How To Keep EDM From Getting Stale With Live Instruments
Every artist, whether it’s a musician, a painter, an architect, a street performer, or a psych patient making poop murals on the wall of their cell, is looking for that something different. That element of their setup, piece, or act which really sets them apart from every other self-proclaimed artist in their sub-field of art.
If said artist is a performer, then they’re looking for what will garner and generate attention, publicity, and that feeling cartoon characters get when the $$$ appears in their eyes. In other words, a gimmick.
Gimmicks can be anything, just as long as it’s original or hasn’t been seen since your parents’ generation. Popular examples are anything from Deadmau5’s masks, to Kim Kardashian’s tasteful sex-tape, even Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Iowa to eat steak. For performers, gimmicks are usually something along the lines of a ridiculous outfit, a quirky problem that makes them seem down to Earth, or harshly (and usually poorly done) blending of two genres either musically, or instrumentally. Gimmicks are pretty much whatever will make a weird headline or front page picture.
So where does the recent trend in artists performing with both live instruments AND turntable technology, MIDI controllers, or any other fun combinations fall in the spectrum of:
GIMMICK<———not sure if gimmick———->NOT GIMMICK
The answer may seem simple. If it is a genuine part of their act and is smoothly integrated into the set, then why does it have to be called a gimmick? Just because someone does something to get attention, doesn’t mean someone else can’t do that same thing under purer motives. True. And it’s perfectly fine for an artist to use that “gimmick” to garner attention so long as it doesn’t become their entire act. Mixing live instruments and DJ sets is great when it’s performed well. It works both on the stage, and in the studio.
Gramatik is an artist who prides himself in being apart from the pack. Always “trying to put the M back into EDM. People are forgetting what real music is,” Gramatik said in an interview with Only The Beat a little less than a year ago. Gramatik was one of the first artists to really make a live instrument on stage at an EDM show a viable option.
“We were like the only thing different there. We were literally the only act there with an instrument on stage,” Gramatik said about a show he played at the Showbox at the Market in downtown Seattle last year. His funky style allowed for the seamless integration of stringed and wind instruments into his live sets. His album released earlier this year, titled Age of Reason, really showcased this style. Not letting the guitar or saxophone be content with hanging out in the background. He really pushes them to the forefront of the action, and makes a statement: “the real disco-funk vibe of the late 70’s early 80s. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Pretty Lights is another artist who has shown himself to be a pioneer in this field of blending MIDI and DJ equipment with live instruments. Last year, he released his latest album, A Color Map of the Sun, which was followed by a tour, which featured an accompaniment of two keyboardists, a live drummer, and a brass section consisting of a trumpeter and a trombonist. Pretty Lights would even pick up the bass guitar every once in a while. The live band kept up with Pretty Lights, ready to play whatever song he chose and showcasing his ability to play off of the emotions of the crowd, even with a live accompaniment.
Some artists, such as Manatee Commune, have always used live instruments in their sets because without them, their sets just wouldn’t be. Manatee Commune doesn’t just use a five piece band backing him up, though. In fact he’s the only one performing, which can cause some problems. Knocking down equipment is a real struggle when you’re playing a viola, drums, and using MIDI equipment all in one set. He seems to pull it off in an artistic fashion, and uses it to further the horizons of his sound.
Dallas locals Black Market Pharmacy recently played a show at The Future Funk Lounge in Dallas. The set featured a live band and was their first set with a live drummer. Adam Jilek (or Ahab), of Black Market Pharmacy, says that the live instruments definitely make the set feel more interactive with the crowd. The crowd seems to watch the stage more, as opposed to just dancing the entire time. The crowd views it as more of a performance put on by a group of artists instead of a dude operating behind a table; “probably because it’s something that’s way easier to fuck up or improvise with,” said Jilek.
Deciding to join in on the live instrument craze a little later than some, but earlier than can be deemed a cry for attention, is Porter Robinson. He just kicked off his “Worlds” North American tour, after his album of the same name, and his first to feature live instruments. This time around it’s different for Robinson.
“It was really important to me that it feels like a concert, not a party or a rave or whatever,” Robinson said. Once Robinson had gained a following by showing off his technical skills, he felt a disconnect with what he had produced and what he knew he was creatively driven to make. “EDM, to me, is music for DJs and party music, which, in my opinion, Worlds is neither.”
That’s a pretty strong idea. Do you have to change the name of the game when you change what counts as out of bounds? Once we start using live instruments in our EDM performances, do those performances cease to be electronic dance music? Or does it become just electronic music, since the dance element is significantly decreased? What will we do when acoustic instruments start to play a part? Is it just music then? But how do we separate that music from the non “music” music? These are the important questions. Forget about just listening to the music.
Live instrument sets are doing wonders to bring the musicality and originality back to EDM. It’s still EDM for now, and the use of guitars, live drums, saxophones and violas hasn’t gotten stale and used up yet. Hopefully it never will. However, we all know the only way that’s going to happen is if the artists keep using it in musical and original ways.
This isn’t only true with live instruments in EDM, it applies to every art form. Appreciate art because it communicates through a beautiful medium, not simply because it’s different. Just because something is unique, does not mean it’s useful.
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