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Ambient Experiments

[whitespace] Eighty Mile Beach
Blended Genre: Beth Custer and Christian Jones (collectively, Eighty Mile Beach) pride themselves on being a band without a specific niche; their music is not New Age, it's not funk, though it has elements of both.

Eighty Mile Beach's debut

By Michelle Goldberg

Although the duo Eighty Mile Beach has only recently released its first album, Inclement Weather, Beth Custer and Christian Jones have been deeply involved in the San Francisco music scene for years--Custer as a classically trained clarinetist performing with experimental jazz and ambient groups like Trance Mission, Club Foot Orchestra and Grassy Knoll; Jones as a hip-hop DJ and musical engineer. But Eighty Mile Beach may be the band to take them beyond the bay--John Peel has already spotlighted their first single on his BBC radio show.

Inclement Weather is a lulling, narcotized blend of ethereal vocals, melancholy instrumentals and mellow trip-hop beats. It's emblematic of the wild cross-pollination that has produced much of the most interesting music of the late '90s, mixing jazz, ambient, quiet alt-rock and hip-hop into a noirish cinematic soundscape. Shortly before the record's release, Custer and Jones met me at the Mission Grounds cafe to talk about collaborating, the politics of sampling and their dreams for the band.


Metropolitan: You two come from such different music backgrounds. How did you get together?

Custer: We met at Mobius Music, where he's been an engineer. I've done a lot of recording there with different bands, my own CD and also Trance Mission. I always wanted to work with funkier beats, so Christian gave me some loops to use on my sampler. I had a solo show in 1995, and we decided to collaborate on one piece for that. We sat down after that show was over and said let's keep working together. We started meeting once a week and hanging out and formulating sounds together. A year later, we were ready to send out a demo tape. A couple people bit at it, and we decided to go with OM.

Metropolitan: Beth, how many instruments do you play?

Custer: I don't know. I haven't really counted them. My main instruments are all the clarinets--B-flat, alto and bass clarinet--and then I play keyboards. The trumpet I'm just learning.

Metropolitan: Christian, you come from a hip-hop background, but you play guitar on Inclement Weather. Was it hard to make the transition to acoustic instruments?

Jones: No, not really. My background started out in production--hip-hop when I was in high school and then club DJing after that, then college radio--so it seemed pretty natural. It was just a matter of learning to play instruments. I kind of taught myself.

Metropolitan: Do you think that Eighty Mile Beach fits into any niche?

Custer: The biggest problem with the music industry is that they have to have everyone in a classified genre. That's been the trouble with every project I've ever done--nothing has ever fit into a genre. Club Foot Orchestra, which I was in for 13 years, played live soundtracks to old silent films. We were the first band in the U.S. to do this. No one could figure out what to do with us, so we ended up doing the theater circuit. Trance Mission plays music that nobody can figure out. It's not New Age, it's not funk, though it has elements of these things. I don't know what niche we fit into at all, except that we have elements of hip-hop and trip-hop and pop and jazz. I don't think that the public wants classification. They want to hear good music.

Metropolitan: You had one song that you couldn't put on your album because you couldn't clear the samples. Are sampling issues often a problem for you?

Custer: We actually didn't use that many samples. He made the beat loops himself.

Jones: There are samples on the record, but they're not obvious. They're ambient samples that could have come from anywhere. I think sampling can become kind of heinous. Someone like Puff Daddy is, to me, the epitome of everything that I despise about what hip-hop has become. He just took "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen and sampled different phrases and rapped over it, and that to me is so down-low, a dirty trick.

Custer: But at the same time, they might never have heard it otherwise. If they read the credits, maybe they'll go check out a Queen record.

Jones: Doubtfully.

Custer: When I was a kid, all I did listen to records and read the credits, and if I saw a reference to something else, it would pique my curiosity.

Jones: Yeah, but what he's doing is such an obvious play for a huge pop hit. If you go in and sample something like that, it's so apparent that everyone's going to like it, because it's so catchy and was a No. 1 hit to begin with.

Metropolitan: You seem to have a conservative attitude toward sampling.

Jones: Well, it's a tool that you can use. It's like picking up a guitar and playing a Led Zeppelin riff and then using it verbatim in your song. It's the same thing. Lenny Kravitz can get away with it. If you have any technical or musical background at all, you can loop a four-bar sample of something famous and rap over it. To me, it shows a lack of any type of creativity or ingenuity.

Custer: I agree, although sometimes I think everything should be everybody's. Why have these barriers? But I have to say that, at this point, some of my income does come from royalties. Club Foot Orchestra did Felix the Cat for CBS, and it was extremely low pay for a 12-piece band, but later you get royalties for these things, and television royalties are pretty happening. It's gotten me through the bad times financially. So I think that intellectual property does have merit in helping people subsist in the world, and if you write something that people use, you should be paid for it.

Metropolitan: Are you going on tour?

Custer: I'm actually seeking a booking agent right now. I'd love to go play in England and Germany and Japan and India ...

Jones: I don't really know how the music industry is structured in Europe so I can't say for sure, but it does seem like there is more leeway there for stuff that doesn't fit in a niche. We got John Peel to play our first single on his show on the BBC worldwide, which to me is fantastic. Here we are this band that no one's really heard of yet, it's our first release, and here's this guy who just heard it and put it on the radio.

Custer: The reason we found out it was on the BBC is interesting. My brother is a world traveler, and he was sitting in a cafe in Africa and listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio, and our piece came on. He emailed me from Africa to tell me.

Metropolitan: Europe is definitely more open to electronic music.

Custer: We're already getting good feedback from certain areas. I have high hopes for this band. Call me foolish, but I think it's a really great-sounding record, if I don't say so myself. We put our heart and soul into this record, and we're both relatively good at what we do. We have a very unique collaboration, and people who hear the record say that that comes through.

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From the August 24-September 6, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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