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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002

Beyond trance: Juno's sonic odyssey

The passing fancies and capricious changes in taste that mark electronic dance music make it very hard for most musicians to sustain a career. Buck the trends, and you'll never get noticed; settle into the style du jour, and you may as well put a "sell-by" date on your albums.

Few are the bands that have started and stayed one step ahead of the trends; fewer still are those that have kept it up for a decade, so give it up for Juno Reactor. This month sees the release of "Odyssey," a best-of compilation marking a four-album/10-year career. It's a sharp showcase revealing a group constantly pushing its sound, and -- in what is the sign of a truly great group -- all their best tracks couldn't even fit on it.

"I think you've just got to try and follow your psyche and what excites you at the time, and trust in it," says Ben Watkins, the member at the core of Juno's ever-changing lineup. A few minutes earlier, Watkins had been sitting intently in front of some speakers in a Universal conference room, blasting out the slashing riffs of the new Juno single, "Hotaka."

Recorded with guitarist Steve Stevens (of Billy Idol's band) and local taiko ensemble Gocco, Watkins wasn't sure he'd captured the right mix. But this ability to take risks, to mix and match unlikely elements, is what has made the band stand out.

Unlike a lot of trance artists, raised entirely on a diet of trance (and regurgitating it), Watkins brings a wide range of musical experience to the project, ranging from a pub band in the '70s and a new wave group signed to CBS Records in the '80s.

Touring did his head in, as did his bandmates: "After that experience, I hated being in bands," explains Watkins, "so I bought a drum machine and got rid of everyone quite quickly."

Watkins lists his early electronica influences as the idiosyncratic New York City duo Suicide and the proto-industrial dance of D.A.F.

But it was the bizarre work of Yello, on San Francisco's Ralph Records, that really grabbed his attention. "I wore their record out -- it was like my bible of production."

The '90s saw Watkins juggling several projects before finally settling into Juno in 1993 with DJ Mike Maguire. "Mike really helped focus the whole thing," notes Watkins. "He started telling me about the DJ scene off in India, Goa, where he'd go for like six months out of the year. It was aimed at Mike, to have tracks to play out in India. And I think after 'High Energy Protons,' it seemed like it could really work".

"High Energy Protons" was the single that established the Juno sound -- flashy, almost glam bass lines, "alien" synths and detached science-fiction flick samples -- and went on to become the first CD outing of the still underground "Goa trance" sound. The album, "Transmissions," got a major release on Mute, and was about two to three years too early.

Juno's next album, though, "Beyond the Infinite," was released on the Blue Room label in '95 at the peak of the Goa explosion and served as the album by which to compare all other Goa releases, a minutely composed epic of relentless, sequencer-driven rhythms and Oriental synth motifs.

At this point, the band could have easily rested on its laurels and churned out track after track, as did so many others. But, as Watkins puts it, "When everyone started sounding like Man With No Name [kings of the arpeggiated synth line], we knew definitely we didn't want to sound like that. It became stylistically too rigid."

Enter the hand of chance: The Blue Room label was also home to MELT 2000, a world music label with a diverse roster of artists. Watkins was introduced to the South African percussion group Amapondo, and -- as he puts it, "I was just knocked out by how these African guys could lock into the electronics." The rolling, acoustic-percussion rhythms opened a new avenue for Juno and -- ironically -- made their sound even more supercharged, as evidenced on the '97 track "Conga Fury" from the album "Bible of Dreams."

Amapondo also joined Juno Reactor for their live sets, and the combination of the drummers in full tribal regalia along with live guitars certainly left an impression. Watkins remembers "playing at some weird little rave in New Jersey, and I was mixing and [Juno collaborator] Johann [Bley] was playing drums, and I recall thinking, 'This really doesn't work for America. We've got to try and put on some sort of show.' "

Amapondo toured the U.S. with Juno when they warmed up for Moby, and the resulting live sets won the band a lot of converts. "From day one it had this vitality I'd never experienced before," says Watkins. "It's this weird sort of cultural collision -- it's not a calculated idea, it just came together and has this spirit that's so powerful."

This collaboration continued onto the next album, "Shango," and the tours of 2001, which saw Juno play both Fuji Rock and the Hotaka Festival in Japan.

"My favorite album is 'Shango,' " admits Watkins. "Making it was really hard after 'Bible of Dreams,' because I thought 'Bible' was the pinnacle of what Juno Reactor could do."

Watkins confesses to feeling the pressure of expectations from his fans but is pleased with the results. He says that he took some flak because "Shango" "wasn't really a dance album," but says that "I'd had enough of electronic music.

"I don't get the same buzz out of programming as I used to," he continued. "I get the biggest buzz out of hearing ['Shango' vocalist] Taz sing, or hearing the beat play along a live rhythm, all the unexpected things. And I find with electronics, there's less and less that's making me go 'Wow!' But you don't know how long you have to wait to find the unexpected, which is a real pain in the ass. I wish you could just press an 'Unexpected' button, y'know?"

And they say techno music is just button-pushing . . .

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