John Tejada: Of Sound Mind

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John Tejada is searching through a copy of his latest CD, Cleaning Sounds Is a Filthy Business (Palette), trying to find this one track he likes to play in his DJ sets. "No, it's not that one," he mutters, hitting the skip button. "I always get all the titles mixed up. I've always been bad at my own titles."

Finally he finds the track–which, as it turns out, has a great title: "Science, I Think." He plays a few seconds of it; a springy bass beat and snare leading into a classic Detroit techno synth riff. It's easy to hear why he describes this new album, his tenth, as a "big combination of nostalgic ideas" and a push "forward into new ones."

So there's only one song out of 10 on Cleaning Sounds that he likes playing as a DJ? Not really, but "there are certain ones that are easier to play," he admits. "I've always been weird about my own stuff in my sets. I guess because it's more personal... it kind of interrupts my flow."

John Tejada is that kind of DJ–the one who's far more concerned about the flow of his set than he is about promoting his own tracks. He's that kind of producer, too, the rare one for whom the cliche "it's all about the music" really applies. Ask him about the title of the new album and he'll give you a true gearhead answer about working with "monophonic, semi-modular synths" that lack presets: "You start from wherever the knobs are at... so it's like polishing sound." Ask him about his band project, I'm Not a Gun, and he'll talk your ear off about what an amazing musician his partner Takeshi Nishimoto is. Ask him about his parents–who divorced when he was little–and he'll tell you proudly that Mom's an opera singer based in Los Angeles and Dad's a former conductor who now teaches music at a university in Vienna. As for their son's music: Mom "gets it," Dad "tries." But "he seems really proud," Tejada notes.

Ironically, it's Tejada's father who gets to see his son treated like a celebrity. In Austria, Germany, France, and beyond, Tejada is a headline-grabber. He regularly flies to Europe–Japan, too–to play megaclubs where he gets treated, as he jokingly puts it, "like David Hasselhoff." Then he takes off the Superman cape and returns to his Clark Kent life in Los Angeles. "I actually really appreciate my home," he insists. "Even though [electronic music] is not that big here, people are really appreciative when they hear something good, even if they're not totally familiar with it. Whereas overseas, people can be sort of jaded by the whole thing," he believes, because "there's thousands of big acts out there."

The closest thing Tejada has to a home base in L.A. is a Friday techno and breaks night called Compression, which happens twice a month at a little Hollywood club called King King. That's where, this month, Tejada will celebrate the tenth anniversary of Palette Recordings, the label he launched in 1996 as a place to "go with my own ideas and not be questioned."

True to form, Tejada takes on a self-effacing tone when discussing Palette, whose fans include heavy-hitters like Sasha, Steve Bug, and Josh Wink. "I didn't really expect it to last all that long," he shrugs. "It took me 10 years to really concentrate on it." You might think 42 releases in 10 years sounds pretty concentrated, but the truth is that many of Tejada's biggest releases–including the biggest, his 2004 hit "Sweat (On the Walls)"–have been for other labels (Poker Flat, Plug Research, and ~scape, among them). In fact, Cleaning Sounds is Tejada's first solo artist album on Palette; all of his past Palette releases have been collaborations, compilations, and 12"s.

"I know I've had a history of appearing on a lot of labels," he admits, "but if Palette continues to do what it's been doing for me''m really planning on keeping everything on Palette."

Judging from the quality of Cleaning Sounds, that's good news for Tejada fans. From start to finish, it's a tightly focused set of sparse, melodic techno that recalls everything from the old-school Detroit scene to the minimalist explorations of producers like Richie Hawtin to Tejada's own mid-'90s recordings for the British label A13. The echo of Tejada's own earlier productions is no coincidence; for this album, he put away his laptop and went back to an "all-hardware" studio, recording most of the album on "synths and drum units and effects devices." "You work with that stuff differently than you do on a computer," he says. "It just has a feel and a vibe."

Tejada is clearly looking forward to pursuing his newfound focus on Palette, and on "cutting out all the A&R people" and doing things his way. "Even if I'm wrong' don't care. I just want to be comfortable doing what I'm doing."

Fighting Time
John Tejada on his rock side project, Im Not a Gun.

I'm Not a Gun started when John Tejada heard Takeshi Nishimoto playing the sarod–a traditional instrument similar to a sitar–at an Indian restaurant in Los Angeles. The two met afterwards and got to talking about music, and eventually agreed to get together for a few jam sessions. Three albums later, and the duo has acquired a strong international following among fans of contemporary jazz and post-rock, boasting a unique sound that echoes everything from Tortoise to Pat Metheny.

For Tejada–who plays drums, synths, and a little guitar, as well as serving as the project's producer–the real excitement of I'm Not a Gun comes from working with a musician of Nishimoto's caliber. "He's a pretty bad-ass jazz and classical session guy," Tejada says. "It's been a real challenge to capture what he's all about, because he's really amazing. My goal is to eventually get that perfect recording of how he plays."

I'm Not a Gun's latest album, We Think as Instruments, was released in May of 2006 on the German label City Centre Offices. It continues the band's evolution away from the "post-rock" tag, a label Tejada isn't entirely comfortable with. "I think it's a compliment," he says of the Tortoise and Tristeza comparisons. "But I really don't think we sound like that. I think Takeshi's style is really unique."