Last Exit to Houston

Houston's "Techno Mom" & Her Wildly Inventive Defunkt Collective

Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? In the last century, celebrity worship culture emerged. What came to pass helped to cultivate rivalries in the art world, especially between musicians. At the ripe old age of 257 years old, Keith Richards still waxes pretentiously about artists today. Noel Gallagher maintained his relevance by insulting every artist who posed an illusory threat to Oasis’ self-proclaimed status as the world’s greatest band. Today, mainstream artists take the opportunity to use award shows to call out other artists. The single aim of these Scud missile-like insults exposes the ego more than it strengthens it.

In Houston, the opposite is taking place. Innumerable collectives have emerged, from Wonky Power to PrintsNotPrince to Cloudopolis. These are just a few groups pooling their resources to help not only the individual artist, but to help each other in pursuit of like-minded goals.

Enter Defunkt. This collective of musical and visual artists exists to complement each other in order to strengthen the whole and not just the sum of its parts. At the helm is the collective’s mastermind, Sarah Lachhman. After living in multiple cities, including Miami, Los Angeles and Austin, she returned to Houston only to discover musicians using similar means to create music. Desiring to emphasize this unique niche of performers, instrumentalists and visual artists, she decided to add a fresh dimension to Houston’s burgeoning electronic scene.

What distinguishes Defunkt from other electronic collectives stems from its sharp enthusiasm for vintage synths and spontaneous compositions reminiscent of the free-jazz approach to crafting on-the-spot arrangements, and fascinating modules that look like modern-art masterpieces with an infinitesimal amount of patch cables. Artists include Stephen Farris’s Acid Jeep, XLO, Pfaffenberg, P.L.X.T.X, Daed and Cobeaux, accompanied by some of Houston’s finest visual artists. Together, they make a bizarre, yet perfectly arranged marriage. When experienced live, however, culminates in a full-sensory experience. 

"Defunkt is and has always been centered around innovative, genre-pushing artists," says Sarah Lachhman, the collective's founder who has been affectionately dubbed as the group's 'Techno Mom.' "The showcases are a creative outlet for these musicians and visual artists alike to show their original material — an opportunity to perform without wondering whether or not their art is too left-field for people to digest," she says. "The artists I  chose to include as residents compose in very bold and eccentric styles such as breakcore, digital hardcore, IDM, acid, jungle, downtempo, techno, with heavy focus on sound design — a rare find in a city like Houston that has a large hip-hop and rock music scene."

Another exceptional Houston-based electronic collective, PrintsNotPrince, has been successful building and promoting shows with diverse artists from Houston's burgeoning electronic musician community. How Defunkt differs from PrintsNotPrince stems from its focus on its tools for building their wall of sound. 

"Defunkt's ideas differ from other collectives in that we focus on live electronic hardware performances and improvisation, whereas other collectives like PrintsNotPrince seem to focus more on controllerism. Most of Defunkt’s resident artists are avid synthesizer collectors and love to bring them out for their performances and chat with the audience about their experiences with them. I haven’t really seen much of that from any other electronic music collectives here," Lachhman remarks.

For Defunkt, the full-sensory experience explores music, lighting, visualization through experimental projections, pushing the music they create with antiquated tools forward. They are aware that technology has long exceeded the user's ability to keep up with the changes taking place at a breakneck speed. Yet, many artists beyond Houston are taking part in this continuing analog renaissance, and Defunkt is watching these developments with attuned awareness.

"We are in the process of founding a net label and currently have a compilation in the works featuring our residents as well as other US-based & international artists," Lachhman claims. "I am also interested in the idea of offering cuisine in the form of tasting menus and small bites at select showcases because I am quite interested in the culinary arts and I believe that it could add another dimension to the overall experience."

Despite the commonplace combination of audio and visual experiences, Defunkt's approach differs in the style, which is constructed based on the showcases' context.

"Because we have such a diverse array of residents and upcoming guest artists, no showcase will ever be identical to another," explains Lachhman. "In addition to our Houston-based artists, we also have a resident visual artist named Silent Strangers who resides in Miami and contributes visual projections for each showcase."

With growing monthly series taking place in Houston, such as Cirque Noir, Defunkt's ambitions look to go beyond the city limits. To date, they have six showcases under their belt, including their current monthly residency at Alley Kat. Past showcases had been performed at Transco, Civic TV Collective, and Wonky Power, each one met with favorable responses and attendance. However, not all the guests were exclusively local.

"Our past guest artists include Five Step Path of Chicago’s Alphabasic Records, Wahrk of Karakasa Music, Ikipr of Austin’s Aleph9 Records, and Miami’s Phantasman who recently performed at iii Points festival," says Lachhman. "Our resident artists also performed in my Nox Eterna Halloween event, Malefic Masquerade."

With more ambitious events in store, Lachhman is highly optimistic about the collective's future. "I’m organizing some showcases for Winter Music Conference next March, Miami’s weeklong music conference akin to SXSW," she says. "We also have plans for a New York tour, some gigs in LA, as well as a Japan and Europe tour."

Defunkt's focus, however, is fixed on its next mega-event — Nox Eterna Presents: The Void on New Year's Eve. Nox Eterna's events differ in size and grandeur; Lachhman calls them "...more wide-spanning, whereas Defunkt is very specific." Although the event will feature some members of its collective, it will also open its arms to other musicians and visual artists, including Houston's own self-professed — and talented-"sleep-hop" duo — Matsu Mixu.

With artists like XLO, Daed, Pfaffenberg and Matsu Mixu, say goodbye in style to 2015. The Nox Eterna event will take place somewhere in Houston. For now, it is a secret that is best kept that way.
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Stephan Wyatt