by Mark Teppo

To Alleviate Tension: Apply Suction At Will

A quiet little revolution took place in Toronto last February. The city was still coated with the muddy remnants of a paralytic snow storm. The Maple Leafs were playing their last few hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens before the arena closed up for good. The airwaves were inundated with Q103.7's attempt to give away "your very own 1.3 acre island." Phantom of the Opera, which had been playing damn near forever, was entering its final weeks. Everything was in a state of flux, ending and changing. Amidst all of this, there was a beginning.

It wasn't a true beginning. Not a two guys switch on a CRT in their garage kind of beginning. But rather a public affirmation of intent. Suction Records--Jason Amm and Gregory de Rocher--were throwing a release party for their first full length CDs. These two, operating under the names of Solvent and Lowfish respectively, were to demonstrate the obsolescence of the corporate behemoth and to champion the cause of the "bedroom composer"--the solitary individual who has realized the distance between himself (or herself) and an audience can be dissolved with a decent Internet connection.

Bedroom composer. Knob twiddler. These appellations and others have become the labels du jour of those individuals who make up the Intelligent Dance Music community. Electronically based, this grouping has in its commonality a dissatisfaction with the limitations of their beginnings--be it drum 'n' bass or acid jazz or prog rock or house music. They all discovered a source of rhythm and melody in the analog and digital signals of their instruments and found a new course in the exploration of this "robot music."

[ our man mark was there ]

"Robot music is a term we used to use to describe the flow of a track," says Jason Amm. "We would say 'this is so robot' and it would be a compliment. It's all about drum machine precision timing. This is why electro music is obsessed with robots and ambient music is obsessed with nature. I also think that the word/idea of robot has taken on a nostalgic connotation. Whereas robots may have at one time seemed futuristic and threatening (they will come alive and take over!), time has proven the robot as a silly concept. In 1999, we can use pictures of robots on the sleeve of a record (the D'arcangelo/Solvent 7" for example) and this is universally recognized as expressing something warm and nostalgic."

"Yeah, it's just like that," Gregory de Rocher adds. "It's about mad tight timing, pure non-human sounds controlled by human hands and a bit of kitsch. Robots sum it up for us."

Track 6 on the Lowfish disc, "Sky Rats." It's a location recording of a frosty winter beach with the waves breaking under the circling cries of the gulls. Draped over this is a tiny little melody that breathes melancholy. And then there's the sound of pistons breathing, tiny valves opening and spitting steam, and the rumbling of a mechanical voicebox, the sad ramblings of an obsolete robot who has wandered to the edge of the world to contemplate his end. Rocher and Amm have a talent at breathing organic life into mechanistic constructs. They bend their machines to their human wills, coax real life out of cold circuits and soldiered bytes. "Pineapple Boy" is the first track on the Solvent disc and captures this same feeling as well. The title suggests something created, some scientific evolution grown in a lab with its oversized head and positronic brain cycles. And yet, the song captures this artificial boy at play as he discovers the world around him. This isn't a sterile laboratory environment--not any more--and the sound of the pineapple boy has such warmth and tone that you can almost believe that he is a real boy.

[ lowfish's gregory de rocher ]

A lot of IDM creation is shrouded in mystery; just how those tones and beats are generated are closely guarded secrets. Aficionados carry on conversations laced with acronyms and model numbers used in referencing a sample, melody, a drum beat. Much like the cola wars, there is a lot of discussion of the finer differences between Autechre and Funkstorung and the mystery of their secret formulas. Amidst this chamber of veiled secrecy, the men of Suction come clean with their tools, listing their instrumentation on their record sleeves as if daring their audiences to duplicate their sound or elucidate the exact measure of their music.

But this isn't like a thousand monkeys in a room banging on keyboards, their scientific observers hoping to draw out one melody from the cacophony resounding within that chamber. Even though the Roland s750, the tr808, a Jupiter 6, a Moog Prodigy, and the Korg ms20 are all mainstays of the electronic music scene, the creative element is definitely human, as much as Amm and Rocher would like to hide behind their robot facades. For one thing, there's the techno-pop influence.

"I heard Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' on 8-track about 150,000 times as a kid in the back of my mother's Chrysler New Yorker," admits de Rocher, "That, and Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' made me a pure robot boy for life." He also confesses to the influence of Skinny Puppy, OMD, "basically all of Art of Noise," Giorgio Moroder, and Autechre. Amm has similar influences as well, though he adds Human League, Soft Cell, Yaz, Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, the Mute and Some Bizarre labels, Visage, Aphex Twin, '80s melancholy (think John Hughes films and their soundtracks), and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Human influences for robot boys and their digital environments.

[ darch-solvent 7 inch ]

And the genesis was from human necessity as well--the driving desire to create, to find expression in a musical realm. "We knew each other in high school in the suburbs of Toronto," relates Amm. "The connection was inevitable considering we were both obsessed with obscure robot music. During that time we talked about music (Skinny Puppy, New Order, early Mute records, etc.) and went to concerts. Greg was also making electronic music all along and we'd talk a bit about that. Later I finally started making music and we hooked up again. After four years of making tracks for each other, we released our first 12" record in 1997--a split between Lowfish (Gregory) and Solvent (myself). It took us a while to realize that we were making exactly what we wanted to hear."

De Rocher adds, "I was tired of hearing 'yeah we'll release that soon' from the labels I was talking to and figured to do it ourselves. The whole idea of starting another label almost stopped me at first but there is no one in Canada doing what we do. It's become as much of a necessity as it is a way to not have to answer to anyone."

"The industry only wants to see individuality when it can be easily defined and marketed," Amm explains. "Unfortunately it seems that a lot of record buyers can't distinguish from what they've been told either. For Suction, this has led to us being pigeonholed into categories that we fit into less and less every day. As much as it is flattering to be compared to Autechre, it just doesn't make sense any more if you listen to Suction vs. Autechre in 1999. We would like to see Suction becoming a sound/esthetic in and of itself, similar to what Skam (originally), A-Musik or Interdimensional Transmissions have done. As artists with our own label, we have the opportunity to try to present our unique vision with every move we make, even if it's not always the most easily-marketable way of going about things."

[ solvent's jason amm ]

"To me," says de Rocher, "the whole idea of running our own label is to avoid other people from imposing the realities of the industry on us. We're not about selling mad amounts of 'units' or whatever, we're about releasing the music we make and love. Someone else likes it? Cool. They buy it? Cool.

"There really is an electronic music industry now and to me there really wasn't even one two years ago. The 'scene' is so diverse now that it's unmanageable to anyone less than a DJ/trainspotter/geek. There's so many crap records being released. I'm waiting for a backlash, but it hasn't come. Just when I think I get it, I get confused again.. So I don't think about it. I just try and do tracks and release records that I'm not going to be embarrassed about in 3 years. The whole idea of timeless music haunts me. I listen to a Roedelius record made over 20 years ago and it still floors me. If Suction can release one record that some kids in 20 years will dig out of a bin and play and go: 'Shit? When was this done? When? Wow.' My life'll be complete."

Of the two, de Rocher retains more of the "lo-fi electro weirdness" that Amm says characterizes the first Suction release: a split 12". De Rocher's full-length Lowfish record, Fear Not the Snow and Other Lo-Fiing Objects starts with a rattling, sputtering line of sound, a droning hum that percolates into a melody eventually. It all sounds like so much ancient equipment, run off a gas generator in the basement, summoned back to life for one final synergistic effort, one final push to make music. And you can hear their influence on one another, not enough to qualify a "Suction sound," but enough to hear an echo of the melodic mood of "Pineapple Boy" floating through the squelchy darkness of "Martin C. Martin."

[ solvent cover ]

"We want to be an electronic music alternative for people who are burned out on post-Autechre everything," states Amm when asked about the future of Suction. "We want to keep it basic," adds de Rocher. "Unique sounds are fine but unique melodies or catchy accessible structures mean more to us." Suction points towards a fruitful future, a "warm and nostalgic" era where the music hasn't become sterilized with mechanistic intensity, a time where the robots have discovered a kernel of humanity buried deep within their chips.

The vehicle to that future is driven by "My Blue Car" (from the Solvent release). Dopplered rhythms streak by as you travel down this road. A thunderstorm barks through a field of static off to the north and the radar in the dashboard hums and twitches as you blow past old gas stations and burned out hulks of ancient Cadillacs. Tootling out the radio is that robot sound, that organic melody stirred up from the belly of this metallic beast which takes you to the future.

[ suction 001 ]

"We're each going to release another album in the next year and do a wack of remixes," hints de Rocher. "We're going to really freak some people. We've got a lot of secret shit on the go." One can't help but wait with some anticipation at those words. The lads at Suction have moved far beyond their Toronto stomping grounds since February. Looking at the hints given to the patient, we see labels in Berlin and Manchester (city.centre.offices), New York (Serotonin Records), and Los Angeles (Vinyl Communications) have all successfully vied for a piece of the Suction magic. Alien8 Recordings (in Montreal) got a head start on the others, capitalizing on their relationship with fellow Canadian David Kristian to get a remix from both Solvent and Lowfish for the remix disc, Woodworking. Their stunning little contributions to this remix project of Kristian's Cricklewood album is a branching out of the robot aesthetic, a viral spread of their humanizing influence into the abstract digitally-realized world. "It seems that while nearly everyone's making electronic music go into more complex/abstract realms, we're getting more melodic, simple, and direct," Amm points out.

Melodic. Simple. Direct. Three words they should imprint on the outer edges of their releases. Out of the inorganic realm of electronic music, Jason Amm and Gregory de Rocher have discovered the souls of their robot selves. They have found a warmth within their mad machine-precision timing; they have found an ambient organic nature growing beneath their pistons and patch cables and power boxes. Suction has given real life to the rigid sterility of electronic music.

Suction Discography:
Suction 001: Lowfish/Solvent 12" (July 1997)
Suction 002: David Kristian/Lowfish 12" (December 1997)
Suction 003: Suction CD (June 1998)
Suction 003.4: Solvent/Lowfish LP (March 1999)
Suction 004: Lowfish Fear Not The Snow and Other Lo-Fiing Objects (February, 1999)
Suction 005: D'arcangelo/Solvent "Diagram 9/Feeling No. 4" 7" (February, 1999)
Suction 006: Solvent Solvently One Listens (expected October 1999)
Suction 007: Plexus/Lowfish 7" (expected October 1999)
Suction 008: Lowfish Eliminator (tba)

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