By Sarah Bennett
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Blame it on the agitprop gods. That's the only explanation for how Sarah and his animal-rights-loving former band, Stereotaxic Device, could get booked at carnivore parties such as Barbecue Night at Hollywood's Coconut Teaszer. One night, while Stereotaxic Device pounded out their bone-rattling beats, screening above them were film loops of cows being taken apart at slaughterhouses. Hungry hordes queuing up for the free hot dogs and burgers disappeared quicker than roommates ditching overdue phone bills. The Coconut Teaszer's management was not amused.
"They told us we weren't wanted back," Sarah remembers. "They didn't do it in a hostile way. We weren't smashing instruments onstage or acting like buffoons. People reacted to the films by not eating meat. But we had other gigs, so I didn't care about not getting invited back."
That mix of art and protest upset stomachs back in 1989, at the dawn of the electronic music revolution. It's worth noting today because it's a sign of how Sarah, 34, is willing to take crazy chances. And the craziest of them all happens to be his latest self-titled project, a mix of classical music and beats, warm baroque strings and Giorgio Moroder-style rhythms. Something like Esa-Pekka Salonen doing an electric boogaloo while conducting the solemn orchestrations of composer Jean Sibelius. Sarah regularly performs his mix of 17th- and 21st-century dance music in Hollywood hipster clubs with a live string trio. During concerts, he plays like the Wizard of Oz, twiddling knobs on his mixer out front while keeping the classical musicians—and their string-and-bow pyrotechnics—hidden behind a curtain.
His venture would be foolish if Sarah weren't in such good company. Electronic visionaries such as Aphex Twin blend classical music with glitchy beats. Sarah's unusual mix made him a coveted favorite at tastemaker radio station KCRW-FM 89.9. He has been interviewed twice on Nic Harcourt's Morning Becomes Eclectic show in the past three years, and in 2001, Sarah's seven-song demo reached No. 1 on KCRW's influential playlist. Station DJ Kevin Lincoln, who has consistently spun Sarah, says such luck for a local mixmaster is rare indeed.
"He's one of the few local artists who's been able to maintain his popularity at the station," Lincoln says. "Every DJ has their own specialty, but he's been able to appeal to most of them."
Sarah's high KCRW profile helped open up a lot of opportunities for him, and as with a lot of other electronic-music makers, TV and movie soundtrack producers have most eagerly embraced him. He has composed music for a five-part Discovery Network documentary called Plastic Surgery: Before and After, and his work has been heard on assorted episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Family Law and MTV's Road Rules.
But Sarah's desires go beyond soundtrack jobs. Ultimately, it's about equal rights for instrumental music.
"Especially in this country, people are made to believe that a song must have a story and words to have any meaning," he says. "Everywhere else in the world, that's not the case. In America, they can't leave it to people to use their own imagination to listen to music.