WHEN SAN DIEGO native Darrin Wiener first arrived in Seattle, he did what many an aspiring musician does in hopes of honing his craft: He enrolled in school. The tall, friendly, soft-spoken composer and DJ, who records under the alias Plastiq Phantom, spent a year at a Santa Cruz junior college before registering for audio production classes at the Seattle Art Institute. And like many a musician before him, Wiener soon found himself disenchanted with the limitations of higher learning.
opening for Modest Mouse Showbox, Saturday, June 17
"It was rudimentary," says the 22-year-old Wiener over cheese pizza at the Queen Anne Pagliacci. "It helped a little bit. I learned the basics of engineering. But it's just that I'd already done a lot of it on my own. I mean, the most advanced thing we did there was recording a band and I'd already done that a year before in Santa Cruz, with a friend's band."
It seems inevitable that Wiener would bolt from his classes: The music he makes has little, if anything, to do with studied studio technique and everything to do with happy aural accidents. Plastiq Phantom's four-cut EP Select Imputor? (on local electronica indie Sweet Mother and available at a number of local shops, including both Tower Records stores) abounds with off-kilter breakbeats, calming loops of chimes, comical sound effects, and moody orchestral samples, all stitched together with enough aplomb to earn favorable comparison to Wiener's hero, Aphex Twin. The EP's mood is somewhat somber, but never ponderous or overbearing; it keeps things light enough for background listening and intense enough to repay the listener's complete attention. It's also a taste of Enjoy the Art of Lying Down, his more ambitious but just as accessible full-length, which shares three of the EP's songs and is scheduled for release in October.
Like his music, the friendly yet shy Wiener, who works as a software developer for local startup N2H2, is both focused and playful. His easy demeanor comes across onstage, where the young musician radiates a level of comfort that distinguishes him from the usual crowd-wary IDM—Intelligent Dance Music—stereotype. Indeed, it's in performance that Plastiq Phantom—Wiener joined by stand-up bassist Lawrence Martin of La Movida—has gained the strongest following. This past February Wiener opened for Luke Vibert and -ziq at I-Spy and, according to many an observer, stole the show from the headliners. One of the fans he made that night was Vibert himself. "We bonded over weed," recalls Wiener with a smile, "and we hung out when I went to London last month."
PLAYING LIVE is nothing new for Wiener, who cut his teeth as a rock musician. "My first band was called Family Size," he says. "I started it the day I bought my first guitar. It was two guys hollering into a Radio Shack microphone. We sang about Legos, Yogi Bear—it was nonsense rock."
That band and the subsequent Flying Buttress (who had "three songs total," according to Wiener) were sparked by Wiener's junior-high interest in alternative rock during its early '90s commercial peak. "I really liked Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins when I was about 13 or 14," he says. "So I started writing songs with a four-track machine and a guitar. I liked lo-fi, too—Guided by Voices, Mr. Bungle. And then I got into Moby's Everything Is Wrong—but just the rock and classical songs. I was laughing at the techno, saying, 'This is so dumb.' But one by one, I got into them, too, and I became a fanatic for a while."
Not long afterward, Wiener discovered the enrapturing sound-puzzles of Aphex Twin. "It took awhile," he admits, "but I ended up getting way into it." It was a short leap to embrace Aphex's brothers-in-samples Squarepusher and -ziq, as well as the plethora of bedroom-based IDM artists who sprang up in their wake.
When Wiener moved to Seattle, he began gigging with a band called Subatomic Particles. Once that fell apart, it was a natural move to embrace IDM wholly; Wiener had already purchased the equipment (sampler, sequencer, sound-tools computer software) and needed only to begin holing himself away with his oddball record collection—test patterns, sound effects, field recordings of whales, children's music. ("There's this old-school kid's label called Peter Pan—they're excellent," he informs.)
Wiener also forced his own hand by hooking up with Alex Calderwood, the Tasty Productions promoter who started Sweet Mother in 1996. "I wanted to work for the label, but he didn't need any employees. So I ended up being his assistant at ARO.space. While I was working for him, I told him I made Aphex-style music. He wanted to hear some. The problem was, at that point I hadn't actually made any yet," Wiener says with a laugh.
Once he'd actually made some music, Sweet Mother issued 100 copies of Select Imputor. Thanks to Plastiq Phantom's shows, including several spots at I-Spy and a pair of private parties for Portland ad firm Wieden and Kennedy (whose clients include Microsoft and Nike) alongside the likes of Erykah Badu, that limited-run disc has sold out, forcing another printing. And Wiener has attracted serious notice outside of Seattle as well. He's currently working on remixes for the well-regarded New York indie Caipirinha and during his London trip—where the new full-length was mastered by engineer Frank Arkwright, whose credits include most of the Warp Records catalog—Wiener spent time with such underground heavies as Scanner and Neotropic. "Hopefully, we're gonna weasel some remixes out of them," he says.