As electronic music continues to flourish in the new millennium in the U.S., a momentous resurgence finds more and more artists presenting their music accompanied by live instrumentation.
Sure, the universe of acts encompassed by the “Jamtronica” label has arguably always been holding down the intersection of instrumental electronica. Then there’s those artists who were just ahead of their time (see Infected Mushroom, Younger Brother, Bloody Beetroots). But what we’re seeing today is different. Jamtronica is born from the world of rock and roll. The performers who embody this new trend are born from the world of electronica, writing and performing music that is electronic first. If instrumental music makes an appearance in the form of jazz, blues, rock, swing or otherwise, it’s secondary and deferential to the electronic song structure. From this starting point, then, artists are now reaching back into the world of instrumentation and American roots music for inspiration.
It’s hard to put a timeframe on it, but the rebirth of this method of performance in American electronic music has taken place, arguably, within the last five to ten years. In 2013, Pretty Lights released the Grammy-nominated A Color Map of the Sun, recorded with a massive potpourri of instrumental base material. Not long afterward, the Pretty Lights Analog Future Band was born. Gramatik began performing with a blues guitar player. Griz had just released Mad Liberation and was earning a reputation for his performances with saxophone. Emancipator started touring with his Ensemble.
For audiences, this live instrumentation was not attractive because it was novel or hype. The music just sounded great with instruments. When mixed and tuned in properly, the delivery became more powerful. Instruments began to enhance and elevate the sound. Fans from other realms found they could relate to this new electronica. Old head audiences began to realize they love the way the music swings with a drummer or a horn section or a string instrument. Performers began to innovate and improvise and all of the sudden the music was partially instrumental, but still electronic in style.
In recent years, the style has exploded, as have the possibilities. New faces are stepping into the spotlight today who began as instrumental electronic acts, as opposed to adopting the style as an enhancement. Such faces include Wax Future, a duo from Philadelphia whose name hints at their modus operandi: to blend the old with the new. With Keith Wadsworth on guitar and Connor Hansel as the production powerhouse, Wax Future has released two more EPs and a treasure chest of singles, collaborations, and remixes since their debut in 2015. They’ve hit festivals across the country, aligned themselves with the Pretty Lights Music (PLM) crew, and pressed their music to vinyl for the first time. In the summer of 2017, the group took another step towards synthesizing electronic music with traditional American genres by integrating drummer and fellow Philadelphian Aaron Harel aka ZONE Drums into their live performances.
A drummer since the age of eight, Harel has quite a resume in his own right. He’s performed with 5AM, Brightside, CloZee, and members of the PLM crew. In a past life he owned a snare drum company with a patent-pending internal acoustic enhancement system for snares, and his drums were utilized by Lotus, Rebelution, Soja, Thievery Corporation, Wilco, Zoogma and more. He held down a two-man electronic group called Mr. Sampson, and came to know the Wax Future guys through several collaborative “Wax Sampson” performances in Philly. Harel envisions electronic music in his future, and when Wax Future drops their next EP, every song will feature live drums.
But how does an electronic act like Wax Future actually incorporate a drummer? What sort of challenges arise? How much elbow grease is required, and where is it applied? How is a group rewarded for taking such a risk with its performance?
“When I began playing with electronic artists I had to re-learn how to play drums in many ways,” Aaron says. Electronic music is often driven by emphatic kicks and snares, and producers are not anxious to replace these elements with live drums, “reasonably so,” says Aaron. “I was a little stubborn at first, but quickly began to appreciate the challenge of providing producers with what they wanted from a drummer as opposed to what I wanted to play. So when playing live and on record I have to focus on what I'm doing with my hi-hats, cymbals, side snare, and fills. Most of what I add as a live drummer are the subtleties and details that come from finessing these elements.”
“You can really get a great relationship between electronic drums and a drum kit,” says Connor. Until Aaron’s introduction to the group, Connor programmed all of Wax Future’s drums himself. “The electronic drums provide a consistency and a weight to the drum mix and ensure that the kick and snare hit nice and hard. When timed and blended well, live drums and programmed drums can give you the best of both worlds.” Timing is everything. Connor’s drums are tempo synched, so Aaron has to play along to a click track so that he’s not sliding even one split-second out of time. In a rock band’s performance, the drummer is the click track.
Depending on what Connor has programmed, certain songs have just a kick, others a snare, and some have both when Wax Future performs. Building his live drumming into these layers is a unique challenge for Aaron, especially when it’s time to transition from one song to the next. Transitioning tunes is a skill every electronic act must obtain, but with two drum tracks rolling it’s not like beat matching and crossfading. “Speeding up is usually something I can pick up on, slowing down, on the other hand, is damn hard,” says Aaron. “The best way that we have found is just to practice a ton. It feels like nothing else in the world when a transition comes and I hit the downbeat into the next track just perfectly. I feel like a million bucks.” The audience probably feels like two million.
“Having live drums alongside us has me jonesing to crack these songs open even more onstage,” says Keith Wadsworth, the group’s candid guitarist. He recalls the moment he realized the potential for live instrumentation in electronic music. “I made shitty Garageband tracks and borrowed my buddy Kevin’s Apogee jam interface and played guitar over them. Boy were they terrible but they were a proof of concept.” Wax Future is that concept borne out. Keith is a fan of acts who push the envelope with live instrumentation, groups like Sunsquabi and Pretty Lights Live. “I admire those who take risks with their craft,” he says. “If you’re trying new things as a group of people leaning on each other’s musicality, I am all about it.”
He speaks to the most important aspect of instrumental electronic music. You must lean on, depend on, synch with and trust your fellow performers. When the music is coming from three or four individuals as opposed to one, everyone has to interlock, and in this regard, it’s not always rainbows and sunshine. “Spontaneity and attempting new things requires us to learn through doing, and sometimes messing up,” Connor says. “I have to be okay with things not being perfect.”
But there’s a tradeoff. While a group gives up the ability to be perfect, it gains the ability to generate that one-of-a-kind intangible magic - felt by performers and audiences alike - when musicians spontaneously synchronize with each other and drive home the sound. “I love music that is created in the moment,” says Connor, “so I am learning to embrace human error and grow from it.”
After almost a year of “open-ended” traveling in the Far East, Aaron returned home last Spring because he was “fiending” to play music again. “A couple weeks later” the three performers were tearing up The Office stage at Camp Bisco. “I feel at home on stage”, he says. “I want to push the boundaries of drumming and electronic music specifically. Its a relatively new field and there is so much room for innovation and creation as it develops.” Where one generation of performers has set the pace for instrumental electronic music, another will determine where the sound travels next. We anticipate substantial innovation from Wax Future going forward, particularly this Friday, January 19th as the group headlines Sauce Sessions 002 at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn, NY presented by the Saucy Monster.
The undercard for this session boasts multiple instrumentalists. DMV don Choppy Oppy frequently performs live with a guitarist and brings a trumpet of his own into play. Philly native The Business is all about that live bassline business. Rust artist Tygris from Western New Jersey will blend his tracks and turntableism with “the oldest instrument” aka the human voice in the form of five-borough lyricist Rasp 5. It’s shaping up to be an inventive evening with great potential for spontaneous musical combustion.
They say there's nothing new under the sun; that it's not what you do but how it's done. Who knows if this expression is valid, but words don't become expressions for no good reason. The name "Wax Future" invokes a paradox - that the past may be the future. If so, by developing a sound in which instruments are fundamental, and adding an airtight and ambitious percussionist to that mix, this group from Philadelphia at the very least has itself a head start.