You think you know everything when you’re 18. But, that summer, Bowery Electric put me in my corner.
I was put on to the duo’s sophomore album, “Beat,” a month before leaving for college. I was familiar with the terms “post-rock” and “shoegaze,” even “trip-hop,” but Bowery Electric had a sound that was all three at once, but also none of them at all. This kind of genre-bending was completely novel to me, and I was instantly hooked.
Narratively, “Beat” is about the everyday. Specifically, the atmosphere that changes every day – in transit, in thought, in love and when at rest. “Beat” shape-shifts and effectively romanticizes one’s surroundings, amplifying each passing feeling and emotion with the slightest of chord changes and subtlest of swelling synths.
Lawrence Chandler is one half of Bowery Electric and discussed the how and why of his album with Martha Schwendener over email.
“[The record was] actually experimental as defined in the dictionary: ‘based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalized,’” Chandler wrote.
Chandler and Schwendener met while working at Interview magazine. “We both realized we would rather be making art or music than writing about people who did,” Chandler wrote.
He self-identified as “a very late bloomer,” explaining that he was interested in music at a young age, but never thought to fully take it up.
“It seemed a mysterious gift to me, like writing, you either could and did or didn’t,” he wrote.
It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with leukemia in his twenties that he started to learn an instrument. “It was during this time in [the] hospital [when] I started to teach myself guitar,” he wrote.
After he began remission, Chandler and Schwendener formed Bowery Electric. “Martha [had been] playing bass with a Bikini Kill type band,” Chandler wrote. “We would meet a few times a week in our rehearsal space and improvise until things fell into place.”
Chandler never thought of himself as a guitarist, but “[the guitar] just happened to be the instrument with which [he] was able to produce the sounds [he] was interested in at the time.”
Intrigued more in processing and the sonic possibilities of the guitar rather than playing it, Chandler spent most of the time messing with effect pedals while Schwendener formed bass lines and loops.
It all started with experimentation, but with limited capabilities. “Beat” was released about a year after the group’s self-titled debut. Their first record was more post-rock (think Joy Division, Cocteau Twins), whereas “Beat” incorporated more electronic elements, a genre that, at the time, Chandler remembered as “…exciting, it was expansive and inclusive. It seemed like the frontier.”
To place “Beat” in the context of the 90s music scene, music critic Simon Reynolds said mainstream America was more interested in grunge.
“In the U.S., you didn’t really have the sort of dub-awareness as an integral part of the alternative music culture,” Reynolds wrote, when comparing the U.S. to the U.K. scene. “In American rock culture, there’s a suspicion of machine rhythm.”
With “Beat,” Bowery Electric was one of the few U.S. bands to incorporate electronic instrumentation. That’s what really set it apart in America. One of the few labels putting out experimental post-rock like that was a Chicago-based record label, kranky. They are, “in resistance to grunge’s grim hegemony,” Reynolds said in a profile on kranky in Melody Maker magazine. They put out music that was pushing rock forward, and Bowery Electric was doing just that. Fittingly, kranky released “Beat” in 1996.
This record was the first time the duo got to do pre-production. Chandler said they were “writing in producer Rich Costey’s home studio, creating and recording loops, scrolling through beats / samples, et cetera.” During the writing process of “Beat,” they had access to more hardware equipment, including various synths and drum machines, but they used these to make a record with a purpose to experiment with new sounds that, as Chandler recalled, were “inspired by what we were hearing in the city / streets - hip hop and clubs - electronic music.”
This kind of technical-mindedness and attention to sonic detail is similar to that of La Monte Young, one of Chandler’s former mentors. Young, a prolific composer and legendary figure in the post-war avant-garde and minimalism movement, lived, “his life like it’s an artwork,” said Young’s former archivist, David Farneth.
Similar to Chandler and Schwendener’s approach to “Beat,” Young felt very connected to his environment. “He was inspired by all the sounds and hums around him,” Farneth explained.
According to Farneth, Young mostly spent his days “on a 27-hour timeline,” suggesting a sort of superhumaness and absorption with music in his daily routine. Young improvised in all his shows. “You needed to devote three or four hours to the show,” Farneth explained, “You get inside the sound [at these performances] and see where he takes it.”
Chandler was introduced to La Monte Young, while Bowery Electric was recording their first EP,
“Drop.” Chandler worked for and studied with La Monte Young during and after Bowery Electric. “Postscript,” the last track on “Beat,” is dedicated to Young and minimalist composer Terry Riley, wrote Chandler.
It’s evident that the sounds of one’s own environment were a big part of the writing process for both Young and Bowery Electric. “Beat” itself is about your surroundings and getting inside the sound. Listening to it is a dedicated sonic experience — one the listener won’t regret. It challenges the mind and grounds your thoughts in a manner that connects you to the world you’re sitting in at the time, possibly in a new way.
In my current setting, the sky is orange; the air is burnt; and smoke is overwhelming Los Angeles ether. Some call it climate change. Others call it an apocalypse. I turn on “Beat” in my car while the “end-of-the-world” looms the streets. The pounding of the drum machine in “Fear of Flying” echoes (and clips) in my overrun, ramshackle car speakers. I think to myself that the intensity of the ominous situation is brought to a sort of surrealism.
Suddenly, my mind frees up a bit. I become intrigued, the same way as when I first heard the record. My body is at ease, but my mind is racing. That’s it. That’s the rush that drew me in at the start.
[Note: this piece was written in the fall when wildfires were rampant in California].