A new electronic niche gains a foothold in Raleigh | Music Feature | Indy Week
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A new electronic niche gains a foothold in Raleigh 

Lara Wehbie is Blursome, one of several new electronic acts in Raleigh.

Photo by Justin Cook

Lara Wehbie is Blursome, one of several new electronic acts in Raleigh.

The cops won't stop telling Mikey Perros to turn down the bass. Upstairs in Kings, the downtown Raleigh rock room that Perros has booked for four years, the British producer, record label owner and dubstep pioneer known as Kode9 is preparing to step on stage for a modest but enthusiastic early-week crowd.

The show is one of the biggest coups of Perros' promotional career. Routing this tour through Raleigh at all meant that a booking agent had to take a chance on the city, compromising his bottom line since he knew there was no way the gig could come close to generating the revenue it might earn in New York or Chicago. And just for tonight, Kings even upgraded its sound system to include six massive black-and-blue subwoofers, assembled just in front of the stage in intimidating stacks, suggesting an armoire of low frequencies.

With the help of the ancillary speakers, the club shakes with bass. Full glasses slide off wooden arm rails, and feet tingle with the throb of the concrete floor. To the left and right of the speakers, clutches of the most avid listeners move with every sudden musical shift, responding with eyes closed and arms outstretched. Occasionally, you detect shouts of bliss climbing through the volume's heavy lid.

Alas, the ticket buyers aren't the only ones who've responded tonight. Throughout the show, a rotation of Raleigh Police Department officers arrive outside, giving Perros the choice to turn the bass down or face a fine. He shows the cops the club's sound permits, but they argue that the bass is breaking the legal limit. They've received repeated complaints from one nearby resident, they say.

By the time Kode9 finally takes the stage, the subwoofers in front of the stage have been turned off, leaving only Kings' customary, rock-band-oriented sound system available. But the show doesn't stop. Perros almost makes money on one of his biggest gambles yet.

"People ask, 'Why do you have to use so much bass?' It's to do the show properly, how it was intended," Perros says. "The venues in this region are not set up for electronic shows. They're band-centric, but the sound requirements are so different."

Perros, 27, is used to such challenges; in fact, they seem to motivate him, to scratch some devil-may-care itch that has, in turn, prompted the beginnings of a very young, very promising new electronic music scene in Raleigh. He and a squadron of producers and DJs—known collectively as Maison Booking—are at the heart of that uptick, backloading beats into a town historically associated with no-frills rock and snap-button alt-country. They're responding less to that rock pedigree, though, than to the dominant notion that, for electronic music to succeed in this town, it needs to soundtrack a big, dumb and loud bacchanalia.

Instead, they're collectively building a grassroots network of wires and samplers, synthesizers and turntables—spinning challenging electro at DJ nights, making new music in bedrooms and playing it in rock clubs, taking chances on bringing in big tours, studying noise ordinance laws to contradict the cops next time they arrive at a loud, late show. Perros even paid for a custom sound system that he can put in his car in order to do shows in non-traditional spaces, like art galleries.

"I'm trying to push the market, as much as I can, without losing too much money or going insane," he says. "I feel like it's my responsibility to book as much cool stuff in Raleigh as I can, and I think we're on the right path. It's a very slow path, but we're moving."

In late August, the cadre passed an important signpost on that path. The New York label Locus Recordings issued Heavy Resting, the absorbing five-track debut of Raleigh producer Lara Wehbie, who makes music under the name Blursome. It's not the first proper release from a Maison artist, but its clear sense of style and substance makes it the most magnetic, like an early communication from an absolute vision. Wehbie, a design history student at N.C. State, makes music in her bedroom in a small house close to campus, just as many people wake to go to work. That transitional darkness is the prevalent motif of her music, something she says defined her sound even before she could manage the software she uses to make it.

On Heavy Resting, beats churn through opaque water, the thin drum hits and thick bass tones dredging disembodied vocals, wraithlike whispers and mutilated murmurs from the muck. During "Packs," what sounds like a symphony hitting the crescendo of a romantic classical masterpiece fights for space against hiss and squall. The rhythm wobbles as though it's been peeled from a badly warped piece of vinyl.

"I usually work when I'm really upset, really distraught," she says, sitting on the front porch on a sunny Friday afternoon, hiding behind sunglasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke. "Making this music helps me get through an issue that I'm having, depression or anxiety, and helps me process those emotions. It's a reminder to myself."

Wehbie shares the house with Jake Funke, a 25-year-old who graduated from N.C. State more than a year ago with a degree in electrical engineering. He's yet to find a job in the field; instead, he's building a reputation as an anchor of the area's electronic groundswell. Where Wehbie uses her computer to build her productions one fastidious layer at a time, Funke only uses "hardware"—that is, sequencers, samplers or synthesizers that he's controlling in real-time, whether in his bedroom or on stage. He used to make music with his computer, but he found the abundance of options disorienting. For less than a year and a half, however, he's worked largely with a Korg ElecTribe sampler. It's become his trademark.

"Suddenly, it felt like the music was coming out of me, instead of me sitting there and hacking at a program until it looked like I wanted it," he says. "There was too much to focus on. I wanted a synth to sound distant or filtered, but with the sampler, there are only 13 parts. It made me focus on rhythm more than all the little parts."

Such a definitive direction afforded Funke, who records under the handle Funkss, an almost-instant style—italicized samples backed by hard beats, with luminous keyboard melodies falling into the gaps, giving the music an irrepressible glow. His past as a DJ is clear in the momentum of everything he does, especially in how he slips among his motifs onstage. He's trying to power the crowd to move.

In that sense, it's easy to think of the house he and Wehbie share on Turner Street as a nocturnal continuum of music: He starts the party sometime after sunset, and she deals with the late-night side effects just before the sun threatens to rise again. That mutualism is paramount to Maison.

"I never thought of myself as part of the Raleigh scene until Maison started putting stuff together. But now that that we've got this local thing, I want to push for it," Funke says. "We're stronger together than we are apart."

There's a prevailing, almost-proud sense of upstart amateurism within the ranks of Maison, appropriate and perhaps necessary for any such nascent community. Unpacking cables and consoles from a canvas bag in her bedroom, and laying them out one by one on a rectangular desk, Wehbie apologizes for how long her setup is taking. She stares at a photo on her iPhone to remember where a specific input fits; later, she flips over an unused synthesizer in the corner, lamenting that she can't use it often because she's yet to find a compatible power cord. Most every time she plays it, the six hulking C batteries in the back drain quickly.

"I'm terrible with it," she says, smiling sheepishly as she turns back to the network of tabletop electronics. "I'm still learning."

Onstage at Kings, a few hours before the cops arrive, Wehbie eases into the massive sound system, as though testing her own music's limits before exploring the speakers' capabilities. Finally, near the end of her set, the bass shudders beneath ashen sheets of static; it's a splendid, momentary arrival that lasts just long enough for Funke to walk onstage.

He readily admits that, while he knows how to make music with his sampler, turning what's inside the sampler into finite tracks that become streams, singles and albums remains a personal technical challenge. Perros' roommate, Sean McKee, helps the Maison artists with those woes.

"There's no shame in not knowing something about software. If you were talking about Photoshop, for instance, there is not a certain way to achieve a goal, even if there are always faster ways or better ways," Funke says. "I know there are right and wrong ways to do things, but for the most part, with electronic music, it's about the sound you make and whether or not that makes people dance and feel stuff."

Thien Lu understands that goal. He has been mixing records and organizing shows in Raleigh since he moved north from Florida in 2007. Years ago, Lu was a key component in a series of popular dance nights scattered between Raleigh's Warehouse District and Glenwood South. But those nights faded, he reckons, in large part because of the national surge in EDM and its shock-value electronics. The talent and sounds mattered less, he says, than the drugs and stunts on tap. It was frustrating.

But several months ago, Funke invited Lu to a party at his house, where both he and Wehbie would play. That night was a revelation.

"I always knew that my friends couldn't be the only people here interested in this music. There had to be other people, but there was no outlet for them," he says. "And there it was, materializing right there at that house party: 'These are the people that I was romanticizing and are making this music.' I had no idea."

For Lu, the moment pulled back the curtain on a new era of electronic music in Raleigh, one where young enthusiasts wanted to make the music rather than just play it.

"They are approaching this as a musical form. My friends and I were just DJs that showed interest in music. These people are musicians, making stuff," he says, offering an important qualifier in a rock 'n' roll town. "That solidifies it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Deeper vibrations."

  • Artists such as Blursome lead a growing electronic scene in the capital city

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