Crowds. Lights. A new noise.
I stumble into the Toad on Osborne. The vast hum of the outside world recedes behind me, overcome by the sharp stabs of conversation all around. I exhale. I’m running late. I’m supposed to meet someone here for an interview. My feet take a couple of precipitous steps before my lagging mind halts them.
I have absolutely no idea who I’m looking for.
He’s known as “High Watt Electrocutions,” but his identity is veiled in secrecy. There are whispers and rumors, of course. But the elusive architect of the local music project never reveals his face in any material. I have only one clue — his Myspace.com page claims a Hawkwind influence. Indeed, it takes a particular brand of person to be un-ironically into the high-fantasy space-rock of Hawkwind. I scan the crowd for long hair, Rush t-shirts, dudes air drumming, or any hint of leather. One by one, I approach anyone possessing any of these traits with the same vague journalistic pick-up line.
“Are you influenced by Hawkwind?”
At best, I get an empty stare and uncomfortable silence. At worst, it’s a low-IQ banger who thinks I’m hitting on him with some obscure euphemism. And so it goes. I’m about to give up when I notice a rather unassuming guy at the bar. He’s got vinyl tucked under his arm, and there’s something about him. I feel like Indiana Jones laying eyes on that forlorn clay grail, and half-wait for some bearded medieval dude to tell me that I have “chosen wisely.” Oh, what the hell. I go for it.
“Are you influenced by Hawkwind?”
A faint grin cracks his lips. They part. A new noise.
“The Ryan Settee band? That would sound dumb.” the man behind High Watt Electrocutions tells me a half an hour later over scotch, “Everything is more powerful when you add an element of mystery to it.”
To prove it, Settee pulls out a copy of his latest votive offering to volume, Desert Opuses, released earlier this summer. Somewhere deep within the album jacket rests a nine-song slab of immense soundscapes pressed into translucent gold vinyl. Settee, however, only calls attention to the imposing cover image of voluminous amps awash with flames.
“You know, a lot of people wonder why I don’t put my picture on albums. Well, this . . . ” he rests his finger directly on the amps, “This is my face.”
Indeed, whatever you love, you are. And Ryan Settee is nothing less than a living, breathing, storehouse of sound, steeped in all manner of associated lore. For example, inquire about those amps and he’ll conjure, with palpable admiration, the legend of seminal doom outfit Sleep and the time “their label gave them 100 grand to make an album (Dopesmoker), and they went off and spent 75 grand of it just on amps.”
Settee’s own musical enterprise might not be quite that insanely universe-cracking, but High Watt Electrocutions is still a total triumph of “loud.” Perhaps some of the overall effect is due to the artist’s astute realization that powerful sounds are best tag-teamed with powerful thematic tropes. Indeed, rather than artistically represent his own life, something Settee says would amount to “a concept album about cooking up steak,” Desert Opuses ventures off into more obscure territory — ancient Egypt. And, where The Bangles only dredged up legacies of exoticism when they urged Western white people to “Walk Like an Egyptian” (whatever that means), High Watt Electrocutions actually engages real, relevant topics.
“There’s so many relevant parallels with modern society [in ancient Egypt]. You know, there’s political corruption, hierarchy, oppression. Those things are still around,” Settee says. “Some people might think that’s kind of ‘out there,’ but it’s not like I’m singing about unicorns, trolls or Tolkien. For me to do that would be pretty phony.”
Actually, Settee’s vocals are so buried in the mix on Desert Opuses that he could be singing about unicorns, or cooking steak, for that matter. Voice simply adds texture to the huge sonic palate, a cacophonous drone probably most lucidly described as sounding like a dishwasher on drugs. Indeed, High Watt Electrocutions is truly a new noise, one without any obvious touchstone in Winnipeg.
“I want to do something that no one’s doing here,” Settee says. “There’s some post-rock here, a bit of shoe-gaze, but really nothing like what I’m trying to do. For whatever reason, for off-the-beaten path stuff, it’s not really the most nurturing environment.”
The artist is quick to stress the underlying accessibility of his work, however.
“It’s kind of like stepping into water,” he says. “Sure, it’s cold at first, maybe a little uninviting. But once you get into it, explore a little, it definitely starts to get warmer and more comfortable.”
Settee sometimes performs live with “improvised free-jazz art project” the Broken Orchestra of Winnipeg, wielding the mighty microKORG synthesizer. However, High Watt Electrocutions is strictly studio-bound, a consideration which affords the project it’s considerable aura of mystery. Crafted within the confines of a small one bedroom apartment-cum-recording altar, it is a true home-grown effort, enabled by the digital revolution.
“Digital technology has gotten so cheap that the power has been opened up to the people if they want to use it.” Settee says, “The great thing about your home being a studio is that you can take your time. No having to crank out 12 songs in two hours. Some people like deadlines, not me.”
Oops. Nothing snaps a writer into self-awareness quicker than the word “deadline.” I glance outside — it’s getting late. Yet, as darkness falls, the once-obscure figure in front of me is becoming ever-more illuminated. Less an enigma and more a real person, I can’t help but wonder about the practical considerations of being High Watt Electrocutions. Like, just how shitty is it to live in the apartment next to this guy anyway?
“[Recording] is actually quieter than most people might think,” Settee assures. “I do record guitars in my apartment, but it’s not like they’re completely maxed out like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, where the amp just blows him away and he’s flying across the room.”
Settee pauses for a moment, as if absorbing the image. For the first time, he lets an unabashed smile crease his face.
“Although that would be pretty awesome.”
A few minutes later and I’m out into the evening drone again, a copy of Desert Opuses in hand. The sun has slipped behind the modest cityscape, and I can almost hear the sidewalks yawn as they cool beneath my feet. Somewhere in the distance, tired buses lurch. Occasionally, there’s a sharp laugh or crash as the night settles in. I hear it, and I’m almost half-ready to go check out what’s going on . . .
I think it was Rimbaud who said that his deepest unrest — his insatiable drive to move forward — was compelled by the pursuit of “a new noise.” Whatever, it’s getting late. I’ve got to get home and listen to this record.