Welcome to Your Nightmare: The Gaslamp Killer's Dystopian Soundscapes

"You're not from around here, are you?": The cover of Gaslamp Killer's 'The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live In Los Angeles'
"You're not from around here, are you?": The cover of Gaslamp Killer's 'The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live In Los Angeles'

The edgy dystopian soundscape of The Gaslamp Killer, the quintessentially West Coast producer and DJ known for dark psychedelic rock and hip-hop beats, seems like the coolest soundtrack possible to an incessant nightmare. Inherent moodiness, randomness and darkness create  the zone for a wild mix of Argento-style horror, unforgiving, hermetically sealed Jodorowsky desert surrealism, and midnight California trippiness. He's like a Navajo jacket-wearing, present-day Jewish member of the '60s Source Family cult, without the silly choir robes. His name comes courtesy of his experiences of “killing” dancefloors in San Diego's Gaslamp District, and his DJing work places him on the outskirts of territory occupied by Andy Votel, Cherrystones and Cut Chemist (and occasionally Egon).

With his latest release, The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live in Los Angeles, this imaginary child of Lucio Fulci and one of the Manson family women (with a bit of Frank Zappa's bluntness) completely flips the script by introducing a live audience to his contemporary big-band concept. Recorded live at the Mayan Theatre in November 2013, the concert also marked a triumphant, resilient moment: the Gaslamp Killer (aka William Bensussen) had survived a near-fatal scooter accident a few months before. He crashed while riding down a hill in L.A.'s Highland Park one night, and his heavy scooter landed on top of him. In an interview, he described his hospital stay as nightmarish and absurd.

Knowing the backstory makes the listening experience even richer. The darkness, echoes and reverb found in GLK's reworking of Iron Knowledge's blistering psych-funk anthem “Show Stopper” a few years ago constitute an important part of his aural aesthetic displayed in this concert. Original versions of several songs played during the live concert appeared on GLK's Breakthrough album (released by the Flying Lotus-founded Brainfeeder label). The recent Kid Moxie and GLK collaboration titled “Museum Motel” fits into this soundscape. Another great collaboration, with the Amsterdam-based Afrobeat band Jungle by Night called Brass Sabbath (2013), takes inspiration from Black Sabbath, Turkish singer Selda and the Specials. His DJ sets at SXSW and at London's Boiler Room are a good introduction to the GLK sound for those unfamiliar with "The Gaslamp Killer Experience."

The group of musicians assembled for The Gaslamp Killer Experience live concert is diverse and rather impressive. Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington — who appears on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly album, recently released his debut album Epic and also worked as a member of Snoop Dogg's touring band — lends jazz credibility to the affair. Other band members include: Amir Yaghmai (guitar); Gene Coye and Dexter Story (drums); Allkoi Pete and Andres Renteria (percussion); Jason Taylor (keys); Brian Martinez (bass); Elizabeth Lea (trombone); Tyler Randall (sitar); Tom Lea (viola); Tylana Rena (violin); and Peter Jacobson (cello). The band alternates between psychedelic hip-hop, West Coast jazz, trippy beats and cinematic moments. This makes sense, given GLK's interest in obscure music (Klaus Weiss, Osanna) and his DJing gigs at Low End Theory and one of Cinespia's after-sunset screenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. GLK serves as conductor of the band by utilizing his iPad to manipulate samples and sound effects during the show.

The intro features talking, abstract vocal snippets, echoes, a laughing woman and a man's laughter that sounds like it was sampled from a Scientist dub album. The horns enter the fray, setting the musical tone. “Veins,” the first full composition, is punctuated by beautiful string arrangements (sometimes reminiscent of Jean-Luc Ponty)  and a guitar solo — a reinterpretation of Grodeck Whipperjenny's “Conclusions.” “Apparitions” is a Los Angeles-style version of Ethiopian music (and perhaps a hint of Brazilian tropicalia) with melancholic strings, Washington's expressive sax solo and the percussive melding of jazz with Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed's “Fetsum Denq Ledj Nesh.” The signature underwater echo sounds set the stage for the next work, the Turkish-accented “Nissim,” which floats right into a sitar-laced hip-hop breakbeat. “It is the business of the future to be dangerous,” says a young girl at the beginning.

The sampled Moog sounds of Pierre Henry and Michel Colombier's “Psyché Rock,” captured in “Shattering Inner Journeys,” give way to more breaks and end with Sun Ra's monologue from Robert Mugge's incredible 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise: “They say that history repeats itself, but history is only his story. You haven't heard my story yet.” The crowd of 2,000 people gathered at the Mayan Theatre is mostly quiet in terms of its response — in sharp contrast to Portishead's amazing live show at Roseland Ballroom years ago. That was a much more appreciative crowd, but it was also a different era in terms of music appreciation. Mid- to late-'90s crowds listening to eclectic music were more knowledgeable and invested not only in hip-hop, but in the music behind the hip-hop and eclectic big-band concepts; they still shopped in record stores en masse back then.

Towards the end of the GLK Experience concert, the emotive strings and expressive sitar of “In the Dark” impart an epic contemporary sound — it's a powerfully climactic moment ending with somber horns. The brilliant set ends with “Keep It Simple Stupid.” The Gaslamp Killer's turntablism is evident here with moments of scratching throughout — and there are times when the ghost of Donuts-era J Dilla seems to haunt the stage, particularly with the layering of samples and emphasis on breakbeats. And the crowd does redeem itself by cheering loudly at the end, with each musician getting warm applause. If the colorful album cover screams a mix of the Burning Man (and Joshua Tree) desert experience and a Jackson Pollock-esque action painting, it probably has something to do with the fact that the Gaslamp Killer served as DJ for the Root Camp during a Burning Man sandstorm a few years ago. The painted face also brings to mind the end result of the whimsically spontaneous body-painting scene in the old Aussie classic comedy Alvin Purple.

And the eclectic, wildly subversive style captured during the concert is a welcome respite from the usual sounds of today's music. Overall, this recording functions as a high-quality example and document of the blossoming L.A. big-band scene.

The Gaslamp Killer Experience is available at music.thegaslampkiller.com.


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