Visions of Utopia
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 Caf 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 Caf 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.
Bassland Prophecy grew into a seven-person collective, the price of membership being not only knowing how to DJ but also how to drive. After the bus was readied for the road, they drove it to San Francisco for their first gig, a covert Halloween Night show on Castro Street. The Castro was going crazy, so the Bassland Prophecy crew parked on a side street, plugged their keyboards and mixers into generators, and set up a fog machine. They were a big hit—more than 500 showed up to get down. So did the San Francisco police, who gave them five minutes to leave town.
The band survived, but the collective didn't. When only Breidenstein, Xenophon and DJ Jon Allen were left, the name was trimmed to Bassland (Allen would leave in 1996).
By this time, they were getting mighty sick of puttering around from rave to rave. Ravers loved the bus and always wanted a tour of its cramped quarters; cops hated it and towed it three times. The cabin fever was getting pretty intense, though, and they started getting sick of one another. They'd play four nights a week, but the grind of constant raving was draining them.
"I felt like a scuzzy hippie, like people were mocking us," Xenophon remembers. "I felt we weren't part of reality as we knew it."
They decided to ditch the road, left the bus with Breidenstein's brother in Sacramento, and spent time in a real recording studio. The slow pace of getting signed added stress; some small techno imprints were interested, but mostly in what image they thought they could mold the band into. And Bassland were never about to change their music to please label heads.
"They wanted us to do music that was coming out of England, but we're not English. We wanted to make music that we heard in Southern California," Xenophon says.
But that didn't matter—at least in the corporatethink of the music industry—so they passed. Things got worse in July 1998, when their gear was stolen at a show. The frustrations took their toll on Breidenstein, who left the band.
OC techno heads were upset. "I was afraid that if they split up, individually they'd lose the will to write for the scene," says Q.
Bassland's dissolution seemed to signal the end of . . . something. By 1998, the scene was going dormant—with the closing of Metropolis and its weekly techno club that year, live electronic music gigs in OC became scarce.
But now Breidenstein and Xenophon are back together, a reunion spurred not by a dream but by something more old-fashioned—guilt over unfinished creative Bassland business and a low-level nudge campaign by their friends and fans.
"I felt Bassland was part of my responsibility," Breidenstein says. Joel Guleserian, who has drummed for OC's Peoplemover, has joined the fold (he had sold his kit, having grown tired of playing rock, but Bassland's techno intrigued him enough to sign on).
The band is also bringing back the sense of community it once had. At Caf Ruba, young musicians line up to jam with them, and the band tries to accommodate everyone. They're even thinking about hitting the road and touring again, as soon as they wrap up the new album. And Xenophon knows exactly how they want to go out.
"I'd like to get a bigger bus this time," he says. Back to the source, just what all those old dreams and visions said it would be like.
Bassland play at Caf Ruba, 1749 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-4026. Usually every Sun., usually after 9 p.m. Call for more information. Free. All ages.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.