There is plenty to be said about electronic music. You can talk about it in terms musicological or sociological, or you can simply parse the grain and gush over the sound itself. The problems start when you sit down and interview the man (or, all too occasionally, woman) behind the laptop. Is it the many hours of programming that makes electronic musicians so taciturn? Granted, rockers' penchant for bluster can make for pretty cringe-worthy reading. But if a band like Metallica can captivate viewers simply by going into group therapy, it's hard to imagine laptop musicians curling up on a shrink's couch and purging much of anything. More accustomed to making beats that sound like Morse code, and to hell with the message being broadcast, most DJs and laptoppers—excepting, ironically, mega-rave superstars with comically engorged egos—just don't make for very compelling personality pieces.
Matthew Dear's new mini-album, Backstroke (Ghostly/Spectral), should signal a departure from all this, at least in theory. The Detroit microhouse producer, maker of some of the most lugubrious lurch to come between the kick and snare drums since Chicago's house producers first misprogrammed their drum machines, has emerged from behind the gear to lay down actual vocals over his clunky, clubfooted disco jams. It's not, in fact, the first time he's done this. Last year's Leave Luck to Heaven underlaid several of its sprightly, skipping click-tracks with lyrics, but for the most part they remained veiled in murk.
This time around, Dear's vocals are far more prevalent—if not much less inscrutable. Sung in a seesawing monotone, they hover more or less front and center in the mix, though they're cloaked in reverb and occasionally dart behind the drums for cover. There's an intriguing incompleteness to the record, a refusal to cohere. Dear's vocal hooks hardly snag his beats; they just sort of dangle there. The words themselves feel like afterthoughts ("We all think you're faking, but I'm really feeling fine here"), less vessels for meaning than vocalizations triggered by the timbre of a particular drum or synthesizer tone. In Dear's new live show, a departure from his typical hour-long arc of clattering beats and Poltergeist-y din, he's refashioning himself not as technician but as mike-kissing pop star.
The only problem is that he hasn't developed much of a pop persona to go with the show. In interviews, Dear's good nature is a shield you can't pierce. (Full disclosure: I have twice DJed a supporting slot at his shows.) I'd recently seen him perform a straight-up techno set to a crowd of 8,000 or so people at Barcelona's Sónar festival; it was the biggest gig of his career by several orders of magnitude, and I was dying to know what it felt like to step out onstage in front of that many people for the first time. "I wasn't as nervous as I thought I'd be," he says politely. "I was just excited to play for that many people. It was sort of a blessed opportunity—I felt very grateful to be there."
This is a guy who occasionally releases music under the name Jabberjaw? Come on, Dear. You can do better than that. How did it feel to follow a two-hour set from Richie Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos, two of the kingpins of the European club circuit? After all, he played well, but he's sounded better: The nuances of his swing-time reveries were lost in the cavernous, hangarlike venue, and he seemed to speed from idea to idea, never curving into the kind of arc the massed ravers seemed to crave.
"Unfortunately the set was kind of short," he concedes. "I only had 45 minutes, so it was a little awkward. I wish I could have done more of a buildup and release. But for the time I had, it went pretty well. I'd have played for 15 minutes if they had wanted it." Talk about a politic answer.
But maybe 15 minutes is a significant number after all, because Dear—his press reticence notwithstanding—is moving into a strange new phase of his career, clocking overtime after the dance music producer's typical quarter hour of fame. Dear made the most of his first stint in the spotlight. Leave Luck to Heaven garnered favorable reviews in Rolling Stone and The New York Times and charted in the top 100 in The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll—beating out records by critics' faves Rancid, Atmosphere, and even Sean Paul. Now, with a vocally led album and a live show to back it up, Dear is aiming at something with an even longer shelf life, it seems. "I'm just an artist, you know?" he says. "I'm not a certain kind of artist."
The strategy could backfire on him; reviews of his first vocal gig in New York, at the seated venue Joe's Pub, were lukewarm at best. Even here, though, Dear is unflappable. "I think that people weren't ready for it," he avers. "I'd forgotten the distance between the new material and the audience. My friends here in Ann Arbor have heard it; they know what I'm up to, but everyone else has no idea. Maybe I should have given more warning, let people know that this was an experiment."
Or maybe Dear should just keep letting the music do the talking. I've been obsessing over a lyric from Backstroke's "Huggy's Parade" that goes, "We have gone astray/All of our children have no shame/Cut the cord and pull the plug/I'll close my eyes and shrug." It sounds, well, almost autobiographical, or at least metacritical. Dear is definitely straying from the techno fold; it's to his listeners' benefit that he and his spindly voice have no compunctions about that. Maybe his levelheadedness will have the last laugh after all.
Matthew Dear plays Chop Suey with Dabrye, Midwest Product, Lusine, and SV4 at 9 p.m. Tues., July 27. $10 adv.