The one-man band was once the occupation of the odd and eccentric. A brother to the 13th-century village idiot, this musician literally bore the burden of a full band on his back, lugging a woodwind section, bass drum, banjo and whatever else he could loop and tether onto his body. He looked ridiculous and the music inspired a sense of the novel, which, after a song or two, gave way to pity and a small donation.
The novelty of the one-man band is once again fading in the early 21st century. As more musicians figuratively bear the burden of a band on their backs in their own personal studios, though, that novelty is giving way to awe-inspiring compositions of complexity and beauty. This, at least, is the result of Boy Eats Drum Machine's latest, Pleasure, a crisp and powerful solo outing of experimental pop by Portland's Jonny Ragel.
The evolution that led to Pleasure started more than 20 years ago when DJs discovered something that would make the one-man music maker's job a little less taxing: the break. A break—and don't worry if you didn't already know this—is a single snippet of a song that is sampled (or recorded) and played over and over again to create a seamless beat for a new song. Whether it was a funky James Brown drum track or a quirky Kraftwerk synth line, the repetition did something amazing: It took the burden of the beat off the musician.
Twenty-some years later, the break has been used in dance music, played with by pop musicians like Moby and reinvented through the mash-up by artists like Danger Mouse on The Grey Album. But there's something about the breaks used by these one-man shows that's still a little novel, or, at the very least, nostalgic. Most of their breaks are recognizable. Whether it's one of those James Brown beats, an old soul sample or a looped George Harrison guitar line, these breaks bring cultural baggage with them (and, to the delight of radio programmers, an identifiable hook). The old one-man band might have had an unsteady rhythm but at least his music sounded original.
In this sense, Boy Eats Drum Machine is closer to that guy with the bass drum strapped to his back than he is to Moby. When contemplating the creation of his next Boy Eats Drum Machine album earlier this year, the 31-year-old Ragel was turned on to an album of original live drum tracks called Bridgetown Breaks. The album features drum lines by Talkdemonic's Kevin O'Connor, Systemwide's Josh Skins, QuiVaH's Charles Neal and Menomena's Danny Seim. It also features a message: take these tracks and use them however you wish. Which is exactly what Ragel did, looping and manipulating six of the tracks to create a record that has a background of Portland's best drummers, but, to the listener, will sound like a wholly and mesmerizing original work.
Ragel is not bearing the burden of a full band, or wearing the weight of his cultural predecessors. Rather, he is being lifted up by Portland's drummers, carrying with him a sonic culture and adding to it with his passionate baritone vocals and distinct and instrumentation to create something new truly great. Not bad for a one-man band.
Boy Eats Drum Machine will open (as a three-piece band) for Princess Superstar Dec. 3 at the Doug Fir Lounge.