Smart House’s Brian Gorman tells me that electronic music excites him because it’s limitless.
“There’s nowhere you can’t go,” says Gorman. “I feel like it gets a bad reputation now because it seems like everyone’s doing the same thing. But the actual potential of it is infinite.”
The challenge for any artist: chiseling down infinity into something that translates to other people. For Smart House in particular, this means creating house-tinged synth-pop that feels exciting and new while remaining dancey and relatable.
“It’s an exercise in restraint,” says Gorman. “The busier it is, the shittier it sounds.”
When I stop by Smart House’s practice space, they’re right in the middle of this honing process, fine-tuning the arrangements they’ve worked out on Gorman’s computer. Gorman hovers over a sizeable terminal of different devices: a mixer, a keyboard, some analog synths and a box covered in illuminated buttons used to play clips on the fly from his laptop. He launches a pulsing drumbeat. Vocalist Alek Ogadzhanov bobs on one foot, his fingers finding their place on his keyboard as drummer Matt Chavanne taps his sticks together—a signal for Gorman to route a click track to his headphones.
And then they begin. I’d checked out their recordings online before I made the drive over, but it’s different than I’d expected. Songs like “Let’s Skip” certainly draw heavily on house music and synth-pop—like Hot Chip—but there was also a strong indie-rock influence (Ogadzhanov’s voice, especially, made me think of Grandaddy).
The music Smart House play now is still as melodic and sneakily vulnerable. Ogadzhanov tells me that most of their songs are based on a juxtaposition between “melodramatic” lyrics about broken hearts and house rhythms more concerned with shaking hips. But it seems like they’ve doubled down on a single, specific focus: making people dance and keeping them entertained, which is not always easy to do, especially in a live setting.
“I always loved electronic music but sometimes it’s just boring to perform,” Gorman admits. “You’ve got to work a little bit to keep yourself engaged and interested. You and the people watching.”
This is probably a stereotype you’re familiar with, especially if you aren’t already a fan of the genre. Ask the nearest crotchety musician what he or she thinks of live electronic music and you’ll probably be met with a grunt. ”Why would I pay money to go watch some kid paw at his laptop?” could be a stereotypical response.
Like any sweeping statements, there is some truth in this criticism. It’s possible to play a pretty bare bones electronic set that’s boring to watch, and if you’re in the building less to enjoy the collective experience of dancing around with a bunch of strangers and more to be entertained by the entertainer, then you might feel a little cheated.
Smart House is acutely aware of this risk, pouring a lot of time and energy into ensuring that, electronic or not, their live set feels live—thus additions like Chavanne’s live drumming, which understatedly maintains the band’s momentum. Chavanne is the first to admit that he’s not doing anything too crazy behind the drum set.
“You can kind of do this all day, play four-on-the-floor beats,” he says. “Holding back and restraining, it’s going to sound better.”
And it does. Besides, he’s not really restraining: when the energy is high, Chavanne is walloping his drum set, totally in sync with the electronic backbone of the songs. And even in quieter moments, the presence of real live drums infuses the synthesized elements of the music with a whole lot of blood.
As they play, Gorman keeps one eye on his bandmates and one eye on his rig, the “nucleus” of Smart House’s music. Chavanne and Ogadzhanov rise and fall with the backing track, getting caught up in the energy.
“If we’re doing a longer jam session and it’s a dancey beat, I can kind of get lost in it,” Chavanne tells me later, and Ogadzhanov nods in agreement.
“It’s trance-inducing, absolutely.”
Like any band in the early stages of practicing, just settling into a groove, they still haven’t worked out all of their cues. As Chavanne and Ogadzhanov fall into a reverie, Gorman stays just above it, finally waving them off to discuss the dynamic trajectory of the arrangement. Between the backing track, the pulse of Chavanne’s bass drum and the wash of Ogadzhanov’s synth, the music pounds forward like a train, and Gorman plays conductor to make sure it doesn’t get away from them.
The goal, after all, is to put the audience into a four-step trance, and the key to making that happen is to not get hypnotized yourself.