Hair Spray to Microchips

Jeff Samuel takes the tech-house world by storm.

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Plate Tectonics, featuring Jeff Samuel Abbasso, 1222 Prospect Avenue 9 p.m. Friday, March 5, 216-566-7278
Big man in microhouse: Samuel has quickly become - one of the young genre's top names.
Big man in microhouse: Samuel has quickly become one of the young genre's top names.
On the night of our interview, Jeff Samuel was laid off from his job at Microsoft, where he had created sound effects for the company's Mythica game. Samuel and his sacked co-workers had gone out for drinks after getting pink-slipped, so he was a bit tipsy as we settled into his Seattle apartment for a chat. At least Bill Gates had the decency to give each former employee a going-away rose.

Most people would be deflated -- if not devastated -- after getting canned from such a choice gig. Not Jeff Samuel, though. He's surprisingly lucid and in good spirits (literally, we can assume). And for good reason: The 27-year-old ex-Clevelander has a thriving, jet-setting music career on which to fall back. Over the last five years, Samuel has ascended to world-class status among DJ/producers in the recently coined genre microhouse. It's dance music that threads experimental laptoppers' clicks, pops, and glitches into subtly pumping 4/4 rhythms that lure you onto dance floors with discreet eye contact -- rather than ripping your arm out of its socket, as most house does. With releases on Germany's Trapez, Karloff, and Poker Flat imprints (the first two distributed by Cologne powerhouse Kompakt), as well as forthcoming EPs slated for Ann Arbor's Spectral and Switzerland's Morris Audio, Samuel is positioned in the red-hot center of microhouse's early 21st-century starburst. (England's Emoticon Records plans to issue Samuel's melodic IDM tracks this year, too.)

"Jeff's tracks are funky, have a good groove, and play with classic ideas that are twisted just enough to create something new," observes Trapez boss Riley Reinhold, an acclaimed DJ and one of Samuel's key supporters. "His melodies are unique and outstanding."

Samuel's swift rise to the penthouse of electronic music is more than a little ironic. While growing up in Cleveland during the '80s, he was more likely to throw devil horns than wave glow sticks. He glommed onto the metal his older brother championed, showing a keen fondness for the genre's hair-sprayed and mascaraed acts.

"Glam has an emphasis on melody, and that's something I've been into from the beginning," Samuel says. "I was into Cinderella, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Skid Row -- straight-up MTV shit. My walls were entirely covered in glam posters."

But while in high school, Samuel experienced a revelation.

"Pretty Hate Machine made a big change in me," he recalls. "Because up until that point, I thought electronic music was for pussies. My sister used to blast Yaz and Howard Jones all the time, and I fuckin' hated it. So that was my impression -- electronic music sucks, I wanna rock out. I guess NIN was good for me, because [Trent Reznor] was using [electronics] in a rock context. It was perfect timing with the angst and all that. It really spoke to me. What I really latched onto was the production, the quality of the sounds he was coming up with. I'd never heard anything like that before. Downward Spiral took it even further. I still love that album."

Perhaps even more surprising, Samuel's entry into minimalism came from a chance hearing of post-rock pioneers Slint on Cleveland State's WCSB radio.

"I had to pull off the road and call the station and ask, 'Who the fuck is this?'" Samuel recalls. "Next day I went to Wax Trax and bought everything by Slint. I realized that Spiderland was the start of my love of minimalism."

Attending Ohio State his freshman year, Samuel hooked up with the Elemental crew, which included such Columbus techno luminaries as Titonton Duvante, Ed Luna, Charles Noel, and Todd Sines. After a year at OSU, he darted from a technical recording school in Chillicothe to Cleveland State to Ohio University. He started DJing around Cleveland in the mid-'90s, but generally found the city apathetic to his brand of music: the quirky, funked-up techno of Brighton, England's Cristian Vogel, Neil Landstrumm, and Si Begg, and the crazy-angled tech-house emanating from Germany's Perlon, Klang, and Force Inc. labels. But Cleveland's foremost techno-house producer, Dan Curtin, staunchly supported Samuel from the start, as did fellow DJ Mike Filly and Bent Crayon proprietor John Cellura.

Cellura views Samuel as an antidote to the "stagnation of the same old prog-house/retro house that has held back people's understanding of where techno music is going for so long." He's pleased to see Samuel's records "getting into the hands of the biggest DJs in [the tech-house] scene right now: Ricardo Villalobos, Michael Mayer, Triple R, Sven Väth."

After nearly two years in Seattle, Samuel thinks his new home base has more advantages than did Cleveland's electronic scene.

"There's way less of an ego problem [in Seattle]," he says. "I was very surprised by how well the guys working on electronic music here get along. Everybody's mutually supportive."

You didn't feel that in Cleveland?

"Fuck no, I didn't. In terms of people in the business in Cleveland, most of them were on this dumb track of trying to be the best DJ in the world and play the biggest raves. That wasn't in my itinerary. I was thinking much larger than that. I want to play clubs in Europe; they appreciate it more and the money's better -- and you get to go to Europe and not have to pay for it. I had different agendas than the people in Cleveland. Dan [Curtin] was the only guy I could look up to as a role model."

Now Samuel can serve as a role model to aspiring electronic minimalists. Follow his example, and you too could be spinning in Barcelona and Berlin someday. "I like to keep things simple," he says. "I make my music with a really cheap program [Fruity Loops], and I don't even use a third of the features that are in it. What amazed me about minimal techno was how much you could say with so little. The same with bands like Low. There's something to be said about getting across the same emotions by using way fewer elements, without having to sugarcoat it.

"I feel like techno is an extension of your personality or self," Samuel continues. "I like the idea of one guy being in control of his own music from start to finish, without any input from anyone else. There aren't a lot of genres of music where that can happen. I really admire guys like Robert Hood. You can hear a Hood record for two seconds and know it's him. That struck a nerve with me. I wanted to be one of those guys."

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