Telekom Electronic Beats

How A Molecular Biologist Makes Techno

Beau Wanzer’s music sometimes makes me think of the kids I knew growing up who stayed up really late in their parents’ basements to smoke pot, watch B-movie horror flicks and discuss esoteric shit with a side of junk food.

At my recent high school reunion, it appeared as if those kids were finally recognized as hip. Former classmates seemed drawn to them for their wide-ranging, no-brow interests—not unlike the various producers, DJs and labels who’ve been consistently hailed in recent years for infecting electronic music with punk-related influences.

In aural terms, the Midwesterner producer makes spooky, straight-to-tape hardware jams that often feature samples of creepy laughter and unsettling vocal snippets, murky sound palettes and oozing rhythms. Take “Groove’s No Zone” from his first untitled LP: as echo-y whispers flicker in the periphery of the mix, a lurching, emetic synth rhythm woos the listener as if it were a sonic fly zapper seducing intoxicated bugs who want to, well, zone out to something groovy. In a club context, his music can feel simultaneously alienating, dissociative and mesmerizing. His output includes a handful of releases on labels like LIES, Rush Hour and Russian Torrent Versions, a slew of self-released vinyls and collaborative records with artists like Traxx under the name Mutant Beat Dance. The latest, another untitled LP, is another collaboration, this time with Texan duo Corporate Park.

Though he explained to Electronic Beats over email that he tries to separate his music from his job, the “surreal experiences” he’s encountered in his career as a molecular biologist—such as working in a lab filled with wall-to-wall refrigerators filled with human brains—have affected his artistic approach. As we chatted via email over the course of a few months, Wanzer reminded me of those heady, creative stoners from high school. He was modest and soft spoken but not aloof and seemed genuinely appreciative that anyone was interested in him or his music. The guys from my hometown didn’t give the impression that the newfound attention was validation a long time coming, nor does Wanzer expect his intrigue to the media to last. But it’s probably that very attitude that ensures he’ll continue to make cool stuff, likely late at night after the normies have gone to sleep.

People tend to describe your music with phrases like “darkness,”grotesque,” and “nightmarish visions.” Can you tell me about your arts and culture interests outside of music?

At a fairly young age I became interested in horror/cult films and special effects, and I subscribed to many American horror magazines like Fangoria, Gorezone, Toxic Horror and Femme Fatales. I remember getting off the bus from grade school and running to the mailbox to see if my latest copies were in the mail. I was obsessed with them. My parents didn’t moderate much of what I watched; they would drive me to the local video store and I’d rent a couple movies every Friday night.

I’m still a rabid fan of horror/cult movies, but I don’t intentionally try to convey this mood in my music. I think the influence is more subconscious. Some of my favorite directors within those parameters are people like Frank Henenlotter, Brian Yuzna, Stuart Gordon, Hershall Gordon Lewis, John Landis, and Lucio Fulci. A lot of these directors share a common ground in that they mix humor with horror. I think that (if anything) this is what influences my sound: a mix of the macabre with a bit of laughs along the way.

For example, I made “Drew is a Dog Eater” for my friend Drew, who accidentally ate dog while visiting China. It’s good to laugh at yourself and not take things too seriously…especially when making “dark” music or whatever. I don’t think people should take themselves or their aesthetic too seriously. I tend to not take them very seriously in turn.

Do you think a lot of electronic producers tend to take things too seriously? 

It’s not really an issue for me; I mostly don’t care. Nothing is wrong with being passionate about what you do, but when it gets to the point where it becomes less about the music and more about the politics of the music—that’s when I lose interest. Scene politics, label quarrels, he said/she said, weekly witch-hunts, what is or isn’t “techno,” whatever…who cares. Just make music.

Have you noticed any other trends or common sensibilities about contemporary electronic producers? Is there any zeitgeist or general feeling you’re aware of—for better or worse? 

With the amount of music that comes out on a daily basis, I think it’s hard to determine the trajectory of what is “trendy” or common. Musical trends cycle so fast, and I don’t really pay attention to what’s hot and what’s not. In a general sense, though, I think people are a bit more open-minded in terms of what they want to hear in a club setting—at least here in Chicago. I love hearing and seeing producers and DJ’s who stray from the constant 4/4, boom boom template. It’s refreshing and keeps things interesting. But overall, I think it’s mostly important to do what you want, with limited external influences.

How would you personally describe your music to someone who’s never heard it?

I have many influences and that affects my output. I think I’d just tell them it’s rhythmic in nature, but not necessarily dance music. Industrial and its various amalgamations had an impact on the type of music I make to some extent, but I don’t think about it when I’m working on music. In terms of classification of a specific sound or genre, I don’t consider my music techno. Some of it might fall within those constraints in terms of a “DJ tool,” but again it’s not something I think about when making music.

Would you say that you reject—even if unconsciously—the idea that recording and releasing records should not be a precious thing?

I think that depends on the artist and how seriously they take their music. I think an artist’s music is personal by nature and it being released and heard by others is a precious thing. For me though, I don’t take myself too seriously; I just enjoy the act of making music. If people dig it, great. If not, that’s okay too.

Do you ever feel hesitant about releasing so much music physically? 

I didn’t start physically releasing music until a couple years ago. I’d been hesitant for almost 15 years to release any of it. So it really feels like I’m just catching up now and putting out these things that have been sitting around for years. It’s fun going through old tapes and not remembering the music I recorded on them. I have put out a number of releases the past couple years, but I definitely don’t release with the volume I see others.

You’re a molecular biology researcher by day. I read an interview where you said the repetition of your job parallels the repetition of making music. Are there any other connections or inspirations from one craft to the other? 

Sometimes I work in some bizarre situations. For a while, I was working in a lab that was wall-to-wall refrigerators of human brains. I once spent a summer at this army base in New Mexico where I was working in these giant metal buildings surrounded by thousands of dog tissues that had been there since the 1950s. I think these types of surreal experiences have some influence on my music, but for the most part I try to keep my work and music as separate as possible.

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All of your collaborative projects feel unique, but also cohesive—meaning they always bear hallmarks that I associate with your sound. How would you describe this Corporate Park record compared to your past stuff? What makes this one unique? 

The process isn’t much different than any of the other collabs I’ve done: hook up different pieces and just start dicking around until something interesting comes, then hit record. Shane English and Jonah Lange [of Corporate Park] both have a similar approach to making music as I do. They don’t overthink it. It’s very spontaneous and they know their equipment. It feels very fluid and stress-free. I think this record is a bit more constrained than some of my previous projects. That has a lot to do with having a minimal set up—each of us focused on two things, rather than juggling a bunch of gear. We kept it simple.

What were your recording sessions like in Texas? What was the vibe like when you were hanging out? 

My parents live in a small town in Oklahoma. Over the holidays, I always bring a couple drum machines and synths to their house and set up a small studio and record. Denton, Texas is only a three-hour drive, so I pack up my gear and head down to chill with those guys for a couple days each year. The vibe is like this: I arrive; I ogle Jonah’s VHS collection; we put on a record and start setting everything up. Nothing works. Then, we re-set everything up. It works. Jonah has some beef Bourguignon cooking. We eat and crack open a cold one. Record for five-to-six hours. Sleep and repeat. We usually have a movie running the whole time just to have something to point and laugh at.

While you’ve said that you appreciate being able to separate your job from your music career, you’ve had more press and gigs in the past year. Does it ever feel tempting to try doing music full-time?

It is exciting, but you can’t let that cloud reality. The reality is that it’s difficult to make a living off of underground music in the US unless you are constantly touring—and even then it’s a struggle. Geographically, the US is difficult to tour and most people don’t have the expenses to fly you out/pay you enough to live off that. I don’t know how much press helps nowadays anyway. The pace that music moves in the media is so fast that people’s attention spans are basically nonexistent.

One thing I really love about your work is how you incorporate these really idiosyncratic, often weird or funny older songs with vocals in your online mixes. Where do you find new and old music?

I’d say that my record-buying habits are a bit out of control. You know you have a problem when you fall asleep to Discogs. Although it’s nice to have the instant gratification of buying online, I much prefer digging and getting my hands dirty in shops. It feels special if you dig for hours and only find one amazing record. I’d say my collection is pretty diverse: old punk 45’s, industrial, electro, techno, experimental, etc. I really love sound effects and spoken word records too. When I was in Berlin recently, I only bought two records: Mike Dearborn’s Strictly Underground and this German 7″ that’s just recordings of different species of frogs. That kinda sums up my buying habits.

What new artists or producers (who you haven’t collaborated with) are you into right now? 

I don’t listen to a lot of new music, but there are a few projects that I’ve been digging lately: Ariisk, Orphan Shlitz, Eindkrak, Colin Gorman Weiland, Maoupa Mazzocchetti, Sandman, Parrish Smith, Silent Girlfriend, Pelada, Champagne Mirrors, Michael DeMaio, Maar, Stallone the Reducer and this two piece from Chicago called HOGG.

What’s the most satisfying thing about making music for you? At the end of the day, why do you do what you do?

I don’t think I get satisfaction from it necessarily. It’s just something I have the urge to do. Having the opportunity to travel, meet new freaks and perform in places I never thought I’d ever visit is very exciting. Until a year ago, I’d never been outside of the US because I never had the money or the means to do so. It’s still bizarre to me that people are interested in my music enough to let me do that. I’m very grateful and remind myself to enjoy it while it lasts. Regardless, I’ll never stop making music.

Published January 11, 2016.