REACHING FOR AN album by 310 is like having your mind raise its hand and say, "Um, I think I'll step out for little break."

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Checked Out

Seattle-affiliated downtempo troupe 310 draws a cross-country map to get lost in.

REACHING FOR AN album by 310 is like having your mind raise its hand and say, "Um, I think I'll step out for little break." Slip on a pair of padded headphones, and that trip is guaranteed. The production moniker of high-school friends Joseph Dierker and Tim Donovan, along with recent addition Andrew Sigler (aka fire/fly), 310 drown dark hip-hop beats in musique concrète, peppering ambient layers with shifting percussion. Theirs is the sound of physical disconnections. That's a metaphor, but it's also a fact: With Dierker in Seattle, Donovan in New York, and Sigler in L.A., the trio composes in isolation, passing ideas through the mail, building their own contexts around them, and then dropping them off with the knowledge that once that little blue door slams shut, they'll never see the track the same way again.

"When you have loops of sound from TV or found sounds, it draws you in, and you start hearing things you didn't hear before," says Donovan. "Little stories begin forming on their own." Take "Shadow Traffic," from the upcoming Recessional, out Oct. 13 on the British label Leaf. It opens with an urban rainstorm, and the hypnotic drone of windshield wipers streaks back and forth before falling in step with an unwilling but insistent car ignition to create the backbone of the track. Stunted kick drums drop in, followed by a pacing snare and wah-wah guitar, then a lazy bass line and trickling keyboards, gradually unmooring the track as sampled sirens pass through it. The members of 310 credit the distance between them for the wide range of samples and influences they incorporateand for not testing their willpower to stay holed up in the studio rather than a bar together. You could say that New York adds density and a sense of scheduled purpose, Los Angeles drifts through with hints of pop and airbrushed smiles masking ill intention, and Seattle brings a natural, laid-back feeling befitting the city's lifestyle. The band members' separation gives them free rein to completely dissect their partners' compositions over time, to pick and cut what they like, and compose at their own pace without outside influence or scrutiny.

Of course, blindsiding one idea with seemingly unrelated samples and edits doesn't always go over well with the original composer. But after nearly a decade of collaboration, 310 have learned to boil multiple paths down into something singular. On 2001's Downtown & Brooklyn Only, a deep-ocean whale call gets jumped by a sketched-out guitar and bass drum ("Cop Slain"), while breakbeats, alien samples, and turntable cuts buoy layers of ambient sound ("Red Horizons"). 310 lean on rhythms and found sounds until they reveal connections you'd never expect, and they also know when to lay off and accept a sample's face value rather than splintering it in search of intrinsic worth. "You're never happy the first time you hear it back," says Dierker. "Not one time have I ever said, 'Yes! That's it.' It's kind of like that game, telephone, where what you say gets a little more distorted each time."

The band follows the subtle themes of the shifting loops to mesmerizing effect. "You put a bunch of lines in the water at one time, and eventually one will sink to the level of the fish, and you get a nibble," says Dierker. Though Donovan's beats and guitar, Dierker's bass and percussive accents, and Sigler's keyboards, banjo, and vocals hold your focus when they strike, it's the car horns, sloshing waves, and whispered conversations behind them that put you at the scene. The key is to have as many hooks dangling from ProTools as you can when the next package arrives.

Having previously acquired a reputation as a group best suited for film scores or installations, 310 are now making their shaded beats and textures more accessible than ever. Recessional's loose theme is "cities and oceans, water and streets," progressing from East Coast congestion to the Northwest's open rain-fed spaces; it also moves more than previous works like the brooding Nothing to See Here EP. "Installation Linoleum" plays a clamoring wind chime against a muddled trip-hop kick and dirgey organ; on "ExuMix," a baritone guitar and dragging breakbeat slowly stir into a bubbling background. The hollow synth and Sigler's somewhat detached vocal on "Cloud Rooms" are reminiscent of Depeche Mode circa Music for the Masses.

"This time, we were more focused on melodic elements and having the beats develop into song forms," Donovan explains. "It wasn't a conscious decision from the start. It's just that we became more methodical." It's a methodology that works: For the first time, 310 seem like they're trying to give listeners something structurally familiar to grasp before gradually pulling away.

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