Almost 15 years after the birth of contemporary electronica, the genre's fate is uncertain. But Neotropic's White Rabbits (Mush, 2004) shows the longtime Ninja Tune artist busily exploring new avenues of self-expression, and they're not entirely electronic. Playing a Westfield Stratocaster guitar (sometimes with an EBow), a flute, a Rhodes piano, a glockenspiel and percussion processed through a 500MHz iBook G3 laptop with Apple Logic Audio, Neotropic (aka Riz Maslen) then transported her sounds to Minneapolis to work with members of fellow Ninja Tune act Fog. With a band of bass, keyboards and two drummers swirling through her otherworldly mixes, Maslen was refreshed.
“It was different for me to work somewhere where there is really a music community, unlike in London,” Maslen explains. “There is a community in London, but it is very spread out. Minneapolis is so small; everyone knows each other. It was great to go to someone's house and set up my laptop and just record it all there as it happened.”
Maslen's “New Cross” and “Inch Inch” — soothing tracks with sprightly drumming, nebulous bass and ringing Bill Frisell — style guitar — recall ECM Records chamber jazz. Closing doors, broken conversations and unidentifiable sounds glide through the mix like a wayward drunk stumbling down a dark hallway. As White Rabbits progresses, it turns more bizarre, as in the disembodied voice and crunching beats of “Magpies” and the neck-cracking synthesizer loops of “Odity Round-a-Heights.” Although Maslen and her band play live instruments, nothing is as it seems.
“I took all my skeleton tracks of ideas and got each musician to improvise on top of them,” she says. “I would then become more inspired and do more back at home. I might play flute or guitar or add strings. But every track started off very differently than how it ended up. I spent a lot of time processing the sounds though analog and digital gear.”
Maslen used Cycling '74 Pluggo, Steinberg Cubase and various VST plug-ins for composing and a MOTU 828 FireWire interface for performance duties. “I bounced the stereo tracks down from Cubase, and I use Ableton Live,” Maslen says. “I am a real software whore in that respect. I use everything internally, though I have an old compressor at home and an Alesis MidiVerb. I still use those, but everything else is onboard. Live, I use the Mark of the Unicorn interface to send a click to the drummer, so he has the song in one ear and the click in the other. And we are still running some of the rhythm tracks I composed from the laptop. It is a mixture of electronic and live drumming.”
Clocking in at nine minutes and 32 seconds, “Feelin' Remote” is a rolling aural travelogue that floats from some sweltering Old West town (harmonica, country-plucked guitar) to a zippy Parisian village (willowy flutes, trip-hop beats) to a nightmarish night in urban America (malevolent beats, dark strings, ominous stalking sounds). “Joe Luke” is even bleaker, delving deeper into Maslen's ambient horror-show world, whereas “If We Were Trees” is a demented nursery rhyme on which Maslen croaks, “You're doing my head in,” as the music floats around her like a ghost. Her found sounds figure greatly into these tracks.
“I traveled a lot in the past two years, and I constantly had my MiniDisc recorder with me,” Maslen says. “I recorded rainstorms in Prague, snow in Minneapolis, beaches near my home in Suffolk, my street, getting on the bus. I use these German binaural mics that I put in my ears, so you don't even need to walk around with a mic in hand. You get this great stereo sound. They are more covert. For the next album, I will record my friends and not tell them!”
As for the specter-centric appraisal of her work, Maslen partly agrees, partly disagrees. “That ghostly sound wasn't a conscious thing,” she says. “Even though outwardly I don't give off that air of darkness, it is very much present in my unconscious psyche. My music is who I am, and a lot of it is emotionally led. This album has been a roller-coaster. It is ghostly, but I don't hear that anymore.”