A soul as sensitive as Dan Gellar's would be expected to shy away from controversy and cave in when the PC brigade comes rallying round. After all, the twee music that Gellar champions -- both as co-founder of the influential indie label Kindercore and leader of the electro-pop duo I Am the World Trade Center -- is friendly and featherweight. But Gellar, an affable twentysomething with a perpetual smile, didn't crumble when, in the aftermath of September 11, the name of his musical project was criticized as the apotheosis of bad taste. Several e-mails said the group must surely epitomize the worst of America's power and greed.
But Gellar recalled a truism that allowed him to ride out the storm: The world's memory is short.
"For the first three months, the overwhelming sense was we were going to have to change our name," the upbeat Gellar says from his home base of Athens, Georgia. "Of course, while it was happening and I was watching it, our name was the last thing I was thinking of. The environment was negative as far as keeping the name, but when the new year came up, three months later it was a unanimous feeling that it would be more offensive to lose it than to keep it. Which made us happy. We planned on keeping it the whole time anyway."
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Like much of the fare offered by the venerable Kindercore, the music of I Am the World Trade Center is about as threatening as a declawed kitty. Gellar and his girlfriend, Amy Dykes, thought up the name when they lived in Brooklyn. "Every morning when we'd get up and look outside, there were the towers, a part of our everyday environment. And Amy and I are two individuals standing for one thing, and our lives are so integrated. It kind of made sense. There was no question that was going to be the name of whatever we did."
The name began in jest as Gellar toyed with the idea of a one-man band with a place-name introducing himself: "I am Boston," for instance, or Kansas, or Chicago. Today, since the place he ultimately settled on has taken on additional significance, he stops short of characterizing the name as a joke.
"I prefer 'lighthearted,' " he says, still with a giggle at the back of his throat. "I don't ever want to use the word 'joke' again with that name. It was a lighthearted attempt to come up with something that would be funny and cool and interesting. Obviously it doesn't have that same connotation anymore."
Lighthearted describes Gellar's music too. IATWTC's superb and eminently danceable 2001 debut, Out of the Loop, traffics in bioengineered beats that swing with an almost hip-hop swagger, though Gellar chalks up the sound to his love of the late-'80s "Madchester" movement (particularly the baggy-pantsed Stone Roses and Happy Mondays). Dykes's primary touchstones, Blondie and St. Etienne, are evident in her cider-sweet voice as she seductively narrates each piece. These diverse sources combine to create the geeky, unbridled fun of "Look Around You," where Dykes seems to swoon as Gellar constructs a rich sonic palette of shimmering sequencers and keyboards, all manner of uncredited samples, up-the-neck bass riffs and squiggly guitar. Snares, marimbas and a loping bass trudge through the Arctic landscape of "Aurora Borealis," Dykes's voice softening like melting snow.
But when the band comes to Houston this week, a synthesizer will be the only "real" instrument on stage. "You're not coming to our show for the musicianship," cautions Gellar. "You're coming to be entertained."
The album's title contains a clue relating to Gellar's technique. He created the album entirely on a Gateway laptop using programs like FruityLoops and ACID to splice together funky beats, his own nimble but simple bass and guitar lines, all sorts of keyboards and volumes of samples. The applications allow users to bring in samples from any source, loop them, add effects and sounds, and even stretch the samples in time -- effectively turning a PC into a portable multitrack studio with an infinite number of instruments at one's disposal.
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"I've been waiting my whole life for this software to be developed," Gellar enthuses. "ACID especially. FruityLoops is just icing on the cake, but ACID is the program that helped me realize the sounds that had been bouncing around in my head for years and years."
Gellar first began producing the sounds conventionally, playing guitar in a band called Kincaid with his friend Ryan Lewis. In 1997, the two began Kindercore, focusing on the unchecked pop scene in Athens. The label now includes Dressy Bessy, Vermont, Masters of the Hemisphere and Japancakes. Patterning Kindercore on the like-minded Teen Beat and Merge labels made the project successful enough to keep Gellar from falling back on the career he went to school for: biological engineering.
During a stint of freelance alt-fuel work in Idaho, Gellar brought along his new laptop, which contained most of the music that will make up the second IATWTC album (The Tight Connection, due out July 9). One day Gellar left the computer in the trunk of his rental car while he was visiting job sites. That evening, when he tried to power up back in his hotel room, condensation rendered the laptop temporarily inoperable. Gellar panicked.
"I was working so hard on the album, I didn't have time to back anything up," he says, adding soberly, "but it's [backed up] now."