Three bandmates are milling around a small room, talking about McDonald's and Stephen Hawking—and trying to make an acoustic guitar sound like a guitar once it's sampled and pitched down to sound otherworldly. Physics turns out to be the least complicated of the matters at hand.
"I saw a special on Stephen Hawking's 'Information Paradox' last night," says the band's leader, Matthew Dear. "It explained how matter could disappear in a black hole, and then Hawking came out a couple years ago and said it was all bullshit. Apparently when real physicists talk about the best in the field, Hawking doesn't show up—he's more of a personality."
The drummer mutters: "It's weird to think of Stephen Hawking as a personality."
The occasion is band practice for Matthew Dear's Big Hands, a group preparing to tour behind a guy who made his name in techno. It's easy to overstate the significance of such an endeavor—cue countless caricatures of techno as the province of robots, and rock as the bastion of real people with brains. That significance is also easy to undervalue. During another break between songs, Dear recounts a recent interaction with the booker of next year's Coachella music festival: "He said they're not interested in DJs starting rock bands. Just like that."
Dear has actually played Coachella before, as well as significantly bigger festivals in Europe, Asia, South America—places where dance music is regarded with a reverence that's hard to conceive of here. Most of his recent travels have been under the name Audion, the alias he uses when playing in his hardest, darkest techno guise. Hard and dark both apply to "Mouth To Mouth," an Audion single that became a dance-music anthem in 2006 on the strength of its ebbing beat and corkscrewing sound. It was a track guaranteed to work whenever Dear played it in the context it was designed for: in a dance club at 4 a.m., with lights convulsing and hands raised in the air.
Now Dear is in a decidedly unglamorous area of Brooklyn, spending an afternoon at his drummer's place in a tiny living room with a plant that could use a dusting. He's at work with his two bandmates, who are fumbling through notes and chords. Dear himself stands behind a little table with just a mixer, laptop, and microphone, while guitarist John Gaviglio and drummer Mark Maynard handle instruments with more traditional necks and heads. At one point, Maynard toys with a xylophone and Dear urges him to "make it sound more like an arpeggiator." A little later, Gaviglio puts together a guitar part that gets dismissed as "too Pavement." More than a few times during the course of practice, the ideal hi-hat sound is described as "glassy." Such is the language of a band in Brooklyn in 2007.
What proves surprising, after the notion that electronic music and rock are significantly different has been exhausted, is just how much energy and passion goes into playing songs that everybody in the room has heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Nobody's around. It's 3:30 p.m. on a humdrum Wednesday, and it's too hot in a room that's too small. The only true objective for the day is to get to a radio station to record a few songs for a show to air later. Nothing is really at stake.
Yet the whole band beams when they fall into parts of songs played perfectly, or at least fruitfully imperfectly. The difference between deficient and tight versions of songs played live can be elusively subtle, but there's no mistaking it in a room with nothing else going on. As Maynard thinks through different patterns on the drums, it's clear when he shifts into just the right phrasing. When Gaviglio tries his hand at mimicking sounds in songs that were heavily processed, it's a matter of sudden agreement when he finds the right chord to suit the mood. And then there's Dear, whose role in this setting is almost solely as a vocalist: As he goes through the words to certain songs for the third or fourth time, it becomes evident that he's actually singing to the song—when it sounds lackluster or uncertain, so does he; when it slots into place the way they were all hoping it might, Dear sounds serious and assured. The effect is so affirming as to make the measure almost mechanical.
And it's definitely most noticeable in Dear. On Asa Breed, a recent album that marries his ear for techno rhythms and atmospheres with his developing mind for song, Dear sometimes sounds pensive, like a singer who still expects his own voice to sound weird. Live, with a sense of songs in a state of happening, he sounds like he can't wait for the next verse to arrive so he can sing it again some other new way. While running through the dirge-y "Vine To Vine," he makes it known that the lyrics are about his great-grandfather, who was killed for his land by Texas Rangers in the 1920s. As he revisits those lyrics at different starting points and all out-of-order, Dear still sounds haunted.
But his leg proves most dynamic. Thanks to years of spinning records in clubs, Dear has a familiar move down cold—the one where DJs twitch and writhe from the waist down while staying steady upstairs for their hands. To any kind of beat, midtempo or fast, his leg bounces and bends like something in a cartoon. His bandmates call it "the leg thing," and remind him how it looks from everywhere but on stage.
But he's onto something, which becomes clear when they settle into "Fleece On Brain." It's the song that opens Asa Breed, and one sure to come near the peak of Big Hands' live shows—largely because of a hallmark Matthew Dear beat that bangs clean and upright, in the small but fertile space between what gets classified as house vs. techno. After a ho-hum first try, the band gets it together a bit more for a reprise. Maynard lays into his drums and makes more sense out of accompanying the drum machine. Gaviglio, on bass instead of guitar for a spell, picks up the quivering bassline coming from a computer and goes with it. And Dear, finished singing for the duration of a breakdown good for a techno loft party, lays into it all with his leg.
Until he freaks out and yells, "Hold on, hold on!" When he wheels around to check an unexpected sound from behind, it turns out a wine bottle has jumped out of a rack way back in the kitchen, coaxed by all the throbbing. There's wine and glass all over the floor, wreckage out of nowhere. It's tempting to ascribe it all to entropy in the manner of Stephen Hawking. Or maybe it was just a perceptive bottle of red that couldn't stand still.