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Photo by Jeanne RiceSuperstitions, dreams and visions often seem to run Alex Xenophon's life, but he knows well enough that his reliance on mystical forces isn't practical business for his techno band, Bassland. It hasn't landed them a big record deal or made them much money on the road since they formed in 1995. But dreams have at least forged Bassland's identity and made them one of the most popular electronic-music acts in OC, as well as one of the most mysterious.
"They're the best band in California," waxes Mike Fix, who's covered Bassland's magical-realist sojourn for his self-named zine. Fix plans to release a live album of their music sometime this year on his indie label, Delta Co., though he won't attempt to describe the way their music is shaped. "I'm not surprised by them or what they do anymore. I just remember to always keep an open mind."
No dream told them to release a lot of records this year, but 2000 is shaping up to be one of Bassland's most prolific. In addition to the live record, LA-based label Vitamin snagged them to contribute tracks to Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd tribute CDs. They're also finishing material for a new album they hope to label-shop.
An ambiguous dream, however, is what brought the band together. Xenophon (not his real name—no kidding; he says it means "strange voice") dreamed that a giant bus was transporting him through all sorts of different landscapes. He relayed his vision to Allisa Kueker, a vocalist in the Costa Mesa band Skylab2000. Kueker was unsettled —Stuart Breidenstein, her former band mate, had also had a recent dream about a bus. She introduced the two, they talked, and both interpreted the dream to mean that they should start a band and tour around on a bus.
It's not the way most bands are birthed, but the way they make music is just as unorthodox. Bassland don't write or plan any of the songs they record or play live, opting instead to improv like such bebop jazz giants as John Coltrane.
For the moment, the best place to absorb the Bassland experience is Costa Mesa's Café Ruba, where Xenophon drops Bassland doses each week. It's a techno-folkie thing, where he works with an acoustic guitar, a mixer and the occasional friend who wants to jump in and jam—Bassland Almost Unplugged, you could call it. Their shows can be oddly Dadaist, like an old Andy Kaufman routine: Xenophon shaved his head during one performance at the now-defunct Irvine club Metropolis, and he and Breidenstein once dressed up as professors at a rave and did a laughable lecture on how electronic music is created.
At a recent Café Ruba gig, an oversized knit cap covered Xenophon's face, and his guitar became his dancing partner, his head bobbing back and forth as if he expected the room to transform into a rave. Instead, he turned his guitar into a close approximation of his keyboards, pounding out the same chords over and over again, working his smoky voice through different pitches as if it were a loop in an electronic song. If Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello has the reputation of making his guitar sound like a hip-hop turntable, Xenophon can make his into a funky, techno-stringed instrument, taking inspiration from all genres, spanning mellow, fuzzy guitars; R&B synth hooks; and thumping, high-hat beats. To make things weirder, he'll throw in acoustic covers of Portishead songs, surprisingly up-tempo, straightforward versions of '70s TV-show themes like The Jeffersons, plus the occasional Pink Floyd tune (bound to piss off Floyd purists, their take on "Comfortably Numb" is a remote techno melody with a bouncy dance rhythm).
Bassland and Xenophon have always thrown such curves, and—at least in the aural art sense—hardcore OC techno heads have never been freaked out by such wild improvising or style-mixing.
"Their music is pure," says Fullerton techno artist Q. "There's an innocence to it. That's why it has so much soul."
This deep reverence for Bassland stems from the band's early days, when they were attempting to create a solid electronic music scene in OC. They'd play for free at local techno parties, Breidenstein threw free daytime raves (named Green Eggs & Ham) at various OC locales, and Xenophon organized the first Santora Arts Building raves in 1995. Everyone was accepted into the scene then because all the techno heads needed one another, a support system against the cold, harsh outside world, which thought electronic music was just so much reheated doot-doot-dit-dit new wave.
"We were a bunch of misfits," Xenophon recalls. "We needed a safe place to listen to this computer music where we wouldn't be made fun of."
At the time, techno was dominated by a sort of retro-hippie love vibe, and Bassland wanted to make sure that community feeling continued—part of being, as Ken Kesey used to say, "on the bus." After Breidenstein and Xenophon teamed up, they bought an ugly, clunky 1957 Crown bus for $1,000, painted it black so it looked like the absolute opposite of the Partridge Family's happy, psychedelic cruiser, and converted it into a living quarters/practice space combo for their project, then dubbed Bassland Prophecy.