When a band decides to call itself I’m Not a Band, it’s kind of like a bear coming out of the woods and saying “I’m not a bear.” The first thing you think is, “Yeah right, prove it.” Then the next thing you think is, “Holy shit! That bear just talked!” So in this case, when some German guy with a synthesizer and a violin and a pretty lady on vocals tell you that they’re not a band, try and suppress that gut instinct that, well, they look like a band, and sound like a band, and, who knows, probably smell like a band, and focus instead on the less obvious point: Why are they telling me anything at all? To this question, I think, there is always only one answer: they have something to hide.
Electronic music does interesting things to people’s identities. Perhaps it’s something about sheer incomprehensibility of the racks of ridiculous machinery covered in knobs and screens and buttons that most DJs carry around: as Tom Waits said, “What’s he building in there?” While not everyone may be able play guitar or drums, at least most people understand how those instruments work: bang on this, hit these strings with a pick, let’s move on. But unlike bands that futz around on standard hardware, electronic musicians tend to cloak their technique in all kinds of secrecy to the point where alienation from the process of musical production becomes both point of the style and its barometer for coolness. Have you ever seen anyone do an air-ADSR-envelope-tweak? No, because a) it would look idiotic, and b) who the fuck knows what an ADSR envelope is? I’m Not a Band, on the other hand, whose sweet brand of blippy/bloopy electropop certainly qualifies, at least in theory, for the electronica cloak-of-mystery, decides instead to turn up the TMI envelope.
So here’s the story. Stephan J. is born to a pair of professional German musicians and is subsequently classically trained on violin. In 2005, he moves to England, is wowed by club culture, and switches his primary axe to the laptop. Jana D. joins the project in 2009, and the pair proceed to perform, win a MySpace best-new-band competition, and release some groovy material. Interesting here is not necessarily the bildungsroman of a German violin prodigy transformed into a rampaging techno star by the London’s bright lights and pulsing subwoofers, but the fact that the group wears this cultural cross-over on its sleeve. In a genre where obscuring poses, from Daft Punk’s robot hats, to Crystal Castles blinding strobe light blasts, are the order of the day, I’m Not a Band has opted for something else: transparency. See this violin?, says Stephan, I’m going to play it in an electro band. Hear these complex harmonies and non-conventional song structures and intricate dynamics? Those are there because I’m a classical musician from Germany. There is a stunning honesty to these caveats, and a stunning payoff as well: these two tracks, despite the biography behind them, are big-time stunners.
A-side “Crazy,” strikes a fascinating balance between off-kilter pop somewhere in the vicinity of another violin-toting group, The Raincoats, and the synth-stomp of a less linear Matt and Kim. I’m not exactly sure if this is club music—it may be a bit too jittery for nonstop floor action—but it certainly sets up a cool flipside to IDM-style braindancing. Where “intelligence” in the world of groups like Autechre or Aphex Twin translates into technical difficulty—the programmer’s equivalent of guitar shredding—I’m Not a Band imagines a kind of electro art-pop that engages the higher functions and the amygdala simultaneously. Passages are unpredictable, variations plentiful. Dance smarter, seems to be the message, but still dance.
The second, vocal-less track “This Is It,” is a slightly more straightforward bit of chiptune bounce, warm, interweaving arpeggiated synths that remind me a bit of what someone like Pink Stallone would do if trained in the Suzuki method. The title of the tune, while seemingly innocuous, is actually something of a call to arms: if “Crazy” dabs little bits of I’m Not a Band’s storied violin noncommittally around the composition, this song puts the fiddle, so to speak, in the middle. See this violin, says Stephan. This is it! Indeed, about three minutes in, strains of strings begin to creep into the pulse like some kind of phantom baroque radio station and start getting louder. It’s a cool effect–by the track’s end, synth and violin have essentially exchanged prominence in the mix. Stephan, the orchestra boy seduced by big beats and sequencers, seems to have come full circle.
But here’s the big question, and the one that goes back to my first point about having something to hide. Is there any difference between I’m Not a Band’s I’m a Real Violin, and any other electronic artist’s employment of a string-section preset on a Korg? No, I think, but also yes.
Here’s why. In the age of Ableton, any recorded sound can be quantized, chopped up, synchronized with a beat, and manipulated to resemble any other sound. So, in terms of actual sonics, what we hear on the record, I’m Not a Band’s violin, by virtue of their electropop meme, is essentially meaningless. I’m trusting that these guys use a real violin, but when it comes to this kind of thing, trust is all we can go on.
On the other hand, I’m Not a Band’s mere insistence upon this biographical detail is necessary to maintaining their own procedural mystery. The violin, we can say, is the equivalent of the Daft Punk helmet. So what, then, are I’m Not a Band hiding? The fact that they have nothing to hide.