The main question associated with the Identity Festival has been asked in various forms for the past 15 or so years: Is America ready to embrace electronic music?
In the late 1990s, it seemed almost inevitable. But even as a barrage of flashy British acts such as the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim arrived with big exposure and bigger beats, electronic music and the culture it spawned - where people joyously danced to DJs in warehouses until the break of dawn - remained a mostly underground phenomenon. It's stayed that way for the past decade, thriving in its up-all-night subculture, but has lately shown serious signs of coming into the daylight. One-off events such as Miami's Ultra Music Festival and Las Vegas's Electric Daisy Carnival have drawn crowds of more than 50,000 people. Identity is looking to replicate that success in cities across the United States as the first-ever major touring festival featuring electronic music.
The Crystal Method, the Los Angeles-based duo of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, was there for the first wave of hype. Back then it was called "electronica" and the material on the duo's 1997 debut album, "Vegas," was a good representation of the hard-hitting techno sounds that were predicted to be the Next Big Thing. In fact, in 1997, Crystal Method headlined the Electric Highway Tour, much smaller in scale than this year's Identity outing, but something of a distant cousin.
Electronic music "was new to the masses and it was kind of a big deal at the time," Jordan says of that tour.
"Vegas" went platinum on the strength of singles such as "Keep Hope Alive" and "Busy Child," which became ubiquitous even with only medium rotation on radio and MTV.
"From our first album we thought that the whole model of CD sales was going quickly down the tubes," Jordan says. "We were always interested in getting our music out in different places - movies, TV shows, video games." Over the past decade, that approach has become a successful template for many acts that find their biggest paydays come from these ventures, and not by selling CDs.
The duo has made three albums since "Vegas," (with 2009's "Divided by Night" being the most recent) continues to DJ regularly around the world and stays busy with various projects - you'll be able to hear the band's music in multiple scenes in the boxing robots movie "Real Steel" later this year. And in a genre dominated by young acts and younger fans, Crystal Method has taken on an elder-statesman's role. "We are proud to say that we have a couple of generations of people at our shows," Jordan says, laughing. Having been around so long also gives the band some perspective on the genre's recent resurgence.
"A lot of pop acts have an electronic sound," Jordan says. But instead of the genres staying separated, Jordan says they have merged, with top electronic producers being tapped to work with chart-topping stars. "Rusko, Skrillex, Deadmau5, those guys are in demand. That's a great thing. Now that didn't happen in the past."
On the other end of the electronic music spectrum is Hercules and Love Affair. Andy Butler is the central figure in a group of rotating characters that makes scintillating and often touching disco-house tunes. As with Crystal Method, you'll be able to hear some of Butler's music in an upcoming film. But instead of a big budget, special effects-laden, Hugh Jackman vehicle, Butler's work will be heard in a short film called "Embrace My Memories," which will screen at small film festivals.
The two groups could hardly be more different while falling under the heading of electronic music, but that they're performing on the same stage at Identity Festival shows the genre's wide tent. Groups such as H&LA are bringing an important emotional element to the genre. The band's 2008 debut single, "Blind," featuring the gorgeous voice of Antony Hegarty, is the type of song that makes your feet move and heart flutter simultaneously.
"I want to make music that matters and talks about stuff that people maybe don't want to talk about," Butler says. "So much of music today is fluff, here today and gone tomorrow. [I try to] put a personal experience into words and make it universal."
Butler's talent as a producer is evident on the group's debut album and this year's "Blue Songs." The beats are elegant and luxurious, recalling a bygone era of New York warehouse-party cool. But Butler also is skilled at cultivating talent and matching the right songs with the right singers. On "Blue Songs," Kim Ann Foxman, Aerea Negrot and Shaun Wright all contribute memorable vocals.
"You have to figure out what works with them and what doesn't," Butler says. "If they're lacking confidence you have to give them confidence. Sometimes they walk right in and sing the [expletive] out of a song. Other times you have to really encourage them and be their cheerleader."
Butler says no encouragement is needed for the band's live show. The current group is a well-rehearsed group, and it won't be a surprise to find it earning new fans that may be at Identity to hear acts with less subtle sounds.
"If there are people in front of us, they can't help but look," Butler says. "We're pretty solid in terms of a party band . . . you're going to definitely have some freak moments."
--David Malitz, Aug. 12, 2011