How Robert Ehlinger Became Houston's Prince of Synth-Pop

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Walking through the club is like stepping back 30 years in time. Moving among the people dancing to songs by bands like Erasure and Anything Box, one could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking a time warp had opened onto a dance club in the 1980s. But this is The New Beat, a monthly event held at Etro Lounge in Montrose run by Robert Ehlinger.

On this Saturday, like most New Beat nights, the enthusiastic and ambitious Ehlinger is hard at work in his control center, the club's DJ booth, pumping songs out for the eager patrons. Club nights dedicated to '80s music have been around almost since that decade came to an end, but The New Beat has the feel of an event with more passion behind it. Asked how he came to be a successful club promoter, Ehlinger had this to say:

"Back during the MySpace days, I remember one Saturday night listening to my favorite music over a glass of wine, and I began wondering something," he opens. "Houston has always been referred to as 'the land where the 80's never died' by Paul Robb of Information Society. Anything Box, which is my favorite band, has played more shows in Houston over the years than any other city ever.

"If that were the case, why wasn't there any sort of synth-pop DJ night anywhere in Houston?", Ehlinger continues. "I mean, synth-pop concerts I have gone to in Houston have always been packed. Why isn't a DJ playing this stuff? So that night I wrote a long blog on MySpace asking this very question, and at the end of the blog I wrote 'I think I am going to try to start a synth pop night pretty soon.'

"A week or so later I went to a new local club called Etro Lounge that didn't charge a cover charge, ever, and was already playing '80s-type stuff," he goes on. "[I] spoke to the owner a few times and a month later, The New Beat was born in February of 2009."

Several successful years later, Ehlinger's revelation will celebrate its sixth anniversary next Saturday at Etro. But he wasn't content to merely spin songs once a month, and his ambitious nature soon had him wondering if and how he could organize concerts for his favorite bands to play in Houston. So he created a production company named The New Beat Productions, and set to work.

"Naturally after a year of DJing at Etro Lounge I began to wonder if there was any way I could gather the funds to hire my favorite synth-pop band of all time, Anything Box, to come to Houston and do a show for me," Ehlinger says. "I kept my feelers out there that year, and a couple months later I found three investors who were willing to pitch in and make it happen.

"The show happened April 10, 2010 at Numbers and was a total success," he continues. "It was such a good feeling to put all that effort into gathering investors, planning, and fine tuning the show and going out onstage and seeing a whole sea of people there gave me a feeling of satisfaction I can hardly describe with words.

"Of course, that kind of feeling is addicting and after the show, I was already planning the next show," adds Ehlinger. "For my second show I teamed up with my permanent business partners [in] Past Present Productions, and we are still in business doing synth-pop concerts together to this day."

Asked if bringing live bands of this type has found as receptive an audience as The New Beat events have, Robert has this to say:

"For the most part there has been a positive response from our Houston audience on the type of groups we are bringing into town," he notes. "This is not to say that every single show has been a complete success, but that's just the nature of the business, but we are still alive and kicking so I would have to say we have received a good positive response."

Tomorrow night, aka Valentines Day, Ehlinger and Past Present Productions will bring in Book of Love ("Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls") to Numbers, with Dallas-based J.G. and the Robots opening. Book of Love was extremely popular in the '80s and early '90s, featured in many movie and television soundtracks over the years, and in tours on their own and playing with bands such as Depeche Mode. The band's singer, Susan Ottaviano, has this to say about playing in Houston:

"We are always excited and happy to come back to Houston," she says. "The Houston team takes excellent care of us and we have many fond memories of your city, both in recent years and back in the day. The southwest has always had a special affinity for electronic music. We saw it first in our Depeche Mode days and well into the decades that followed."

Asked about her thoughts on the electronic music scene in particular, Susan had this to add:

"We have always been interested in electronic music but we've considered ourselves a pop band born out of the post-punk music scene," she offers. "We are very excited to be touring again and are looking forward to recording some new music to share with our fans, as well as reaching a new audience. Songwriting has always been the heart and soul of BOL."

Story continues on the next page.

Speaking to Jay Gillian, formerly of the electronic band T-4-2 and now the creative force behind J.G. And the Robots, he had this to say about working with Robert Ehlinger:

"About six years ago Robert gave me a call and I was like Austin Powers being awoken from a cryogenic freeze," he begins. "I looked back and saw 20 years had gone by. I never intended to abandon electro music for so long, but like most bands that fall short of superstardom like Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys, you find yourself doing other things to make your way in life.

"For me it was Video and Television Production," Gillian continues. "For my partner, Will Loconto, in T-4-2 it was sound design for video games. Robert's persistence got us to perform a couple of T-4-2 concerts in Houston and in Dallas. However, to me, the kick drum sounded a lot like a sample of a stick beating a dead horse.

"Don't get me wrong, I love T-4-2 and our music, it's just that there was so much going on in the world of EDM and with music gear innovations, I felt it was time to reinvent myself," he says. "I love EDM and I love robots, so I decided to create JG and the Robots. In a weird way, Robert played a part in setting me on that path."

When asked about his opinion about Houston's apparently large appreciation for electronic music, Gillian makes a surprising revelation.

"Columbia Records/Sony Music would never have signed T-4-2 if it was not for Houston radio in the '90s," he says. "It was renegade and innovative at that time; especially promoting music from Anything Box, Cause and Effect and T-4-2. We all owe a great bit of thanks to Houston for starting the fire.

The major labels were eager to come and fan the flame," Gillian continues. "Since then all those radio stations have been bought up by Cumulus and other media giants. It is not what it used to be. As it is today, Houston is still a top spot in America for '80s bands."

When the question of how he feels about playing this weekend's show with Book of Love, and what Houston audiences can expect from his performance, Gillian's enthusiasm is apparent:

"I love Book of Love!", he enthuses. "First saw them open for Depeche Mode in Dallas about 25 years ago. Their music is magical. Such simple beats and bizarre hypnotic melodies! I will say this, I feel amazingly free that I will not be playing the same songs I did 25 years ago. They are kinda stuck with that.

"I'm free to take the concert to new and unexplored places," continues Gillian. "When people see and hear JG and the Robots I want them to wonder, 'What was that? I've never heard anything like that before!' It's a trans-human Robot playing EDM!

"Someday, in the not too distant future, there will be JG and the Robots concerts that will be as enigmatic as the name suggest. For this one, it will be a wow, blow-your-mind experience for those that come to see Book of Love."

It may seem odd to some that Houston remains a hotspot for the electronic music scene, but anyone who is a fan of any of the many genres that make up that rather broad category probably realizes how true it is. It's telling that one of this city's biggest movers and shakers in bringing that music and the bands that play it to local audiences, is a man who started out and remains an enormous fan of music with roots in the '80s and '90s.

But that music never disappeared, it just went back underground. It continues to be a vital soundtrack for millions of fans, many of which live in Houston -- a city that has its own illustrious history with bands like The Hunger, Bamboo Crisis, Provision and others. It still draws large crowds for club nights featuring electronic music, and concerts like the ones Ehlinger and Past Present Productions bring to town. Ehlinger himself is a passionate guy when it comes to the music he loves, and it's hard not to get swept along with his genuine enthusiasm.

When asked what his future plans involved, he had this to say:

"I'd love to bring Front 242 to town, and there are other dream bands I'd love to get to play here," he says. "Right now we are working on something really big for the end of this year but it's not final so I can't say at this point what our plans are. I've brought Anything Box and revived the first T-4-2 concert for the first time since 1995, so I can pretty much die happy. After contacting Jay Gillian from T-4-2 and convincing him to do a show for us, he has continued writing music as a new band called J.G. and the Robots and is still doing shows for us, so I honestly couldn't be happier."

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