Electronic music doesn't rate on a list of Ohio's top exports - those would be machinery, vehicles and natives who pointedly correct anyone who doesn't say "The Ohio State University." Regardless, Columbus is currently awash in artists whose music is celebrated everywhere from New York to Los Angeles.
Electronic music doesn't rate on a list of Ohio's top exports - those would be machinery, vehicles and natives who pointedly correct anyone who doesn't say "The Ohio State University."
Regardless, Columbus is currently awash in artists whose music is celebrated everywhere from New York to Los Angeles, in addition to far-flung international locales like Japan, Germany and Sweden, even as they remain relatively anonymous here at home.
Sean Conner, who records and performs under the name Interferon, said a majority of his downloads and plays originate overseas, with France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom falling at the top of the rankings. This international appeal carries over into the musician's business dealings. Earlier this year, Conner released the Interferon EP Envenomed on the Mexico City-based B55 Records, and he has plans to release a single on the London-based Dred Collective, as well as a 12-inch via Germany's Mindcut Records. Additionally, a bulk of Interferon's booking requests initiate internationally; Conner played shows in Germany and Ireland this year and has plans to tour Europe more extensively in 2016.
Dayton expat Keith Rankin, who records as Giant Claw and co-founded the underground label Orange Milk Records, has taken a similar approach to touring, playing sparingly in Columbus and focusing his efforts outside the state. Recently the musician returned from a trek that stretched as far west as Colorado and as far south as Texas, and he has tentative plans to visit Japan in 2016 (Orange Milk has developed something of a cult audience in the country). Like many artists interviewed, Rankin said he still attracts his largest followings via the Internet, though he remains wary of how these digital successes translate to the real world.
"You'll have 50,000 SoundCloud followers and then be playing shows to 40 people," he laughed. "The Internet and real life are different realms, and you can have decent attention online that doesn't translate in real life."
"There was a time we weren't playing Columbus, and we'd go out and play a lot of places on the West Coast … because there wasn't anything going on here," said Casey Immel-Brown, who teams with Mollie Wells in Funerals, which originated as a trip-hop trio in 2009 but has staked out darker, more electro-oriented territory since paring back to a duo shortly after its formation.
Thankfully, however, this is starting to change.
"They said a prophet is even a stranger in his homeland, but I think that's becoming less true now," said self-described "Columbus lifer" Kevin Kennedy, who records alongside James Johnson in the Fallen and has had his solo work (released under the name fbk) spun at premier nightclubs like Berghain and Tresor, both in Berlin, Germany. "It's a great thing Columbus is starting to big-up its own because there are a lot of talented musicians here. I'm happy there are more voices now than less."
The current musical resurgence has been fueled by a close-knit scene that includes artists like the Fallen, Druid Cloak and Interferon, among many others, and has some of its roots in a series of small, off-the-radar events that started to gain traction around 2010. According to multiple sources, one of the most influential of these was a series of informal house parties hosted by the late Conner Campassi, who died unexpectedly in March 2015 at the age of 26.
"He brought all these disparate groups together in a way no one had really done," said Wells. "It was the stuff he was doing that made people go, 'Oh shit, this is happening in town, and it's amazing!' It's how we met all these different groups of people … we wouldn't normally have had exposure to. Conner brought them all into the fold."
Campassi, who also performed alongside Marco Skugor in the electronic duo Dirty Current, hosted many of these events in his Short North-adjacent loft, going so far as to organize his furniture to better accommodate the dancing throng. Couches and tables were generally pushed up against the walls, and his bed was stashed away in a raised storage space to increase available square footage on the main floor.
"He was ahead of the curve and at the forefront of bringing people back into a more intimate space," said local DJ/producer Moxy Martinez, who's gearing up to debut her latest project BLK W^X, a duo with pRODUCT, in late November. "I remember showing up the first time [Conner invited me to attend] … and it was like, 'Oh shit, I'm in a roomful of DJs.' I was able to talk to and dance with people I'd only seen from floor to stage, and to make it real and not this separate 'I'm the artist, and you're the fan' thing. Everyone was right there together … and a lot of the energy Conner created with those private events has filtered into [the current electronic scene]."
Further supporting this point, even musicians with zero connection to Campassi's parties laud the spirit of cooperation inherent in today's electronic scene.
"Everyone is welcome," said Jacoti Sommes, whose spaced-out sound merges hip-hop and funk with his more exploratory, out-there urges. "Nobody gets turned away, and there's none of that 'You're not good enough,' or 'You're just starting.' That doesn't happen, man. Everybody has to start somewhere, and who are we to say you can't be part of this?"
This all-for-one spirit frequently bleeds over into the music itself, and Sommes admitted he regularly incorporates techniques learned from the likes of Kevin Kennedy and Jesse Baker in his own work.
"For me, I learn everything best by hearing the techniques that are used and absorbing them, so I love just hanging out and chopping it up," he said. "I'll rip off anybody at any given time, and I hope they notice, too, because that means I'm doing it right."
The current electronic scene is driven by a strong DIY spirit - it's little surprise to learn a number of performers migrated over from the hardcore, punk and riot grrrl scenes - and further democratized by the music's relatively low barriers to entry.
"If you can get a laptop, hell, if you get whatever shitty drum machine you can find, you can make this music," Wells said. "There are no rules. Ultimately it's about 'Does it sound good?' and 'Did you have fun making it?'"
Unlike some cities with a defined electronic sound - think the long-established house music scenes in Chicago and Detroit - Columbus remains more of a sonic melting pot, incorporating acts that range from Kevin Failure's Ape Iron, an aggressive-yet-rhythmic project whose shows build around jarring, car-crash effects, to the comparatively well-manicured, synthesizer-based explorations of Giant Claw, which released a hypnotic new full-length, Deep Thoughts, in early November.
"There's a history of electronic music here … but there's not a regional sound," Failure said. "Electronic music has always been pretty diverse. You're only limited by your imagination and your control over your equipment, basically."
"That's one thing I love about Columbus: It does not have a defined sound," said Joseph Morris, who has adopted this trait both in his work as a solo artist under the name Druid Cloak ("With this project … I wanted the freedom to take chances, and I didn't want to be defined," he said) and as the owner and operator of Apothecary Compositions, a boutique label that has released everything from pulsating techno tracks to dreamier sound collage recordings. "We're not labeled as a specific thing, and all of the scenes are interconnecting and working together. We have noise shows connecting to the experimental electronic shows connecting to the techno shows. It's a big ring of listeners and participants … that is so unlike many of the cities I've visited."
Moxy Martinez, for her part, described Columbus as an "experimental playground," ideally suited to pursuing music that doesn't fit a particular mold.
"It's not as clique-y as certain big cities," she said. "I think a lot of artists here are less like, 'I'm this one thing.' I'm not minimal tech. I'm not hip-hop. I'm not new wave or trip-hop. I'm all of it."
"It's gotten to the point where I see people from all over the city who aren't just into house or just into drum and bass," Kevin Kennedy added. "They're into music that makes them feel something."
A number of musicians interviewed credit Campassi for helping cultivate this more open-minded, musically curious approach, effectively describing him as connective tissue pulling together the fibers of these once disparate scenes. "His ability to bring people together as a social glue is not to be understated," Failure said.
But rather than simply accepting Campassi's passing as the end of an era - "And it was, and that's OK," Wells said - those who knew him have tried to sustain the sense of momentum he helped create.
"When Conner died, it was like, 'We can't let any of this fall,'" Wells said. "It was like, 'How can we take this spark this dude had … and move it forward?'"
"Losing him was just so sad [and] the scene is certainly missing him," said Sean Conner, who played his first show as Interferon at one of Campassi's house parties. "But others have picked up that torch [and] things are heading in a really good direction. Hell, they are already really good."