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Beats with Brains

music domtreeHip-hop collective Doomtree meditates on technology with ‘No Kings’

Indie rock fans would be forgiven if they mistook the tale of Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree for that of folk strummer Bon Iver.

After all, just as Justin Vernon did with For Emma, Forever Ago, the seven-member crew laid down all the demos for their forthcoming album, No Kings, while sequestered in a remote Wisconsin cabin—far away from the noise and lights of the city and out of cell phone reception.

"We definitely wanted to isolate ourselves from distractions," says Margret Wander a.k.a. Dessa, a singer and emcee with the group.

Armed with copious amounts of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a collection of beats assembled by the group's circle of stellar producers, the Doomtree emcees—P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims, and Dessa—headed into the wilderness with a fairly simple itinerary: "We'd write during the days, drink at night, and demo into the early morning," says Wander.

Good Times caught up with Wander and Stefon Alexander (known onstage as P.O.S.) a few weeks back over an echoing cell phone connection. The two of them, plus the rest of Doomtree, will hit the Catalyst Atrium on Feb. 1 in support of No Kings—an album that merges rap and punk rock in a way that is far from corny, and downright danceable.

"I like the club bangers," Wander says. Though the group is often associated with the underground circuit—a scene which often values heady lyrical twists over bowel-rattling bass—she sees no reason why she can't have her deep thoughts and spit them over dance-friendly accompaniments.

Alexander, who also works as a producer in the group, agrees—and it shows. The rhythms on No Kings hit as hard as the record's rhetoric. The 12-song LP stitches together elements of punk, funk, jazz and glitchy 8-bit electronics, without straying from its hip-hop foundation.

The secret to making a brainy album that bumps, Alexander explains, is to treat all the musical parts like individual puzzle pieces, some of which fit neatly together, while others need trimming or elbow grease to fall into the allotted sonic space.

"Hip-hop is all about taking disparate pieces and making a totally different thing out of them," he says.

Alexander plays in a punk band when he isn't working on his solo hip-hop career or with Doomtree. His lifelong attraction to the "urgency" of rock and roll drumming is evident on No Kings, which is brimming with live drum sounds.

You can hear the rattle of the plastic drum heads in the rolling tom-tom intro of "Bolt Cutter," and the overdriven kick and snare on "Punch-Out" are reminiscent of the huge, overly compressed sound of John Bonham's kit on "When the Levy Breaks."

Then there are songs like "The Grand Experiment." A nod to the past and present, the song opens with classic synth horns, which recall the early keyboard sounds of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" and seem to announce (contrary to the album's title) the entrance of some futuristic monarch. From there, it builds into a triumphant, womping, drum and bass reflection on all the ways the machines we have created hold court over our lives:

"Pushing evolution faster/catching continental drifts/desperately seeking solutions to problems we know we'll never fix," Mike Mictlan raps, "In the belly of a robot/out the valley of a microchip/dialysis in wonderland/Apple-Z the viruses/I've never been myself, there is no human experience/you can't Apple-S yourself/this is the grand experiment."

Doomtree's 10-year-long experiment has been fruitful, indeed. No Kings deserves comparisons to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Like West's 2010 record, No Kings wraps a perfect balance of self-awareness, self-abasement, and self-aggrandizement around smart, painstakingly crafted beats.

The record is emblematic of everything Wander says she has ever wanted to do:

"Our primary objective is to make un-fuck-with-able music."

Doomtree performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, at The Catalyst Atrium, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10/adv, $12/door. For more information, call 423-1338.

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