The electronic dance music known variously as techno, house and drum 'n' bass--and a dozen other more specialized designations--is supposed to be a communal experience. To the genre's most enraptured exponents, the throbbing bass, the strobe lights and an ecstatic crowd create a Silicon Age update of Dionysian frenzy. Instinct overcomes intellect, the moment is everything, the ego is annihilated.
Most electronic music is made, however, by one or two people in tiny rooms, constructing new tracks from shards of sound. It's less like conducting a pagan ritual than assembling a jigsaw puzzle. That's how Deep Dish and Thievery Corporation do it, piece by piece. The former recorded its latest album, "Junk Science," in a home studio in suburban Maryland; the latter works in a small chamber behind the 18th Street Lounge, a club near Dupont Circle.
Deep Dish and Thievery Corporation are among the most prominent local dance music producers and remixers, but they represent distant points on the electronic music spectrum. The former makes house music, the thumping, minimalist neo-disco designed for sweaty, aerobic-intensity dancing; the latter crafts trip-hop, lounge music for martini-sipping listeners dripping only with effortless cool. Still, they both use similar techniques to build their tracks. And both are better known in London and Berlin than in their hometown.
Deep Dish was scheduled to deejay last Friday when Buzz, the weekly rave party that was suspended after a TV news report of drug use, was reinaugurated as Sting at Nation, a massive club near the Navy Yard Metro station. The duo is more likely, however, to be heard spinning discs in Europe, especially Britain. "We're always on the road, be it in the U.S., Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia or South America," reports Ali "Dubfire" Shirazinia. "If there is a crowd hungry to see us, we're there."
Shirazinia and colleague Sharam Tayebi were both born in Iran, but for years the two were separated by a great geopolitical divide: Tayebi's family moved to Virginia, while Shirazinia's chose Maryland. "I feel like I'm a foreigner when I go to Maryland," says Tayebi. "It's just weird how the roads are and everything." The duo has done much of its recording at Tayebi's house but recently set up operations on neutral ground: an office in Georgetown, adjacent to the techno-oriented store Music Now.
The two met in 1991 after each started deejaying, Shirazinia recalls. A mutual friend hired Tayebi because "he was more of a party deejay. I was more of a serious deejay. I would just annoy people with the music I played. I kept bugging him to book me at a club, and he had me guest on his night. It all started from there."
From there, Deep Dish has become a worldwide dance club attraction, drawing thousands of people to clubs in cities from London to San Francisco to Sydney. Last year the duo won the Muzik Magazine Dance Award for best international deejays. In Washington, however, their deejaying career is problematic.
"We've been fired from every single club in the city," says Tayebi, presumably exaggerating. "We had a residency at State of the Union for, like, three years. That was really cool because we started from zero and then we kind of built it. But the club wasn't big enough and--"
"They weren't willing to invest in a proper sound system," Shirazinia interjects. "We had all these concerns that would have made our night even better, but they weren't willing to do anything about it. To them it's just about having someone behind the bar to fill those drink orders. And that's everybody's mentality in D.C. It's tough to get anything going."
Frustrated by local clubs, Deep Dish decided to get something going as musicians and remixers. The duo began recording in 1992, scored a British club hit in 1995 with a version of De'Lacey's "Hideaway" and subsequently was hired to remix songs by the likes of Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones. The two have also released close to 40 12-inch singles on their own Yoshitoshi and Deep Dish labels, recording under such names as Satori, Dished-Out Bums and DC Deepressed. A 1996 CD compilation of some of these tracks, "In House We Trust, Vol. 1," demonstrates house's primal yet avant-garde form: clattering synth beats, deep bass and snippets of vocals, all fractured and rhythmically reiterated with the monomania of early Philip Glass.
For its "Junk Science" album, Deep Dish varied the formula. The disc includes several songs with vocals by Richard Morel, a local musician who helped engineer the project, and incorporates rock guitar, jazz saxophone and Persian melodies. The album also features contributions by Shirazinia's childhood friend Brian Transeau, who under the tag BT has recorded some of Washington's most popular exports to the European dance scene. (Transeau recently relocated to Los Angeles.) The disc's highest-profile guests are Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, the British duo known as Everything but the Girl, who refashioned Deep Dish's dance floor hit "Stay Gold" as "The Future of the Future."
"We did a remix for them on a single called 'Wrong,' " explains Shirazinia. "We loved the song and we felt we did a great job, but we didn't expect to hear from them. We don't really hear whether most of the people we remix like it or not. But they faxed us and said, 'We really love it and we're also fans of your work.' So we got to talking and sent them some backing tracks. We didn't expect them to really come up with anything. We ended up releasing one of the backing tracks, 'Stay Gold,' as our first single. Then a few months later Ben contacted us and said, 'We wrote a song on "Stay Gold." ' He said he thought it'd be cool to do a vocal remix of that and have it rereleased and retitle it. So we went with it."
Deep Dish signed to the U.K. label Deconstruction for "Junk Science," which was hailed by Britain's Mixmag as "the first truly great house album." Deconstruction licensed the album to Arista, which released it in the United States last fall. The American reviews have been good, but the duo remains better known in Europe.
"In Britain and Europe, radio stations support and play dance music on a regular basis," Shirazinia notes. "So people are more aware of what's going on. What we get here is all the dance tunes that crossed over into the Top 40 charts after they were broken in Europe a few years back. It's ironic that we have to ship our music overseas and then have them ship it back to us because they understand dance music better."
Despite regular immigration hassles--especially for Tayebi, who's a permanent U.S. resident but has an Iranian passport--Deep Dish continues to travel the world to spin discs for hipper international audiences. Yet the duo has no intention of bolting to Europe or even to a more dance-feverish American city.
"Being here keeps us grounded," says Shirazinia. "It's home. It's familiar. Our families are here. We're heading toward where we can maybe afford to buy a club and do what we envision as the right thing with a club. We're not the type of people that get a little success and move to New York or L.A."
The members of Deep Dish are happy to deejay occasionally at Buzz, but Tayebi says the city also needs a club that plays cutting-edge dance music for an older, nattier crowd--"not suits or anything, but just dress up so you don't have to like look like a hip-hop boy." Actually, this sounds like the 18th Street Lounge and its offshoot, the chic-sushi club Dragonfly. Suits are not required at these hangouts, but that is the dress code for Thievery Corporation, the duo of Rob Garza and 18th Street Lounge and Dragonfly co-owner Eric Hilton. The two are invariably photographed wearing suits, although Garza sometimes forgoes a tie.
Like Shirazinia and Tayebi, Hilton and Garza grew up in the Washington suburbs and met through the local dance scene. Hilton deejayed at Perry's before creating his own scene further downtown, while Garza began making upbeat dance tracks under the name Juju Thievery Corporation. By the time the two allied in 1995, they had both become converts to retro-cool. Pierre Cardin suits, early '60s furniture and the bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim are among their motifs.
Thievery Corporation's music is so stylishly chilled that some European listeners have assumed the group lives nearby. But the duo's conceptual residence is 1212 18th St. NW, above Candey's Hardware. In addition to the 18th Street Lounge, a club too confidently fashionable to hang a sign outside, this is the location of Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) Music, Thievery Corporation's label, and the studio where the twosome records its own tracks and remixes the work of David Byrne, Hole, Black Uhuru and others.
The studio is filled with keyboards, turntables and samplers, and stacked with the vinyl the band loots to create its worldbeat lounge sound: bossa nova, dub reggae, Indian ragas and soundtrack music, including the Italian soft-porn film scores that Hilton and Garza admire.
"The early era of European soft porn, that's what really gets us," says Hilton. "No modern pornography would really inspire us."
Not much is modern about Thievery Corporation's down-tempo sound except the attitude and the technology. Like most contemporary electronic musicmakers, the duo records its music directly from keyboards and samplers to digital audiotape, so an elaborate soundproof room is not necessary. Off to one side of the studio is a closet-size space where the occasional singer or live musician can be sequestered. "It's close to soundproof," says Garza of the makeshift isolation chamber.
As its name suggests, Thievery Corporation samples the music of other musicians, but not in the manner of a wholesale riff rustler such as Puff Daddy. The duo manufactured such tracks as "Shaolin Satellite" and "Lebanese Blonde" from hundreds of sound splinters. "Nothing's canned," explains Garza. "It's just tiny samples."
The twosome released its first album, "Songs From the Thievery Hi-Fi," in 1996. A revamped version of the disc was issued in Europe last year by 4AD, long one of Britain's most distinctive labels. Other Eighteenth Street Lounge albums include two samplers, "Dubbed Out in DC" and "Eighteenth Street Lounge: The Soundtrack," and a new collection of Hilton and Garza's remixes, "Abductions and Reconstructions." The latter was released almost simultaneously with Thievery's contribution to the "DJ Kicks" series of compilations released by Studio K7, a Berlin-based label. It was on a "DJ Kicks" album compiled by Thievery's Austrian musical heroes, Kruder & Dorfmeister, that the D.C. duo first reached a significant European audience.
Hilton and Garza recently returned from a deejaying tour of Austria, Germany, France, Holland, Greece and Italy to promote "DJ Kicks." Soon they'll be doing similar gigs around the United States and Canada, visiting many cities where they've never worked the turntables before. At home, however, Hilton has abandoned deejay duties. "I just do it when we go out on the road to promote something," he says. "I did it for 10 years and I'm kind of tired of it on a regular basis."
Currently, the duo is also downplaying remix and soundtrack work, preferring to focus on its second long-player, which is scheduled for January release. "We're trying to take it easy," says Hilton of remixing. "We've done some as favors, but that's it. We're going to concentrate on trying to finish up the album." ESL Music is also preparing releases by several other acts, including Thunderball, a local group of rockers-gone-techno previously heard on "Dubbed Out in DC."
The new Thievery disc will be released in Europe by 4AD, but the duo has yet to make a corporate affiliation in the United States, despite serious discussions with several major labels. "We've gotten very close to doing a deal," Hilton notes. "But it's not really a priority right now. Working with major labels is sometimes good and most of the time not so good. Our label seems to do really well for us."
Thievery contributed tracks to two recent movies, the high-profile flop "Psycho" and the low-profile flop "Wing Commander," but its next film-related project will be ESL's release of music licensed from an Italian label, Easy Tempo. "They do very cool late-'60s, early-'70s film-library music," which includes some of those soft-porn soundtracks, Hilton explains. "The music's really interesting. It's kind of easy listening, but in a very funky way."
That could describe the group's own style, although "DJ Kicks" offers a example of a less easy, more funky Thievery. "Coming From the Top," which will also be included on the duo's upcoming album, is based on an uncharacteristically assertive horn sample. "Our style is always changing," says Hilton. "We have stuff on the next album that's even more up-tempo than that. But then," he cautions, "we have stuff that's very, very chilled out."
To hear a free Sound Bite from Deep Dish's "The Future of the Future (Stay Gold)," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.
To hear a free Sound Bite from Thievery Corporation's "Coming From the Top," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.
CAPTION: Remixed blessings: Making electronic dance music--and a name for themselves-- are Deep Dish's Ali Shirazinia, above left, and Sharam Tayebi, and Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza and Eric Hilton.
CAPTION: "We're heading toward where we can maybe afford to buy a club," says Deep Dish's Ali Shirazinia, shown spinning tunes in New York earlier this month.