Man and machine 

Missoula's Signal Path looks to make electronica a performance art

Many bands, approached by a reviewer and asked to describe their sound, answer along the lines of, “Well, we’re really hard to categorize.” Then the reviewer puts the CD in the player, and after a few songs, is usually able to say “funk” or “rock,” “jam band” or “bluegrass,” etc. While the band members themselves may harbor delusions that they’re exploring musical realms that are not easily labeled, the reviewer, as one detached from the process, has the sad duty of informing them that they are not, in fact, playing music that is beyond description, or even comparison.

But every now and then, along comes a band like Signal Path that truly is impossible to reduce to a one-word explanation. The Missoula-bred Signal Path offers electric and acoustic drums, keyboards, upright bass and two guitars, which, on its face, might scream jam band, but there is something else at play here. Each of the five members of the band is plugged in to a digital module that can make the instrument of origin sound foreign at times.

Band member Ben Griffin explains.

“What I’ve done is taken an acoustic [drum] kit and attached drum triggers…It’s like hitting a drum head but it’s a silent hit…the trigger receives vibrations from the hit, figures out how hard the velocity was, and sends something to, basically, a brain, which interprets it and sends out the sound.”

Griffin says that his module, or “drum brain,” can produce over 1,000 different sounds, ranging from percussion to “weird stuff like dogs barking.”

“At this point, we all have some pretty electronic gear that weird, funky sounds come from,” he adds. “That’s just going to continue as Signal Path continues. You’re going to see more and more high-tech gear.”

Signal Path wields its high-tech gear to produce live dance music. In a sense, they are playing what most would understand as DJ music, but, says drummer (number two) Damon Metzner, “we’re doing it as a performing art.”

Signal Path has taken its dance-music-as-performance-art show on the road recently, returning to Missoula after a tour which saw the band play 45 shows over a two-month trek through college towns in eight states. The band was founded in Missoula by Ryan Burnett after the dissolution of his former local group, Abendego. In the Garden City’s close-knit music scene, members of Signal Path have also been seen playing “hard rockin’ funk” with Mountain Fueled on a Sunday night at Charlie B’s. But now, all other projects have ceased. Signal Path is poised to break through with a relatively fresh idea: the organic/electronic hybrid. Metzner believes that the band’s current sound is an obvious evolution.

“Electronic music is everywhere,” he says. “You turn on the television, whether you’re watching The Matrix or a car commercial, you’re going to hear electronic-sounding stuff. Most musicians that are really trying to expand their horizons, well, what goes in is going to come out, so I think it was inevitable.”

“We’ve had quite a few people tell us that they were outside [of a Signal Path show] or around the bar and they heard some music and thought it was a DJ,” says guitarist Nathan Weidenhaft.

That was the idea from the outset, according to Griffin.

“We set out on this project to create this electronic product with this electronic soundscape to almost have that same effect where people say, ‘Man, I thought that was a DJ spinning records in there,’” Griffin says. “But at the same time, I think we’ve all learned that that’s something that’s almost unattainable. Because we are human, and we’re just musicians expressing our emotions.”

A question arises: Even if the band could attain the digital perfection of an electronica record, would it want to?

“I don’t know,” says Griffin. “It’s an interesting thing. But I don’t want to forget that I’m human, you know?”

If you want to get heavy, then, the music of Signal Path mirrors the juxtaposition of modern-day America: the high-wire balancing act of utilizing the latest technologies for new and intriguing results without losing a grasp on the human element. If you don’t want to get quite so heavy, it’s just intense music to shake your ass to, accompanied by a nifty laser light show.

Either way, the band has created an ambitious challenge for itself. The goal is to convince the music world, and venue owners who might consider spending less money for similar music on a DJ, that electronic music can be enjoyed not only on the level of the rave, but on the level of art. Thus far, Signal Path is making significant headway. On their most recent tour, the band realized that people were starting to come out to shows to see and hear the band, not just to dance. Metzner says that this support is due in part to positive vibes sent out by Missoulians.

“Most places, a couple people will come up and say, ‘Yeah, my buddy in Missoula told me to check you guys out,’” he says. “Missoula’s great like that.”

For a band like Signal Path, this kind of audience––an audience that is there to listen to the music first and foremost—is a necessity.

“Our style of music doesn’t really allow people to continue a conversation about who they saw on the slopes that day,” Griffin says. “It’s totally encompassing and engulfing for all of us, and that totally feeds out to the audience. When Signal Path hits the stage, people either leave or they start seeing what’s going on.”

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