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Blake Miller of Moving Units lives the best of both (indie and electronic) worlds
Dance music has spent much of its life with a chip on its shoulder, memories of the gay-bashing “disco sucks” era still fresh enough to make it wary of outsiders, major labels and any party that’s not “underground.” Sometimes playing the victim, though, can be self-fulfilling, and artistic evolution is stifled. Luckily, there’s a new generation of fans descending on dance floors, and it doesn’t know about the heartache, division and defiantly reclusive nature of the culture’s past. Even rappers (Kanye West, Common), rockers (Tommy Lee) and pop icons (Prince) are going electronic these days, meeting at the club and letting bygones be beats.
A fresh kind of dance artist, too, has been liberated by this indie-electronic endeavor, in which rock stars can produce banging floor-fillers true to clubland but burning with punk-like aggression. If you ran into Blake Miller on the Sunset Strip, you might mistake his long, dirty locks, lanky stance and pale skin as the trappings of yet another rocker boy trying to squeeze the last drop of relevance out of metal. But his Los Angeles quartet, Moving Units, are wholly of the new electronic breed—a four-on-the-floor electro-punk band who have torn up the dance-music handbook. They’re part of a burgeoning cadre of mostly unsigned LA acts (Guns N Bombs, LA Riots, Acid Girls) who thrash bombastically, often outside the stink-eye gaze of the DJ booth.
“The dance world in the ’90s was so dominated by ravers and househeads and clubgoers that there wasn’t a whole lot of crossover with the indie community,” says vocalist Miller, 31. “I think it’s cool that the boundaries have started coming down.”
The 7-year-old Moving Units have torn down some serious walls this decade, performing in 2004 at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival; releasing their debut LP, Dangerous Dreams, on the label Palm Pictures that year; and following up in 2007 with an indie album, Hexes for Exes.
Miller grew up in Detroit, home of Motown and birthplace of techno. He soaked it up, and after studying filmmaking at Wayne State University, he came to LA. He eventually found himself in a post-9/11 malaise, dusting off old records and absorbing the cold “proletarian” sounds of 1980s Manchester and Sheffield—English industrial towns, much like Detroit.
“They were arranging dance beats with a punk-rock aesthetic,” Miller says. “The time was right to feel that idea again.”
For a band of outsiders, Miller and Moving Units have certainly been heard among dance music’s elite.
“Blake Miller is the shit,” says dance-industry legend and LA Hard festival promoter Gary Richards. “I love his music.”
Miller’s sneering, SoCal punk-dude voice complements the foursome’s Peter Hook bass lines and shuffling, cymbal-heavy disco drums. On standout tracks such as “Between Us and Them,” you’re not sure whether to pogo or groove, but the rhythmic imperative is just as irresistible. On “Pink Thoughts,” the band use their synth as a hair-band axe, rocking out with their DJ out as Miller channels a little Ziggy and a little Iggy.
“We produce on computer, and our drummer listens to a rhythm track for meter,” Miller, who also plays guitar, says. “We have some of our electronic elements on tracks on the computer, and we play the live parts over the top.”
Moving Units came together in 2002 after the remnants of Miller’s last rock band faded. The mates—including bassist Johan Boegli, drummer Chris Hathwell and guitarist Victor Velazquez—were already plugging into the liberating, Coachella-stoked disco-punk sounds that were starting to percolate in New York and London.
“We didn’t even know what we were doing when we started,” Miller says. “It was a happy accident, but the instincts were there. I did a couple of demos just on my own, and then I played for our drummer and bass player. They got what I was doing. We decided to jam, and it clicked.”
After taking a break in 2008, Moving Units plan to hit the studio, unleash a new album and rejoin the indie-dance party, which is bigger than ever in Southern California. Just don’t expect the guys to go Hollywood. “I can’t imagine us cashing in on our image and our sound and going for the brass ring,” Miller says. “We’re not that kind of band.”
Moving Units are as defiant as the techno underground of yore, finding life and camaraderie in the recession era.
“When you’re down and out, what else are you going to do,” Miller asks, “but be around people who share your feeling?”