Beige Records is a St. Louis-based label that releases crack electronic music made primarily by its two owners -- Joe Beuckman, 23, and Paul Davis, 22. Twice in the late '90s, bands on the label have been invited to the annual CMJ Music Festival in New York City. It's a great gig for the unknown musician, especially a Midwestern unknown seldom given the opportunity to play before the fancy-shmancy NYC music literati. On their last appearance, two members of one of their bands, Rudy Tardy and the Slowes, participated in a panel discussion titled "Technology and the Artist at Home." Quite an honor, it would seem.
Davis takes over:
"We both got mullets. A mullet is a very powerful thing in New York City. I was wearing my Master of Puppets shirt and sweatpants and my sausage-factory hat, and (fellow Slowe) Cory was wearing a Buffalo Bills matching sweatsuit and a blue mesh shirt." On the panel with them were indie "luminaries" Dave Trumfio of the Pulsars; Barry Phipps, formerly of the Coctails; Tony Goddess of Papas Fritas; and, Davis says, "some dude from some indie band on Warner Bros.
"We decided we were going to do an in-house demonstration of the power of Atari. They were talking about $20,000 mixing boards, and the dude on Warner Bros. was saying, "Yeah, we bought a church in Connecticut to put our studio in -- 32 tracks!' I didn't understand what that had to do with technology and the artist at home. Whereas I'm at home with my Atari every day.
"The two genius strokes came when we prepared a little program in Basic that, when Dave (Trumfio) started talking about all the gear he uses, the vintage synths, on the video screen behind you all the sudden comes up, "Mr. Trumfio, how much did you pay for your Moog synthesizer?' And he got really offended and snapped, "I don't know -- $45 in some junk store in Athens, Ga.' And Barry Phipps asked, "How much would that go for in LA?' And he said $600. So we type in "$600" and hit return, and on the screen came, "Mr. Trumfio, for $600 you could get 37 Ataris, 24 Commodores, 15 Amigas.'
The other genius stroke, says Davis, was the Atari porn that somehow ended up on the video screen. Needless to say, Rudy Tardy and the Slowes were banned from the festival.
But, hey, you do what you gotta do to prop the Atari 2600, either privately or publicly, which Beige Records has been doing since its inception, so far releasing four 12-inch singles of electronic music that uses not only the Atari but pretty much any sound the label's artists can squeeze in, from a vintage Buchla analog synth to cello to robotic computer voices to new, more adavanced gear.
Beuckman and Davis are walking encyclopedias of electronic dance music, especially Detroit techno and electro. The music on the Beige label has, so far, been released solely as 12-inch singles for DJ and club play and mastered in Detroit by Ron Murphy. ("The unsung hero of Detroit techno," says Beuckman. "He basically created the Detroit sound.") They're also computer brainiacs: Beuckman got his degree in computer science from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and works with computers at the St. Louis Science Center; Davis is in his last semester at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he's majoring in electronic-music composition and minoring in harpsichord performance.
The combination is perfect: They create music for both the dance floor and the armchair, and most important, unlike most labels in the highly segmented genre, Beige's output is engaging in both contexts. The label features a beat aimed at your ass and the density to fill your huge brain, and, experienced together, the two qualities have never missed. Ranging from gentle mantras to abrasive eight-bit computer loops to wonderfully complex, playful beat breakdowns, Beige's chaotic work is filled with the energy and personality often absent in the dust-free world of computer-based composition.
Beuckman and Davis have known each other for close to a decade, meeting during their mid-teens at a summer music camp at Oberlin. Since then, they've been creating music with "anything we can get our grubby hands on," says Davis. "The Ensoniq VFX is my favorite, because that was my first keyboard. I got my original one when I came back from the University of Missouri music camp when I was starting high school. I saved all my lunch money from the first semester so I could buy that keyboard. The first one I got from this South City musician who had a serious crack habit and needed a hookup. I gave it to her. So that felt good. We were helping each other out. I think she played in a country band."
Unlike most music/computer composers constantly searching for The New by riding the wave of progress and technological advancement, Davis and Beuckman seem equally, if not more, infatuated with the old -- specifically, the early, relatively rudimentary personal computers. Davis says, "We fight over that all the time. I think pretty much I'm an Atari-head and (Beuckman is) a C-64-head. It's good that we can even get along." Beuckman responds: "It's not a nasty thing like the PC vs. the Mac. They have totally different sounds, and they make them in totally different ways. The Commodore has a dedicated SID -- sound-interface device -- chip. The Atari just has some registers they found -- some defect that makes noise, basically. Instead of, like, "Here, use this to make noise.' (There's) no documentation."
It's enough to make the computer numbskulls among us dizzy. Davis' and Beuckman's proficiency on their instruments is mind-boggling, rivaled, it seems, only by the creativity in evidence on the Beige releases. Unlike most computer beatheads so dense with knowledge and theory that the music they make seems stunted by musical gymnastics and fancy theoretical swan dives, the music Beige puts out is at times quirky smirky dance stuff filled with melodic personality; at times thick repetition that gradually shifts over time; and at times nuanced experimentation that, examined closely, is endlessly fascinating. (Davis describes one of his compositions: ""Whiskey Headed Woman,' on Beige 3, is relatively complex, with lots of meter and phrase shifts, and a very modular structure. Within that there's inhumanly fast cello playing, computer-generated atonal melodies and palindromes -- playing the same rhythm and/or melody forward and backward to define a phrase. It's all presented in a series of tight little units which relate linearly to each other and, in actuality, doesn't sound half as bad as this description makes it seem.")
Of the four releases so far, the best representation of the label's sound comes on The Spirit of Beige, Vol. 1, a four-track release featuring music by f13 (an Oberlin peer of Davis'), the Bitwise Operators (Davis and Beuckman), Davis alone and the band. No track resembles another, but all stretch for the carrot that Davis describes as "music I can't believe I'm hearing, be it some bizarre modulation, The Kids of Widney High (a record of music performed by special-education students) or a bunch of guys yelling, "You're a big fine woman, why don't you back that ass up?' I'm also really into bass. On one hand, electronic dance music is just that -- made for dancing -- and you want to make it extra rhythmically repetitive so people know what to do and look good doing it. On the other hand, spinning house at one of the Washington Avenue clubs can make me feel more like I'm herding sheep rather than doing anything musical."
Because Beige doesn't have a "sound" in the true sense of the word -- more, as per the title of their compilation, a "spirit" -- they've had problems getting steady distribution (Beige's records are available from the label's Web site, www.beigerecords.com, or by writing to their address: P.O. Box 771097, St. Louis, MO 63177). In the electronic world, distributors require a steady "sound" -- either you're a techno label, a house label, an "experimental" label or a down-tempo label -- and their musically unpredictable output has worked against them. Usually, says Davis, distributors "go like this (holds fingers together), and if it doesn't quite fit, they think they can't sell it. And our concept is not to have this but to have this (holds arms apart). When we were on Tom Crone's show on KDHX this past summer and I was playing some stuff from Beige 3 (a five-cut 12-inch of music made by Davis), some guy called up and said, "I really like it, but I don't quite understand it. What scene is this coming from?' And I couldn't really answer him: "Wanna be in it? Let's start it up, pal.'"
The spirit of Beige's output has less to do with an easily grasped style than it does with the thought process and emotions behind the idea of creating music on a computer. It manifests itself in a "movement" that Davis and some Oberlin peers have developed -- somewhat playfully, somewhat seriously -- called "Post Data." Paul Davis explains the premise in an e-mail:
"Post-Data is an art movement with an interesting aesthetic goal -- gaining suffrage for microprocessors. One might say that has nothing to do with aesthetics, but I believe differently. Post-Data says just that: Data, in its cold and inherently meaningless incarnation, is over. Post-Data is all about feelings, cruise control and unconditional love for the bits. The Post-Data artist has an emotional attachment to the data process so strong that it's not right to just call it "data' anymore. Through a knowledge of assembly language and low-level computer operations, the Post-Data artist creates a caring and artistically stimulating partnership with the computer far beyond what is possible from simply using any of the prefabricated programs created by today's monopolized software marketplace. Post-Data exists partly to help humanity in its search for truth and partly to tell every "media artist' who doesn't know a PEEK from a POKE to shut the fuck up. At the end of the day, Post-Data gives you the faith to sit down, take a look at your computer and say, "I love you.'"
The 8-Bit Construction Set is the most recent Beige release. Like all the other releases, it's a 12-inch, but this one's different. It literally is a "construction set" for DJs and sound experimenters. One side is devoted to music made on Atari 2600, the other side to the Commodore 64. It consists of early video-game samples -- Defender, Pac-Man, Space Invaders -- random blurps and beeps, a dozen locked grooves (sort of "intentional skips" created on a record that loop continuously until the listener pushes the needle to the next one), a composition on each side created on the machines and, the most unique and historically "significant" bit (significant only to those who care -- a handful worldwide), the first-ever computer programs stored on vinyl. They're at the end of each side, and they sound like the chirpy noise of modems. If you tape them on a cassette and play it on one of the two PCs (the early models used audiocassettes for data storage), a program the Beige boys wrote will run.
A huge amount of tedium is involved in creating programs for these computers. Whereas these days it's easy to sample a sound and simply, effortlessly fiddle with its qualities in any number of music-making software programs, writing music on the early computers is more complicated and involves as much typing and figuring as it does matching beats and creating texture. "You've got a screen full of hexidecimal notation," says Beuckman, "lots and lots of it, and even figuring out how the program works is sometimes the biggest challenge."
Plus, adds Davis, "It sounds hot."
"Other than sounding hot," says Beuckman, "we were attracted to the ingenuity it takes to fit anything at all into eight-bits."
"And also, the tediousness," Davis continues. "We sit there and type in these numbers, filling a whole screen, lines and lines and lines for a single second."
As the music comes out of the speakers, though, it's hard to tell how much work it is; the locked grooves are seamlessly matched and create continuous beat loops, some filled with square static, some round and bouncy. You can't hear the underlying numbers at the music's heart, and, though there are maybe easier ways to make the same sounds -- apparently a replicator is available for new Macintosh computers that attempts to capture the sound of the Commodore 64 -- that's not the point.
"It's not really a matter of trying to replicate sounds," says Beuckman. "But it has its own sound, and you're trying to be proficient in controlling it.
"We love it."