21st Century Digital Boy
[Error] Mar. 22, 2004
By Matt Schild
"I loved Gary Numan in the '80s," Brett Gurewitz admits. "It wasn't really permissible to admit that when you're in an L.A. hardcore band. That was fully something that was a guilty pleasure or something for me."
After all these years as a punk guru, Gurewitz's out of the synth-pop closet. For some of his more literal fans, it's probably a gigantic shock. After all, Gurewitz was a founding guitarist for So-Cal stalwarts Bad Religion and now heads up punk über-label Epitaph Records, the imprint responsible for breaking Rancid, The Offspring and, of course, Bad Religion. He's not supposed to like Numan, Brian Eno or Aphex Twin or the dozens of electronic maestros he enthusiastically praises. He's supposed to be a meat-and-potatoes kind of dude, right?
Not anymore. With the release of his industrial side project Error's self-titled debut EP, Gurewitz shows there are still a few surprises left in punk's elder statesmen. Joined by the brother programming duo of Atticus (Tapeworm/Nine Inch Nails) and Leopold Ross and Dillinger Escape Plan singer Greg Puciato, the band touches on the classic strains of intense (read: tinnitus-inducing loud) industrial music with a flair for the sound that, for all intents and purposes, evaporated in about 1994. Error touches on everything from Skinny Puppy and Ministry's knack for abrasive distortion and schizophrenically crackled-out, tweaked sounds to the pounding programming of Front 242 or The Prodigy. If you hunt for it, you can pin Gurewitz's influence down in its trumped-up aggression (at times Error makes anything short of Killing Joke's legendary fury look like idle complaints) and brain-smacking volumes, as Error places raw volume above exploring industrial textures and space.
Despite Gurewitz's love for new-wave synth pop, Error sure as hell isn't Gary Numan. In fact, if the band's EP has a weakness it's that amid the hard-drive crashing covers of classic 999 tunes ("Homicide"), vicious production that pits a moog against a cracked-up beat ("Jack the Ripper") or pure industrial noise ("Nothing's Working") is that its so tied to the past. Electronic music changes faster than your top-of-the-line laptop becomes an outdated clunker. These are the days when the world's grown accustomed to the hyperactive attack of breakbeats. Squarepusher dabbles in experimental, though, riveting compositions that throw structure to the wind, while Aphex Twin continually revs up dance music with new twists and turns. Though the charms of industrial rock are timeless, its sound sure isn't. Error is a reminder of the style's long-gone glory days.
"I'm not claiming that Error is the most unique thing in the world," Gurewitz admits. "It's different for us, though. I think what's unique about it, or that's really interesting about it, we're trying to make music that's the farthest possible thing that you could ever conceive from Aerosmith. In other words, something that you can listen to and say 'This is not rock'n'roll in any form.' At the same time, we're trying to put it in a context that is a song."
Gurewitz's freshly declared love for electronic music may be a surprise, but its timing makes perfect sense. In the past half decade punk fans' minds radically opened up. What was once a scene that desperately clung to the fast-guitar blueprint of the '80s now embraces a staggering number of sounds. The funked-out art rock of The Dismemberment Plan and the hushed indie pop of Jets to Brazil to the new-wave revivalism of The Faint and Liars' experimental groove all enjoy a place in punks' hearts. Ten years ago, the notion of those acts cross-pollinating with punk audiences would have been ridiculous: Just as Gurewitz kept his appreciation for Numan a closely guarded secret, anything that fell outside a few rigid guidelines was verboten for punks.
Gurewitz knows first hand how fickle punk fans could be: Bad Religion's second album, 1983's Into the Unknown (Epitaph), slowed down the punk tempos and added a mass of keyboards and organs. To say it didn't fare well is an understatement. Fans hated its changes to the punk formula, which next to today's Liars and The Locust look pretty minor. It's the only Bad Religion studio album that's gone out of print in the band's lifetime, and in the biggest bout of denial since The Clash's Cut the Crap (1985, Sony), Bad Religion all but disavows its existence. While the world may not be ready for Bad Religion to bust out a vintage Roland synth or replace its drummer with a tick-tocking drum machine, it can accept an electronic side project from a rocker like Gurewitz.
"I'm happy to say that punk rock is really less reactionary than it used to be," Gurewitz says. "The scene that I came out of, which is basically the punk rock scene of the '80s, you were just not allowed to use a keyboard. It's illegal. Now, it's okay. Now it's okay to use a violin or a trashcan lid or a full-blown computer with all the processing power you could ever want or cool analog synths.
"Although I don't expect Bad Religion fans to particularly like Error, I don't expect any backlash. The ones who collect records might get it and hold onto it. Maybe five, ten percent will become fans because they have open minds. The other 90 percent will say 'Eh. That's just not for me.'"
The potentially blasé reception by the punks who know Gurewitz best for his six-string dynamite on albums like Suffer (1988, Epitaph) and No Control (1989, Epitaph) probably suits Error's life as a side project of a pair of rockers who are already incredibly busy in other avenues. Work in Nine Inch Nails, various remix projects and working the score for an upcoming television miniseries keeps Atticus busy, while Gurewitz's commitments to his band and label command much of his attention. If it falls on its face, it's anything but a disaster for the two, who have more than enough other successful avenues to keep them busy if Error doesn't take off.
Gurewitz and Atticus share much more than packed day planners, however. The two have a strong friendship that extends back a couple years before the notion of Error ever surfaced. Introduced by a mutual friend after Atticus moved from London to Hollywood, the two quickly hit it off. Soon they were spending weekends skiing together and taking their girlfriends -- who also hit it off with each other -- out to eat. After casually kicking around the idea for collaboration for years, Atticus and Leopold finally called Gurewitz on his promises, and brought him a finished song, asking him to provide lyrics and a vocal melody. A quickly free-styled melody laid the basis for "Nothing's Working," which, after Puciato was borrowed from the Escape Plan, quickly led to the development of the album.
The resulting artistic arrangement is a novel one, even by electronic music's standards. While Gurewitz provides creative input to the programming duo and writes lyrics, he doesn't actually perform a single note on the EP. He doesn't sing. There isn't a bit of guitar on Error. The Ross brother even deconstructed, revamped and rerecorded the one song written almost entirely by Gurewitz on guitar, "Jack the Ripper." Where less confident guitar players might struggle at such a tangential role in the finished project, Gurewitz thrives in the band's novel creative process.
"Maybe because I've been a producer, I understand," Gurewitz says. "I wrote the song. You write the song. A song is a song. It could be done in any particular style. For me, as an artist, I was really thirsting to do something that was a real change of pace. I couldn't do it on my own. It's great to have people who I love and whose work I love and respect to collaborate with me."
"I've never had the commitment to develop the expertise to make (my electronic music) sound like anything other than half baked. To me, Atticus is absolutely the top of that art form. His sounds are so original and so powerful and so, I don't know, glitchy and violent and evocative. I'm a big fan of what he does. I've seen him do it and I can't explain it."
For now, Error is simply a side project with a sole EP, a jaunt down the electronic-music road that fascinated Gurewitz for so long. It won't change the world and it won't change the music industry. It might, however, change the minds of a young generation of punk fans. If Mr. Brett can be involved in something as cool as Error, why can't we take a bit of interest in Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy? It might be too small to notice, but it happened: Gurewitz and company just pushed the punk mindset open a little more.