Sound samplers feel vindicated
Britain's funk soul brothers raise their 'Battle Flag'
July 8, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- By many accounts, the Lo Fidelity Allstars are riding high. "How To Operate With a Blown Mind," the British band's debut album, is steadily riding the Billboard album charts and has some critics swooning.
One writes in Spin, for example, that "How To Operate" is "the most suggestive and provocative Brit-dance debut since (Portishead's) 'Dummy' or (Tricky's) 'Maxinquaye.'" A critic in Request hails the Allstars' "magical facility for abrasively propulsive tunes, equally undercut and supported by hip-hop homages and sound-bite slices."
As if that weren't enough, the group has been invited to join Crystal Method's summer 1999 Community Service Tour, which hit the road July 4 and features today's crème de la crème of electronica.
But the genre itself still is trying to establish its credentials.
Looking for legitimacy
The term "electronic music" or "electronica" in rock right now refers, for the most part, to DJs' electronic samplings and manipulations of previously recorded work by others. In today's classical composition, by comparison, "electronic music" -- as generated by Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, John Adams, Steve Reich and others -- usually means original, not remixes. It's work created synthetically without traditional acoustic instrumentation.
Rock's "electronic" DJs have sometimes met with a tepid response, their work said by some to be fine for the dance floor and often inventive, but by definition derivative of others' efforts and, at best, a secondary form dependent on "found music" -- samples.
So it's not surprising that members of the Allstars, this ensemble of London DJs and musicians, say the most gratifying part of their current success is the recognition they feel it means for them as a real band, samplings and all.
In fact, you can sense the chip on the industry's wider electronic shoulder as soon as they start talking. "Sampled music is just as valid as anything produced by a four-piece guitar band," says DJ Phil "The Albino Priest" Ward.
"We're just as attached to our music as any guitar band is. And it feels great that our album is doing this great. It feels really good. It's good for the people who believed in us. And there's not lots of singles on the album, so it's especially nice that it's doing so well."
The Allstars -- along with big-beat grandmaster Fatboy Slim and United Kingdom dance kings the Chemical Brothers -- has a chance to become Britain's other, if darker, star export.
Unlike the giddy tunes on Fatboy's much-played release "You've Come a Long Way, Baby," the Allstars' songs are grimmer, blearier, more pensive. On the single "Battle Flag," the lyric says it's time to "launder my karma." Fatboy Slim's songs are what you twirl your night away and sip your champagne to. Then you switch on the Allstars when you're dragging yourself home and the first nagging hint of a hangover starts to distract you.
The angriest songs -- along with the band members' gangsta-like aliases and their northern-English accents -- have helped the band members win reputations as beer-swilling thugs. The group comprises Ward; Andy "A One-Man Crowd Called Gentile" Dickenson (bass); Johnny "The Slammer" Machin (drums); Martin "The Many Tentacles" Whiteman (keyboards and engineer); and the singly-named Dale, also known as "Pelemaloney" (keyboards).
"We were labeled as hooligans and criminals," says Ward, "because we're from the north of England. That's the biggest thing that pissed us off at the start. We constantly got that, and we were disgusted. We don't mind criticism, but that's just disgusting. And we got that for years. That's been our biggest obstacle. People thought that we're just in it for the partying."
Sure, they say they enjoy a brew or two. But that doesn't stop these Brits from cranking out music that's an amalgamation of rock, hip-hop, electronica and funk.
"How To Operate With a Blown Mind," released in January, is currently perched at No. 3 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, and is at 132 on the Billboard 200 album charts. "Battle Flag" is the album's first single. It features Seattle performer Pigeonhead and it's achieved the status of an MTV "buzzworthy" clip. It's in heavy rotation on modern-rock radio stations nationwide. And the band made Entertainment Weekly's music "It List."
Formed in 1996 of artists from London, Brighton and Leeds, the band initially was dismissed by the British media as an inconsequential gathering of party boys. Since then, much of the press has done a 180-degree turnaround, with New Musical Express hailing the Allstars as the best band of 1998.
Does being compared to Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers make the London outfit feel all warm and fuzzy? Ward says of course. He calls it a compliment. But what about being dubbed just another dance band?
"We're an intelligent band," he says. "But every dance band gets dismissed as a one-hit wonder. Because we don't talk about the books we read, unlike bands like Radiohead. We read books, we watch movies, we just don't talk about it."
In "How To Operate With a Blown Mind," the Allstars have sliced and diced musical standards into their own bleaker hymns. "Warming up the Brain Farm" features a sample of "Panther Power" by Paris, while "Vision Incision" includes sound from "A Woman Needs a Good Man" by Three Degrees.
Ward says sampling music is a way of paying tribute to the bands that helped the Allstars refine their musical edges. The band's influences? Not a dance-band grab bag. Wu-Tang Clan. Marvin Gaye. Curtis Mayfield. Bootsy Collins. The Allstars' dream? A pajama party of a show, in which Gaye, Mayfield, Collins and the Allstars all jam together.
When the going gets tough ...
The Allstars' ascent up the charts hasn't all been smooth sampling. They managed to anger The Breeders' Kim Deal after sampling the band's hit "Cannonball" on the single "Blisters on My Brain" (originally called "Disco Machine Gun"). Because the title was deemed too similar to "Cannonball," the Allstars had to rename it, and they had to remove the sample.
The band also had to cut a line from Prince's "Sexuality" from an early version of "Battle Flag," after Warner Bros. came knocking.
They've made do without front man and lead singer Dave Randall, who left last year, saying he wanted a life away from the limelight. So Ward stepped up the plate, barking out songs in a style similar to that of Public Image Ltd.'s John Lydon.
... the tough keep sampling
Ward hopes that audiences seeing Orbital, Crystal Method and the Allstars live on the Community Service Tour will give up any doubts about the validity of electronic, sampled music.
Besides, insists Ward -- who with keyboardist-sampler Harvey essentially functions as the group's guitarist -- the Allstars have no problem recreating their techno-wizardry on stage.
"I remember when I was a kid," Ward says, "I was into Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and that band was known for not playing its instruments. But kids don't care about that. What's important for us is (that) our crowd goes mad for the bass sounds at our shows."
Next, the band plans to finish a second, as-yet untitled album, for which the members have penned a few tunes.
"The faster tunes are getting more house, and the soulful tunes are getting more soulful," Ward says. "But we're as all-over-the-place as we were before."
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