One glance at the man on stage—strange electronic noise-making boxes in front of him, frizzy curly hair in all directions—and it’s easy to understand why Todd Drootin, AKA Books on Tape, gets more than a few looks.
It’s especially true once the sounds start. The cold and steady drum machine, the odd snippet from a radio broadcast and the fuzz of a stomp box guitar pedal produces an up-tempo mish-mash of beats. Since he began his electronic-indie project in 2001, Drootin’s songs have evoked mass head-nodding, cheeky grins and even impromptu breakdancing.
It’s the same almost everywhere he goes. From audiences across North America to security officials at the airport, there’s a sense of wonder that comes with Drootin’s full-time job. He hits Gus’ Pub on March 9 as part of an east coast tour behind his latest release Dinosaur Dinosaur.
“I hate it when they get down to opening my backpack with all the pedals and assorted pieces,” the 28-year-old, Los Angeles-based auteur says of air travel. “I swear it’s sometimes just curiosity. They’re like, ‘What’s this one? What does this machine do?’ I’m like, ‘What does this have to do with it being dangerous?’
“One time I went through security and a woman was checking all my stuff,” he adds. “She was like, ‘Musician?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ She goes, ‘You know who came through here yesterday? The Red Hot Chili Peppers.’ Somehow I imagine that Flea got through quicker.”
Drootin grew up in California listening to punk and indie music. But it was his fascination with hip-hop and dub that led him on the path toward the noise collage that comprises his current work.
“I always found dub and hip-hop more intriguing because it was like, ‘What the hell are they doing? I kind of recognize this, but it’s different,’” Drootin says. “Then you read about it and it was like they were putting water on the speaker or something.”
Drootin’s interest in sound manipulation led him to form the duo Subverse in the late ’90s with longtime friend Matt Dennebaum. The duo broke up after the well-received self-released cassette tape Nobody Likes You. A few years later Drootin started Books on Tape, incorporating an MPC sampler sequencer and drum machine to produce a digitized mash-up of dance beats, hip-hop rhythms and avant-garde experimentalism. Eventually he added other musical equipment to round out his sound.
“When I started performing, it was just with the drum machine and sampler,” he says. “It wasn’t enough for me. I could find little ways to live effects and changes on the sound, but it was never enough. I was like, ‘What if I plug a guitar pedal in there?’ From there it became two and three.”
His solo project status allows Drootin to produce music faster. He’s released four albums since 2001 along with several tracks on compilations, split EPs and 7-inch singles. His independence also has him on tour more than most acts, something he admits can be a lonely existence.
“It’s very removed from the world and if I know something goes wrong, it’s all on me,” he says. “I see bands joking around after a show, ‘You screwed up that part.’ That’s the conversation I have with myself.
“You end up in some po-dunk town in the middle of the country and it’s like, ‘Did I really come here for this?’” he adds. “But then you never know, sometimes those are the best shows.”
However, the same reasons that draw people to his shows keep Drootin on the road. The reaction to his unique musical vision makes long solo trips worthwhile, even in the dead of winter.
“I’ve had nothing but weird responses for five years,” he says, laughing. “There are always the people that are into it, there are always the people that aren’t. What strikes me more are the people that totally don’t get it.
“It’s charming because it’s not something that’s going to be obvious to someone that’s been watching bands in bars for 20 years,” he adds. “Then I come along with my boxes, plugs and wires. It’s not so much negative responses as it’s people who are curious about what’s going on. That’s endearing.”
Books on Tape w/Windom Earle and Mark Black, March 9 at Gus’ Pub, 2605 Agricola. 9pm, $5.