You can hear the dark side on the record loud and clear. Maslen borrows from past influences to create a temperamental album that shifts moods with each song, and sometimes within each track. Surprisingly, the producer first got her start in a more conventional musical environment -- playing keyboards for The Beloved. Her first band was a sort of gothic punk rock band, for which she was the singer. Traditional song structure and natural noise aren't elusive to her. Hints of them appear in her weird and wonderful musical constructions. They also materialize in various as-yet-unreleased side experiments like Jet Stream Tokyo, which uses the vocals of friend Paul Fredericks (as well as Maslen herself) and the guitar of New York veteran Gary Lucas.
While there's never so much as a verse/chorus/verse song structure on Mr. Brubaker, the title track owns what resembles a beginning, a middle and an end -- except it's distorted, eerily seductive and beautiful all at the same time. "I've always been kind of brought up with more kind of traditional music. I'm very much accustomed to songs. The good thing is I'm sort of reverting back to what I did in the beginning -- going back to that whole kind of organic sound."
But like her Ninja Tune cohorts, Maslen continues to delve into hip-hop's breakbeat; like the rest of her music, it is anything but conventional. Avoiding the usual clear linear lines and slick production of mainstream hip-hop, maslen produces music that's jarring -- jerky breakbeats rub up against unexpected noises. Some call this "experimental" hip-hop, but Maslen's (and Ninja Tune's) hip-hop goes deeper than simple experimentation. Though her beats are rough and tough, there's a sense of whimsy to them. Hip-hop has seen the future.
It's a wonder then that the mainstream hip-hop universe hasn't really been taking notes. But Maslen believes the great dividing wall between the mainstream and the underground will eventually shrink, due to inventive crossover artists like DJ Shadow. "A lot of the new kind of hip-hop has a darker edge -- somebody gave me Dragonfly from Seattle," she points out as an example, "which is actually a really great piece of vinyl, and I was so shocked that somebody just gave it to me. It's nice to see acts like Jurassic 5, [and] the new kind of breed who are putting out stuff that's delving back into the dark side of things."
Funny thing: Maslen doesn't consider herself a musician, at least not in the typical way. "I'm not a musician, so to me a machine kind of translates what I would like to do if I was a musician. If I said that to somebody who'd been classically trained, I don't know if I could stand there and say that [I am a musician]. Yes, I have learned my art, I haven't just sat here and like pressed a button. I had to learn from scratch just like a traditional musician learns their instrument. I guess I'm more a technician."
Those are brutally brave words considering that most classically trained musicians in the jazz and rock worlds jump at the chance to proclaim electronic as not real, dismissing both the art and the artists. But Maslen can relate. "I can totally understand why they respond in that way," she says, "'cause they spend years and years learning their craft, and I would never slay them in any way. But for some of us, that's not what we want to do. We're moving into the future now and technology is a big part of our lives. We can't just stand still. The most important thing is to move with the times. And I think a lot of the old-school musicians are really frightened to do that."
Fortunately, forward-thinking traditional musicians do exist. And luckily, Maslen's found a few, incorporating live instruments into her stage show. "Electronic shows can be very static," she admits. "I'm very much a fan of film visuals and kind of creating an environment that people can let themselves get sucked into. Us standing up there twiddling these knobs is far from the most charismatic thing in the world. That's really important to give people something else, as opposed to the traditional show, 'cause obviously we can't do that with two people. I think more and more the faceless side of techno is delving into the multimedia kind of thing."
Indeed on the last Ninja Tune tour, visuals played a significant role in the presentation of the evening. Neotropic's live set was accompanied by Super 8 film and slides that she shot in various locales (many showing stark, dreary images of London), plus still images and moving footage created by visual artist Buggy G. Riphead (best known for his work with Future Sound of London). Meanwhile, during DJ sets by Chocolate Weasel and Ollie Teeba of the Herbaliser, a mini-camera gave the audience a bird's-eye view of the DJ's deft scratching and tricky hand work, making for a captivating visual, participatory experience as well as an aural one.
"For the person in the audience it gives them something to kind of get into," Maslen explains of the imagery. "It's the new form of going out and seeing live bands -- almost like a virtual reality kind of concert. Which I think there'll actually be -- you'll be able to buy the headset, stick it on and you'll be there. Which is the ultimate gig, you don't have to worry about being crushed by anyone and beer all over you." And you can just watch some football afterwards.