My Life as a Live PA Artist

photo and quick treatment by Valorie Pudsey

When I was very little, I used to jam in my head, making guitar-like sounds, and sometimes try to sing them out loud, much to my parent's amusement (and eventual concern when I was still doing it at an age where the doctor said it wasn't normal any more). I was given a kid's Mickey Mouse guitar at one point, but never really got into it. Fretted instruments have eluded me to this day.

At the age of 12 or so, I visited some cousins in England, and they had a Rolf Harris "Stylophone", a very primitive monophonic keyboard instrument, played with a special pencil wired to the case, that made electrical contact with a printed-circuit keyboard. See here for an example. I was fascinated with this thing. My parents ended up relenting and buying me one, which I installed a line-out jack into, and started to process and modify the sounds in a primitive manner (I was also a child electronics geek, did I mention that? Living out in the country away from all other kids leads to some strange hobbies...) My parents bought me a couple of the Rolf Harris song books that came with the stylophone, but I had no idea what most of these songs were (mainly bad cover tunes from long before my generation), so started making my own songs instead, or trying to figure out melodies that I knew from the radio.

I honestly can't remember if the topic of "parents paying for music lessons" ever came up when I was first getting into this stuff, but I don't think it did. We lived in the country, and having someone drive out to our house for lessons would have been prohibitively expensive. Besides, for the first few years, I was approaching it as an electronics geek rather than a musician. By the time I realized I was serious about the music part too, I was already teaching myself and creating my own style. To this day, I've never had any formal training in keyboards, though I did take hand-drumming lessons for a while. I've soaked up a fair chunk of music theory from people I've been in bands with (and my ex-coworker Kevin, who years ago showed me the blues scale, just on a whim... THANK YOU!), but as for technique... it's all my own doing.

Around the age of 14, I convinced my parents to buy me my first 'real' synthesizer, a Roland SH-1000... monophonic only, but fully analog, very warm sounding, and like all true synthesizers, able to produce an infinite array of sounds. I did the best I could to make real music with this (sometimes paired with my friend's Casiotone!) but the ability to get only one note at a time was a bit of a limitation, though I worked out some interesting arpeggio techniques. Then I managed to obtain a Hammond M3 organ that had been fire-damaged, and replaced much of the damaged original circuitry with a simple Radio Shack preamp, and could suddenly get organ chords... a big improvement.

When I was 17 or so I joined a band called Riff-Raff, with some guys in school, using my SH-1000 to try to play Van Halen, Black Sabbath and Rush covers... well intentioned, but not very effective. Still, it was my first experience with band dynamics, such as how to handle belligerent and/or alcoholic and/or egotistical bandmates! We played a live gig at the high school, and this also a first experience... with how to piss off a soundman: change patches and be oblivious to the fact that the new sound was four times louder than the previous one.

Somewhere around the age of 19, while going to University of Calgary, I was experimenting with a ring modulator made with a PAIA kit... and there was a red input level LED, with instructions that "signal level should be kept low enough that the light is NOT on, or else distortion may result!" I was curious what a distorted organ chord would sound like, so I cranked it right up. The resulting sound (my first powerchord) changed my life. I had always enjoyed ambient synthesizer music (Tangerine Dream et al), and even Kraftwerk for that matter, and liked the idea of bringing spacy noises into rock and roll, the way Pink Floyd or Hawkwind would... but now I could also get the crunchy noises that only the guitarists could before! At that stage of my life, I was much more of a rocker than anything else... however, underlying the Alberta small-town headbanger was also some very serious love for electronic music, in the form of underground "New Wave", electropop, or whatever you'd like to call it. In my early teens I had been fanatically immersed in this music, much of it due to the influence of my friend Max from Calgary. Gary Numan was a huge favorite and still counts as a big influence for me... I also listened to Devo, Ultravox, Nash the Slash, early Human League (before they went pop) and many others. However, as I got older, and more experienceed at making music, anything that was funky or had a drum machine beat to it was now "disco" or "rap" and therefore not for me. Ah, if at that age I could have somehow seen the future, where I've ended up now, and how important techno dance music is to my life, I don't know how I would have reacted!

In 1985, when I was 20, I bought another synth, a Roland Juno 106, which of course I still use. It has possibly the fattest bass sounds anywhere except the holy TB-303, and has taken no end of physical abuse and still sounds great. Suddenly I had a polyphonic synth AND a mono synth AND a Hammond organ, and I was going places... namely, a series of bands in Calgary that played nothing but cover tunes and never actually went anywhere. In 1987 I left Calgary for Edmonton, to return to University, but within two years missed playing music so much that I cut my courses back to part time and joined yet another band, called Vicinity. We were trying to write our own music (as well as the inevitable heavy metal cover tunes) and this gave me some idea of how difficult songwriting really is. I had always been fiddling around with my own music at home (though rarely recording it, or progressing past the "gee, that's a cool riff" stage), but songwriting in a band environment is another set of challenges entirely.

In 1991 I moved to Vancouver, with intention of starting another band, and doing only original music. That band that slowly formed over my first years here became Arthur Ellis, eventually renamed to Arthur Ellis 2000 (see ). We played quirky and totally original songs blending synth-pop, progressive rock and many psychedelic influences. The music garnered comparisons to Rush, Yes, Hawkwind, the Grateful Dead (though I still can't figure that one out!) and of course Pink Floyd, along with electropop bands like Devo and white funk like Talking Heads. Our brilliant singer / head performance artist Shannon Hallett (now with Shrimpmeat and the Sanne Lambert band, see ) had a versatile and powerful voice compared most often to Debbie Harry, but also Jane Siberry, Toyah Wilcox, Nina Hagen, and other underground divas. So based on what our influences were (mainly 70's and 80's, but this was the 90's already!), our material was already a bit dated even as it was being created; but still, it was OURS (90% of the songwriting being Shannon and myself) and we were damn proud of it. We managed to get gigs, and our unusual stage show (involving constant costume changes, prop usage and other theatrics by Shannon) definitely made people remember us, even if they didn't like us. Arthur Ellis broke up in 1995, to be reformed in 1999 as Arthur Ellis 2000, with band friend Brad Mitchell from Facepuller (see ) replacing the original drummer. Under this new name we performed three gigs, and recorded a CD of our old material and one new song, and then (in a planned way, this time) broke up again. One day this band may resurface yet again, so be aware!

After Arthur Ellis I formed another band called Concentric, trying to take my songwriting to another level, with singer/songwriter Tara Maines. The lineup we eventually created included bass player Richard Fordham (formerly of This Thing, see ), drummer Alex Babeaneau (now with Moustache Verticale, see ) and violin/guitar player Walter Liberty aka Azul Liberte. All five us were songwriters to some degree or another, and I certainly learned more music and songwriting theory from Richard, Walter and Tara than I had ever suspected existed. In spite of this, the band was unfortunately not as successful as Arthur Ellis, and after playing only four gigs (all in the same bar) in almost two years, we finally called it quits. The Concentric rhythm section and I had a three-piece side project called Public Online Terminal, which lasted longer than Concentric itself, and never officially broke up, we may play again! The project known as "POT" (nice acronym!) was very improvised funk/techno/psychedelic rock, with bass/guitar, acoustic/electronic drums and all my keyboards. Our first gig was an afterhours show in a warehouse, a precursor to my raving days ahead... and the instrumentation and technique also an obvious foreshadowing of my current band Inject, more on that later.

Sometime in 1998 I think, I was asked by Shannon to perform solo ambient electronic of some kind, as incidental/atmospheric music during the band changeovers at Facefest (a festival that Faceplant Studios does every year, Faceplant was the practice studio where Arthur Ellis first got serious, and where Concentric was born and eventually died). My equipment for this gig was: my Juno 106, a 'hold' pedal, a phaser, a delay pedal, my djembe and a mic. I had started hand-drumming around 1995 or so, encouraged by naked drum jams on Wreck Beach, and realizing that as a keyboard player, I actually found percussion quite intuitive. So for this show I produced a weird wash of synth noises and drumming, that some people didn't even realize was was being done live, as I was situated to the far right of the speaker stacks, and out of line of sight for many patrons... in the Cobalt (a notorious punk/hardcore/metal bar), of all places. This was technically my first Live PA gig, and definitely the first time I appeared solo and without a band. This experiment was repeated six months later in the Artistico Cafe, with more keyboards, sharing a bill with Evan Symons (see In addition to the Juno 106, and the SH-1000 (the latter by then retired, due to technical problems), I now owned a Korg DW8000, and a Korg M1 on loan from Shannon. I was of course triggering everything live, as I was at the time totally anti-sequencing, due to my years in 'real' bands, and a prog-rocker's disdain for anyone without natural (if not prodigious) musical ability. So I was doing my best to do some type of downtempo or ambient trance, triggering both bass lines and drum sounds from the M1 entirely by hand. Not entirely successful, but convincing enough that people found it interesting and listenable.

In 1998, I went to my first "rave" party, which needless to say also changed my life. My tastes had progressed from the 80's white funk that Arthur Ellis was experimenting with, and the Funk Rock bands of the time (Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Living Color, Janes Addiction etc.) to funk and acid jazz, and the newer downtempo/experimental electronic like Future Sound of London, and ethno-trance fusion like Loop Guru, Banco de Gaia and Transglobal Underground. Then there were a few tentative missions to dance clubs like Graceland "just to see what the buzz was about this techno stuff, I probably won't like it" but of course I did... The REAL beginning was when I went to that fateful party called "Ravin' Bran" while visiting back home in Edmonton. I saw my first "chill room", filled with happy ravers chatting and massaging each other, and didn't know what to think, I just knew that this was a different culture than I had ever seen before... and I danced for hours and hours. Over the next two years I went to a few more "mainstream" raves (including Apex 1999, my first outdoor rave, back when they only had eight stages!) I was buying more and more techno CD's and less rock and roll (or anything else), but was also starting to get a bit disillusioned with the commercial parties, due to the often mediocre music (no more anthem trance, please! EVER!), and the almost total lack of anyone over age 23 other than maybe the security guards (I was in my early 30's at the time). As a result I had almost given up on raving entirely, to be an 'armchair techno' guy, but in 2001 discovered Tribal Harmonix and the 'intentional' party scene, and that changed my life yet again... but that's another story.

Needless to say, constantly hearing all this techno had given me the urge to try to make some myself. Even though I said I would never use automation on stage, I HAD taken steps to use it in the studio, with the onboard workstation sequencers in the M1 (on loan from Shannon), and later the Korg Trinity that I bought in 1999. I was trying my best to produce rudimentary techno and drum&bass tracks, under the name The Outboard Effect. Only one ("Thrust") was ever taken even close to completion, and it's currently well hidden away in my closet, thank you... waiting for a remix someday.

In early 2000 I joined the fledgeling Black Hole Club (a club for electronic musicians: performers, studio geeks, or both; see ), and some of the earliest members, particularly Thomas Bernard (aka Catalyst, Pleasure Frequency, and 1/2 of Gimpo), Drew Smith (aka MUX) and Tom Schulz inspired me to start learning more about the gear and techinques that people use to REALLY made techno. I learned of the cult of the Alesis MMT-8, a simplistic yet powerful hardware-based sequencer dating from 1989, but still in use. I played two of the Black Hole Club gigs at Video In in the summer of 2000, under the new name Koolatron (the brand name on the fridge in my van), now using my Trinity, Juno 106, DW8000, a Korg DDD-1 drum machine, and a kick pedal to manually trigger 808 and 909 kick drum samples from the Trinity, using my feet. Eventually I bought one of these MMT-8 things "just to use in the studio", as I was still steadfast about my "no automation on stage" rule. I then tried to produce some more Outboard Effect tracks, using the MMT-8 to prototype and jam with the sequences, and then arranging the final product on the Trinity workstation, and actually finished off my second track "Apricot & E" (named after a deodorant, believe it or not, but the feeling behind the name seemed to be more inspired by some of my early experiences at outdoor raves). This track is committed to be on the first Black Hole Club compilation (if that project ever gets finished!), and therefore won't be released any other way; but a stripped-down version of it is now part of my Transgress show (ah, but I get ahead of myself!)

In the summer of 2001, I was still technically in Public Online Terminal, though we weren't very active. One fine Saturday night I met Amrit Basi and Jamie Lubiner aka Inject at a party at the now-defunct Progressions art gallery. Amrit was playing electronic drums, and Jamie was playing Reason on a laptop but not running loops, just controlling the softsynths with a MIDI controller keyboard, while simultaneously playing bass with effects... and they did some fairly convincing drum&bass and downtempo too, and it was totally live! I was impressed and intrigued. I asked them to play a gig sometime with Public Online Terminal sometime, since we seemed to have a lot in common, though this gig never did actually happen (once, a year later, both bands were actually booked back-to-back for a boozecan gig, but the venue was shut down by police the week before, and the gig evaporated). Jamie and Amrit in turn asked me to sit in with them for a live gig at the Purple Onion, since their occasional 2nd keyboard player (Will Shannon) was thinking of permanently leaving the band. That gig happened in the summer of 2001, and was such a success that they asked me to become a permanent member. Inject is very active at this point, we have just released a CD and are gigging once or twice a month on the average, and are still playing our unique versions of trance, house, breaks, d&b, downtempo... 100% live, and partially or totally improvised. See for more details.

I did a few more Koolatron gigs after the Video In shows (including The Listening Room #1, an experiment at the Planetarium combining Live PA artists, lasers, other lighting effects, and hundreds of stoned ravers), but eventually reached a point where I was just frustrated with my inability to always achieve my (probably unrealistic) goal: to play perfectly timed kick drums, AND bass or lead lines, AND control my sounds and my mixer, all at once, never making a single mistake. And where were the hihats in all this? My frustration was building, and my ability to justify my "no automation on stage" stance (in the nonstop ideological disussions with techno-making friends) was slipping. Also, the more I learned about the MMT-8, and about Live PA in general (mainly from Black Hole Club members), the less I could resist the temptation to try it myself.

Finally, the inevitable happened. I was playing a Koolatron gig at SFU, and as I was setting up, I was trying to justify my anti-automation stance to Black Hole Club member Jeff Griffiths, and realized I was tired of hearing my own arguments, and tired of making rhythmic mistakes on stage... and coincidence or not, that particular gig I made more mistakes than ever before and was a bit embarrassed about it. A month later (in April 2002) I was asked to play at a party called Radiance, as Koolatron... and felt I was finally ready to try that sequencing thing in public, and damn the consequences. I played 100% live for almost an hour (with my friend Al-Lisa aka Whitespider on improvised vocals, another Koolatron first, as it had always been solo) and then for a single track at the end of my set, I pushed the start button on the MMT-8 while on stage, for the first time (playing my techno track "Fugu" I believe)... and the heavens didn't open and smite me, for giving in to temptation, and contradicting what my stance on this had always been. I was a bit disappointed that hardly anyone was dancing to it, but that's because there was hardly anyone THERE at the time. We were the first ones on, with many DJ's to follow, and what self-respecting raver shows up to a party at 10pm, aside from some of my friends there to help set up, and/or just to see me play? Still, I was encouraged with the phat and funky sounds I had put together, and the feel of meeting the challenge of manipulating sequences live, while adding live layers, and running the mixer, all at once. It isn't as easy as it looks, is it?

Just as a side note: one thing I've learned in the last couple of years is that eight out of ten ravers DON'T CARE whether you're using automation, or turntables, or (rarely) 100% live... they just care about your music. This was what many people tried to tell me, back in my anti-automation stage. Yeah, yeah, whatever... you guys were right. Point taken, the hard way. But the hard way was necessary, I couldn't have reached this point any other way.

Later that year I played at the Grassroots Ecophest party, opening before a series of DJ's, mainly from the Tribal Harmonix family (by this point I was going to many of their parties and actually starting to help organize some of them, and totally inspired by the high quality techno, trance, breaks and d&b that I was hearing). At Ecophest I did a split set, 1/2 hour of Koolatron followed by 1/2 hour (three tracks, all I had written at the time) of "Transgress", my new name for my Live PA act. People liked it and danced, not just my friends but total strangers too. I was encouraged. Later that same summer I played at another party called In:Vision, and that was the first full-length Transgress set ever, with no mention of Koolatron on the flyer. In fact, Koolatron was never as exciting for me after I started Transgress. So far since that day, I've only played as Koolatron once, at the Planetarium for The Listening Room #2 (see in September 2003, where I was billed as "Koolatron++". I played one Koolatron track 100% live (but it was zero-beat ambient, with no kick drum!) just for old times sake, followed by some old Koolatron downtempo tracks, but with sequencing now added, followed by a couple of Transgress tracks. (A live recording of this show, with digital skipping that starts out unnoticable but gets progressively worse throughout, is available on my website at ) I can't see myself ever trying to use the kick drum trigger on stage again, while also playing bass lines by hand AND trying to control everything else. My urges to play stuff 100%-live are totally filled by my Inject gigs, and when I think about making techno on my own, then it's the Transgress way, all the way now. I have a few recordings of the original Koolatron gigs, I may make them available on the web one day, but for now they feel like a chapter that's almost over.

The recording of Transgress material has been a real bugbear for me actually, many times I have asked a friend to record me at a gig, and they have not set the levels correctly, or had technical problems, or not shown up to the gig at all. So far I still don't have a release-quality live recording of Transgress (not even very many substandard ones), but hopefully this will change soon. I also intend to get a laptop and proper sequencing software and start making studio versions of my Transgress tracks, but again, this is a project for the future. As a result, Transgress has nothing you can download or buy on a CD, you MUST come to the live show and get the experience that way!

(Update: as of Dec 18, 2004, there is now a live Transgress recording available! Go here and get technofied.)

I listen to lots of different types of techno (mainly on Shoutcast streaming audio, and at parties; I don't buy CD's often, and still feel guilty about constantly downloading music for free), but my favorites (in no particular order) are currently: nuskool and next-level breaks, psytrance, tribal techno, d&b, two-step house, tribal house, psychedelic downtempo, and good old early 90's acid techno (from before all these other categories even existed!) I don't usually like listing 'favorite artists', and most of the time I don't know who makes the tracks my favorite DJ's are playing anyhow, but I would have to say that Orbital, Eat Static and Freaky Chakra were among my earliest influences in 'real' techno. DJ's from the Tribal Harmonix family (like CHill, Sijay, Noah Pred aka Sci-Fi Witchdoctor, Jeet K aka Mazeguider, Jacob Cino aka Third Eye Tribe, Luna, Guardian, Kriyatrix, Corrior, Downlow, Nils, Doktor J and Ronin, to name but a few of the more high-profile ones) have had more influence on what I now enjoy than just about anyone else... and also Tre aka T.D.D.A. aka Tred Da Devil's Advocate, who first turned me on to breakbeat about five years ago; and Rob Tompe (DJ name Clean), who I've known even longer than Tre, and who knows his jungle like no-one else.

So now it's 2004, and I'm pretty busy with both Transgress and Inject. Transgress has played about fifteen gigs so far, since April 2002, at club nights and afterhours parties (a full list will be available soon); and my confidence with my technique and my songwriting is constantly growing, as is my hardware setup. I may start using a laptop one day, in addition to my current gear (or even to replace some of it, Goat forbid!), for sequencing or for those phat Reason 2.5 sounds. At the moment I'm pretty happy being an old-school hardware guy, with a huge setup that takes at least 45 minutes to assemble, but impresses the hell out of people with all those knobs and wires. I sometimes use a DJ mixer in addition to my trusty Mackie 1402, to cut back and forth between different layers, and it sounds cool, I must say. My sound gets described as "trance, breaks, and techno", though the trance stuff is more like tech-trance, I use pretty short loops to save memory on the MMT-8, so long chord progressions are usually out of the question. I am continuing to explore new sounds (being a synth geek means writing your own patches, ALL the time... and the Korg Trinity is so massively powerful I'm still finding new things after all these years) while trying to learn to emulate my favorite genres of techno, and then push their boundaries as far as possible. The MMT-8 is still a great workhorse, and my other gear gives me such an unlimited range of sounds I haven't run out of possibilities yet, though there's always new stuff out there and I will start buying more gear again as soon as I can afford some!

My current setup is:

Alesis MMT-8 hardware sequencer (plus a spare one for backup)
Korg Trinity synth
Korg DW8000 synth
Korg M1/R rackmount synth
Roland Juno 106 synth
Yamaha FB-01 rackmount synth
Korg DDD-1 drum machine
Timeline Digital Delay
Boss PS-2 Digital Delay
various other Boss pedals: phaser, flanger, chorus, etc.
Yamaha six-channel mixer
Mackie 1402 mixer
DJ mixer (when I can borrow or rent one)

and of course, everything that I can do with my own hands and feet...

Peter 'Fish' Fisera aka Transgress
Jan 28 2004

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