The Applejuice Orchestra isn't out to break any rules; they'd rather make new ones. In both listening to and talking to this remarkable new band, formed only a month ago, you sense both optimism about the possibilities of their field of music and frustration with its stagnancy. To call them an electronica band would be missing the point entirely, while to call them an electronica-styled band makes it seem as though they're shooting for something and coming up short. In fact, The Applejuice Orchestra is one of those rare bands that remind us what a false construct genre is when dealing with innovative music.
The Orchestra is composed of six members. Stephen Levitan, also known as the Applejuice Kid, plays an acoustic kit and drum machine, as does Marvin Levy. Jonathan Yu also utilizes multiple elements, including two turntables, a drum machine and a sampler. Dan Hall plays an acoustic drum kit, Alex Cox plays bass and Jana Privette sings.
But it's the way the group combines these different elements that can sometimes make the audience wonder what, exactly, they're listening to. For example, Yu likes to sample brief drum hooks from other songs, providing a fourth drum section on certain songs. Or he'll manipulate tiny snippets of vocals on his turntables, blending them with Privette's lyrics. On occasion, Yu samples Privette's vocals and/or Cox's bass licks, providing an echo effect or a disorienting doubling effect. Live--especially if you're not attuned to hearing music with electronic elements--it's easy to confuse the drum machines with the sampler, which, in itself, is not always distinguishable from the live drums or the vocals.
But The Applejuice Orchestra is not out to confuse people. Rather, this layered effect is ultimately illustrative of the point of their existence: to be a technically tight, techno/hip-hop group and a fun-loving dance band. It's this two-sided approach to their sound that makes the band so intriguing.
The group--insatiable music fans themselves--is about creating a sound as innovators, says Applejuice Kid. "Electronic music has a great energy and is the newest genre out there," he says, adding that what The Orchestra is after is to "take that in a really different direction than where electronica has been."
"It wouldn't be fun to just sit around and program drum and bass beats, because people do that all the time," he says. "But it's a lot of fun to take three drummers and try to make a drum and bass track that's original."
The group's music is being met with the same sort of enthusiasm that greeted Chapel Hill hip-hop band Sankofa, of which Applejuice Kid is also a member. "When I first came to Chapel Hill [in 1994]," he says, "the stereotype was that people would just stand there and nod their heads. Like, people in Chapel Hill were too cool to dance and jump up and down at a show. That's the reason we started Sankofa--for people to dance to and jump up and down and get hype."
Yu, now 23, has been DJing since high school. His skills on the turntable are the product of years working to break out of the established modes for combining playing records and mixing. While most DJs essentially just mix together songs (and parts of songs), Yu uses the turntables as an instrument, not just for simple layering. Using a wah-wah peddle at times, and alternating volumes more than most DJs, Yu and The Applejuice Orchestra are trying to redefine the role of the turntable so it's no longer seen as just a gimmick.
"There's a big stigma attached to electronic music," Yu says, "in that it's not really seen as creative because DJs are taking other people's music and sampling it, and that's the same argument people have always used against hip hop. But they really can't use that argument against us. ... If we bite [sample] something, use a symphonic [snippet] or somebody's vocals, that's not the major part of the song, it's very minor," he says. "That's an obstacle we don't have to worry about."
Indeed, with six talented members inspired by the energy of innovation, The Orchestra doesn't have to worry. Although the elements are in place, their music never sounds like part of a mold. What begins by sounding like catchy, three-minute verse-chorus-verse "pop" songs will change radically after 90 seconds, moving from trip-hop to drum-and-bass to something altogether undefined.
Yu says that he stopped going to clubs because, "I can buy those records," and that he doesn't see current DJs breaking any new ground. "With The Orchestra, I think we can break the barriers between DJ and band, and going to a club."
At their last show at Raleigh's Five Star, breaking barriers did seem to be within their reach, at least to some of the listeners. "These guys are the James Joyce of hip hop," said one young man, who looked to be a student. His friend shouted in reply, "If the HAL computer [from 2001, A Space Odyssey], had been a radio station, it would have played a nonstop mix of The Applejuice Orchestra."
Indeed, The Applejuice Orchestra is both an accessible post-modern exercise and the next logical step in a musical world where most hip hop has grown stale and repetitive, and most techno-based music has become commodified to the point of facelessness. For this reason, listening to the group is not just refreshing; it's an encouraging reminder to their audiences that something is happening in music today.
But maybe they were best summed up that night at the Five Star by a young woman in glasses and a tank top who exclaimed (tongue fully out of cheek): "This is fucking dope!"
The Applejuice Orchestra will be entering the studio soon to record their first single, "Weather Bike." They'll be playing at Five Star in Raleigh on Thursday, June 7.