Electronic producer Jeff McIlwain, aka Lusine, sits in the center of his Seattle studio, surrounded by analog synthesizers and various effects bolted to vertical racks. A drum machine plugged into a number of wires and cables rests on his desk below three computer screens and a collection of speakers. Beats scatter like a slow-motion pinball through layers of effects manipulated by spinning knobs and blinking, beeping LED bumpers. This is the operating room of a surgeon, cutting up sounds and stitching them together into something new.
For more than a decade, McIlwain has used this surgical approach to seduce listeners with his airy, warm synths spiraling over glitched-out beats. On his most recent release, Arterial (released by renowned electronic label Ghostly International), Lusine’s rich textures grow even deeper. McIlwain’s masterful chopping and resampling of vocal treatments percolate throughout Arterial’s lush rhythms, resulting in one of 2014’s most exciting electronic releases.
But it’s McIlwain’s penchant for mixing warm, acoustic sounds that separates him from his peers. It’s also likely what attracts so many labels, artists, and film producers to his music. McIlwain has contributed to remixes and compilations released by Mute, !K7, Kompakt, Asthmatic Kitty, and Shitkatapult. He’s scored films such as David Gordon Green’s Joe (Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, 2013) contributed music to the upcoming Our Brand Is Crisis (Billy Bob Thornton, Sandra Bullock), as well as Snow Angels (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, 2007), and The Sitter (Jonah Hill, 2011).
His recording experiences and tours of Europe, Japan, and Australia give McIlwain a more global perspective on the Seattle electronic-music scene. Originally recording in his hometown of Austin, McIlwain moved to Los Angeles before relocating to Seattle in 2002. Comparing each city’s music scenes, McIlwain says “The Seattle music scene is a lot more focused and supportive than the L.A. music scene was when I lived there. It was really just a symptom of the size and sprawl of the city. It was so disparate and much harder to bring people together down there . . . Seattle has a lot of things in common with Austin, but I think the electronic-music scene has been a lot healthier up here for quite a while.”
Much of that health comes from events like the electronic-focused Decibel Festival, says McIlwain: “Decibel Festival has been great for Seattle, not only in bringing attention to our city, but bringing awareness to the people that live here that the scene is incredibly varied and non-homogeneous.” More than 1,000 electronic artists from 40 different countries have performed at the annual festival since it started in 2004, attracting an average of 25,000 attendees each year. The festival continues to sponsor events throughout the spring, summer, winter, and fall. McIlwain says that helps attract even more touring musicians, which influences the local music scene. “Artists from out of town really want to play here,” he says. “Because there are so many of them that have played the festival over the past 10 years, they come back through when they tour.”
McIlwain also attributes the recent growth of Seattle’s electronic scene to a combination of the city’s art and tech-centric focus and its size. “In places like New York and L.A., you have so many shows on any given night that there just isn’t always enough focus on any particular event,” he says. “The really super-mainstream EDM acts that get the most attention in those bigger cities might not always come through Seattle, and this leaves room for some of the better, more interesting artists to come through the Northwest. Since there is already a very high appreciation for the arts here, the crowds are really receptive to all types of music. So it’s easy to break in new genres and styles in a city like this.”
Seattle’s openness to embracing new styles is particularly attractive to McIlwain, who has experimented with various forms of IDM, ambient, and abstract electronic music since his debut self-titled album, Lusine, was released on Isophlux in 1999. Yet despite his diverse output, McIlwain’s distinct fingerprints are present on each of his 11 albums, EPs, or singles. Crackling samples spark like burning embers, teasing and building tension. Pulsating analog synths engulf his textures, growing into visceral melodies. McIlwain is a master at finding what he calls “beauty in strange places” and “warmth under the surface.”
“I like to start with something that might not seem particularly inviting, but something creeps out of the layers which makes it into something else entirely—something with a bit more warmth and a human touch,” he explains.
As McIlwain describes his process for making music, the sun shines into his studio window, illuminating a guitar resting in the corner. It’s a reminder of McIlwain’s approach of combining organic instruments into an electronic landscape—something he’ll be showcasing at his upcoming Crocodile show by incorporating a live drummer, Seattle’s Trent Moorman, into the performance. “This isn’t an idea that just came to me a couple years ago. I think my music has been a constant evolution of this kind of vague idea.”
LUSINE With Rone and 214 (J. Alvarez). The Crocodile, 2200 Second Ave., 441-4618, thecrocodile.com. $15. 21 and over. 9 p.m. Sat., June 6.