Ground Control

Introducing Skylab, the band that fell to Earth.

Matt Ducasse has water — and, perhaps, a few other substances — on the brain. His band Skylab’s debut, a hallucinogenic soundtrack of studio wizardry called #1 (Astralwerks), virtually sloshes on its way into your CD transport, so saturated is it with fish-tank ambience. Basses run deep as rivers on the record, which eschews vocals in favor of intricately woven samples and instrumentals. The tracks range from ersatz African pop (“Ah Ee Mu”) to a space-age lounge music true to the group’s moniker (“Seashell”), but the sense of immersion persists. Throughout #1, rhythm tracks beep like navigational buoys, and synthesizers squeak and moan a kind of dolphin courtship patter.

“I think a lot of that ‘water’ sound has to do with the equipment we’re using, these ancient, rusty machines,” Ducasse says on the phone from his native England. “There’s a lot of Echoplex, which gives you a beautifully fluid, wet sound. Tape echo is really fluid.”

Such tech talk is the lingua franca of Skylab, an international quartet drawn together in the studio. Ducasse’s bandmates hail from Scotland and Japan. Howie B (for Bernstein), a Glasgow DJ and engineer, cut his first splices on film scores and assisted Nellee Hooper, the Soul II Soul auteur whose productions are the blueprint for much of the trip-hop, ambient and jungle music that has exploded in popularity during 1995. Skylab’s Japanese contingent, DJs Toshio (Tosh) Nakanishi and Kudo, were influential in their country’s early hip-hop.

“Tosh is more fluent than Kudo,” says Ducasse regarding the language barrier. “Kudo is a bit … halting. But they’re both really intuitive musicians. The way that we jam is we’ll each bring along a box of records, and one person will come up with something and another person will come up with something to respond to that. Inspiration just pulls things out of your memory.”

The breadth of that discographic inspiration is what distinguishes Skylab’s record in the exploding field of so-called “ambient” music, so much of which consists of ether-thin atmospherics. In discussing #1‘s wide palette, Ducasse name-drops avant-garde composers, such as Morton Feldman and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and early prog-rock groups who pioneered the use of synthesizers in rock’n’roll. Yet the most interesting material on the album is “nonmusical,” in the manner of Future Sound of London’s penchant for environmental nuance and Aphex Twin’s favor for sci-fi effects: Drum patterns stammer toward expression; a selection of vocal samples narrate; a track called “Tokyo Elevator” seems constructed entirely from glistening rising tones.

“I’ve been influenced by psychedelics and how that sort of makes you hear sound differently,” says Ducasse, “how things that normally wouldn’t be considered music are in fact probably music, which to me has less to do with ‘notes’ and ‘choruses’ and so on, and more to do with sound and the thinking that goes behind it.”

Of course, one DJ’s fave loop is another’s tired cliché. Ducasse reports that Howie B wanted to nix a guitar-heavy track, “Depart,” until it was saved deus ex machina — in this case, an 11th-hour remix that metamorphosed the guitar into a soup of reverb. The generally open-minded Ducasse had an opportunity to discover his own prejudices, as well.

“I would never have gone near Martin Denny,” he says of the patriarch of ’50s cocktail exotica, “because it would be the sort of thing that my parents would listen to at dinner parties. It took me a long time to listen to what was actually going on in that kind of music.” Tosh and Kudo, enamored of America’s tiki culture, were his tutors.

The album #1 comes at a time of sea change in dance music, a major transition which involves the mainstreaming of disco and house music and the absorption of a wide variety of musical cultures, international and extraterrestrial. In the U.K., a current rash of curfews threatens to retard the music’s growth, limiting not only large raves but small after-hours clubs. But Ducasse is hopeful. “It doesn’t seem to damage the music,” he says. “It’s probably helped it in a way: People have to be that much more dedicated, and take it more seriously. Which is good. It’s a serious thing.”

A half century ago, Argentina’s dance music, the tango, was transformed into “serious” concert music by Astor Piazzolla through sheer strength of compositional creativity and innovation. With #1, the DJs in Skylab join that tradition, forging music that demands and rewards rapt attention.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, November 1995.

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