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March 21, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 12

Freek Out

Go underground with local technophiles the Speed Freeks

by Shelly Ridenour

Once the 1995 critics' picks rolled in, there was no more ignoring it. Albums by Moby and Tricky rode the crest of as many top ten lists as P. J. Harvey, with Goldie and the Chemical Brothers not far behind. "Jungle" and "trip hop" have worked their way into the language of Spin and MTV. And we are all faced with the question: Is techno the new zeitgeist?

Yes, techno, the sensory-assaulting soundtracks of raves, the bucking backlash against all things unplugged, the repetitive blip-boom-blip-boom-blipÊ...

"Uh-uh, we don't want to do that," insists Scott Wilkerson--keyboardist, publicist, manager, agent and, according to his bandmates, "all-around good guy" of Knoxville's own techno band, the Speed Freeks.

"But right now in techno, instead of song structures--verse, chorus, verse--you have more of a Philip Glass type of structure," he concedes. "It's dance music, and it's gotta be repetitive, or it wouldn't work on the dance floor."

The Speed Freeks, however, do follow a traditional--albeit loose--song structure, building bridges and choruses, memorable vocal hooks and intense rhythms, over techno's typical 32 counts of the high hat.

"It's hard to play live and not have that song structure," Heath Shinpaugh insists. "There's no way I could go out there and play a live set of dance music. There's no way I could go out there and play the same thing for 20 minutes and not get bored with it."

Speaking of getting bored ... well, what's so exciting about watching a bunch of programmers up on stage? The band insists that they are actually more connected with their audience than your typical guitar-bass-drum set up.

"Because our stuff is electronic and pre-recorded, that allows us the freedom to not worry about anything going wrong," Shinpaugh asserts. "We're free to entertain. We can connect with the crowd."

"We don't just play our music. We perform," Robert Mitchell adds. "We get into our music. We love it. We go crazy onstage 'cause we love it so much."

Mitchell is the frontman, the emcee, the Bob Barker of the whole affair, all flailing limbs and infectious energy, working to provoke the crowd to action. Wilkerson, Shinpaugh--who also DJs at the Underground on Monday nights--and John Hall are a revolving lineup behind the keyboards, turntables and drum pads.

"We've had the luxury of playing almost exclusively at raves," Wilkerson notes. "So whereas most bands end up playing at a club for maybe 150 people, we tend to play in front of a couple of thousand."

"And it's not like, 2,000 people and maybe 100 people in front of the stage," Mitchell adds. "It's 2,000 people right there in your face, moving."

Those numbers don't come easy, though.

"We face obstacles. Not only is this a college town, it's a one-club town. There's the Underground and nothing else," Wilkerson explains. "And people think, 'If I can go to this big, incredible club with big sound and big lights for $3, why should I spend $10 on a rave?'

"We work extra hard to maintain a live setting," he adds. "We four are the Speed Freeks, but when we play live we have a rapper, Jonathan Wells, and a guitarist, Bing (Numskull) Fu. We're hoping to incorporate and sample some of his riffs onto our next album."

Listening to their first album, The Himalayan EP (Ripchord Records), kickstarts stomach-churning memories of the neckbreaking Tennessee Valley Fair staple for which it is named--and the accompanying soundtrack that serves as a sign of the times, from the Motley Crue of my middle-school years to the Wu-Tang thrills and spills that boomed forth from the midway last fall. The Speed Freeks have managed to duplicate the blood-pressure soaring high and sensory overload sensation of the ride, that whirring air raid siren that blasts when the operator trips the controls to mega-super-hyper speed, or throws the thing into reverse. Either way, you know the noise signals one thing: somebody, anybody, everybody scream.

"Our first CD was hardcore breakbeat [hyper-speed hip-hop beats layered with manic synth lines, booming sub-bass and catchy soundbite samples]," Wilkerson explains, "like the Prodigy--our favorite band. The big thing right now is amyl house, like Chemical Brothers, and that's what you're gonna see from us more. Slower, more danceable. The other stuff ... about 30 minutes of it is all you can take on a dance floor."

In the techno scene, styles--fashion, hair color, piercings, music--are flavor-of-the-month, moving in and out at the speed of the very beats that shake the technophiles' booties. Acid house, dub, breakbeat, jungle, ambient, trance--and by the time this story hits the street, it'll be something else.

"Every six months it's a new thing," Hall sighs.

Is techno the disco of the '90s? The biggest problem with that put-down is that techno has, in fact, been around since the early '80s, when electro pioneers like Kraftwerk and Art of Noise used clean, 120-bpm drum machine patterns and heavy delay to get their point across.

"Our style is constantly broadening, because it has to," Shinpaugh says. "Unless you created a style, you'll never keep up with it. By the time you put it out, it's old. It has to be done before it's even 'in.'"

"You can't slow down for a minute," Wilkerson adds, "or people will forget about you."

And, though they may be their hometown's best kept secret, the Speed Freeks have certainly worked their way into someone's consciousness.

"It's lonely being a techno band in Knoxville," Shinpaugh says, tongue planted only halfway in cheek.

"There may be others, but we're the only ones out of the closet," Wilkerson says.

"Scratch that!" Mitchell cries, reaching for the tape recorder's "off" button.

"Naw, that's pretty literal, man," Shinpaugh figures. "As many people as say they don't like techno, we've sold out of CDs at Cat's, sold out at Disc Exchange ... someone's buying them, and I'm not thinking it's a bunch of little old ladies."

© Metro Pulse