Down the driveway, the front door to the house is open, but it's a warm day, and folks don't need to be paranoid and lock everything up in the hills of San Francisco's Mill Valley. So we're not sure if we've made it to the home of Jack Dangers, best known as the brain of Meat Beat Manifesto. We squeak out a tentative hello.
The place doesn't quite feel right; it's too quiet. But then a noise suddenly pierces the silence. It's that clichéd, almost nails-on-the-chalkboard sound used in horror movies to build tension. Only today it doesn't register as a cliché: It sounds fucking creepy. A cat scurries by, but it's a fluffy calico, rather than a demonic black one. Finally, out comes Dangers, with a cup of tea in his hand and a warm smile on offer.
Jack Dangers is musical godfather to a host of electronic-based artists who thrived in the '90s, from Nine Inch Nails with its razor-edged industrial sounds to rave-era U.K. giants such as Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. MBM's 18-year career includes several acclaimed albums that stretch from the menacing (1990's 99%) to the hip-hop funky (2002's RUOK?). Though Dangers has always been a revered musician's musician, producing on albums by artists as diverse as NIN, Public Enemy, and Depeche Mode, he resisted the spotlight of the U.K. scene to marry and settle in northern California, where he's made music under less pressured circumstances.
Now Meat Beat Manifesto -- in its current incarnation, Dangers plus longtime collaborators Lynn Farmer on drums, Mark Pistel on keyboards, and Ben Stokes on visuals -- has embarked on its first tour in seven years. The act will present songs from MBM's entire catalogue in what may seem like a startling new context, but is in fact true to the way many of the old songs were constructed: using clips from films. Dangers and Stokes will edit video of these clips live, in time to the music (which is also performed totally live, unlike many computer-based performances); the musicians will stand on the side of the stage so as not to detract from the main visual attraction.
This is not to say that MBM puts its sound second to its cinema. The group has always been about combining the best (and sometimes the rudest) elements of dub, funk, hip-hop, industrial, techno, and jazz, and Dangers' role has long been one of conductor. Take the band's current full-length, At the Center, part of the "Blue Series," a collection of albums released on Thirsty Ear Recordings that aims to capture a free-form spirit of experimentation among diverse jazz, electronic, and rock musicians. Center includes collaborations with Peter Gordon (flute), Dave King (drums and percussion), and Craig Taborn (piano, keyboards, and clavinet). The album is closer to the jazz of John Coltrane or even Sun Ra than the more brash and confrontational direction that was a part of the band's past. And that's probably got a lot to do with Jack Dangers being a much happier person now.
"[Journalists overseas] ask me why I settled in Marin County. To me, it's the opposite of where I grew up," he says.
Dangers (not his real name, but he prefers his anonymity) came from humble beginnings. He was born in Swindon, in the West Country of England, where his family didn't own a telephone. He took over his father's job sweeping up at a factory after his dad contracted cancer from the asbestos in the building. At the time -- the mid-'80s -- his salvation was playing in the band Perennial Divide, which he joined with friend Jonny Stephens. The two took on a side project in 1987 and named it Meat Beat Manifesto. MBM eventually outstripped its predecessor and took on a life of its own.
Dangers' working-class ethic is still intact, as evidenced by his life in Marin: His house is not extravagant, nor is it full of needless trappings. His living room reveals the interests one might imagine: records, films, video games, musical instruments.
Dangers' records are housed in protective plastic and organized according to broad categories such as "soundtracks" and "'60s." Looking at them brings us to the issue of sampling, a method Dangers has used liberally in his music over the years. We ask how the recent changes in music law -- including crackdowns on sampling -- have affected his process.
"What changes were there?" he deadpans, breaking a poker face with a giggle. "I've been collared a couple of times after the fact and gotten a slap on the wrist. I sampled a huge chunk of Horace Silver on 99% for the intro of 'Hello Teenage America,' so I was always waiting for that."
Turns out that a lot of MBM's samples over the years have come from movies, particularly when Dangers still lived in the U.K. (he moved to California in 1994) and couldn't get a lot of cool records he would have wanted to draw from. He says his music might have been different, had he not had to rely on films.
Among the images that Dangers and Stokes will manipulate at the Center live show in time to key music samples are Marianne Faithfull enjoying a fondue break (from 1968's Girl on a Motorcycle), Frankenstein having a stoner moment while smoking a fat stogie (from the 1931 horror classic with Boris Karloff), and Fugitive-era Harrison Ford (circa 1993) running and repeatedly yelling, "Get down! Get down!"
"The video burns itself in almost more strongly than just the audio," he says of his memories of sampling films. "And it's fun, because you can combine images and say something. Like there's a track where I've got the end of Dr. Strangelove, where Slim Pickens is on the nuclear bomb, raving. I've got that as a sample, and then I've got George Bush doing a speech and the banjo scene from Deliverance. Those three things together more or less, to me, sum up everyday life right now in America."