Engine of Progress

MOTOR keeps running.

No surprise given its name: MOTOR powers the Seattle electronic-music underground. What began as a genre-specific club night and record label has matured into a small but spirited wave of musicians and music fans. This month, as MOTOR prepares its 20th monthly installment—a not insignificant number in a city that can’t decide on what it wants to be a week from now, let alone after a year and a half—its impact is growing.

“It’s hard to associate any form of music with this city but grunge or beardy folk,” says MOTOR founder Sam Melancon, “but there’s so much interesting stuff going on, interesting people.”

Melancon knows interesting. For years his Debacle Records has been a repository for outsider music of every genre, recognized internationally for its eclectic crop of left-field artists. As a subset of Debacle, MOTOR instead delivers a very specific vibe.

“The focus is hardware-based nights with these synth geniuses—stuff that isn’t being done [elsewhere] in Seattle,” Melancon says. “The experimental world and the dance world are becoming friendlier.”

Vintage hardware—synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, mixers and effects pedals of every stripe—is the heart and soul of the MOTOR sound. In the right hands their rustic tones build into hypnotic grooves that transcend era or trend. Musicians like Jayson Kochan and Timm Mason play bass and guitar in rock bands around town but come together as the synth-and-compressor based TJ Max, a MOTOR mainstay; Kochan plays solo as Airport. Also part of the MOTOR fold are Jon Carr (aka Patternmaster), Chris Davis (P L L) and Portland’s Alex Neerman (Apartment Fox). Across the board, their music is propulsive in its subtlety.

“It’s electronic dance music of all sorts of BPMs but with a focus on texture and vertical complexity,” Melancon says. “Sitting on the same bass line or melody but doing a lot of processing, and how the processing changes is the story of the song. There’s not a lot of raved-up breakdowns in our music. It’s more taking and adding layers of texture.”

Part of MOTOR’s success has been in the crew’s ability to adapt to its environment. The night started out at Lo-Fi Performance Gallery, then moved for a time to the Highline and the now-defunct Electric Tea Garden. Its last few iterations have been at Kremwerk, the literally-underground dance club in the no-man’s-land off the Denny Triangle with a killer sound system and patently cool ambiance. In 2015, the most progressive music in Seattle will not come from Capitol Hill.

“I want to get in front of Seattle and say, ‘You’re gonna like this, you’re gonna wanna own this’,” Melancon says. “You don’t have to care if it’s hardware or not. MOTOR is a dance night. It’s chaotic and loud and fun. It has the potential to be a lot bigger, so let’s do it our way, not how New York or Berlin would do it. The way Seattle would do it.”