He sings the body electric | Jamie Lidell

by John Dugan


from Time Out Chicago, 2006 or so.

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Bored with digital dance as usual, RESFEST headliner Jamie Lidell fuses electronica and soul on the genre-busting Multiply

By John Dugan

With its commercial and experimental film and video screenings, product demos and parties, RESFEST may be a bigger hit with future commercial directors than the art and film crowds. But the ninth annual version of this globe-trotting iGeneration showcase, which takes over the MCA's theater and adjoining lobby for four days starting Thursday 6, does have one ace in the hole certain to please everyone.

Jamie Lidell, underground electronic music's about-to-break-out star, performs a live set at the MCA on Sunday 9. The British wunderkind, who's on his first U.S. tour, is something of a multimedia artist himself: His stage show is enhanced by a real-time video remix in the background, and Lidell is likely to take the stage dressed in a fisherman's outfit, a plastic suit covered with money or a muumuu. Before his label, Warp Records, nixed the idea, he'd planned to package his album with a live DVD as evidence of his fashion forays.

Lidell has the stuff that crossover success is made of, both in terms of his genre-bending, hybrid sound and ability to conquer live audiences. He first came to attention performing funked-up electronic dance, but these days, whether performing live or on this year'sMultiply, his second solo album, he's transformed into a full-on, convincing soul crooner. For the album, he channels years of love for the greats—Marvin Gaye, Prince Rogers Nelson, Sly Stone—on tunes that are disarmingly catchy, honest and affecting. It's heavily produced (featuring live instrumentation from Berlin-expat sessioners and Lidell himself), but the electronic touches are almost seamless. Your mom could dig Lidell—if she likes Otis Redding.

We caught up with Lidell one day recently in the green room/perpetual loft party at the Numusic Festival in Stavanger, Norway. That night, he annihilated the crowd and jaded music journalists alike with a performance that found him beat-boxing, layering his own voice and creating sci-fi soul out of thin air.

Before Multiply's release, Lidell, 31, was best known to fans of Super_Collider, his techno-funk duo with South American–born producer Cristian Vogel, which only flirted with funk and pop on 1999's Head On. But Lidell, who plans to release tracks with Vogel again, talks about needing a change. "Sometimes the thing you love is the thing that kills you," he says, sporting a bright orange ski sweater and sitting on an IKEA table in the party room of the fjordside Norwegian venue. "I was noticing that making electronic music was making me depressed. It was starting to make me feel really empty."

A science kid whose mother sang with orchestras, Lidell grew up in the sticks in Cambridgeshire, England, where the music instruction was unusually good, and began dabbling with home recording at a young age. He studied physics and philosophy in college.

In London, his work with Subhead Records caught the attention of Vogel, an established DJ. Lidell briefly fronted Brighton band Balzac before joining forces with Vogel and earning press ink and a European following. After splitting Super_Collider, Lidell released a difficult, obtuse solo debut, then moved to Berlin to be with a girlfriend. Things disintegrated, but five years later he's still there, living in a small enclave of English-speaking musicians.

Neither beat-oriented nor abstract, Multiply is a turn away from typical electronic music and the pills-and-thrills lifestyle. It employs modern techniques ("Since You Got Me Up" was recorded a few bars at a time) but ends up achieving something incredibly familiar and generous-sounding.

Lidell was getting sick of software trickery and "all the things that time-stamp modern music," he says. "I suddenly asked myself whether I want to sit down and listen to that much anymore. Back in the day, I was absorbed in electronic sounds. I didn't give a shit to listen to anything old. But I guess I was realizing that my iPod was always locked on [the late soul singer] Minnie Riperton and loads of shit that I would have thought was pretty cheesy back in the day, even though it is incredible music. I noticed that that was the kind of music that I wanted as the soundtrack to my day. I thought, I want to contribute to that canon."

After remixing a track by conceptual electronic artist Matthew Herbert in a Motown style for a 2001 single, Lidell was aboard the soul train. He spent three years working on Multiply, trying to convince himself that the album format was still viable and that he could carry it off as a vocalist. Compadre and multi-instrumentalist Mocky came to the rescue, pushing Lidell to record his finished songs, adding harmonic ideas and playing (along with Berlin sessioners Gonzalez and Snax) on many of Multiply's ten tracks. Lidell often sang bass lines into a handheld mike in his living room, then melodies, then vocals. For a former control freak and techie gearhead, collaborating with other musicians on classic-sounding songs was a liberating and revealing process.

In electronic circles, reaction to the new Lidell has ranged from ecstatic to perplexed. "Of course, I've been hit with the 'You've gone retro—what's your problem?'" Lidell says, "and I'm like, 'Guys, just chill out—it's one record.' I'm an electronic artist fundamentally, and I've made some hard, at times really unlistenable, music, and I've thoroughly enjoyed doing it." He'd like to do it again.

But seeing Lidell in action is believing. Live, he employs a customized Frankenstein setup—his own software and a mixing box that allows him to create songs with only his looping voice—and 80 percent of his act is improvised, save the lyrics. Hopefully, this chameleon doesn't revert to his old style before more crowds have a chance to experience his latest mode. If his MCA gig is half as transformative for the audience as his appearance at Stavanger, Chicago is about to be converted.Jamie Lidell plays Sunday 9 at 9pm at the MCA theater as part of RESFEST. For details, see Clubs or www.resfest.com.