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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013

Man vs. Machine: Stagediver Makes Electronic Music the Slow Way

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Tyler St Clair is doing damage control. His computer has just crapped out on him, and the timing couldn’t be more inconvenient, given that he has a show to play in two weeks and his other computer has just crashed, too. He reckons he’s lost a couple months’ worth of work and is figuring out how to proceed. Right now he’s operating without a modern computer, and he’s considering keeping it that way from now on.

“It’s actually kind of liberating,” he says. “It forces me to deal with old, archaic gear instead of a PC, so I don’t have the distraction of constantly taking time out of being creative to check my email or to go see what’s happening on Twitter or whatever.”

Old gear is more St Clair’s style anyway. As the architect behind Stagediver, the electronic project he recently resumed after a two-year hiatus, St Clair records using all manner of obsolete and decidedly inconvenient machines.

“I guess I’ve always had a knack for picking things apart and figuring out how they work and what I can do with them,” he explains. “I have various pieces of hacked gear, like old Commodore computers. Commodore was a company that went out of business a good 15 years ago. Their computers still work, but in order to make them do things you could easily do with a modern computer it takes a little know-how. You have to get in there and know how it works and what languages it uses. I use Gameboys and Nintendos to make sounds, too, and as far as I know, there wasn’t a way to just go ahead and buy a cartridge that allows you to make music on them. You need to know these coding languages to get them to do anything, these home-brewed, DIY languages, and you need to interface it somewhere using hardware. So I guess I have a serious interest in tinkering.”

If all that sounds time intensive, it is. There’s no instruction manual for those sorts of hacks, no bookmarked eHow page detailing how to rewire computers into instruments, just long hours of trial and error, but St Clair says the investment is worth it. “To make the sounds I hear in my head, sometimes it really does require a computer from the late ’70s,” he says.

That’s not to say the music he makes sounds retro in any way. Recorded on an Amiga 600, a rudimentary home computer from the early ’90s, Stagediver’s latest 7-inch, II, is decidedly forward-looking in its approach—all those 8-bit bleeps are woven into a dense pastiche of proggy menace, drum and bass tempos, and industrial clatter. These three tracks lean darker than the populist EDM that now fills high-end clubs, but they’re never avant garde for the sake of being avant garde. There’s an immediacy and propulsiveness to them that’s not all that out of step with contemporary dubstep, even if St Clair’s knowledge of contemporary dubstep is virtually nonexistent—he says he doesn’t listen to much music these days, electronic or otherwise. Mostly he spends his free time tweaking and tinkering, as part of a process he describes on his Bandcamp page as “social isolation by way of obsolete technology.” With just two weeks to rebuild his set around the loss of two important computers, he’ll be clocking a lot more of those solitary man hours in the coming days.

“Sometimes I really wish I could pick up a computer and just go to town on it the way somebody can with a guitar,” he says. “I’ve always been jealous of that. Somebody could just take a seat at a drum kit over in the corner of the room and go to town on it. But for someone like me, I’m always working on an instrument that needs to be plugged in, and it’s even trickier when you’re working without a modern computer or a modern sequencer. It’s a slow process, and it comes at the expense of things like a social life, but in the end, if you do it properly, or if you get extremely lucky, you end up with these extremely unique sounds a lot of modern sequencers try to emulate. You end up with something that stands out.”

Stagediver plays a 7-inch release show on Saturday, Nov. 2, at 10 p.m. at the Stonefly Brewing Company as part of the MELT electronic music series. There will be a $6 cover.
II is streaming at radiograffiti.bandcamp.com.

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