One of the most common critiques by those who have not been converted to the church of rave is that beats played on machines lack a human touch—that the music is too cold, too alien. But DUST, a self-described "fantasy techno collective" that is currently one of Brooklyn's most exciting live acts, thrives in bringing the corporeal to the rave floor even while coating their music in a sci-fi veneer. Drawing from the trio's backgrounds in Bushwick's late-2000s DIY music scene, the band blends screeching vocals, live hardware, and an underlying punk ethos into enthralling, in-your-face stage theatrics. The sanctity of hardware and vinyl be damned, the sleekness of Ableton, too. It is the gathering of the bodies that's most important in our collective experience of music—and DUST remind us that it's good to slog around in the pit sometimes.
This past Friday (January 22), the trio celebrated the release of their debut album Agony Planet during a Tropical Goth party at Brooklyn club Good Room. Walking into the smaller, more intimate side room where DUST performed was like entering a hellish maelstrom of bodies, smoke and movement. Thick sheets of fog covered the room in obscurity. Somewhere on the dancefloor, hidden in the murk, producers John Barclay and Michael Sherburn stood in HAZMAT suits, captaining their hardware—a combination of both analog and digital synths, samplers and processors—just inches away from the seething crowd. Meanwhile, DUST vocalist Greem Jellyfish swayed in between them like a specter, wearing a space blanket draped over a full bodice grass skirt.
The most memorable track of the night was an incendiary rendition of album highlight "She Woke Up in Water." Trenchant synths and a propulsive bassline spawned an alien atmosphere that was cleaved by Jellyfish's gut-wrenching shrieks. By the song's end, the singer was whipping her blanket around her head, dancing amidst a tidal pool of roiling bodies.
Agony Planet was released earlier this month on 2MR, the nascent label of Mike Simonetti, formerly of Italians Do It Better and Troubleman Unltd. (DUST has also released one EP each on the Mannequin and SCI-FI & FANTASY labels.)
"It's not an orthodox dance label by any means," said Barclay when I met him and Sherburn earlier last week for drinks at Juno in Bushwick. The new American restaurant and cocktail bar, just opened last month, is Barclay's latest business venture; he also co-owns Bossa Nova Civic Club, the underground techno stronghold down the street.
"I don't necessarily think we'd be at home on a lot of the more popular techno labels, because as cool as most of them are, they don't take much risk in terms of their sound," Barclay continued, dressed in a grey sweatshirt and drinking a coffee. "2MR is very explicit about embracing a broader spectrum of dance and electronic music."
The spectrum that DUST occupies might not even be human. From the intro "Breeding Pit" (inspired by a psychedelic-laden abduction experience at Berghain, Sherburn recently told Self-Titled), to tracks like "Alien Prey" and "The Alien is Contracting," the 13-track Agony Planet is full of intergalactic themes. The sinister ambience of space disco and Greem's undecipherable mutterings, filtered through vocoders from late-80s acid house, amass in alien realms of demonic techno. Even their press photo shows all three members floating in space, with Sherburn and Barclay draped in Jedi-like hooded cloaks and Jellyfish in the middle, her painted body glowing an otherworldly shade of blue.
The record's narrative, according to Sherburn, is set in the future, when a second, distinct species of humans has emerged that is, for all intents and purposes, alien. "We've always flirted with the idea of this kind of alien world," said Sherburn. "[Agony Planet] is like a movie that we always wanted to see, and this would be the soundtrack to the film."
We're trying to stay true to the spirit of 2012 Bushwick DIY rave where it's 130 degrees, watching kids on MDMA or mushrooms all smooshed together.
Barclay also connected DUST's obsession with aliens to their roots in the Brooklyn underground music scene. "I think we're trying to stay true to the spirit of like, 2012 Bushwick DIY rave where it was just a room with no ventilation," he said. "It's like 130 degrees, watching kids on MDMA or mushrooms all smooshed together, everybody's jumping, and it sort of pushes anyone who's not into that out of the room. So the only people that are left in the room are these drugged-out cyber..."
"Mutants!" Sherburn chimed in.
"Yeah, mutants," Barclay agreed.
"[These days] there are all these venues with air conditioners and stuff, which is great," he continued, referring to newer, more refined Brooklyn venues like Output and Verboten. "It sort of gives people who are just into the music a chance to sit down or stand in the corner and really reflect on the engineering, frequencies, and compression used, but there are plenty of acts for those people. We're all about the mutants."
DUST performing "She Woke Up In Water" at Good Room in July 2015
Barclay and Sherburn both grew up in North Carolina and were raised by military families. They spent most of the 90s and early 00s playing in metal, noise, and dance rock bands, and routinely schlepped around 909s, 303s, synths, guitars and a drum set. They moved to New York in 2005 and 2008 respectively, with Barclay throwing parties at quasi-legal venues like 285 Kent, Trip House and House of Yes, while Sherburn worked at bars and moonlit as an audio engineer at places like Mercury Lounge.
Jellyfish, on the other hand, moved to New York from South Korea in 2006. "I was lonely because I was shy and wasn't good at communicating with other people well," she told THUMP via email. "Art was the only way to express myself but I still didn't know where to start." She cited a revelatory, 2010 Bjork DJ set at defunct Bushwick venue Above the Auto Parts Store as her entryway into the scene. It was at the show that she met promoter Todd Patrick (AKA Todd P), who she subsequently interned for. Jellyfish eventually bartended at several of Patrick's DIY venues while dwelling in living arts communities like Secret Project Robot and Body Actualized Center.
She also formed an improvisational noise act called Beef, but turned to electronic music after an arm injury left her unable to play drums. She performed as a solo act a few times, breaking two drum machines in the process. "I didn't really know how to play drums and music, I just made some noise and expressions and freaked out," Jellyfish admitted.
In late 2011, Barclay and Sherburn met Jellyfish at 285 Kent, an iconic underground music venue in Williamsburg that operated from 2010 to 2014. "I remember looking at her and it was like her body was literally exploding," said Sherburn about the first time he saw Jellyfish dancing there. "We were like, 'who's this girl?'"
At the time, Barclay and Sherburn had recorded a few dance tracks as a duo, and they realized that Greem's indelible energy and noise rock background could help them move away from traditional techno. "As much as [we] are into orthodox techno, we've never really been a big fan of the 'one dude twiddling a bunch of stuff,'" said Barclay. "Greem sort of takes us in the opposite direction of that."
For better or worse, we wanna keep people moshing.
Once she joined DUST, Jellyfish's energy helped make the band's live shows an integral part of the group's appeal. "I don't think we were planning on trying to turn it into a live band," Sherburn said. "We kind of wanted to be the Steely Dan of techno—like, write the music and then have everybody else do it. But then we started playing shows and thought, 'wow this is actually really cool.'" An artist and musician named Angela Chambers, a friend of Barclay's from college, also joined the band briefly as a vocalist, and the four-piece group went on to tour Europe twice in 2013 and 2014. (Chambers currently resides in Berlin.)
As for Greem, she sees her role in DUST as similar to the one she carried with Beef. "I continue [making noise] with DUST. I freak out and create high energy during the live performances."
Despite their fascination with extraterrestrial life, DUST's ultimate concern is to keep techno human. "When we play live, it sort of reminds me of when I was in high school and people were less concerned with looking cool and more concerned with having fun," Barclay said. "We're one of the only acts right now in electronic music around here where people are regularly moshing—so for better or worse, we wanna keep people moshing."
Follow MacEagon Voyce on Twitter