circle to the Teutonic sound that had initially inspired it.

The Traum deal had an effect on the home front as well. At a label showcase in S.F. earlier this year, Asphodel's Naut Humon signed up Broker/Dealer for a full-length. Working in Pro Tools, Bishop and Fitzgerald are now painstakingly placing their material into a software environment, where every element can be edited on computer. Once again, the two Ryans -- self-taught as DJs, promoters, and recording artists -- find themselves making it up as they go along. "With Pro Tools, it's just endless shots in the dark," laughs Fitzgerald. "Just last night we were working on a new song we've never sequenced out, so we recorded all the pieces into Pro Tools. Now we have them all laid out, just this mass of shit just sitting there. And it's like, 'Why don't we try it like this?'" He pushes at an invisible button. "Um, no. 'Why don't we try it like this?' Um, no. It's like, 'How fucking long is this going to take us?'"

Fitzgerald's gripe sounds more like autodidactic wonderment than dabbler-ish complaint. Whatever the rate of progress, Broker/Dealer's career is moving quickly: The two Ryans are already booking a European tour for early 2003, during which they plan to hook up with their German colleagues. Who knows what developments that exchange might bring -- or how it might forever alter the San Francisco electronic music landscape.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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