If you give their demos a listen, you might be able to guess who's in Illuminauts' pantheon of heroes: stumbling percussion lifted from Amon Tobin, broken attic piano cribbed from Four Tet, atmospherics inspired by the Anticon crew, maybe even a little off-kilter ghetto posturing à la DJ Shadow.
But Illuminauts tell a different story. The electro trio say their sound is a direct result of where they came from. Just don't make the mistake of calling them a San Diego band.
“Well, we're from Chula Vista,” says de facto frontman and analog gearhead Santino Romeri. “Here, it's a lot of dub and reggae. Forty ounces. Punk bands.”
Malt liquor and sub-genres aside, Illuminauts' biggest inspiration is even more surprising.
“Tom Waits,” Romeri says. “He attended the same high school we did—Hilltop High—and we're hoping maybe something that influenced him walking the halls is attached to what we're doing,”
If you ignore for a moment Waits' iconic lava-rock baritone, you can hear the similarity. Illuminauts share the darkly whimsical freaky-circus thing, with woozy beats, self-help samples and snatches of horn and organ melody that sound like a far-off gypsy wake.
The group comprises three high-school friends: Romeri, 24, on floppy-disk samplers and drum machines; David Peña, 23, on an Ableton-equipped laptop; and Nicky Castañeda, 23, aka DJ Unwell, on the turntables. Their practice space is an art-damaged hotbox hidden in a Chula Vista warehouse wasteland.
They describe their work as “loosely structured organic live beats,” and it's apt. After eight months with the latest incarnation of the project, and about 20 shows at local venues, Illuminauts have developed an interesting—if sometimes head-scratching performance.
“The crowd doesn't really know where the flaws are,” Peña says. “They're just trying to figure out who's making what noise.”
Sometimes it's Castañeda kicking out a drum hit for Romeri to build a melody off of, and sometimes it's Peña triggering something from his arsenal of samples for the other two to dig on. Castañeda's secret weapon, he said, is a bargain-bin spoken-word LP called Cosmic Consciousness. “It's got this guy's face with rockets and comets flying around,” he says. “It's a mind-control record.”
On their MySpace page, Illuminauts list as a mentor Ned Ludd, namesake of famous loom-destroying anti-technologists The Luddites. And while they embrace the capabilities of digital sampling, they insist on playing it all live, with no prefab sequencing.
“We're old-school,” Romeri says. “We use a lot of old janky gear, floppy disks, eight-track cassettes. Part of it is that's just what we had to use, but we decided to make it part of our aesthetic. You can make anything sound as crisp and clear as you want, but I like the character of old recordings, especially old dub, how dirty and grimy it is.”
Take a listen to one of their half-hour demo jams (which are available to download for free) and you'll see what he means. Turntable scribbles slide into puddles of bass muck, horn lines beam through murky panes of harp and chime and waves of white foam crash on beaches of drum rubble. It's a jarring, at times beautiful, at times head-nodding, at times creepily psychedelic experience. It's as if they're scoring the soundtrack to some kind of post-apocalyptic skate video. And while it can sometimes sound polished, when played live, a certain degree of chaos enters the mix.
“It's stressful—at any given moment there can be a train wreck, especially with all these cords and machines working together,” Romeri says. “There have been a couple shows where maybe we had one too many, and we kind of lost it for a second.” He then adds, “But that's just the nature of the thing.” Illuminauts play with AK, Daze and Makeshift on Thursday, April 23, at the Kava Lounge. www.myspace.com/illuminauts.