- Life in the not-so-fast lane: Racermason's beats flow like cold molasses.
"That whole drop-beat thing is so cool," says Lashua in a Fairlawn coffee shop. "I think it has a heavy, syrupy feel. Every time I need a beat, I say, 'Play it like you're hitting molasses.' And it starts to sound right.'"
They used to call it trip-hop. In the early to mid-'90s, production-oriented Bristol artists such as Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead hijacked gritty hip-hop beats and looped them as the heartbeat of something mellow and sexy, upping the ante from blissed-out, psychedelia-indebted Madchester groups like the Stone Roses.
"The washy, ethereal sound of the shoegazer scene in the early '90s was something I was deeply into, as was everyone else," Joe Minadeo, producer and unofficial fifth member of the Akron group, adds later. "Bands like Chapterhouse, Ride, and Catherine Wheel were creating these albums that were insanely great to sleep or fuck to. I think you can say the same of Racer's album."
As a movement, trip-hop may be dead, but its ghost is all over the place. Elements of the overlapping sounds diffused into genres such as IDM (Björk via Matmos), blip-hop (DoseONE), and hip-hop (Cypress Hill). It's been subsumed by downtempo and chill (Rithma and J-Boogie) and integrated into traditional and mainstream acts from the Twilight Singers (Greg Dulli's post-Afghan Whigs band) to Sarah McLachlan's adult-contemporary bent and the Moby-produced suite of Britney Spears's Get in the Zone.
In 1996, when trip-hop was hitting its stride, Lashua and singer Mandy Lascko were beginning to work together, fronting the alt-rock band the Frans. Over the next four years, the band collected accolades, including Scene readers'-choice awards for best female vocalist, drummer, and regional rock band. The group appeared on numerous CD compilations and toured as far away as Texas, supporting an indie-release LP and an EP that was part of a development deal with Columbia Records.
By 1999, they were all Franned out. Lashua and Lascko disappeared from the scene, holed up in their apartment, and went on a steady diet of ambient-pop Hooverphonic, rock-as-art Radiohead, and trip-hop. The couple emerged in winter 2000, sharing their songs with Derek's brother Brett Lashua, a drummer who was playing in the Kent-based trip-hop act Full Blown Kirk -- just one blossoming project of Joe Minadeo, a prolific producer-musician fast growing into Akron music's benevolent Godfather. Brett played Racermason for Joe. Joe invited them to his studio. The four began collaborating with Minadeo on bass, working on individual parts in their home studios, e-mailing mp3 files back and forth. Over the next two years, they developed the makings of an LP.
"We had an album's worth of material, and we had to call it something," says Derek. "As a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Rubbermason. But that didn't make a very good name." Racermason sounded better. They Google-whacked it -- unlike their other prospective names, the search resulted in zero hits. "There it was," he continues. "And it had a very Japanime flair to it. We became a band at that point."
Released in 2002, the noir With Everything seamlessly blends live percussion and sampled beats -- even the band has trouble recalling which parts are live and which are digital. Like a torch singer, Lascko palpably yearns for a tender moment, as in the looped refrain to the album-closer "Little Happiness": "A little happiness thrown my way/A little play on words, perhaps."
By the time the LP was in progress, Brett Lashua had relocated to Canada, replaced by Ron Tucker, drummer for the prog-rockish Ribcage Houdinis, who had been lured to electronica by artists like crossover-junglist Goldie.
"We wanted to recreate what people were doing with machines and sequencers," says Tucker. "With electronic percussion, you get a different timbre of sound -- tasty beats, sparse, melodic. I associate that more with a jazz mentality than a trip-hop mentality."
With live beats gently thudding over a low piano loop, the lulling "Audible Click" was featured on Chicago's SYLT compilation, and other cuts have appeared on collections ranging from New York City's Artist Amplification to Sacramento, California's Clairecords Artist Compilation. Scene readers voted Racermason the best electronic band of 2003 -- questionably appropriate, since the band prides itself on the ability to deliver live layered tracks in what Lascko calls "a more powerful, hit-your-chest thing."
With Everything sold out two pressings -- more than 2,000 total -- including hundreds of copies in Akron and Cleveland, dozens in New York, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, "handfuls" to Brazil and England via the internet, and dozens more to France.
"I don't think it's the amount of CDs being sold that's important, but where they're being sold," says Lashua.
"It's a project-oriented group," says Dominic Shiner, recently hired to fill in on bass for the busy Minadeo, "as opposed to a rock band that goes out and makes the rounds."
Following Lascko's nine-month maternity break, Racermason is returning, not to reestablish itself as a live presence in Akron and Cleveland, but to focus its energy on the next LP.
"There's no sense in killing yourself to do a million shows in one month," says Lascko. "Nowadays, there are better avenues to explore."
Exceptionally organized and articulate, the members hope that one precise strike will do the work of dozens of blind stabs; the group has a representative submitting music to major conferences and shopping songs to films. Atmospheric movies such as Snatch, Nadja, and Stealing Beauty prove that trip-hop -- for lack of a better label -- lends itself to cinema.
"I think it's a good term," says Lascko. "I think a lot of bands fit that description. But I don't think we do."
"It's not as mellow as Mazzy Star or hip-hop as Portishead," says Tucker. "For me, it's about the beauty. Like Sigur Rós. To me, that's what Racer is."
"We got the most amazing e-mail from this guy who does nothing but work," adds Lascko, smiling. "And he's all stressed out. And he puts our music on, and the stress melts away. And that's just it for me."