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By Allison Babka
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By Daniel Hill
Beige Records is a St. Louis-based label that releases crack electronic music made primarily by its two owners -- Joe Beuckman, 23, and Paul Davis, 22. Twice in the late '90s, bands on the label have been invited to the annual CMJ Music Festival in New York City. It's a great gig for the unknown musician, especially a Midwestern unknown seldom given the opportunity to play before the fancy-shmancy NYC music literati. On their last appearance, two members of one of their bands, Rudy Tardy and the Slowes, participated in a panel discussion titled "Technology and the Artist at Home." Quite an honor, it would seem.
Davis takes over:
"We both got mullets. A mullet is a very powerful thing in New York City. I was wearing my Master of Puppets shirt and sweatpants and my sausage-factory hat, and (fellow Slowe) Cory was wearing a Buffalo Bills matching sweatsuit and a blue mesh shirt." On the panel with them were indie "luminaries" Dave Trumfio of the Pulsars; Barry Phipps, formerly of the Coctails; Tony Goddess of Papas Fritas; and, Davis says, "some dude from some indie band on Warner Bros.
"We decided we were going to do an in-house demonstration of the power of Atari. They were talking about $20,000 mixing boards, and the dude on Warner Bros. was saying, "Yeah, we bought a church in Connecticut to put our studio in -- 32 tracks!' I didn't understand what that had to do with technology and the artist at home. Whereas I'm at home with my Atari every day.
"The two genius strokes came when we prepared a little program in Basic that, when Dave (Trumfio) started talking about all the gear he uses, the vintage synths, on the video screen behind you all the sudden comes up, "Mr. Trumfio, how much did you pay for your Moog synthesizer?' And he got really offended and snapped, "I don't know -- $45 in some junk store in Athens, Ga.' And Barry Phipps asked, "How much would that go for in LA?' And he said $600. So we type in "$600" and hit return, and on the screen came, "Mr. Trumfio, for $600 you could get 37 Ataris, 24 Commodores, 15 Amigas.'
The other genius stroke, says Davis, was the Atari porn that somehow ended up on the video screen. Needless to say, Rudy Tardy and the Slowes were banned from the festival.
But, hey, you do what you gotta do to prop the Atari 2600, either privately or publicly, which Beige Records has been doing since its inception, so far releasing four 12-inch singles of electronic music that uses not only the Atari but pretty much any sound the label's artists can squeeze in, from a vintage Buchla analog synth to cello to robotic computer voices to new, more adavanced gear.
Beuckman and Davis are walking encyclopedias of electronic dance music, especially Detroit techno and electro. The music on the Beige label has, so far, been released solely as 12-inch singles for DJ and club play and mastered in Detroit by Ron Murphy. ("The unsung hero of Detroit techno," says Beuckman. "He basically created the Detroit sound.") They're also computer brainiacs: Beuckman got his degree in computer science from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and works with computers at the St. Louis Science Center; Davis is in his last semester at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he's majoring in electronic-music composition and minoring in harpsichord performance.
The combination is perfect: They create music for both the dance floor and the armchair, and most important, unlike most labels in the highly segmented genre, Beige's output is engaging in both contexts. The label features a beat aimed at your ass and the density to fill your huge brain, and, experienced together, the two qualities have never missed. Ranging from gentle mantras to abrasive eight-bit computer loops to wonderfully complex, playful beat breakdowns, Beige's chaotic work is filled with the energy and personality often absent in the dust-free world of computer-based composition.
Beuckman and Davis have known each other for close to a decade, meeting during their mid-teens at a summer music camp at Oberlin. Since then, they've been creating music with "anything we can get our grubby hands on," says Davis. "The Ensoniq VFX is my favorite, because that was my first keyboard. I got my original one when I came back from the University of Missouri music camp when I was starting high school. I saved all my lunch money from the first semester so I could buy that keyboard. The first one I got from this South City musician who had a serious crack habit and needed a hookup. I gave it to her. So that felt good. We were helping each other out. I think she played in a country band."
Unlike most music/computer composers constantly searching for The New by riding the wave of progress and technological advancement, Davis and Beuckman seem equally, if not more, infatuated with the old -- specifically, the early, relatively rudimentary personal computers. Davis says, "We fight over that all the time. I think pretty much I'm an Atari-head and (Beuckman is) a C-64-head. It's good that we can even get along." Beuckman responds: "It's not a nasty thing like the PC vs. the Mac. They have totally different sounds, and they make them in totally different ways. The Commodore has a dedicated SID -- sound-interface device -- chip. The Atari just has some registers they found -- some defect that makes noise, basically. Instead of, like, "Here, use this to make noise.' (There's) no documentation."