Dub is easily identified but difficult to define. Is it a style, a genre, or an approach to sound?
Mad scientist Lee “Scratch” Perry practically invented it in his Jamaican laboratory, yet reggae inflections are often absent from the work of modern purveyors. A quick glance at those who claim (or are claimed) to be influenced by dub only heightens the confusion: Massive Attack’s atmospherics are often attributed to it; Audio Active’s techno frenzy in part derives from it; even Tortoise’s studied use of silence has been dubbed dub.
Tokyo’s Dub Squad is straightfoward about their debt to dub. The group began in the early ’90s as a reggae unit, but the usual, technical definition of dub — with guitars cutting in and out and a one-drop beat manipulated with echo effects — is found sparingly, if at all, in most of their work.
Then again, there is that undefinable something that connects it, however tenaciously, to dub.
Maybe it’s the space, the quiet that suddenly intervenes in the midst of densely packed samples and sounds. On their latest release, “Versus,” they veer on some tracks into the esoterica of avant-garde electronica, and on others wholeheartedly skid onto the dance floor in a flourish of break beats. Dub Squad inhabits a musical netherworld where punters and musical cognoscenti are equally at home.
But is it really, as the name implies, dub? Well, it’s all in the definition. And getting the group to give one engenders winces and mutters.
“That’s very difficult,” says Taro Yamamoto, as the trio, bleary-eyed and still clinging to their coffee, gather in their publicist’s office for an early afternoon interview.
“It means a lot of possibilities in the way you treat time,” offers Tatsuaki Masuko.
“When something is taken away or muted,” Yamamoto continues, “the space that it inhabited becomes enhanced; it increases the sensitivity to sound and the sounds that aren’t there.”
“Dub is basically like mathematics when you have negative numbers,” adds third member, Koji Nakanishi, finishing off the discussion in that seamless way that bands and married couples sometimes do.
Having played together for years, their mutual connection borders on the psychic. Part of that obviously comes from their improvisational working style. Communication is a key component, but instead of talking it out, they sound it out, literally.
“We don’t talk at all during our sessions; we can’t even really see each other. We don’t even talk about the actual track we are working on,” says Masako.
“It’s more like an accidental thing,” adds Nakanishi. “We talk about what we want to eat, what to buy at the convenience store, everything but the actual song.”
Dub Squad’s songs emerge organically from jam sessions. Eschewing the usual guitar, bass and drums, each member bounces sounds and samples off the others with his own sequencing gear. They may be one of the few “improvisational” electronica groups.
“We try out all the possibilities during the sessions,” says Masako. “What you hear on the album is what has survived. It is improvisation in the purest sense.”
There is a neatness, a control to the album that belies this method. “Versus” almost has the feeling of a soundtrack, the fast and hard-edged opening winding down to a more studied, less frenetic atmosphere in the later tracks.
“The first songs have really clear directions,” says Nakanishi. “And then on the later cuts like ‘EFF’ and ‘Ammonite’ the combinations of sounds become more subtle, so when we sequenced the album we brought them to the end.”
“They can be the launching pad for a different CD altogether,” adds Masako.
Improvisation is also a key part of their live shows. Though the recording of each song takes several days of sessions, each lasting eight to 10 hours, the concepts are initially developed during the group’s live performances. This too distinguishes them from other mainstream electronica groups whose concerts are often highly scripted performances.
Even after the track is considered “finished,” the live scenario offers the opportunity for more embellishment, more experimentation, more growth. For Dub Squad, this might be the ultimate meaning of dub.
“You can never see one track as finished,” says Masako, adding yet another definition of the elusive term “dub.” “There are always more and more possibilities.”
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