As modern electronica filters into mainstream consciousness, many are wondering what kind of influence it will exert on the more traditional format of rock music. Will we be seeing a bunch of rock guys appropriate dance beats to sound hip? Will many DJs start sampling guitars and rock-steady bass lines? Or will something happen that we have yet to conceive of? Canadian trio Perfume Tree may provide some clues to the convergence of the two formats. On their fourth album, Feeler (World Domination), vocalist and sometimes bassist/guitarist Jane, multi-instrumentalist Pete, and beatmeister Bruce concoct a visceral blend of electronica and rock where ethereal spaces collide with solid grooves.
You can’t label them ambient, techno, rock, dub, or ethereal, because even though they pull from such sources, the results are, well, Perfume Tree. The music tends to lean more onto the electronic, but the integration of guitarwork and vocal lines balances the rock side of the equation. A signature feature of their music is the gradual transition within some pieces from radiant ambient to manic techno. This music takes it’s time unfolding rather than attempting to resolve itself within three or four minutes.
Perfume Tree also represent the merger of the organic, electric, acoustic, and electronic. On “Too Early, Too Late,” this union initially manifests itself via gentle electric guitar arpeggios which become gradually overwhelmed by gurgling synths. The ensuing dance passages eventually dissipate into an ambient void of acoustic guitar and a dreamy choir. But let’s also not forget the live hand percussion playing at the end of that track – it’s a strong ingredient, particularly when the drumming subsides with the music rather than just cutting off. You feel like people are making music here rather than letting the samplers and sequencers run rampant.
Although implementing guitar within their electronic settings also makes for good contrast, its execution is trickier than it sounds. “A lot of times I’ve thrown out what I thought was a perfectly good guitar line because it doesn’t fit with the electronics,” states Pete. “It’s really hard to get the guitar to fit with the electronics.” Does he find himself compromising more complex lines in order to work within the band’s format? “I’m not a complex guitar player, I’m a very limited guitar player,” he admits. “Making it more complex is never an option. Making it noisier is.” It’s really a question of finding the right notes as well as the right sound. Which is where his consistent use of effects comes in. “Very rarely will you hear anything dry.”
While Perfume Tree are electronic in nature, they retain the feeling of being a band. It’s different from the standard techno set-up, where the show is run by DJs or samplers, but also unlike the basic rock format of guitar/bass/drums. Since they are in more of a middle ground, they can help out those poor rock critics who don’t know what to make of electronica. “Well, you know, the problem is that rock critics don’t generally dance,” Pete remarks with a laugh. “I mean, if you go to see an electronic band, you generally want to dance, and if you don’t dance, then all you’re doing is just looking at them.” Which isn’t the point.
Obviously in a situation like this, Perfume Tree’s concerts can go either way. They can concentrate on the sounds or jump around and try to get people’s attentions. To provide a visual stimulus, they like to use video projections behind them to enhance their performances, of which Bruce, perhaps half-jokingly, quips: “The live show is pretty boring to watch.” But then he sets about explaining how he distinguishes Perfume Tree from electronic groups: “The thing with the live show is there’s a real interaction going on between Pete, Jane, and myself that combines that preprogrammed aspect of the beats with the live vocal/guitar/keyboard thing. And we can play off of each other. Sometimes you wonder whether or not some bands out there put on the same show no matter space they were in and no matter what was going on.”
As with the aforementioned tunes, the trio’s blend of ethereal spaces and rhythmic pulses create a strong flow which must translate into a live setting. “It’s a challenge,” says Pete. Take “Flooded” – patience is definitely a virtue there. “But it can done so different ways,” remarks Jane. “It could have gone any which way [in the studio], so when we play it live it’s just a little bit up in the air.” Spontaneity is key, and their live shows do leave room open for improvisation, allowing the music to breathe at its own pace and in a different manner from the albums. Pete reveals one basic reason for this: “I never play the same guitar thing twice because I can’t be bothered to learn stuff.” (This elicits a laugh from the trio.) “It’s always a surprise what happens. And what we normally do is we run several different types of grooves or beats for each song – we can either leave them out completely or we can put different ones in depending on what we feel like. The idea is that we can basically go from performing an ambient set to performing a full-out set which would interest people who are used to seeing rock &’ roll bands.”
With regards to that rock crossover thing again, do they see changes occurring as a result of the electronic resurgence? Pete observes that changes are already visible in the rock and pop world, and not just in a compositional sense: “You see a lot more drummers wearing headphones nowadays, interacting with the sequencers. Technology will keep progressing, and people will always latch onto it because it will make music-making cheaper. So I think it’s going to change things quite a bit.”
Cheaper isn’t always better. While it makes things more cost-effective for bands and labels, many people think that making music suddenly becomes easier and quicker. The trick with a band like Perfume Tree is to expand their ideas without letting things get too immense. In other words, use the limitless boundaries of electronica while also allowing the limited number of musicians the ability to regenerate their music in a live setting.
Jane, Pete, and Bruce spent a substantial time working on the new album. According to Jane, “It was a very intense summer. A couple of the tracks had been partially recorded and some things had been written” but they still spent 3 months putting it together, working out some ideas in the studio, building up their tracks. Layering is quite essential to their sound – it fleshes out and makes their compositions more intricate. But it also becomes a challenge to control, and thus the aforementioned dilemma of over-expansion comes into play. “A lot of the electronic bands do [layering] nowadays without any multi-tracks, they just do it all on the sequencer,” notes Pete. “We’re quite unusual for an electronic band because we have all these sequencers and stuff, but then we’ve got all this tape. That means we can do some fairly unusual stuff. We have 16 tracks of tape and then all the virtual tracks that you can use as well. It’s actually quite a challenge to keep it down sometimes.”
In essence, layering becomes another animal altogether. Jane confirms this by offering another thought: “On the last album, we thought 16 tracks was all we would ever need.”