Photo credit: Ben Howell
In his latest essay, writer Michael Pementel discusses how he found peace in the unfamiliar streets of Chicago through friends and electronic music.
Chicago’s massive scale blew my mind when I first visited, but I had no understanding of what it was beyond my small glimpse. I moved to the city knowing my brother was there but still found myself lonely. I had just come off the heels of a complicated relationship and with little understanding of what I wanted to do with my life. While having a sibling around was comforting, I found a lot of solace in listening to music. I would sit in my dorm or walk around the block, blaring metal into my eardrums. The racing blast beats and the swarm of guttural vocals pushed me inwards and away from the vast metropolis. The brutality and heaviness of the songs grounded me and pushed my anxieties aside. When the loneliness was beginning to hurt with each passing night, I had the music.
Eventually, I began to connect with others from school. Being invited to a movie night, I was able to meet a variety of different artists. However, there was a musician I met whose name (altered for this story) was Darryl. I don’t remember who said it first, but one of us mentioned metal and ears perked up; one thing led to another, and we began talking about all the bands we enjoyed. After that evening it became clear that we had tapped into something unique and our friendship grew from there on.
Not only was he well-read in metal and hip-hop, but he had a wealth of knowledge regarding other genres; in particular, much of his experience was in electronic music. Up until this time, my understanding of the electronic style was Daft Punk and Skrillex (the latter which I was not fond of). I told Darryl this, and with a hardy laugh he made a jab at Skrillex and began introducing me to new artists.
He showed me Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, The Flashbulb, Igorrr, Flying Lotus, and more. They were unlike any other music I had heard; there was an intricacy to the structure in all these artists’ work, emitting emotion through varying auras. What intrigued me the most, however, was the sense of atmosphere. Not an atmosphere one feels from attending a live metal show, but one that imbued life into my surroundings.
It was meditative; the music reminded me of when I was a kid standing in the woods listening to nature. As I continued to listen, my view of art and society began to evolve. I had grown accustomed to music with lyrics, reflecting on stories and messages; with these electronic artists, there were rarely any vocals, and the story became where I was currently standing. Through the abstract compositions, whether they were easy going or hectic, I began to see and feel differently; the air had taste, I could feel the concrete beneath my shoes, I could feel the number of people walking beside me. It was mindfulness in action.
Like myself, Darryl too had his fair share of struggles; there were many nights we would sit at the table, talking about our anxieties and pains. We both shared similar oddball humor and a drive in our artistry to share and express ourselves. Darryl and I forged a real bond through our work and companionship; other than our trust, the laughs and art we shared with one another helped us in trying times.
He came from a small town outside of Chicago called Gurnee, IL. From time to time we would drive to his parent’s house for the weekend. During those trips I learned more about the world surrounding Chicago; in moving to the city, I had a simple vision of the Midwest as only Chicago. As we drove down the highway, my eyes looked out to flatland and barren trees, feeling the chill of the Illinois autumn air. Some of our trips took place late in the evening; it would be just us all alone on the highway, taking in nature, and the music coming from the car dashboard.
Just like that feeling of walking through Chicago, these drives took on an extra meaning thanks to the music. Looking out at nature, thinking of Gurnee and the small towns that surrounded the giant known as Chicago, it began to click with me over time just how much bigger the world was. That real profound sense of big; not just looking at a globe or map and realizing there’s a lot of places to go, but the realization of how much and how different the entire world is compared to one’s being.
As I’ve gotten older, electronic music has continued to be a meditative instrument in life. The serenity of Boards of Canada helps simmer my mind into a place of calm; Flying Lotus brings vibrancy to my eyes, exuding life into my physical movements. This music, the discoveries it has offered me, would not have been entirely possible without the help of Darryl.
I remember my first live show in Chicago; Darryl and I found out Flying Lotus was going to be at the Metro and there was no way we were going to miss out. As we stood there watching the opening acts (one being Teebs, an artist I’ve come to really dig), I couldn’t help but realize how serene the experience was. Even when FlyLo took the stage, his material taking on a heavier dance appeal, the aura of the room was meditative. My eyes closed as my body moved with the crowd; flesh and sweat swayed throughout the room, and in my mind, it was pure stillness. Lights flashed about the space, FlyLo’s music blaring and filling all of us. I let myself go that night, breathing in the joy of the air.
It’s almost been seven years since I first moved to Chicago since I first met Darryl. We don’t see each other as often anymore, but there and then we will reach out and see what the other is doing. I think of him whenever I’m listening to one of the artists he recommended me all those years ago. Our friendship, the music he shared with me, changed my life in many beautiful ways.
As I board the train on any given weekday morning, I place my headphones on. Closing my eyes at first, I listen to the first few seconds of a Boards of Canada track. As the rhythm begins to build, bringing me into a state of peace, I open my eyes to look out at the sky over Chicago. Taking in its blend of pinks, yellows, blues, and blacks, I think about how that sky stretches across so much more than this city; how those different shades of color wash the various suburbs of Illinois, how they blanket the barren flatlands. I think about the hypnotic late night drives, I think about the bustling mornings heading into the city. I briefly think of the past, closing my eyes to embrace the rhythm, to listen and love the moment.