Perhaps it's the rain and gray skies or the short summers and even shorter winter days, but Northwesterners like their music dark and depressing. We cherish Portishead for its gloomy, love-struck pessimism, Nirvana for its angst-ridden intensity, Mazzy Star for its narcotic splendor. Seattle, you'd figure, would adore Riz Maslen. Under the names Neotropic and Small Fish with Spine, this producer proffers an electronic exercise in the dark and the difficult.
ARO.space, Saturday, June 12
Neotropic's 1995 record, 15 Levels of Magnification, had critics croaking "awfully somber and fairly difficult" and "very strange, often unsettling." Its follow-up, last year's Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock, is no less complex, shifting moods with each song, and sometimes within each song. A mangled mutt, the record tosses jagged-edge industrial noise with equally unnerving vocals and experimental hip-hop beats. Like Andrew Parker, another producer who makes beats to hurt people, Maslen creates music that's an acquired taste, a "grower."
Maslen doesn't mind these descriptions of her music. "My music is a reflection of me as a person, and I do actually believe I have a very dark side, which only seems to appear when I make music," she says. "But in saying that, it's all about what you feel on that particular day, and this last album was written through a very strange period in my life. If people wish to associate it with the dark side then that's fine by me."
Maslen got her start in a conventional musical environment: playing keyboards for the Beloved, a sort of gothic punk rock band. The appeal of traditional song structure and natural noise doesn't elude her: You'll find hints of them in her weird and wonderful musical constructions. While there's never a blatant verse-chorus-verse structure on Mr. Brubaker's, the title track owns what resembles a beginning, middle, and end—and it's distorted, eerily seductive, and beautiful, all at the same time.
When she first entered the electronic music world, Maslen found a pair of friends who also happened to be musical geniuses: the Future Sound of London. After years of watching and learning from these two experienced studio-heads, she took to the board herself. Describing herself as a "tech-nician rather than a musician," Maslen notes that many musicians using more traditional methods are incredibly resistant to the mere idea of an electronic musician: "To me a machine kind of translates what I would like to do if I was a musician," she explains. "If I were talking to somebody who'd been classically trained, I don't know if I could stand there and say, ['I'm a musician']. [But] I have learned my art, I haven't just sat here and, like, pressed a button. I had to learn from scratch just like a traditional musician learns their instrument."
Though Maslen has mostly worked alone as Neotropic, her next album will include both collaborations and acoustic instrumentation. "I enjoy working alone and being a total control freak," she admits. "But I [also] love working with other people and find it inspiring to have other people's interpretations."
"As far as collaborating," she continues, "I have a few things I want to try out. I have a neighbor who is a real talent and have been working with him. Also, I've found this poet/writer who's going to try some of his work with music. I'm much more into introducing new talent on the scene, and this is my main objective for the next project."
Maslen describes her new material, which is still in its early stages, as "all live musicians." "It's a new angle in some ways for me," she notes, "but then it also brings me full circle to my early days of being in indie bands."
She's also found a few forward-thinking traditional musicians to work with her on stage. Her new set will differ from her last Seattle appearance (with a crew from Ninja Tune Records) says Maslen: "This tour, I'll be showcasing some new material in the second half of the show which is all vocal, plus we have a bit of speech, but I don't want to give too much away. I'd like people to make up their own minds."