Rod Modell’s intoxicating fusion of natural and electronic sounds can be traced back to one moment at a coffeehouse in Detroit more than a decade ago. “I don’t really know what the hell happened that night,” says the dub-techno maven of the gig (performed as Waveform Transmission). What he does remember is this: It was around 10:30 p.m. inside the century-old Victorian that at the time housed Zoot’s Coffeehouse. Candles lit the room and the doors and windows were left wide open so that the sounds of thunder, rainfall, and car tires brushing across water could bleed in. Coaxing a drone out of an analog synthesizer, his ear caught ambient sounds as they blended into the scene, sonically and spiritually. The audience appeared to be passed out. “I think that these people were freaked out,” he says emphatically.
Those spirits drift through Modell’s myriad projects: Echospace’s dub-laced trips into the dead of winter; Deepchord’s Detroit techno-blooded grooves; his solo work built from field recordings in urban and rural Michigan, resulting in tracks like “Aloeswood” (the opener of his recent Incense & Black Light disc), which indistinguishably blends thunderous dub rimshots and actual thunder.
“I look for sounds that basically throw you off a little bit,” Modell says of his nighttime sound-hunting. In one experiment, he kept his tape machine at the ready to record lone cars passing his home in Port Huron, Michigan, about an hour Northeast of Detroit. “I could hear [the car sounds] disintegrating for 25 minutes,” he says. A similar approach informs Echospace, Modell’s partnership with Chicagoan Steven Hitchell, which garnered critical attention last year with the album The Coldest Season. Gusts of raw static and rain-like patter saturate the record’s ambient-dub excursions. “It’s about finding those magical, little grains of sound,” says Modell.
Modell isn’t divorced from the dancefloor–he’s mastered scores of house and techno records, and club ambiance influences his recordings. For instance, Modell and Deepchord collaborator Mike Schommer were mesmerized by DJs who played nothing but the opening bassline and kickdrum of a track. “They just had three things going on and it was beautiful,” Modell recalls. In response, Deepchord’s dub-techno stealthily peels away melody, leaving a bare chassis of beats to ghost-ride down Woodward Avenue. Vantage Isle Sessions, which collects remixes of a 2002 Detroit Electronic Music Festival performance, finds the duo swerving through empty, neon-smeared streets, and recalls Berlin’s Chain Reaction label, minus the anemic minimalism.
Despite his dance grooves, Modell has a distaste for “musical” things. He’s not thrilled by the way The Coldest Season’s “Empyrean,” which struts to a reggae-spiced rhythm, resembles a song. He considers rhythm to be a mere metronome for his work. “The rhythm is incidental–it’s the worst part of the song really,” he says. “Unfortunately, everybody likes the rhythm.” Then again, this comes from a man who’s fond of driving around to the sounds of schmaltz god Engelbert Humperdinck. “I wish I could call myself a music-hater,” he laments, “but I really can’t.”