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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The true and obscure history of Psykosonik, part II

Paul Sebastien and I hit it off immediately after meeting at The Underground. We were both aloof, interested in music, in the habit of wearing designer clothes, and considered ourselves to be more cultured than most of our Midwestern friends and acquaintances. And to be fair, we probably were, as we were more likely to go to the Guthrie, the Ordway, or the Orchestra than we were to attend a rock concert, see a live band, or go bowling. (To this day, I cannot picture Paul on a bowling alley, much less wearing bowling shoes. He'd rather die.) He wanted to be a pop star and I wanted to be a hit game designer. I wouldn't go so far as to say that we became inseparable, but along with my high school friend, The Perfect Aryan Male, the three of us regularly made the round of the Minneapolis bars and night clubs on weekends together.

Since Paul had an apartment that was centrally located in Minneapolis just across the river from downtown, our usual habit was to meet at his place, where he had a room devoted to a recording studio, complete with a full-size mixing board and multi-track tape recorder. I would usually get there about an hour before TPAM, since I liked to listen to his latest musical projects and in keeping with his attention to musical detail, Paul was an indecisive perfectionist who always took what seemed like forever to get ready. In a mildly ironic twist of fate, Paul was living with Kristen, the blonde waitress who had been so sympathetic to Noboys at The Upper Level. She and I got along well, so I would often hang out and chat with her as Paul fiddled with his suits, his ties, and his hair. Once TPAM arrived and Paul had finally decided that he looked presentable, the three or four of us would pile into my Porsche - Paul was ALWAYS in the front passenger side - and we'd head across the river.

Smilehouse had fallen apart, so Paul was working in a somewhat desultory manner on what passed for his solo career. He spent rather a lot of money to record a single at Paisley Park that was produced by Bobby Z of Prince and the Revolution, an eminently forgettable song that was as boring and lifeless as it was technically proficient highly processed pop. I can still vividly remember it being introduced for the first time at Glam Slam; Paul was standing proudly in the DJ booth, holding a beer as he surveyed the dance floor while his song was played in public the first time. The crowd's reaction wasn't negative, but merely indifferent, and the song didn't make even the smallest dent on the local club scene, let alone radio.

Paul then decided he needed to play live shows in order to garner more interest in his music, but being the complete perfectionist that he was, he didn't actually want to play anything live. This was a point of constant debate between us over the years, as he felt that audiences wanted to hear perfectly "performed" music whereas I felt that whatever flaws were likely to occur during a show made the performance aspects more interesting. And besides, the whole musical miming thing just struck me as ridiculous, especially after the whole Milli Vanilli thing. Paul's counterargument was that everything looks ridiculous when it goes wrong, so the lesson is to be careful and get it right, not just give up on it.

Paul's distaste for live performances posed a problem, however, because no serious musician wants to stand on stage pretending to play music pre-recorded by someone else. But being a virtuoso, Paul simply didn't have confidence in any musician who wasn't at his level. So, knowing that I had a modicum of piano given my three years of childhood lessons, he asked me if I would be his "keyboard" player and do the backing vocals. I was quite happy to help him out, and he recruited a young friend of his brother Nick named Mike to serve as his "drummer" and a mutual friend of ours from the club scene, Dejay, to serve as a multipurpose rapper/dancer/backing vocalist. There was no pretense of this being a real band, it was billed as "Paul Sebastian" and we were all perfectly aware that we were only helping him out until he was able to put together a real band. I don't think we ever did so much as a single serious rehearsal, in fact, on further reflection, I'm sure we didn't or else Dejay never would have seen the stage.

Paul Sebastian and "band" circa 1990

We only performed three times that I remember. The first time was at a University of Minnesota fraternity party, the second was at The Perimeter, and the third was at The Living Room. (Interestingly enough, Spacebunny was also at that fraternity party, although we didn't meet and she didn't remember us or the Jane's Addiction cover band that followed.) Dejay turned out to be a complete disaster, as he couldn't rap and his dancing would have been considered vulgar at a male strip club. It didn't suit Paul's style in the least. Even so, the little shows were received very well, mostly because we looked like a proper band and Paul's DAT recordings were borderline professional. We weren't just doing the full Milli Vanilli either; Paul's lead vocal and guitar were both live, and though I didn't realize it at the time, Mike's ability to play his electronic drums in perfect time with the sequenced ones was rather unusual. Unfortunately, Dejay's total inability to rap tended to support Paul's point about the wisdom of pre-recorded performances.

As for me, I played a few atmospherics and thought I was singing backup, although I learned after the first show that Paul had somehow forgotten to plug my microphone into the mixing board. I'm sure a more serious musician would have been upset, but I just found it amusing. It was his deal, after all, and I could hardly blame him as he has a really good voice and a low tolerance for mediocrity. My prime directive was "stand back there and look like Nick Rhodes would"... which I understood completely since another thing we had in common was that we were both Duran Duran aficionados.

Dejay was dropped from the band after The Perimeter show, and because there weren't rooms for the drum kit at The Living Room, Mike was too. Paul and I did a two-man performance at The Living Room that was much better than the two previous shows. However, it was gradually becoming apparent that the 80's-flavored sound Paul was producing was becoming increasingly outdated in comparison with the music from EMF, Jesus Jones, the Charlatans UK and the Happy Mondays that we were hearing in the clubs.

Now, one of the things that people who don't create music, and far too many people who do, simply don't understand is the way in which musicians draw very heavily upon the influence of those who surround them. This is how even those who don't write or play a note of music, or contribute a single lyric or sound sample, can nevertheless have a profound effect on what is being produced by the musician. It's not an accident that George Michael's music sounded very different post-Wham!, since he was no longer being influenced by his friend Andrew Ridgeley; this is one of the reasons why even a seemingly minor departure of a mediocre bassist can dramatically change a band's sound. This doesn't mean that the musician isn't creating all the music himself or doesn't merit 100 percent of the credit for doing so, only that those personal influences help determine what it is that he is creating. Although Paul vastly preferred keyboards and electronics, and absolutely loathed the heavy guitar of the grunge music that was making its way out of Seattle, he was a competent guitarist, and so I encouraged him to work on something that combined rock guitars with a dance beat. He was initially a little skeptical, but being a pretty open-minded individual, eventually gave it a whirl.

So, one night in the winter of 1990-1991, we met up at The Perimeter and he told me that he had a tape with him that he wanted me to hear. So, we went out to my Audi 5000, my trusty winter car, popped in the tape, and listened to it. It was an instrumental, but had a rocking guitar line over a busy, infectious dance beat, and it was obviously capable of providing the foundation for a really good song. I don't remember who came up with which part, but we had been joking earlier about how dreadfully dumb the song "I Wanna Sex You Up" was, and between us we came up with the line "sex me sex me sex me up, before you go go", which struck us as a hilarious combination of Colour Me Badd and Wham! meets EMF or something.

It started as little more than a guitar line and a joke, but it somehow worked. Paul encouraged me to put together some more lyrics on the theme, which I did, and the whole thing culminated about a week later in "Sex Me Up". We invited a few guys over to hear it, including the DJ at The Perimeter, and after a few beers they all contributed a shouting chorus to the most raucous version of the song. The DJ liked it enough that he immediately put it into his regular rotation at the club. His name was Daniel Lensmeier.


The true and obscure history of Psykosonik, part I

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