Electronic music is at a crossroads. On one hand, the Electroclash movement, with its titillating artists such as Miss Kittin and Peaches, is heralding a return to the synth-pop of the 1980s. On the other hand, another group of musicians such as The Avalanches and Add N to (X) are infusing organic roots into the mix, blurring the boundaries between electronic and electronica.
The Chicago-based Baldwin Brothers (not related to the famous actors) belong to the latter group, mixing organic drums and bass with loops, keyboards, turntables and samples. In the process, they are creating another chapter in the story of Chicago acid house. On the excellent full-length album Cooking with Lasers (TVT Records, 2002), the four-piece trips through acid jazz, lounge and funk on cuts such as “Slowly at First,” “Funky Junkyard” and “Somebody Else’s Favorite Song.”
Originally a six-song demo recorded in the apartment of TJ Widner (keyboards) and Jason Hinkle (drums/programming), Cooking with Lasers was produced by Dave Trumfio, who’d heard the band’s set at a club and introduced himself shortly thereafter. Trumfio’s production credits range from alt.country (Wilco’s Summer Teeth and the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg) to rock (OK Go, Wayne Kramer, Koufax and the Mekons), while his own work with the Pulsars gives him a pop/electronic sensibility that meshes well with the Baldwin style.
It was through Trumfio that Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto/Gorillaz came to contribute the sing-song vocals atop “Dream Girl,” which has gone on to be the most successful single off the album, with airings on MTV2’s “120 Minutes.” Through an exchange of tapes — “Fed Ex played an unwitting role in the recording,” Hinkle says — the group also landed Angie Hart of Frente! as a guest vocalist on “Deep Down.” Other guest vocalists include Geri Soriano-Lightwood of Supreme Beings of Leisure (“Ether”) and Barron Ricks (“Urban Tumbleweed”).
“Our songs are instrumental, but they sort of have this verse-chorus, verse-chorus structure the way pop songs do,” Hinkle says. “They lend themselves to vocals. The interesting thing about ‘Dream Girl’ is that what turned out to be the chorus was a tiny little bridge in the original.”
As the group has come to learn, creating the unexpected is what makes the blend of electronic and organic so intoxicating. This is also why the group has been able to develop a sizeable following at its live shows; rather than watching someone behind a computer screen or the garish stageshow of an Electroclash artist, you’re actually watching a band play in real-time.
“We wanted to be able to play the majority of the music (live) instead of just small parts (of the album),” Widner explains. “We have some loops and some prerecorded things, but we try to keep the majority of the show something we can actually play organically.”
Hinkle acknowledges the initial writing process for both types of artists is very similar, but adds the live performance is a completely different thing. This is why the group concentrates on building a “show,” complete with lights, video and instruments.
Keeping one foot in both camps also allows the Baldwin Brothers (which also includes turntablist DJ JB Royal and bassist Jimmy Deer) the flexibility to tour with artists of all genres. Most recently, the group shared the stage with DJ Spooky and Supreme Beings of Leisure.
“Supreme Beings of Leisure was the most fun we’ve had on a tour,” Hinkle says. “It was just a total success for us. I think people who are into electronic music are a very intellectual crowd, and they’re so much more respectful (of different sounds).”
With all the touring — the group was on the road more often than not during the fourth quarter of 2002 — plans for the next album are still in the conceptual stage.
Now that he’s had time to step back and evaluate Cooking with Lasers with fresh ears, Widner says there is a different set of expectations for the next album. “I want it to be a few steps up sonically and complexity-wise,” he says.
After working Cooking with Lasers for more than a year, the Baldwin sound has evolved and solidified. While at first chided by some as derivative of Beck, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, the group has come into its own, creating a funky, danceable groove. Not defining themselves has allowed for experimentation — like combining a sample from “Sanford and Son” with rump-shaking house.
Ironically, Hinkle says, this creative flexibility somewhat limits mainstream commercial success. Because the group blends disparate elements, categorization — something radio depends on — becomes a challenge.
“People are afraid of music that can’t be neatly filed into a category, so we decided we were going to create our own category – junktronic,” Hinkle says.