Center stage

Lee Coombs
Light & Dark

(Lot 49)

Lee Coombs album release party
10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28
Vixen Lounge

118 S. Orange Ave.

It's difficult to find a way into the world of techno if you're not a dedicated follower: For one thing, the word "techno" can be a derogatory term in some circles of a genre that includes (or is sometimes the same as) house, breakbeat, electronic, dance, rave and beyond. For another, the music is a means to an end. Unlike virtually every other form of music, house, as we'll call it, is meant to be the soundtrack to a night, a pulsating, throbbing backdrop to dance-floor physicality that influences the masses while never telling them what to do or how to feel. The result, to a non-follower listening to a house album on headphones, is an inherent disconnect.

It's also tough finding a way into the Orlando home of "tech-funk" purveyor Lee Coombs, tucked away as it is off a shrub-covered, dead-end street on the shore of Hourglass Lake. The only surefire way to know you've arrived at the right place is Coombs' blue 1972 Porsche sitting out front of his nearly sleep-inducing place. When he's not working as a world-renowned house DJ and producer, 38-year-old Coombs keeps everything a bit quieter.

"For me, music is getting away from my work," says Coombs regarding his personal soundtrack. "Kings of Leon, the Beatles, a lot of chill-out music. Flaming Lips, bands like that. Something with a bit of atmosphere."

A jet-lagged Coombs is only a couple of days removed from the ninth Australian tour — he estimates he's been around the world 15 times — of a decades-long career that he could hardly have imagined as a kid growing up in "stuffy, posh" Cambridge. He compares the music scene there in the late '80s to Orlando in the late '90s, with a bubbling underground rave scene that Coombs connected with instantly. He eventually made the shift to busy London, where he and a friend recorded a few dance tracks as the Invisible Men and were immediately signed to a record label. He recalls that in the couple of years from his first DJ gig in 1989, in which he played acid house to a crowd that had never heard the sounds before, to the release of the Invisible Men's debut EP in '91, "it was a completely different style of music."

Coombs found an early champion of his work in BBC Radio's Pete Tong, a legendary house tastemaker.

"The earlier stuff, he was all over it. I mean, he was a big help. He played so much of my stuff on the radio that it was almost weird," laughs Coombs.

That connection led to Tong, many years later, requesting a remix from Coombs of New Order's song "Crystal," a massive break for Coombs.

"The band heard the remix and they loved it, and I met Bernard Sumner. I DJ'd a Moby after-concert party and Bernard was there and he comes up to me, says, ‘It's the best remix we've had done of the track.' Amazing. Best job I've ever done. It was a moment in time `where` I managed to grab a piece of history."

It's a moment that rings familiar now, with the release of Coombs' new album Light & Dark, a collection of Coombs' original material and a reconfiguration of Echo & the Bunnymen's "Rescue," a track that was approved by the group itself.

"I started off with their original and just cut sections out and started looping it," says Coombs. "I made my own track `from the parts`, realized I liked it and `the song` started getting reactions in the clubs. Luckily, `Echo & the Bunnymen` said yeah."

While Light & Dark boasts club-ready dance beats and collaborations with well-known house artists from the States (Überzone) and the U.K. (Katherine Ellis), Coombs says writing the album was a deeply personal experience, one that allowed him to try new things; namely, to slow things down.

"There's a track called ‘I'm a Machine,'" says Coombs. "It doesn't sound slow, but it is; like 105 beats per minute, whereas my stuff in a club is 128-130. The only reason I wouldn't play it in a club is it would upset the way people dance, purely because of the tempo change. That was part of the journey of the album."

Therein lies the toughest part of understanding what Coombs does without seeing his work in action: the way he commands a sea of people without outright telling them what to do, just as a hip-hop DJ might; Coombs can see how that sense of freedom and liberation does not come as easily to clubgoers in America as it does overseas, which may be why house music isn't nearly as popular here. It can be easy to confuse his motivations.

When Coombs says making his album is a personal process, he doesn't mean cerebrally, or even emotionally.

"You have to disconnect from `emotion` a little bit," says Coombs. "Dance music is not really that varied. I don't really do the lyrical thing. The act of doing that turns it away from being dance music. You don't tell stories with it. It's not that literal. At the end of the day, people just want to get drunk and have a good time. That's about as far as it goes. It is about creating a vibe in the room. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, DJ'ing a set. You've got all these pieces and you piece it together. It's a story of the night, that's all it is."

[email protected]