A trio who've gone from playing basements to entertaining a sold-out Neumo's crowd in just over a year, the Long Ranger are a smoldering Basement Jaxx to U.S.E.'s Daft Punk. The band—programmer/singer Ted Chen, singer/keyboardist Sylvia Chen, and guitarist Seth Thomas—have yet to headline their own show, but their effervescent electro-pop is getting noticed; the aforementioned Neumo's show was an opening slot for the heavily hyped Go! Team. "The coolest thing about that is we got to double Dutch with them afterward," says Chen (his sister Sylvia will henceforth be referred to by her stage name, Shorty Circuit). "The tall, gangly bass player [Silke] was the only one who could really function in the game."
Over dinner at Capitol Hill's Ballet, the band agrees that it's easier to jump rope in the dark. "You have to listen for it on the off beat," says Shorty. Timing is key, and success can come as unexpectedly as getting whacked in the face with the ropes. Picture a jumper—Chen—with other obsessions on his mind: the Stereo Future, the indie band he and Thomas are also involved in; break-dancing; the '80s; Asia (the continent, not the corporate rock band). The ritualistic click-clack of the ropes is alter ego Long Ranger, once an audio diary whose creation was a meditative process. Chen closes his eyes, listens to the rhythm, and jumps.
Chen and Thomas met at Washington University in St. Louis, while Shorty studied classical voice at the University of North Carolina and music synthesis at Boston's Berklee College of Music. As do the guys, Shorty flexes other musical muscles in instrumental group Velella Velella. Before she joined the Long Ranger, Chen would multitrack his own harmonies, writing the songs with Reason software and bouncing them onto a Logic program to fill in the vocals. Frequently, he'd sing directly into the pinhole microphone on his PowerBook, creating a flat effect on their self-issued, self-titled five-song EP that differed greatly from hearing the tracks live. Shorty's subsequent contributions give layer and depth to the songs. "It's nice that even supporting, I get to sing a lot and use my full range," she says.
"It's so performance-based," says Thomas of the Long Ranger's live show. "It's not about musicality or technique." Nope—it's about getting down. In crowd favorite "Noise Bringer," Chen sings, "B-boy, B-girl, you can change the world." The song was inspired by watching members of break-dance crew Circle of Fire dance in unison to Canadian rapper K-OS's "Superstar" in 2003 at a Noiselab (now Neumo's) weekly. "I was shy and hadn't danced in a while, but the pure enthusiasm of all these guys . . . my head imploded. I went home and started dancing [and] couldn't go to bed until 5 a.m.," says Chen. First-time Long Ranger showgoers are sometimes taken aback when Chen starts busting out his own top-rock, footwork, and freezes during a set. It'd be a novelty act if he wasn't getting so good at it.
With bubbling synths and Dance Dance Revolution exuberance, the Long Ranger's songs more closely resemble the hyperactive, hysteric glamour of commerce-crazed Japan, but lyrically they aren't as far from the ballad as Chen thinks. When he sings, "We'll make waves so sexy, you and me," in "Naughty Ocean," he's just updated the universal desire for love for a lust-crazed generation. It's only natural for a kid raised on '80s radio. "Bon Jovi's 'Livin' on a Prayer' was the first song I could acknowledge an emotional response to," says Chen. "I was 6 years old, and didn't know what I was feeling, but it's the first song I was mystically driven to repeat over and over. And now I know why—the power of the pop hook is amazing."
Not that everyone feels the same way. A friend of Chen's recently overheard some patrons of a Long Ranger show who were expecting something different. "One guy said, 'What is this, karaoke night?'" Chen recalls. Audiences at hybrid shows, where they're expecting a blend of electronic and rock acts, have been receptive, as have underage crowds. "They haven't shut off that ability to express themselves in a goofy way and not give a fuck," says Chen. For now, that's all that matters. "When I was young, the shows I responded to were a building block for why I'm a musician now," says Chen. "Communicating that and passing it around is totally sweet."
The Long Ranger play Chop Suey with the Juan Maclean and Daylight Basement at 9 p.m. Wed., Aug. 31. $10.