THERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when digging electronic music wasn't much cooler than playing Dungeons & Dragons. Considering how many of the albums
THERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when digging electronic music wasn't much cooler than playing Dungeons & Dragons. Considering how many of the albums filed in the electronic section of the average record shop circa the early '80s assuming it had onewould qualify as sad New Age twaddle today, the naysayers may have had a point. "There was this chain store in Houston where I always went," says Seattle producer Tom Butcher, aka Codebase, "[and] they had this little section of tapes"the Houston native makes the shape of a Rubik's Cube with his hands"that was all the typical stuff." Slowly he picked his way through it: Kraftwerk, Larry Fast/Synergy, Tangerine Dream. "It was definitely a hit-or-miss education. I would buy artists like Jean Michel Jarre and go, 'Oh, these are cool sounds, but the music is pretty cheesy.'"
As Butcher matured, so did his tastes. At the public library, he discovered more outré artists, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. "One day, I came home with a stack of records like this," Butcher remembers, indicating a much bigger stash than just a few tapes. In his enthusiasm, he neglected to return them. "Months later, I get a letter saying that I had a thousand-dollar fine!" In the end, he returned the LPs and just never bothered to pony up any late fees. "The sad thing is, I only listened to about half of the records."
What? A red-blooded American teenager who didn't want to while away his afternoons listening to the tape loop experiments of postwar German composers? "That was my introduction [to Stockhausen]," Butcher clarifies. "It took me a lot longer before I understood, 'Oh, this is concept-oriented music.'"
Butcher experimented with works based on algorithms he'd discovered, but he soon realized that a cool compositional gimmick and a listenable outcome are often mutually exclusive. "A lot of computer music is like that, too: Max Matthews or Wendy Carlos I respect her place in history, and some of her stuff, like the Tron soundtrack is the best, but a lot of it is unbearable."
"Unbearable" is one adjective critics are unlikely to apply to Codebase's recent debut, Style Encoding. Butcher's style incorporates elements of vintage electro, minimalist techno, and ambient house, often all in the same piece. Like New York mutant disco producers Metro Area, he manages to be retrospective without simply peddling nostalgia, and he shows an unerring ear for catchy melodies.
With hooks bouncing back and forth between the bass and upper registers, the opener, "Collapse," recalls New Order's collaborations with Afrika Bambaataa compadre Arthur Baker, while the sexy "Seek and Destroy," peppered with percolating analog blips and laser FX, showcases a late-night, Italo-disco vibe. "Stripmine 2" kicks off with a dusty, chugging rhythm that sounds like it was lifted off a cassette tape left in a boom box back in 1982, then quickly ignites into an effervescent array of twinkling synths and mechanized hi-hats, abruptly punctuated by a couple of sudden backspins. "Tron," one of the oldest compositions here, ends the disc with a mesmerizing flurry of burbles and bursts of static born entirely from improvisation.
A software engineer by trade, Butcher moved to Seattle in 1996. He'd already started releasing his tracks two years before, via his own company, Orbitrecords, which he ran with some like-minded Texas friends. (The Tennessee label Orbit Records threatened them with an infringement lawsuit, forcing Butcher's operation to fold after four releases.) In the late '90s, his Emerald City ensemble, Heatsync, generated fleeting regional interest, but by the end of the decade, Butcher had grown disillusioned. "I felt like I didn't know what was happening [in music], and I didn't care," he admits. Rather than struggle, he opted to take a break until inspiration returned.
Since he resumed making music two years ago, Butcher's international profile has risen quickly. James Taylor and David Brown of U.K. tech-house ensemble Swayzak licensed two of his tracks, "Esperanto" and "Unravel" (the latter credited to his Betamax alias), for release on their 240 Volts label. Butcher originally planned to self-finance the single release of "Seek and Destroy."
But he first decided to take a chance on hitting up prominent German record label Force Inc., which had ignored an earlier submission. "A lot of my record collection had been coming from Force Inc.," Butcher explains. When the highly respected Frankfurt techno purveyors heard the new tracks, they offered to put out a full-length along with "Seek and Destroy."
Butcher is staying busy, making both DJ and live appearancesthe latter as a solo artist and with his Kraftwerk-inspired quartet R.U.R. at local events like the now defunct ROBO.trash and Hybrid parties. For now, no more sabbaticals are planned. "Obviously I feel great that Force Inc. has decided to put this stuff out, but even if nobody wants to release my records, I'll still make music," he says. After all, the electronic music section at your record store may be a lot bigger these days, but a disc as stellar as Style Encoding is still rare enough to leap off the racks.