The term Intelligent Dance Music never really worked. When electronic music cognoscenti used that wicked phrase 15 years ago, on an e-mail listserv, they created a monster: Was dance music pre-IDM dumb? Were Aphex Twin, Autechre and their ilk somehow smarter than their forebears?
Of course not: The new term referred to new electronic musicians using the tools of electronic rhythm-building and reapplying them in more complicated ways (occasionally difficult for difficulty's sake) that didn't focus on danceable beats-per-minute. In fact, some of the stuff under the IDM umbrella was too complex for the dance floor, maybe too smart for its own good.
San Francisco-via-Greensboro group Tussle strides this borderline. Just finishing up a soundheck in Austin, Texas, drummer Warren Huegel sounds cheery when he answers his phone, the sound of clattering drum sticks and monitors fizzing off signaling that they've just finished: "It's lovely weather here, a bit warm but nice," he says, an amicable fellow compared to the typical gruff rocker, especially considering he's in the middle of a seven-week tour.
Huegel is plainspoken about the group's approach. They're not dumbing down the rhythms for accessibility or attempting to over-stretch things until they break for obtuseness. In other words, they compose naturally, jamming for a while, recording it, and trying to bend something valid from the results. Two members, Jonathan Holland and Nathan Burazer, are painters and graphic designers, and their affinity for the visual arts is reflected in their music: Rhythms become textures and key triggers for clubland hip movement through a rich combination of live drums and sampled percussion elements.
Huegel's casual description makes what they do sound easy, riffing within a nothing-but-the-beat framework of two drummers (Huegel and Holland), bass (Tomo Yasuda) and electronic effects (Burazer). But getting into the right rhythm and filling the beat out with color and character is far from easy. On their latest, Telescope Mind, the quartet balances endless grooves with chunky low-end, never slipping into muddied theory-driven morass or broken-to-bits abstraction. The sounds are powerful, too. "Elephants" is mimetic of its title character in a stampede, spinning on a bed of clickity-clack like a bicycle's wheels over a loose brick pathway. In synthesizer pieces "Cloud Melodie I" and "II," whines and screeches evoke suspense and alien places, a nice, no-drumming respite between dancing.
But Tussle does want people to dance: At one point, they employed a friend simply to tap cowbell and groove, like that dude from the Happy Mondays who was there just to party and keep the crowd moving, a hype man for the "dance-party" set. But more supple and layered than bump and grind booty numbers, their music reflects the effect they want to have on their crowd, sounding like a room looks when you're neck-deep in sweaty strangers on a grubby floor, swaying and hand-clapping.
Does it matter, then, if that slight, head-bobbing tingle comes from the bass and rhythmic pulse pumping out of the speakers or a more clinical appreciation of their "work?" Getting the drum pattern similarity to a Can track in some Tussle song is irrelevant to that couple with their eyes rolled back in their skulls, shaking like it's their last night on earth. Huegel knows about that musical liberation. He was the drummer for University of Errors, the most recent project of Daevid Allen of Soft Machine and Gong. That band was certainly less danceable, but its psychedelic strains could inspire similar wonder.
Indeed, one especially hard piece of ear candy on Telescope Mind, "Kindermusik," might appear to be a Kraut-rock reference, especially with its slow rise from a bottom of murky bumps and hand-claps, drums popping up among waves of synthesizer. But there is another reference being made: Kindermusik is a method of early childhood education based in Greensboro that uses music as its primary pedagogy. Burazer's family joined a Buddhist/ Hindu/ Christian cult in Winston-Salem (he later left), and he first learned how to play guitar there while chanting with them at ceremonies; outside the cult, he was going to punk shows and raves. He moved to Greensboro with high school friend Holland, and there they met Andy Cabic, a one-time Tussler and current member of Vetiver and Devendra Banhart's Hairy Fairy Band. Cabic was in that city's seminal group The Raymond Brake.
"The music scene was very vibrant there; the venues grew out of nothing. A kid that worked the 7-11 nightshift had punk shows in the store after midnight; there were always amazing shows at the Dick Street house, and Broken Window (a long-abandoned house where the only way inside was a broken window)," Burazer wrote in a recent band bio. All three eventually moved to San Francisco looking for more creative outlets, but their elementary sense of what it means to have a party—or their "Kindermusik"—seems to have sprouted out west in the Triad.
Make no mistake: They may not have had Tussle's constant sense of movement, but those initial Intelligent Dance Music artists turned dance music on its side. Autechre made jagged beat spires that suffered from obtuseness, and Aphex's Richard D. James succeeded with dense ambient sketches and stone-faced clickers. But Detroit Techno, startedin the mid-'80s by African-American men, is just one example that makes it clear that it's unintelligent—offensive, even—to think dance music before IDM was dumb. But if a line does still exist between intelligent groupthink and the compulsion to move hips, Tussle is bending it in a big way. Whether they're proof of a renewed egalitarian spirit, a freedom to move between genres and cliquish scene restrictions, or they're just excitable guys teasing out their idea of refined dance music, it's no matter really.
Put another way: Shut up and dance already.
Tussle plays Local 506 Wednesday, May 16, at 9 p.m., with Pykrete Percussion Unit and DJ Nasty Boots opening. Tickets are $8.