Ilana Bryne's debut EP captures a long-simmering love of dance music
The Madison-based producer will play a Tone Madison-presented show on February 9.
Ilana Bryne, by her own admission, doesn't often leave the house. That her debut EP, Low Earth Orbit, is coming out on Portuguese producer/DJ Inês Coutinho's label, Naïve, is a testament not just to the Internet's overall impact on music, but to a sense of community Bryne has found almost entirely through Twitter. Retiring but fiercely quick-witted, Bryne seems to be in daily conversation on her Twitter account with contemporary electronic luminaries like the Black Madonna and Russell E.L. Butler. The electronic music site Resident Advisor recently called her a "rave Twitter lynchpin," which...I don't even know what that means, but Bryne took it in stride.
While Bryne rarely pops out for a show or a DJ set, she'll be playing a Tone Madison-presented show on February 9 at Communication, opening for Chicago-based ambient artist Forest Management. The EP, due out on February 22, comprises three original productions and a remix from Toronto DJ and producer Ciel. It will also get a vinyl release, with label art that depicts cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who in 1963 became the first woman to go to space. (JiggyJamz Records will have a few copies in stock.) While this is Bryne's first collection of tracks under her own name, she's also used the handle Nothing Natural to put out a handful of shadowy ambient tracks on Bandcamp and recently contributed a mix to a series called Beyond/Below, organized by Chicago DJ Hi-Vis.
The tracks on Low Earth Orbit draw on the many facets of dance music Bryne has explored over the decades, especially her work as a jungle and drum 'n' bass DJ in the Twin Cities from 1995 to 2000, when she went by the stage name Ricochet. She began exploring house and techno in the early 2000s, and sees her tracks here as being in dialogue with a younger, subgenre-agnostic generation of electronic artists, including Coutinho, who started out with strong house and techno reference points before also developing an interest in early-1990s jungle music. The opportunity to put out a record on Naïve came about last year through Instagram, where Bryne had been posting some clips of in-the-works tracks.
"I'd been playing with some breakbeat stuff because I'd heard some stuff that [Coutinho, who performs and produces as] Violet been working on and some stuff that [German producer] Objekt had put out," Bryne says. "They were doing this sort of techno with breakbeats and some jungle flavor to it. And I liked it, but they're younger than me, and I felt like I could bring a certain take on it, to me, at least, felt authentic in terms of honoring some of the dance-hall culture and the sub bass and the experience that I had."
The EP's first track, "Dub Box Medicine," combines crisp breakbeats with vocal samples of British reggae DJ David Rodigan. "He's this old British guy. He looks like a banker," Bryne says. The first vocal sample on this track captures Rodigan proclaiming, "Sometimes in this music business, it's all about being in the right place at the right time"—maybe a sly nod from Bryne to the online happenstance that opened the door to the EP's release. From the track's sparse beginnings, Bryne eventually builds up a surprising amount of dreamy headroom, and really only needs a few sharply deployed synth tracks to do it.
While she's into a lot of different corners of electronic music, Bryne likes to keep it fairly compartmentalized—when she mixes subgenres, it's all about picking very specific elements. On the EP's second track, "Feelin' Myself," she says she set out to play around in a margin between techno (the hard-hitting drums) and house (warm, Fender Rhodes-like chords), topping it off with what she calls "a Blade Runner synth." "Mmm Mmm Mmm" uses a sample from Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" over a groove that weaves a house feel into breakbeat hip-hop elements. If there's one through-line amid the EP's scattered influences, it's that Bryne tends to write moody music—not always dark, but usually letting some melancholy and space seep in around the joy of the beat. (Ciel takes that atmospheric tendency one further with her remix of "Mmm Mmm Mmm," the EP's final track.) "I've tried to write hands-in-the-air, happy shit," Bryne says. "I just can't. It either sounds corny to me, or it doesn't really work. It's like a forced smile."
Low Earth Orbit also reflects a sense of patience and restraint, perhaps a product of the varied experiences Bryne has had as a listener, DJ, and musical tinkerer in 40-odd years of life. Bryne was born in Madison, but her family moved to Sheboygan when she was a toddler. "It's only 50 miles north of Milwaukee, but it's still pretty isolated in terms of any sort of subculture and definitely youth culture. A lot of hair metal and other expected '80s things permeated. And I'm the eldest child, so I didn't have a cool older sibling to hook me up with music, but I was lucky enough to have friends that did," Bryne says.
She discovered punk and indie-rock through skate culture, ordering Thrasher magazine compilations and sometimes even dubbing songs directly off of skateboarding videos. "Now I can't think of those songs without thinking, 'Where's the clack-clack-clack-clack of the skateboard wheels?' There's a very specific context to those songs. Like, Sonic Youth's 'White Cross,' can't hear it without hearing grinding sounds or whatever."
Some of her most formative experiences with electronic music happened in Green Bay, where a teenaged Bryne would escape to go clubbing. There were two clubs in particular: Option, which had an industrial night, and a gay bar called Za’s that held an all-ages night. The music at Option, and the arrival of Nine Inch Nails, gave Bryne a natural step from punk to the aggression of industrial music, and Za’s exposed her to a whole range of pop and dance music from Madonna to Pet Shop Boys to Messiah to Sylvester.
"It gave me a sense of spectacle around music that I haven't really held onto and never felt again after my years dancing at Za's,” Bryne said. “I was more outgoing there than I've ever been in life. I was in the rave scene for years, but that was a totally different vibe. It was dark and you stood against a wall of speakers and faced the speakers the whole night. [At Za's], I would get up on the stage and shake my ass the entire evening and sing along to those songs with all my heart."
Like most kids growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Bryne soaked up a lot of MTV. The key moments came when the channel started playing more hip-hop on programs like Yo! MTV Raps. While she didn't know about things like drum programming—she played drums in high-school band, and initially figured that all the drums she heard on dance tracks were played live—Bryne did start to grasp sampling on some level, hearing the repeated sounds and how hip-hop producers recontextualized them.
As a high-school senior, Bryne formed a bizarre duo with her younger brother called FFFF (Five Fat French Fuckers). The siblings used a boombox to record an album that featured Bryne's brother reading at random from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations while Bryne played chintzy beats and chords on her cheap Yamaha keyboard. She likens the result to Wesley Willis. Bryne got her first set of turntables at the end of her freshman year in college in Minneapolis, and began experimenting with recording software that ran in DOS (she uses Ableton now).
During her time as a DJ in the Twin Cities, Bryne decided that she liked playing house parties more than clubs or raves, and she eventually burned out, moving back to Sheboygan for a time. There, she began developing more of an interest in house and techno, ordering bargain records online, making original tracks and recording mixes. She moved back to Madison in 2002, and has continued to foster her widely varied musical interests under the radar.
The release of Low Earth Orbit probably won't change that. Bryne's looking to create more new music that she calls "atmospheric, downtempo, heavy on textural stuff," but plans to perform only once a year or so, sticking close to home.