Photo by James BunoanThe crack-crack-crack!of gunfire punched through the party noise, sending everyone scrambling for cover. John Mendez should have been deejaying, but music was the last thing on his mind as he listened to the car speeding away. It was another drive-by shooting—and the end of another house party in Westminster.
That kind of sudden violence often turns people into unwilling prisoners in their own homes. For Mendez—who escaped injury every time he encountered bad guys with guns—the casual brutality of neighborhood gangs made him look for a way to get out. He was never personally involved, but certain friendships gave him a ringside seat to the mayhem—which he says quickly lost its appeal. His escape route was one used by kids from Kingston to Karachi: music.
"It was the only outlet that was available that pulled me out of my head," says 25-year-old Mendez. But his style of music was a most unlikely fit for his blue-collar immigrant Westminster background: Detroit techno.
It's the sound that gave birth to rave music in the early 1980s; it's the most ascetic, underground dance groove created—almost pop music as zen. Pioneers such as Juan Atkins or today's standard bearers such as Richie Hawtin opened minds and shook hips with the maximally minimal and icily repetitive sounds. That said, it's almost par for the course that this bookish, subversive techno isn't popular in its hometown. Naturally, it's also little-known in Southern California. But it's done very well for Mendez, who deejays and produces under the name Jasper—a nod to his old Westminster address, Jasperson Way.
"It's weird when you make music, and it's respected in other parts of the world, and you come here, and no one bats an eyelid. But I've come to expect it," he says. "It's kind of like experiencing a rock star's life in small bits—with all the good parts you'd associate with it, but none of the bad parts."
We should all be so lucky: Mendez, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, spent 2001 far from Westminster, deejaying in some of the hippest nightclubs in Germany and Japan and at Barcelona's Sonar Festival, the Woodstock of avant-garde sounds (which also hosted indie bands Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth and Sigur Rs last year). And this year is winding up a productive one for his music: he'll be releasing a slew of seven-inch dance records on Cytrax, the Westminster label he co-founded.
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"Yesterday's Sorrow" records his collaboration with LA-based meditative noisemakers Languis; with light keyboards and a few quiet computer chirps and bleeps, it sounds like bionic crickets discreetly taking over a music studio. In June, he released a solo EP called "Here I Lie, Waiting in Vain," an alternately sweet and dissonant journey. First it threatens to become a dance record packed with a Chic-like vocal sample, but then it fades into mystery with otherworldly mechanical funk and a spacey dub beat.
Mendez's music—and full lengths from artists like Geoff White and Kit Clayton—gave tiny six-year-old Cytrax a good (if not exotic) reputation in the techno world centered in Europe, Japan and pockets on the East Coast. ("It's weird that you guys are from California" was the common greeting from people at Euro labels, Mendez says.) But it's refreshing for Mendez to create far from the miniscule but demanding world of Detroit techno.
"If I was a trance musician, things would be a lot different," Mendez says. "There's not a solid club scene which follows what we do. Since there is no scene, what can we do? We had no choice but to create our own."
DJ JASPER GETS WILD WITH ELECTRONIC AND POST-PUNK MUSIC AT HIS RESIDENCY, POST, AT DETROIT BAR, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-0600. WED., 9 P.M.-1:30 A.M. FREE, 21+.