Slava Balasanov is 30, with a precise bowl cut and a surprising fondness for the plain black dress shoes of a bank teller. The son of two mathematicians, he spent his first 12 years in Moscow before the family moved to Chicago. “It was right after the Soviet Union crumbled, and there was all this hype about the US and how glamorous it is,” he says. “I was really excited about having an endless supply of Coca-Cola.” From junior high through college, Balasanov was something of a free jazz obsessive, practicing the guitar four hours a day, aiming to make jazz his profession. But after finishing at the University of Chicago, he fell into a spiral of disoriented self-loathing. He quit jazz, bought a Britney Spears record and traded his guitar for a pair of Korg Electribe grooveboxes, which have been his main instrument ever since. “It was a big relief to start from scratch,” he says. “To move forward and not get hung up on things.” In between unrewarding jobs in the Financial District and trips to old school house clubs on Chicago’s south side, Balasanov started DJing with two friends from high school, and they began a small, genre-bending electronic label called Moment Sound. The opening song on Balasanov’s 2008 debut begins with splashy jazz drums, standup bass and scat singing, before wrapping itself in an other worldly percussive melody that sounds like tweezers drumming on tiny pipes.
Skip ahead to Soft Control, his new EP on New York’s Software label, released as Slava, and that ethereal percussion has nearly taken over. Familiar instruments take on unexpected roles: the airy spattering of drums on “Swan” mostly resembles the crackling of a very dusty record, and when gamelan and harp show up, it sounds as if they were thrown in whitewater and recorded as they clanged and bubbled downstream. Soft Control draws its soul from deep sounds with important cultural histories, and Balasanov remains dedicated to improvisation, with most tracks recorded in single takes straight from the Electribes. The chaos at the heart of free jazz lives on, now manifested in his frantic drum programming. The persistent vocal sample running through “I’ve Got Feelings Too” is none other than Spears’, his first pop crush. “You’ve learned and tried all these different things, and now you’re rediscovering yourself again.”
Balasanov uses recognizable sounds like signposts toward a surreally foreign place, a technique he applies to his similarly concept-juggling visual art. He spent much of the winter completing a residency at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York, where he continued working on his online platform, Gifpumper, a deceptively retro-seeming tool for constructing digital “rooms” out of animated GIFs. Gifpumper employs ’90s-evocative images of floating pizzas, chrome spheres and Disney princesses in much the same way Soft Control references Chicago footwork and house music: it builds new worlds out of them. With a few torques in just the right places, the past is rendered totally, jarringly new. 2-D becomes 3-D. Nearly 20 years since he emigrated from Russia, Balasanov’s art and music finally seem to be reaching a creative pinnacle, but the wonder of his method of refiguring culture is that culture never sits still. There’s always work to do. “With evolution, nothing’s ever perfect,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be settled.”
Stream: Slava’s Soft Control EP