When Dylan Ettinger was still a middle-American anachronism borne on the blog hype of everything Not Not Fun-related, he announced, “who knows what I’ll do when my four-track breaks?” It’s unclear as to whether his trusty Tascam recorder has in fact seen its last days but it is true that his alternate-reality electronica has embraced the studio for his latest EP release Lifetime of Romance. As part of that crop of so-called retro-futurists fascinated with past perceptions of our present and the ease with which reproductive technology can offer a glimpse into it, musicians like Maria Minerva, LA Vampires and Ettinger have had their heads in the ‘cloud’ for years. They’ve come up with a hyperreal take on those things old and make them entirely new again, while interrogating ideas of modernity and humanity to their always creative, often fun, personal soundtrack.
Accordingly, we find ourselves picking the parallels between the distinct pop-thrust of Ettinger’s current creative direction and the history of post-punk and science fiction. Tracks like the industrial stride of ‘Sport and Superstition’ and dark wave vocals of ‘Blue and Blue’ nod toward the likes of early-era Human League, even a spot of Gary Numan. Known for approaching his synthesised, looped wanderings of minimal new age beats along a plotline of science-fiction narratives, Ettinger shares the latter synth-pop musician’s penchant for unrealised attempts at the sci-fi novel, while references to cyberpunk icon William Gibson get a glaring shout-out in Neuromancer character Wintermute, the name of the opening track.
As an Indiana-based electronic musician, Ettinger is what you’d call an exception from the punk and hardcore background of the midwestern city of Bloomington; much in the same way that Cabaret Voltaire rebelled against the status quo of rock in the industrial wasteland of 1970s Sheffield. 2010 release New Age Outlaws bore a resemblance to some of their more primitive takes on discovering the synthesiser, explored within the restrictions of low-fidelity recording. Lifetime of Romance, however, goes on to explore its expansive sonic journeys in the realm of melody and song structure, much in the same way that bands like The Human League and Numan progressed towards pop later in their careers. Ettinger himself admits that an EP featuring something like the lonely saxophone of ‘Maude’ and forceful bass line of ‘Disparager’ might have struggled to gain entry into the Not Not Fun stable a few years earlier but now it’s just another example of the label’s broadening palette, progressive attitude and evolving sound.
It should be noted that author Gibson describes nostalgia “[as] a fundamentally unhealthy modality” in an interview, tweeted by Ettinger himself, while the musician himself expresses a measure of semi-conscious, almost-Luddism. Using old synthesisers, referencing past styles and releasing music on old formats (there are several releases on cassette) you might think Ettinger and his label-mates are the ultimate purveyors of a longing for things past. But in Lifetime of Romance there isn’t so much a sense of nostalgia but of history repeating itself on a political and social level, the music and art following accordingly. As Not Not Fun co-owner Britt Brown once put it to me:
“’Looking back’ and ‘looking forward’ can often mean the same thing. New ideas are not necessarily ideas of substance, anymore than being inspired by the past defines something as ‘regressive’.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Lifetime of Romance is out on Not Not Fun is out today.