Pair the lab coat he dons during his onstage Schneider TM appearances with his eyeglasses and you might mistake Michael Beckett for your average high-school physics teacher. But the moment he straps on his guitar, it's evident that behind the bespectacled facade there's a rock star fighting to get out. To some degree disenchanted with aspects of the electronic scene, Beckett (aka Kptmichigan) expresses his reborn love of the guitar on his new and occasionally raw self-titled release. Even though the original title for the album was Mountain Musics, Beckett decided to keep it simple. “Using my name makes it seem more a definitive statement, like a portrait of myself I'm really proud of,” he explained on a cool Sunday afternoon in Montreal , the day after his 2004 MUTEK appearance. And the name itself? “I was on tour with Tuesday Weld (Beckett's band before Schneider TM) and we were using a Walkman to record an audio diary. Michi is a German abbreviation for Michael, and the drummer, Bob, started calling me Michigan. So whenever I made a log-book entry I would start off by saying “This is Captain Michigan.” I used a K to make it look nice and German and eventually it turned into Kptmichigan.”
MUTEK showcased Beckett in two settings, the first alongside ringleader Dirk Dresselhaus and drummer Christian Obermaier in Schneider TM (the group's performance enhanced with visuals by Philipp Geist) and the second a solo set during an eclectic Saturday programme that included Angel (Dresselhaus and Pan Sonic's Ilpo Väisänen) and Portable. Occasionally playing straight man to Dresselhaus during Schneider TM's raucous concert, Beckett, cigarette dangling from his lips, spasmodically twisted his mixer's knobs to generate a fierce racket or wielded his guitar for some blazing riffing with Dresselhaus. The group's manic presentation made the day's preceding performances, no matter how accomplished, seem polite by comparison. When asked about the band's tour preparations, Beckett explains that the musicians practiced for about a month before the tour began but now, having toured for awhile, they show up, plug in, and simply enjoy themselves. “It's just lunacy,” he says, “We're paid to tour and play and it's just a blast.”
Beckett was born in a town called Bad Nauheim and grew up in Germany and England. As a teenager, he fell in love with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, and The Velvet Underground, and eventually played with indie-bands before hooking up with Schneider TM. He notes nostalgically, “I remember listening to and looking at Sonic Youth and the Pixies and thinking that they were so cool. How many fifteen-year-olds are looking today at electronic artists' records and thinking the same thing?” To date, the Kptmichigan-Schneider TM collaboration has produced Binokular and the 7-inch “The Light 3000,” their update of The Smiths' “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” Beckett's previous solo releases include Hey Love (Trim) and Player, Player (Aesthetics), the latter an instrumental travelogue through myriad styles that seemingly name-checks Pole and Merzbow along the way before abruptly shifting gears with the pretty folk tune “Hey Brother” at disc's end.
Beckett became bored, though, by the album's pure electronics and its in-concert presentation. He had soured on other aspects of the laptop phenomenon too: the excessively morose seriousness of its practitioners, the stultifyingly dull performance scenario of the laptop performer's “presentation,” even the genre itself; in his words, “I was listening to Clicks & Cuts a couple of days ago and it already sounds dated!” So he shifted his attention back to guitar to again exploit the endless musical possibilities the instrument still offers in spite of its deep history. The natural outgrowth of that focus is the new album, recorded over the course of a year or so at the home he shares with his wife Kirsten and son in Dörentrup, a small city of 30,000 that lies midway between Berlin and Cologne.
Like Player, Player, Kptmichigan is largely a solo work, although this time Kirsten helps out on bass and friends add assorted noises like the saxophone bleating on “The Pulse Has Dropped” (the violin scrapings, by the way, are Beckett's). Asked about the differences between the two albums, Beckett first points out how the one segues into the other. “Player, Player ends with “Hey Brother” which connects to the new album's “Hey People.” Kptmichigan revisits some familiar stylistic territory—the opener “Fifth,” for example, a textured drone exercise that grinds and thrums—but most of it strays from its predecessor's paths. The seething “Sunmask” (the title both a tribute to the band Sunroof and the Floridian old-age pensioner's shades called sunmasks worn over regular specs) takes the listener on a daunting Metal Machine Music excursion but's followed by a piano-based meditation that offers relief from the earlier onslaught. Many songs are vocal-based, some rockers (the heavy plodder “Hey People!” and the propulsive “Some People Cry”), others more country-folk in feel (“Don't Time Fly,” “The Summer Sessions”). More unusual, however, are “Coughsong,” a languid pop tune that seems to echo both John Lennon and Brian Wilson, and especially “Some People Take Tablets,” with Beckett's vocal vaguely recalling Lou Reed and the multi-voiced chorus a bizarre sampling of glam-folk (an observation that heartens Beckett, given his love of The Velvet Underground).
Interestingly, all but one of the pieces Beckett performed in his solo MUTEK set are from the new album. Undeterred by the crowd's unfamiliarity with the material, he ripped through one piece after another, often alternating between guitar and mixer. He'll soon have the opportunity to showcase the new songs to other audiences when he tours as an opening act for The Junior Boys. Farther down the road, Beckett's got two other albums in the works. He's presently working on a disc for Aesthetics with Belgium's Kohn titled Avant-garde Is The French Word For Shit, plus an album from a group he's formed with his wife and friends called The Beautiful New Born Children. Beckett laughingly recounts some of the experiences recording with Kohn. “He recorded one piano solo when he was really drunk on vodka. He'd never even touched a piano before doing it but when we played it back it sounded like a brilliant jazz solo!”