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Singin' in the Rave

BT tries to do the unutterable: Be a DJ who vocalizes

Five years ago, Brian Transeau was programming soon-to-be-famous techno dance mixes in his bedroom. Now, he has snubbed a big-boy contract with Warner Bros. to sign on with ultrahip Nettwerk Records.

BT, as Transeau is known, has taken some lumps, most coming in the City of Angels. In a phone conversation, the Maryland native refuses to discuss the trauma that capped his first six months as a West Coast local. BT reportedly was held hostage by a couple of thugs. The pair tried to rip off some expensive mixing equipment, holding BT and a friend at gunpoint. BT eventually fled down an alleyway and scaled a ten-foot wall in flip-flops.

Though BT has been through one of the most painfully cinematic welcome-to-the-big-city stories, he's resolute about making it in L.A. With one breath, he says, "It's a really weird place." And then, in true New Age fashion, he says, "It has strange energy." Eventually he cheerily sums up everything by claiming the city has been good for his burgeoning career as a film score composer. And it has.

BT goes the way of Fatboy Slim and DJ Rap, trying to cross over from dance to the mainstream by singing.
Ralph Strathmann
BT goes the way of Fatboy Slim and DJ Rap, trying to cross over from dance to the mainstream by singing.

BT's credits include engineering and producing the soundtrack for the cult film Go. And thanks to years of classical music training, he has composed and conducted the tribal drum-heavy score for the Gene Hackman big-budget crime thriller Under Suspicion. His résumé includes lots of other tunes for high-tech flicks, most recently a dramatic track mixed with sexy Angelina Jolie's voice for Gone in 60 Seconds. But his accomplishments and his lofty place in L.A.'s film strata belie the man who can talk on and on about California's Muir Woods. In fact, he thanked the great redwoods in the liner notes of his last album. "I drove up there when I had $20 to my name," he says. "I went hiking, slept in the woods. I felt an incredible connection to that place." After his stay there, BT says, "I called my mom. It turns out she went there when she was pregnant with me."

This reconciliation of city and nature seems a little pedestrian for BT, or perhaps we simply have higher expectations of one of the architects of house music, the same musician who revolutionized the London dance scene with his dreamily rich trance. BT should be more of a badass, a real fuck-the-suits kind of guy. He isn't.

BT is also conflicted on the subject of music; there seems to be a tug-of-war raging inside him: Does he go for art or industry? His struggle is made tangible in his latest album, Movement in Still Life. As in his first two albums, Ima and ESCM, BT preserves his famous dance/trance drum 'n' bass, and he certainly delivers the vague, figure-me-out lyrics common to house tracks, most obvious in such refrains as the one from "Running Down the Way Up." But he makes the ultimate concession to the pop marketplace here: There are a couple of tracks on which he plays bass and guitars and sings. This is his debut on the mike.

"Shame" and "Satellite," two of the most mainstream alt-rock-sounding tracks on the album, feature BT's breathy, pop-ready voice. He even unleashes phony Queen's English, complete with the standard long a. These seemingly simple tracks are misplaced on an album of dance club songs chock-full of complex effects and programming tricks.

In fact, Soul Coughing's M. Doughty does a crappy beat poet impression, and English sweetheart Kirsty Hackshaw breathes her kitteny lyrics over familiar dance-style drum 'n' bass loops. The tracks fit in much better with BT's breakbeat rhythms. But again, these contributions can also be construed as another example of BT's attempt to cross over, to succeed where many have failed. There will probably be only one Fatboy Slim, much to every other singin' DJ's chagrin.

While BT may consider himself more erudite than the average producer, a growing number of Top 40 artists are releasing tracks with digital effects, advanced programming, drum loops and filtered instruments. BT is at the helm of the ever-expanding use of programmed effects. The most common music, like what we hear during our daily lives, is becoming much more a hybrid of human output and computer-generated effects. Even Britney sounds larger than her spandex pants will permit in the hands of tech-savvy mix masters.

Unfortunately for an artist like BT, the rise in technical effects leaves him, being the insurgent artist that he is, with the burden of pushing the boundaries even further. To that end, he has elected to integrate other genres, namely rock-style singing. Even though it's a tuned-down version of the utterly unpredictable Moby, BT's crossover does indeed remind one of the former artist's strange, neo-punk Animal Rights album, an odd, rambunctious amalgam of rock and dance. (We should note that after tinkering with vocals, Moby has since returned to his electronic crafting.)

Whether or not he has lost his underground edge, BT has matured into a professional musician, leaving behind his humble bedroom beginnings for something more lucrative and starstruck. No one can blame him or (worse) call him a sellout. Any self-respecting careerist would go for the brass ring, yet BT may still have things to say to dance. The answer remains to be remixed, remastered and pumped out over a dance floor.

 
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