Friday, May 26, 2017

Felix Laband - A Life In Collage

Trying to categorize Felix Laband's sublime music is fraught with peril.  It's a disservice to haphazardly pound the round peg of his art into a square hole called "electronic music"-  that would be lazy and devalue what he does, potentially equating him to any common aspirational DJ with a MacBook Air and Bandcamp, like calling Nick Drake a "singer-songwriter" or Augustus Pablo a "reggae artist". It's an inadequate appellation.

Then again, Electronic Music is a Lernaean Hydra, a mythical beast that sprouts two heads for every one that is cut off. The branches and categories spawn subcategories and endless fractal iterations that are maddeningly OCD. Imagine if you walked into End Of An Ear Records and saw that they'd subdivided their electronic music bin into genres: 
Ambient dub Dark ambient Drone music Breakbeat Baltimore club Big beat Breakbeat hardcore Broken beat Florida breaks Nu-funk Miami bass Jersey club Nu skool breaks Disco Afro/Cosmic disco Disco polo Euro disco Italo disco Nu-disco Space disco Downtempo Acid jazz Chill-out Space music Trip hop Drum and bass Darkstep Drumstep Funkstep Hardstep Liquid funk Neurofunk Neurohop Sambass Techstep Dub Ambient dub Dancehall Dub poetry Dub reggae Dub techno Dubstep Dubtronica Electro music Freestyle music Electro swing Electroacoustic music Acousmatic music Musique concrète Electronic rock Alternative dance Indietronica Coldwave Dance-punk Dark wave Electroclash Electronicore Electropunk Ethereal wave Krautrock Minimal wave New rave Nu-gaze Space rock Synthpop Synthwave Electronica Berlin School Dubtronica Folktronica Funktronica
Laptronica Livetronica Ethnic electronica Al Jeel Arabic pop music Asian underground Bhangra Bhangragga C-pop J-pop K-pop Shibuya-kei South Asian disco Worldbeat Hardcore Gabber 4-beat Breakbeat hardcore Bouncy techno Breakcore Digital hardcore Frenchcore Happy hardcore UK hardcore Mákina Speedcore Hardstyle Dubstyle Jumpstyle Lento violento Hi-NRG Eurobeat Eurodance Bubblegum dance Italo dance Hip hop music Alternative hip hop Electro Electro hip hop Hardcore hip hop Hip house Neo soul New jack swing Trap music Trip hop UK garage House music Acid house Ambient house Balearic beat Chicago house Deep house Future house Tropical house Diva house Electro house Big room house Complextro Fidget house Dutch house Moombahton Moombahcore French house Funky house Garage house Ghetto house Ghettotech Hardbag Hard house Hard dance Hard NRG Hip house Italo house Jazz house Kwaito Latin house Microhouse/Minimal house New beat Outsider house Progressive house Rara tech Tech house Tribal house Trival Witch house Industrial music Aggrotech Electro-industrial Dark electro Electronic Body Music Futurepop Industrial metal Industrial rock Japanoise Neue Deutsche Härte Power electronics Death industrial Power noise IDM Glitch Glitch Hop Wonky Oldschool jungle Darkcore Ragga jungle Raggacore Post-disco Boogie Electropop Chillwave Dance-pop Dance-rock Techno Acid techno Detroit techno Dub techno Hardtek/Free tekno Minimal techno Nortec Tecno brega Techdombe Trance music Acid trance Balearic trance Dream trance Hard trance Nitzhonot Psychedelic trance Full on Suomisaundi Goa trance Progressive trance Tech trance Uplifting trance Vocal trance Trap Drill Future bass UK garage 2-step garage Dubstep Brostep Drumstep Chillstep Reggaestep Breakstep Future garage Grime Grindie Speed garage Bassline UK funky Vaporwave Vaportrap Future Funk Music Video game music Chiptune Bitpop Game Boy music Skweee Nintendocore ...
But I digress. For the sake of simplicity let's skip the categorization, but note that Felix is an electronic musician with a heart. He's an alchemist mixing seemingly mundane samples of found audio, primitive tribal music, delta-blues riffs, radio jingles, street preachers, snippets of obscure and genius movies like Blue Sunshine or Night of the Hunter and pairing them with both acoustic and digital tapestries. It's organic, soulful, provocative .... any fan of Brain Fruit, Pram, Tunng, Porn Sword Tobacco, Cliff Martinez, The Books, Four Tet or Plone would feel right at home. 

"Reprisal" collage by Felix Laband
His music, typically devoid of vocals presents an escape route from the grinding banality of meaning. The passionate lyrics of wordsmiths like Stephin Merritt or Elbow can elevate the spirit - but there's much to be said for a reprieve from lyrics when the music itself is fantastic. It's why traveling in countries where we don't speak the language affords the opportunity to imagine that the conversations we hear or the background pop music is nuanced and thoughtful, or at least don't plague us with their vapid nothingness. It's an oasis where we forge our own meaning, and this is the space that exists within Felix's creations.

Hailing from Johannesburg South Africa, Felix hasn't exactly become a household name here in the States. His obscurity made legitimate purchases of his music difficult, so like any rabid fan I resorted in the early 00's to *cough*piracy*cough* and felt the pain of having shorted an artist that has contributed so much to our well being. But now more than a decade later thanks to Discogs, Ebay and Amazon it's easier than ever to patronize the artists we love. And so we did, with the largest music related purchase we've ever made. 

Turns out Felix is a great collage artist. His Instagram feed has been a source of insight: shots of indigenous African tribesmen, moments of whimsy with his girlfriend Kerry, hanging out with dad, parties, EDM festivals and many intriguing cut-up collages. Collages that suggest a cultural heritage that's hard to parse, sometimes painful, often with a dark humor. The more one looks at his scissored and glued collages the more one can see the forces that cut, paste and bind his music together as if the art was an extension of the sounds. 

We've admired the collages from afar and were smitten when we first saw "Reprisal" pop up in his Instagram feed. It elicited from us a palpable emotional response on par with Felix's music. There's a power to the poverty of the bleak, dark figure with the bucket, his head bisected by a broad kanji-esque brush stroke and a splatter of paint that could suggest bloodshed. We can infer that South Africa's brutal history of apartheid might factor into this tableau. It's a desperate scene that challenges us to derive meaning, to look for a ray of hope to break the code of the random letters peppered above and below. 

The image on Instagram was hashtagged by the Kalashnikovv Gallery and after a couple queries on email and Facebook we were able to ascertain that this piece was both on exhibition and was also (happily) for sale. It wasn't cheap, even the cost of the wire transfer alone was $50. We flipped a coin then did a best two out of three and decided to forge ahead with the purchase.

It took over a month, but the axiom about good things and waiting proved to be true: it arrived unharmed in a well crafted 2x4 and plywood bomb-proof box with a certificate of authenticity. The frame is a minimal and sturdy shadowbox with glass protecting the art. It will be a cherished addition to our lives. Anyone so inclined, please stop by and admire it.

Here's the breakdown for those considering buying art from another continent. Your miles may vary, but these were our shipping costs (in South African Rand):

450R Packing & Crating
300R Collection from Braamfontein
700R Export Documentation
2990R DHL Courier Service
4440.00R Total
($345 not including the cost of the art itself or the $50 wire money xfer fee)

Thanks Felix for making the rough and unforgiving process known colloquially as "being alive" quantitatively better. If we could do the same for John Kennedy Toole for having written A Confederacy of Dunces or for Brian Hutton directing Kelly's Heroes we would, but they're dead so you're it. We hope that repatriating your art is adequate compensation.

Lastly, in direct contradiction to the opening assertions about the beauty of instrumental vs. vocal music, would you consider collaborating with either Stephin Merritt or José González? Maybe you could do an electronica revision of Rodriguez' Cold Fact?


PS: We made a video of the unboxing of Felix Laband's art. The part where the face-hugging alien popped out of his chest was really fun. Here it is:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Insane Honda Insight K20 Swap is FOR SALE

My Stock 2000 Honda Insight

For years I've been the proud owner of a stock 2000 Insight that while amazingly thrifty has never provided much joy in the going-fast department. Averaging 70mpg on cross country jaunts has been fantastic but the only times the car ever truly brought me joy was at the gas pump. After a lifetime of owning various RX7's, Civic Si's, Datsun 240z's and Preludes this new paradigm of going slow was not fitting me well.

Then I discovered LHT Performance in St. Petersburg had made waves in the Honda community by swapping the K20a engine from a 220hp Acura RSX R with its 6 speed transmission and limited slip differential into the tiny Insight making the sleepiest sleeper I'd ever seen. And I really wanted one ... but ...  I'd need $21,000 and a different car for the K20 engine swap. My Insight is a rare one of 400 1st year model in 'Citron' green so to do this swap I'd need another Insight and an additional twenty one thousand dollars. Notably, I had neither.

Time passed.

Three years ago I discovered a K20 Honda Insight auction on Ebay in Connecticut that was less than 24 hours from ending. Keep in mind that I'd been looking for years. The price was manageable, less than a LHT production without the cost of a donor. With a blizzard barreling towards Connecticut and with little time to prepare I had to skip a pre-purchase inspection and just bid on it, hope I'd win and then fly there. Luckily I was not outbid thanks to the poorly worded auction title: "Honda Insight Custom Modified" with no mention of the K20. I bought a flight on Southwest and was there a day later.

Specifications from the auction:
Bullet points for short attention spans: 
* 2000 Honda Insight - all aluminum chassis & body - modified
* Hybrid power train replaced with Honda Acura RSX-R K20 2.0 liter VTEC - 200+ HP
* Injector Dynamics 725 injection
* AEM fuel rail/regulator
* Hondata KPRO ECU
* New light flywheel
* Stage 2 clutch
* Skunk2 exhaust manifold / all stainless steel exhaust
* Completed car with 1/2 tank fuel = 1640 pounds
* 6 speed manual K20 type R trans
* Limited slip with helical gears
* Custom RSX axles and Innovative engine mounts
* lightweight alloy wheels / performance tires
* Uprated brakes (front), sway bars, suspension, shocks, 
* Gauge cluster replaced with S2000 unit
* Fully functional air conditioning
Cost to build & tune $ 24.8K. Plus 3K recent new ECU & tuning = $27.7K

The seller was an agent for the owner so he knew few specifics about the Insight. I would have to go on instinct as in-depth questions were not an option. I did find a shop to run a compression check and there was no deviation from cylinder to cylinder and they found no glaring faults or signs of previous accident damages so I felt confident enough to pay and hit the road: 1800 miles back to Austin with a blizzard just beginning to hit. I stopped by a transmission shop to double check that the transmission was fully topped off with oil as the whir of the helical cut gears was slightly audible - but the engine is perched on urethane mounts that transmit noises I'm not used to hearing in my stock Insight. Everything checked out fine and my trip was pleasant. Sixth gear cruising on the interstate is sedate and little engine noise intrudes into the cabin. Passes need no downshift, a very odd sensation after years with a stock Insight.

Reprogramming myself to drive a close ratio 6-speed was not easy. My muscle memory is mapped to five gears and I have to be very deliberate in shifting, even making a mental note 'I'm in 4th gear' etc. The shifter is a short throw, but adjustable. It feels like shifting a toggle switch. Unnerving also is the clutch - which is now perhaps three or four times harder than the fly-weight stock Insight.

Since then we've moved to Tampa FL. We're now 20 minutes from LHT Performance, the masterminds behind the original K20 Insight swap. LHT have done work on the car since our arrival, swapping in a new AC compressor and some other minor updates like moving the battery to the hatch area and diagnosing/fixing an engine grounding issue. John, the Australian madman behind their automotive mayhem is an affable, down to earth guy who's an engineering whiz. George, his right-hand man is a fantastic enabler.

As you might imagine, driving this car is like driving a cannonball. When the Vtec activates all kinds of pandemonium occurs, the otherwise tractable and quiet car screams like a superbike and the steering, thanks to the limited slip differential generally goes where it's pointed while the tires attempt to transfer torque to pavement. Recently we encountered a BMW Z4-M in traffic being driven by a jackass, swerving from lane to lane on one of Tampa's wide boulevards by the airport. He made some poor lane choices and caught the last red light before a long straightaway with no side streets, with us behind him. He was an older middle aged guy with a much younger woman he was trying to impress. I knew he'd gun it on the green - unaware of the menace behind him.

Honda's black magic.The loud snarl of the K20 had him quickly checking his mirrors in disbelief. We hit 120 mph with no change in distance from where we'd sat at the light - he was shifting past his redline with puffs of smoke between his shifts, then back on the brakes for the next light where he made an impromptu right turn rather than have another embarrassing moment at the hands of a hybrid economy car.  I don't make a habit of this, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

I've owned the car for a few years now and hardly driven it. There was a big move, a change of priorities and a lot of life in that time span that prevented me from enjoying it. Combine that with my stock Insight daily driver, a Subaru Legacy wagon and my TR6 and you might understand that I don't really need it. I don't have the temperament to drive such an insane car. I despise and loathe attention from the police and my driving record has been spotless for over eight years now - and I aim to keep it that way. But not if I continue driving this absurd rocket-pod. My knees are knocking together literally every time I get out of it. If you want what's essentially a snarling superbike on four wheels, it's for you.

As stated, LHT Performance will charge you $21,000 - PLUS whatever you paid for the Insight that you want converted to K20 power. I'm selling mine for $12,500 total or less if you have an interesting trade on a classic Datsun 240/260/280z. It has larger Integra front rotors and red 15" alloy wheels that currently wear 195/60 all season tires that are a good winter compound but which I'd upgrade to a summer track tire if I were keeping it. It's fairly quiet until the v-tech sings the song of its people whereupon all hell breaks loose. Hold on tight to the steering wheel. The stereo is the stock Honda cassette unit with a factory cd changer in the hatch. No smoke, no oil consumption, no odd noises.

Caveats are slightly odd silver paint on the hood's front that most people don't notice, an electrical slow drain that I've never taken the time to track down but which would be a non-problem if it was daily driven.  The auction stated mileage as 55,000 but that was the what the S2000 gauge cluster indicated. The seller said it was more but it's not evident to my eyes. The car is close to flawless and ding free. The mileage of the engine is unknown as it was a Japanese market engine shipped over on a pallet. The vast majority of these engine pulls are from low mile JDM cars for various weird Japanese regulatory reasons. Bad for them, good for us.

So that's it. I've had my fun. Now I want another Datsun 240z like the one I drove in college. It's your turn to lay down pain and agonizing defeat upon unsuspecting drivers in prestigious cars - and put the fear of god into the next douche who attempts to roll coal on the little hybrid car. Ask me how I know.

Here's the photos so far on Flickr in high resolution for you to poke with a stick. Enjoy!

You can reach me by clicking on my profile or by emailing dsanborn at gmail dot com. For anyone preferring to repost the Craigslist advert, here it is.

<It's now a few years later and ...>
I've had some time to think about this car and the lessons I derived from owning it. The primary takeaway is to avoid other people's projects unless you know them personally and their attention to detail. If you don't know them I'd suggest picking a car that has been in daily use for over a year, long enough for most of the bugs to be ironed out in the build. If you've flown across the United States as I did to check out this Insight, don't feel compelled to buy the car just because you blew $400 on a plane ticket there and don't want to blow another $400 on a ticket home. I was dismayed at what I found but I pressed on anyway and bought a car that was decidedly not fit for daily use and cost me many more thousands make mostly right.

Don't buy a car from a 3rd party. If you're not dealing with the owner, don't do it. For reasons not clearly explained, this Insight was sold by a friend of the owner which is a nice firewall for avoiding personal responsibility. Questions that I really needed answers to about the build couldn't be answered.

An addendum on the video posted below: I originally videoed myself making acceleration runs up to 70mph, then realized when I was posting the video that I was clearly passing road signs showing (ahem) somewhat lower speed limits than I was traveling at. As I don't normally drive like Aryton Senna, it hadn't occurred to me that I was about to post self-incriminating evidence. As I know a horrible cop who'd love to see me arrested and buggered in the state pen I felt compelled to delete the fun stuff in the video. I've since paid more attention to how guys like Hoovie's Garage, WatchJRgo and others find nondescript back roads to break laws on, but I wasn't in the mood to reshoot my footage so I posted some much less interesting moments.

For the yahoo dissing my shifts, I've always been concerned about crunching the syncros and like to give them time to spin up. Second gear on this Insight's RSX transmission was always a bit slow and I didn't want to induce syncro failure, thus my slow shifting. Yeah, I know you guys with tribal tattoos like to hammer your transmissions & throw them away like a used tissue, but that's not me. 

My Insight was also the focus of a Jalopnik "Nice Price Or Crackpipe" story that I won't bother linking to. I'm a Jalop regular, posting under the sobriquet Piston Slap Yo Mama in case you find the article you can enjoy the astonishing tsunami of comment trolls who weighed in from their parent's basements on how worthless a K20s Insight swap is and how they could build one for less than $5000 (nearly impossible even if all the labor was your own) and so on and so forth.  While I didn't build this car, I had a hand in diagnosing and repairing quite a few of the former builder's fuck-ups and know what it takes to do something right. I too remember being clueless and full of unearned self confidence, but back then thankfully there didn't exist a way for me to torture others with my ignorance.

So what does a person replace a brutally fast K20a swapped Insight with? A Fiat Abarth 500. Trust me, go test drive one. Ours has a Fiat Madness ECM good for nearly 200hp and unlike the Insight it's engineered to cruise comfortably at 100mph all day long if you're visiting Montana or just enjoy speeding tickets. It's nearly as small yet somehow provides honest space for four people and is a very competent handling sports car. Buy one and enjoy what's is destined to become a future collectible if you keep it long enough.