Damian Lazarus: Monster's Ball

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A tech house mastermind falls down the rabbit hole and crafts a monstrously good debut album.

Damian Lazarus doesn’t make chocolate—just ear candy. But with Smoke the Monster Out, Lazarus’ debut artist album, the DJ/producer has got much in common with a well-known confectioner: Willy Wonka.

Like Wonka, Lazarus, the founder of the freq’d tech-house label Crosstown Rebels, has forged a career on pure imagination, using quirky vinyl and exotic materials to appeal to a broad audience while simultaneously winking at those in the know. Both concern themselves with presentation and flavor, striving to formulate confections that stand the test of time. And both know that perfecting the Everlasting Gobstopper has its dark side.

“Willy was obviously a real bastard, a cruel genius,” reflects British ex-pat Lazarus by phone from Los Angeles, his adopted home since 2008. “He opened the world up to the innocence of children, but they were also caught up in some twisted business.

“I’m a big fan of bizarre oddities,” continues Lazarus as he winds his car home through the hills above Echo Park from the Griffith Observatory, where he has been filming for his label’s RebelRave.tv. He’s found many fascinating pockets within the urban sprawl, and along the way discovered hidden niches inside himself as well. “With this album, I wanted to show what’s been creeping out from within me. It started from an idea, and progressed to interesting, to sounding good, to being crafted, to being signed [to Get Physical], and now to live shows. So it is a monster.”

Lazarus even has an on-stage monster that would make Mary Shelley proud: a road case of perversely patched analog synths, delays, effects units, and pedals, with a mic and other assorted tone generators waiting to be splayed and slathered. It’s a Frankenstein—originally cobbled through the clip-based sequencer Ableton Live—but a playful beast with a personality that’s a culmination of obsessive curiosity.

For the album title, Lazarus borrowed a line from another British classic: Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Specifically, the title comes from after Alice has consumed the “Eat Me” cookie and has uncontrollably, uncomfortably grown to fill the cottage, inciting the Dodo to demand the structure be set afire.

Featuring nods to minimal, electro, psychedelic pop, and Brian Eno’s oblique suggestion to “Listen to the quiet voice,” Smoke the Monster Out represents the smoldering metamorphosis of a DJ who transcended electroclash and retro-futurism’s implosion. It also follows on from the skewed influences displayed in Lazarus’ brilliantly self-indulgent Lazpod podcast. Smoke the Monster Out layers harmonic robo-funk, pneumatic seepage, miniaturized verisons of Spiritualized’s dissociative symphonies, and dewy lullabies, peppering this stew with somnolent paranoia and naiveté. With melodies and lyrics from Swedish twins Taxi Taxi, as well as Lazarus’ own multi-processed voice, the album is full of post-party whimsy, restrained but weighty as it detunes into new territory.

“As you grow older, you can take more from a work, like discovering Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’s underbelly,” concludes Lazarus. “And I like to think I put that into my production, giving more for people to discover on further listening.”