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The Signal Southeast Electronic Music Festival offers alternatives

Under the cloak of digital media and the tentacle-like reach of the Web, electronic musicians can remain nearly invisible. But the Signal Southeast Electronic Music Festival, running from Thursday to Saturday in several Chapel Hill clubs, aims to raise public awareness of their community and send out a flare to other local artists sequestered in cyber-holes, perhaps unaware of the buzzing activities of their neighbors.

click to enlarge $tinkwork
  • $tinkwork

Just as the advent of cold type changed publishing forever, digital production software altered how people make, share and distribute music. The Signal organizers are betting on the new way people make most types of music--that is, electronically. The eclectic roster they have organized embraces the diversity in electronic music, from dance floor stylings like house and techno (and their dissonant counterparts) to experimental, noise-driven bands.

The Triangle's music scene has long suffered from an identity crisis, one that holds that the only game to play is indie rock. The mindset was reinforced in the '90s, when Chapel Hill was tagged the "next Seattle" by an industry-driven press. But with the success of Little Brother, the area is finally being recognized nationally as a vibrant home of hip hop. Similarly, Signal hopes to raise the visibility of local electronic music by elaborating on previous electronic events and fronting for several local labels and collectives.

Electronic music now bubbles up in unlikely places. In recent years, major festivals were held in locales like Minneapolis and Des Moines, and an international theremin festival occurred in Asheville, all fueled by online communities and digital production. But regional artists can be nomadic types.

"Cliquishness gets in the way of more exchange between scenes," says one of the festival's organizers, Mark Lever (aka DJ Markus Maerk), of the lack of interaction among working Triangle producers and spinners.

These cliques, Lever holds, result from individual stylistic preferences. In electronic music, as with other genres, one style of music diametrically opposes another simply because it was created as a counter-reaction to it. For instance, in rock circles, one may find it hard to be in a very structured pop band if one's background comes from punk aversion to that set. But Lever says the festival hopes to blend several disparate types of music geographically to reduce that gap. From rapid-fire drum and bass to minimal techno and the deep party music of trance or progressive house, the festival's docket is a patchwork of usually distinct and separate sub-genres. Mike Walters of Jett Rink contributes analog synthesizer music, and the experimental improv group pulsoptional adds live instrumentation. As such, the roster includes more taxa than a biology exam.

"This will help us invest more of our energy into what is, in my belief, the common cause among many of us: to spread love and appreciation of electronic music," says Lever.

After all, several local labels and acts are already spreading their wares across the globe, even though many of them are virtual unknowns in their own hometown. Chapel Hill's Down Low label, which deals in sub-genres like electro and deeper techno, has a worldwide audience. Co-owner J.T. Stewart started the label with a friend he met on an e-mail list focusing on Detroit techno.

"Most everything is dealt with over the Internet--communication with our distributors (our main one is in Amsterdam), sending artwork, ideas, audio files," says Stewart, who records as $tinkworx and releases records through European labels like Holland's Bunker and Swedish imprint Stilleben.



But for all of the artistic disparity that surrounds the electronic music universe, like minds do sometimes meet. Stewart, for instance, met Charlie Hearon in high school in Polk County. Hearon co-founded Chapel Hill label FrequeNC records with partner Jon Terrell (together, they also form the DJ team MothersBrothers). The vinyl-only label has had four releases since 2004, including rhythm-hackers Cold Sides, RoboSapien's conscious party rap, noisy jesters Extreme Animals and a local artist protest compilation. Hearon sees common needs among the varied enclaves in the Triangle.

"The real challenge is the greater struggle for the Triangle to survive and thrive as a cultural center. Rent's going up and it ain't that easy," he opines. "Can venues stay open? Can new ones open? Can artists get paid? Can artists live in town? We really need intimate, not-too-big venues to survive and to be sensitive to the needs of DJs and electronic acts."

He stresses the difficulties of available venues, too.

"Less than in rock, where small venues only need to handle vocals through the house system, dance music relies on quality sound systems," he continues. "This is costly to small venues. So success depends a little on venues taking an interest in this music."

Festival co-founder T.J. Ward (DJ name: Yugen) points to a statewide spurt in that interest, with scenes in Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington, Burlington and the Outer Banks. Ward says the area's dance music heritage has suffered from neglect and is deserving of more attention.

"We hope the size of the festival will turn people on to something that they've missed until now," he says.

That seems possible, as accessibility has reached a new peak now thanks to the Internet, which has multiplied avenues of availability compared to formerly exclusive parties and white-label records. Ward sees cross-pollination as a factor of local growth: "I've seen more overlap between the rock and electro-music worlds in the last year. More musicians play both rock and some flavor of electronic music."

Signal co-founder Uzoma Nwosu has seen the changing face of electronic music in this region from its naive beginnings. Arriving in North Carolina in the late '80s, he co-founded the New Science Experience, a weekly radio mix show on WXYC 89.3, and started the online music community V2K for area DJs and promoters.

"I started listening to local club DJs ... Brett Long, Hotwax Harley, Mr. Bill and Mike Shoffner," remembers Nwosu, known as Uzi to friends.

He still DJs at the long-running Sunday night party at West End Wine Bar called Family. Nwosu maintains a sober perspective on how people perceive electronic music: "We were underground at one point, then we became popular with the in crowd, then we fell from the limelight. Now we do whatever we like."

Nwosu feels that part of the struggle with electronic music and involving people with it is its own inherent evolution, its only real constant apart from an inextricable tether to technology.

"The music industry tried to brand it with minimal success--but what is it, really? If someone says to you, 'I listen to techno,' what are they saying? That they listen to house? Or glitch?" he questions. "Maybe they mean techno as in the stuff that came out of Detroit. It's hard to tell."

Refreshingly, though, Nwosu can pinpoint Signal's purpose immediately. He shies away from self-aggrandizement, downplaying any great scene need for an electronic music festival.

"I have a hard time saying that we're having this festival because the area needs it," he says. "This event was created from our passion with the music ... because the electronic music community wants to invite everyone to a celebration."

The Signal festival runs through the weekend, starting with a kick-off party at Local 506 on Thursday, then multiple venues in Chapel Hill including Avalon, Penang, Tallula's, Nightlight and Fuse on Friday and Saturday. For the full schedule, ticket info and artist sites, go to www.signalfest.com.

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