“I do realize now, for whatever reason, they let me watch Logan’s Run when I was really little,” John Tejada says, with fresh wonder about his musical beginnings. “But that soundtrack was all ARP 2600’s and there were some super badass moments on there. That was my first introduction at age five or six to modular synthesis. And even at that age, those were my favorite parts. I don’t even really care about the movie anymore.”
Los Angeles is a funny town and Tejada, its most famous techno son, has never abandoned it. It’s the fantasy setting for everything from the sci-fi noir of Blade Runner to coming-of-age gang flicks like Menace II Society. It’s a big city, as Tejada notes, where you can cruise under the radar, eat authentic Korean BBQ, sushi or Mexican fare for cheap, sample eclectic lifestyles, and most important of all, do your own thing at your own pace.
It’s also a dream factory for countless artists, especially filmmakers. Logan’s Run, the 1976 film about a seemingly utopian society set in the 23rd century, was hatched by MGM studios. At age 26, the main character Logan uncovers a horrible secret: When everyone goes to “Carrousel” at age 30, they’re actually exterminated. Rebelling against the rules of the entrapped Dome City, he becomes a “Runner” and makes a break for freedom.
My favorite groups also exude that hopeful moment, that grabs you in a cinematic way, instead of just being deep and dark or aggressive…Maybe that’s my thing.
It’s an apt analogy for Tejada himself. He’s LA techno’s original marathoner, muscling out a world-class career over the last 20 years while so many others have fallen to the wayside. With his new album Parabolas, released this summer on Kompakt, and his excellent Fractals EP from 2009, he’s hit a new creative stride. His beats sling with aggressive confidence, pushing into rhythmic openings or huffing in a relentless daze. His smart melodies, lighting the darkness as they cut the air, dance about with an optimistic wisdom.
“It does have to do with what’s going on in life, and that’s for every artist, no matter what they’re doing,” Tejada reckons. “What really clicks with me, and someone pointed this out to me once, there’s a hopeful vibe that’s maybe not common these days.”
The Parabolas track “Subdivided” takes that hope to heady heights, its long phrases sway over parallel bass notes, talking to each other in pretty unuttered thoughts, like flashes of lightning. “Timeless Space” rolls under the ribs like slow ocean waves, pounding deep into the sand, an ecstatic ride into contemplation.
“My favorite groups also exude that hopeful moment, that grabs you in a cinematic way, instead of just being deep and dark or aggressive,” he says, noting that electronica acts Orbital and The Black Dog inspired him early on. “Maybe that’s my thing.”
“It’s my comfortable place to be in, whether you’re happy or sad,” he reasons. “It has a good feeling. Even if something is moving along, doesn’t seem like that big a deal, then there’s that little thing that comes in, that takes the whole thing and flips it on its head.”
The satisfaction we got from that, doing that and enjoying it. That’s what it was all about and still is.
"The Open” from Fractals does this beautifully. It’s one of the best techno compositions in recent memory, an assured anthem for our ghostly electronic world. Its brooding bass rumbles deep down to the bones, teasing brainwaves out into the wide dark yonder. Its drums inflect its pulsing steps; its pitch bends throwing it forward. Then, above the hilly grooves, a host of starry notes circle like owls in the distance. It’s that flip into hope.
Tejada, who calls this sort of melancholic uplift cinematic, isn’t big on pretentious concepts and he’s cautious about attaching too much significance to his own art. In short, he’s modest and quiet by nature—if he could express himself just with words, he wouldn’t be a musician. He sees a lot of life as a series of powerful coincidences, not signs of a religious power. He doesn’t over think things. He’s not trying to save the world.
“If I thought about it in that way, in any way, it would kind of ruin me,” he laughs. “I think it’s important, but before I was able to get records and spotlights, I just had to make them. It was important for me, or whoever else was involved. The satisfaction we got from that, doing that and enjoying it. That’s what it was all about and still is.”
That elemental drive has served Tejada well. He’s released over ten albums and countless singles, many of them with his longtime friend Arian Leviste. Tracks like the early “In Control” off 1998‘s Little Green Lights and Four Inch Faders and “Reach for the Lights” off 2000‘s Matrix of Us sprint with a spritely genius, standouts even in the company of Tejada’s heroes Orbital and Plaid. The seething minimalism of “Turning Point” off 2008‘s Where and the snarling basement jumps of 2009’s “Messenger” put Tejada at the head of today’s techno pack.
But the real turning point probably came in 2006 with his single “End of It All,” included on his sixth album Cleaning Sounds Is A Filthy Business. Testing it out one night in a DJ set at Hollywood’s King King club, he grabbed dancers by their jaded ears. Anyone who heard it then knew Tejada was breaking away: a bouncing bassline twisting along the walls, its melody cascading like BB’s in a Pachinko machine, all with a sweet lust for life. Later that year, opening for The Orb, he’d use it to close out his live set at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, bringing the audience off their feet.
Tejada, who was born in Austria and moved to California when he was eight years old, DJs around the globe. He’s a frequent flyer to Europe. He’s played all over the Americas. He’s hit Japan several times and is set to tour China later this summer, including Beijing and Shanghai. Asked why he’s remained loyal to Los Angeles and not moved to Berlin or London like so many of his friends, his answer is simple.
“It’s not my lifestyle,” he says. “I’m not hanging out at clubs. It’s not what I aim for. I think here there are opportunities that others maybe don’t have, like being able to play at Walt Disney Concert Hall twice, being in the midst of this big industry of TV and movies, and taking advantage of that.”
Have you noticed how much music is in everything? Where do you think it comes from? People make it. Where do you think the weird noises come from? From people like me.
Which brings us back to Logan’s Run and its score by legendary film composer Jerry Goldsmith. Tejada loved its evil, droning sound waves, made with the ARP 2600 analog synthesizer. He notes that the same instrument was used for R2D2’s beeps and bloops in Star Wars. His young ears could hear a world beyond the neat exteriors. In fact, throughout his childhood in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Tejada was fascinated by the prevalence of electronica. He heard it in video games, arcades and TV show themes. It was in toys and home computers.
“All these influences you had of little sounds, that people take for granted,” he observes. “And you’re like, ‘Where did you think those sounds came from?’ Sometimes people ask me and I tell them, ‘Have you noticed how much music is in everything? Where do you think it comes from? People make it. Where do you think the weird noises come from? From people like me.’”
This fascination with machines and even the darker edge of Goldsmith’s music still runs through Tejada’s sound. There’s a cold, angular surface in a lot of his work. You can hear the hours of tinkering in his sound design, the delicate attention to detail, the sweat in the circuits. Then a gorgeous melody or an angelic harmony hovers in, like a firefly’s reflection in a night pond. It’s that contrast that makes Tejada’s music so exciting.
In his early teens, he discovered electro and hip-hop, turned on by the exploits of Afrika Bambaata and Marley Marl. Scratching, breakbeat sampling and drum machines opened new paths of innovation. “That first time hearing artists doing things like that, and the way it hit you and that person is on their own—‘I’m just going to do this,’” he says with a smile on his face. “I just love those moments in life.”
When he was age ten, Tejada got a cassette tape of Kraftwerk’s Computer World. “I didn’t know they were a German band,” he says, pointing out that he had no idea about his “homeland music” scene in Germany and Austria. “I was really young then. I remember keeping it to myself because I thought it was too weird to play out loud.”
Leviste was the first friend he met that shared a hardcore love for synthetic music. Together they began to collect records after being inspired by local DJ crew Uncle Jam’s Army and radio station KDAY’s late night hip-hop shows. “I was like a total weirdo,” he says of this time. “It was before I met Arian. I was just into the sounds and I had to have them and figure it out.” It was in this context that Tejada began to hear snippets of Detroit techno and Chicago acid house.
“I think KDAY, just because a lot people aren’t from here, they almost deserve more credit,” Tejada says, challenging the accepted gospel that New York City, Chicago and Detroit were the only seedbeds of electro-based music. “Because they were playing all of this shit and mixing it well and just going way more out there, and really drawing the lines together.”
Tejada points out that Ron Hardy, the most influential DJ in the ‘80s Chicago house scene, honed his skills in Los Angeles before making his mark in the Windy City. Ironically, if you’re into the messages behind names, Hardy opened every set with “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
But it was the steely, spaced-out funk of Detroit techno that would make the biggest mark on Tejada and Leviste. One night as he listened to the radio in his bedroom, he heard the future. “I remember almost falling asleep and hearing ‘No UFO’s’ for the first time and thinking ‘What is going on!’” he says, chuckling. “It just made a really strong impact.”
Tracks like the Juan Atkins classic “No UFO’s” pushed Tejada and Leviste in a purely electronic direction. By 1991, when The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld arrived, with its Brian Eno-esque soundscapes and ambient house grooves, they knew they were onto something truly dynamic. Tracks like Aphex Twin’s “Didjeridoo” would also change their lives.
“We somehow knew what was happening and were bewildered why it wasn’t happening here and were very sad about it for a good ten years,” he says of his Detroit obsession. “And even for them, they weren’t appreciated at home. They went to Europe and it blew up and sort of slowly made its way back.”
It’s a looping parabola that still comes across Tejada’s sleek, lonesome techno. You can hear it in Parabolas starter “Farther and Fainter,” endlessly drifting in a romantic tide while swinging to switchblade rhythms. Much has been made of Tejada’s classical training. His mother is an opera singer and his father a traditional composer. But Tejada, while fluent in piano, fell most in love with drumming at an early age. Rush’s Neil Peart is more his idol than Wolfgang Mozart. At 14, he went onto turntables and then electronic synthesis. All that history comes to life in his dedicated hands.
“The Mess and the Magic” from his new album is a prime example and is one of his best works to date. It’s simple, but comes from a complex place. It swoons with resonant strings struck under an electric rainfall, rocking back and forth like a boxer before it opens you up to a forgotten innocence.
None of this happens in a vacuum, as much as Tejada operates at his own pace in his sunny Pacific studio. He’s engaged with the world and keeps up with the news, up to speed on the recent UK phone hacking scandal or the deadly massacre in Norway. He sees intolerance in today’s politics and shakes his head at the Washington debt debate. Like a lot of artists, he wonders if all this technology is always a good thing given the noise and misinformation on the Web. That’s the mess. His music is the magic.
Some of it comes from a balanced life. Getting out and moving his legs is a big part of Tejada’s philosophy. He loves the outdoors. He blows off steam at a local golf course with friends. He cycles and runs. It was on one of these runs that he got the name for his new album.
“I just had this day where I noticed parabolas were everywhere,” he remembers. “It’s like Where’s Waldo?, there’s this shape everywhere. It’s natural and in architecture. I noticed a lot of my musical arrangements follow that curve, they start one side and swing out and end out on the other side.”
It’s a little like that story Tejada doesn’t care so much about anymore. For those who don’t know, the hero of Logan’s Run escapes the Dome City but returns to free humanity from automated death. Call it the hero’s parabola. You could say Los Angeles is in a similar bind. Electronica has never been more popular here. Kids are rioting in Hollywood for the right to dance. Police canine units are showing up at Moontribe gatherings. The city could fall prey once again to anti-rave hysteria.
And yet all this time, Tejada’s been showing the real way forward, keeping his head down and sticking with it. Parabolas is on a straight line to the future. Don’t ask Tejada to rest on his ego. He’s just going and nothing can stop him.
Parabolas is out now online and in stores. Most of Tejada’s extensive back catalog and collaborations are available on iTunes and BeatPort.
John Tejada & Arian Leviste “Western Starland”
Danny Howells “Everything's Here” (Deetron Remix)
Riva Star & Star Traxx “More” (Kink Remix)
Pearson Sound “Bebeh”
Benjamin Damage & Doc Daneeka “Creeper”
DJ Rolando “Decago”
Rod “Malmok One”
Skudge “Album Track”
John Tejada “Unstable Condition”
Golden Girls “Kinetic” (Lone Remix)
Kink “Soda Caustic”
Wax “40004 Side A”
John Tejada “The End Of It All”