BT's New Skool Breakbeat Science

"I'm not the traditional type of dance music artist," says Brian Transeau, who records under the moniker BT. "I'm not a DJ. I come from a classical music
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"I'm not the traditional type of dance music artist," says Brian Transeau, who records under the moniker BT. "I'm not a DJ. I come from a classical music background. I attended the Berklee College of Music, and I played in punk bands." In addition to working with some of dance music's most influential artists, BT has collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Tori Amos; remixed singles for Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and Seal; and composed soundtrack scores for the films Go and Under Suspicion. And whereas most dance music artists rarely stray from their established signature styles, BT has successfully bridged several genres over the course of three eclectic albums.

For his latest effort, Movement in Still Life, BT immersed himself in the deep funk grooves and sonic experimentation of new skool breakbeat. Although BT built his reputation on massive progressive house floor fillers like "Embracing the Future" and "Flaming June," Movement shows that he is as adept at banging out a slamming funk riff as he is at composing a dramatic, hands-in-the-air buildup. That's not to say he's forsaken his roots-"Godspeed" has already become a big hit in trance clubs.

BT started cutting dance music tracks with his friends Ali and Sharem of Deep Dish in the early 1990s. Working out of his home studio in the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington, D.C., BT had no idea his music had become a sensation across the Atlantic, where UK DJs like Sasha and Paul Oakenfold were spinning his records to enthusiastic crowds. BT was skeptical about his overseas success until Sasha bought him a round-trip ticket to London, where he witnessed several thousand clubbers going off when Sasha dropped his tune. "The crowd went absolutely mad," says BT. "I was in tears. I owe Sasha so much."

BT soon inked a deal with Oakenfold's Perfecto label, and his debut album, Ima, became a hit in England shortly after its release in 1996. The single "Blue Skies," featuring vocals by Tori Amos, was a huge club hit in the United States as well as the United Kingdom, establishing BT as a cult artist in his homeland. He garnered more success and acclaim with his 1997 follow-up, ESCM, but shortly after its release in the states he had a falling-out with Perfecto. BT spent the next two years getting his business affairs in order and relocating from the East Coast to Los Angeles. All the while he kept busy with numerous projects-collaborating with Sasha on the single "Ride," composing music for Doug Liman's film Go, and recording Movement in Still Life with several of his friends, including DJ Rap, Paul Van Dyk, Kevin Beber, and Adam Freeland.

Movement has been a huge success in England, Australia, and Japan, and at the time we conducted this interview, BT was putting the finishing touches on an American version of the album, which Nettwerk will release in late May. "Everything is coming along great with the album," he says. "We edited songs down so they're under five minutes. Several songs are perfect for alternative radio. The first single is a new song that has M. Doughty from Soul Coughing singing on it. Things are looking really good for me over here."

You've been involved with quite a variety of projects recently.It's been an insane year for me. I'm on a real creative high. I've gone from dropping some mad-ass new skool science with Kevin Beber and Adam Freeland to writing for a 60-piece string section for the soundtrack to Under Suspicion. You should have seen it. I was digging through theory books like there was no tomorrow. All my knowledge of theory had left me-thirds in the bass, fifths in the bass, no parallel fifths. But what an amazing experience!

The last two years of my life have been rife with so many positive changes that influenced the process of making Movement. I was in a pretty complicated situation-my record label, my managers, and the team of people I had around me misunderstood me. When I went on tour with Crystal Method, it was an eye-opening experience. I saw what it's like to be a creative person and have people around you who really understand your project, how to work it and how to make what you're doing profitable. Creatively, you need to be able to concentrate on making music you believe in. Seeing that working dynamic for Ken [Jordan] and Scott [Kirkland], I had an epiphany. I knew that I was good at what I do and that I should be in a situation like that.

I decided to get out of my label and management situation and get into one that was going to work, so I could focus on making music I really believe in. I didn't want to have A&R guys chewing my ear off about making three-minute singles. I shifted my whole team and moved to California. It was the most positive change I ever made. I'm around a group of people now that really believes in and understands what I'm doing. It's a creatively rewarding time for me. I've had the opportunity to score two movies and make a record I totally, wholeheartedly believe in. I've been able to experiment, and the people around me are helping me get heard finally. It's a great feeling.

Why did you record with so many guests on the Movement CD?I've wanted to do tracks with these people for ages. DJ Rap, the Hybrid guys, Kevin Beber, Adam Freeland, Sasha, and Paul Van Dyk are my buddies. We do shows together all the time. I love making music with creative people. Making music for a living is such an amazing thing to do. To get to work with people you can learn from and who can learn from you is what it's all about-getting together with like-minded people who are really into their gadgets and are working out new ways of doing things.

The album has a natural, organic feel, yet there are many unusual effects and production techniques.The way I've started making tracks over the past four or five years has been a huge influence on the process of making this album. I've gradually weaned myself off MIDI, and now I can't even think straight when I try to use it. I construct all of my tracks entirely in audio using Logic Audio with Pro Tools hardware. There is not a note of MIDI on this album or anything else I've worked on for the past couple of years. I look at composing based on how you can manipulate audio as opposed to what you can do with MIDI. It gets complicated at times to do things like filter sweeps. I can't just grab a knob. I have to start thinking about plug-ins. But I could never achieve tracks like "Madskillz" or "Movement in Still Life" with MIDI. Over the process of one bar, I may have the kick drum stuttering over 96th notes, distorting for a half beat, then the next beat is flanged and lo-fi'd. And this stuff is happening on 64 tracks of audio simultaneously. I get this mad, spastic collage of sounds. It's cool and contemporary, and it's something you just couldn't do four or five years ago.

It's so exciting to me as a composer. Twentieth-century composers like Marcel Duchamp, who invented the art of noise, Krzysztof Penderecki, and other aleatoric composers would have gone mad for this stuff. It sucks that a lot of them didn't live long enough to see these technologies come to fruition, because it would have influenced them so much. My knowledge of theory and harmony is pretty good, but it's not tremendously vast. The most thrilling things going on now are the result of technology. What I'm doing is half emotional, based in the tradition of harmony and theory, and half analytical, based on cutting-edge technology and incorporating things no one else has gotten their hands on yet. It's fun because I get to put on two different hats.

"Movement" is structured more like a symphonic piece than like a typical dance track. There's a recurring theme, but each section is quite different.

What stuck with me from the classical music tradition is the idea of things happening in thirds: the statement of a theme, the variation, and the recapitulation. I never really thought about it much before. When I was 14, I said, "#%!@ classical music. I want to play guitar-be in a punk band to pick up chicks." Then I got into break dancing and the early electro stuff. Now, looking back at the records I've made over the past eight years, even the early stuff I did for Ima and with the Deep Dish guys, I realize it's all in thirds. It was totally subconscious, probably because it got hammered into me at an early age.

Has your classical music training been more of a help or a hindrance when it comes to creating dance music?It's weird. People are so surprised when they find out I am not a DJ and I write charts for strings. So many people have a perception that anyone who makes dance music is a DJ. They don't get it. We're going through a grooming sequence to get people's heads around what I do. In some ways I benefit from my classical music background, but in some ways it can be a hindrance. My musician friends may listen to a track, and all they'll hear is a harmonic minor scale and a 4/4 rhythm. They'll entirely miss the point. You want to turn off your knowledge of theory and harmony at times. I may think something isn't all that harmonically or rhythmically sophisticated, but I have to put that aside and examine how it makes me feel. That's hard for a lot of people who study harmony and theory. It's cool to have that background, but sometimes you have to fight it.

In a lot of contemporary music, the most exciting parts are the production, sound design, atmospherics, and editing techniques-not always what is going on harmonically. "Ride" is a nod to the Bar-Kays, Lakeside, and early Prince-a minimal, old-school funk riff-but it has mad stuff happening on the editing front. I often put the emphasis on some cutting-edge vocal editing technique, like using granular synthesis on vocals. But when I want to use my knowledge of theory, it's an amazing blessing to have that kind of training. You have more options because you understand what's going on. Fortunately, we also have a whole new frontier of music-making possibilities with technology, which is increasing exponentially by the day. It's an amazing time for musicians.

Even more exciting is the massive influx of ideas coming from people who are not traditional musicians. Listeners will have to wade through a lot more crummy music, but there's going to be a lot more innovation, too. A lot of muso types are concerned about all the tools that enable anyone to make good-sounding records. If you have a few hundred bucks, you can buy ReBirth, Reaktor, and some cool sound-manipulation programs and create something interesting. People who are totally ingrained in harmony and theory won't sit down with a sampler and disproportionately time-stretch something. It's one of the coolest sounds, and obviously it's been played to death by now, but ideas like that don't come from traditional musicians. I get tapes and MP3 files all the time from 16-year-old kids who are doing some of the craziest stuff. It's such a positive thing.

How do you keep up with new developments in technology?I'm in a newsgroup with people like Richard James and John Digweed who are really into weird, esoteric sound-manipulation programs. Every couple of days, someone posts a link to an obscure site in German or some foreign language with the maddest sound-manipulation programs I've ever seen. I'm constantly experimenting with this stuff and trying to figure out ways to incorporate it into making music. That's what a lot of this record was about. "Running Down the Way Up" started out as a song that Mike from Hybrid, Kirsty Hawkshaw, and I wrote from scratch on a piano. We decided to start with a great, traditional song and make something really interesting out of it, turning it into a symphonic-meets-new skool breakbeat track. But the finishing touches are what really excited me-the granular synthesis on Kirsty's vocals. There are some crazy things going on in that track-the kind that, when I was a kid, always made me rewind cassettes until they broke.

What granular synthesis program did you use?I used Reaktor and a program called CDP [www .bath.ac.uk/~masjpf/CDP/CDP.htm]. For some feedback effects, I used Digidesign's d-fx AudioSuite plug-ins and set them so they would feed back. Then I cut them up and made things happen on beat. I also use Wave Mechanics' Pitch Blender religiously. I have the same plug-ins and software most people use and a few things they don't. I'm really into CDP and I've been using SoundHack www.gmeb.fr/SoftwareCompetition/Softs96/SoundHack.html] for six years. I rely on lots of stand-alone stuff.

It sounds as though you are using the computer more than hardware.I rarely use external hardware anymore. I focus on Logic as an instrument. It's gotten to the point where you can sit down with a laptop and make a record. I've been waiting for this moment for years. As far as synths go, it's all about virtual synthesis. I'm using Koblo's Vibra 9000 and a beta version of the Access Virus TDM plug-in, which is stunning. It smokes the hardware box. "Dreaming" is 100 percent virtual synthesis. There is absolutely not a single hardware synthesizer on that entire track. I really encourage anyone who hasn't tried software synthesis to get their hands on something, whether it's a copy of GRM Tools or Reaktor, and experiment with it. It's the most exciting, cutting-edge synthesis technology that has come out in the past five years. I've got some beautiful, classic pieces of equipment, but I just don't use them. I still use some of my hardware, like my Arp 2600, which I use on everything. I also use a lot of guitar pedals for processing, but it's primarily plug-ins. I don't know Pro Tools at all. I'm a Logic guy. But I'm really in a debate as to which way I'm going to go on the software end. Pro Tools is supporting software synths as TDM plug-ins or through DirectConnect, and it's sample accurate, which means I don't have to spend my life fixing timing as I've done in the past.

How do you avoid the formulaic conventions of a lot of dance music?I look for different ways to transition parts of music and make ideas that wouldn't butt together flow into each other. It would be cool to hear people experiment with that more instead of using big snare fills. Personally, I'll puke if I ever hear another snare fill. I take a guitar part, chuck it into an AudioSuite reverb, run some SFX Machine on it, do some mad effect, and reverse it back upon itself, then cut it on the downbeat. This sucking thing happens, and when you come into the next element of the music, it really catches you.

My objective with "Dreaming" was to avoid making it a big, cheesy, progressive house track. I wanted to incorporate elements of new skool breakbeat and of deep progressive house music, slam them into each other, and make them work. Often you'll hear a trance track that starts off with a breakbeat, then the four-on-the-floor kick drum comes in. When it goes to the breakbeat section, I wanted it to have as much energy and to ride just as hard as the house sections. Instead of doing snare fills, I did a lot of the fills with an Echoplex on the vocal and processed them with Lo-Fi so they were only 6- or 8-bit samples. Then I reversed them to get back into the rhythm. You can feel it coming back. It's the same sort of elevating, anticipatory build you get from snare rolls or introducing a breakbeat before the four-on-the-floor comes back, but it's a different way of getting there.

What is the biggest challenge facing electronic musicians?A lot of people who make electronic music are really reticent when it comes to talking about the techniques and gear they use. I think that's ass backward. If you don't share what you do, there's no way for everybody to keep moving forward. I'll read interviews with really successful electronic bands or remixers, and they won't talk about what they use because they're afraid all these kids will go out and buy the same pieces. You should let people know because that forces you to keep evolving and growing. Hoarding your "secrets" stunts the evolutionary process. This music is about change.

Between remixing and cutting tracks, producing mix tapes, chasing down elusive white labels, updating software, collecting Japanese high-tech watches, and hanging in London at Fabric, Turnmills, and Bedrock, Los Angeles-based Remix editor Chris Gill averages one hour of sleep per month.

AlbumsIma (Perfecto/Kinetic/Reprise, 1996)ESCM (Perfecto/Kinetic/Reprise, 1997)Go soundtrack (Sony, 1999)Movement in Still Life (Nettwerk, 2000)

Singles