It's been a hectic year and a half for Jason Torbert. At the beginning of 2005 he was recording random sounds and exotic noises into his computer just for fun. In 2006 those sounds have turned into a San Diego Music Award nomination, a hit song, two trips to England, a friendship with a former member of The Cure and a brand new album called Swallowed by the Machines. In its short lifetime, Goddamn Electric Bill has already taken a long journey.
Goddamn Electric Bill is Torbert's one-man band, a propulsive blend of quirky electronic and post-rock influences that resulted in his debut full-length, Swallowed by the Machines, earlier this year. The project was never particularly meant to be anything more than a bedroom musical hobby for Torbert.
"This music is a release for me," Torbert says. "It's just nice to have it as an outlet, and if people like it, that's just icing on the cake."
By the time Torbert began working on songs as Goddamn Electric Bill at the beginning of 2005, he already had a few notches on his musical belt. His suburban childhood was spent learning violin and trombone and playing in bands in high school before he took off for University of Oregon to study ethnomusicology. It was at University of Oregon that Torbert began his seven-year stint as the bassist for a popular punk outfit called Cigar. The band eventually signed to a label run by Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge and toured internationally before calling it quits. He tried his luck at a few other projects, including one band that recorded with Tony Hajjar (At the Drive In, Sparta) and signed to Restart Records, run by Jim Ward (also from At the Drive In, Sparta). But Torbert quickly figured out that band life wasn't for him.
He decided to regroup on his own. He took a job working in radio in San Diego and recorded at home in his spare time. Sounds from his bass, guitar, keys, Rhodes, sitar, mbira, percussion and bagpipes made it onto his computer. He began experimenting with rhythm, melody and ambient noise and he left all the imperfections on tape. He immersed himself in the electronic music community and researched the sounds of other ambient artists through the then-fledgling MySpace networking site. All this turned into The Only Power to Please EP, which was re-released four different times to meet demand.
"The technology exists now for one person to record an entire album, with 100 different tracks, all by themselves in their bedroom," Torbert says. "It's amazing and it really inspired me to do this at my own pace. It came out so naturally."
Along the way, Torbert picked up a remix of an O'Donnell song and liked it so much that he was inspired to write to the former Cure keysman. He didn't expect a response. But not only did O'Donnell respond, he invited Torbert to England to record with him twice through 2006.
"I would wake up in this amazing house in the English countryside and Roger O'Donnell would be making me breakfast," Torbert laughs. "We would record all day in his little Pear Tree studio. I found myself looking around at all these platinum records that he had piled around the studio and some hanging on the walls, so it was a bit surreal."
The result is the debut full-length, Swallowed by the Machines, a 10-track rollercoaster of highs and lows without a peep of vocals. The album is a mix of sessions with O'Donnell and the time that Torbert logged in his home studio. It's a quiet affair, influenced by the return of Torbert's next door neighbor who was deployed to Iraq when Torbert first started recording, and whose homecoming forced him to tone down the sound on the record. Swallowed by the Machines deals with themes of conflict and bitterness, but it is one of the album's incongruities, a playful-sounding song called "Lost In The Zoo," that drew the most attention.
"I always felt like I only wrote dark and sad songs, but 'Lost in the Zoo' has its own force," Torbert says. "People just connect with it, maybe because we all feel lost in a certain way or maybe just the innocence of it. I think you can hear that in that song."
Fans, and the music industry, seem to connect to the music on more than one level, though. Goddamn Electric Bill has already been nominated for Best Electronic Artist at the San Diego Music Awards and featured in Music Matters Magazine, San Diego CityBEAT and others. MTV and MTV2 will also feature "Witching Hour" on The Dew Action Sports Tour, "Lost In The Zoo" will be featured in the end credits of one independent film premiering in the fall and "Country Jam" will be featured in a documentary coming out next year.
Torbert ultimately sees Goddamn Electric Bill as an accentuation of the visuals of film and television. He even hunted down old footage from a 1960s bicycle safety video and clipped it up to make a video for "Lost In The Zoo." He also remade the theme song to Twin Peaks for fun and posted it for fans to download.
"This music feels like the soundtrack to something," Torbert says. "It tells a story as it goes and everyone deciphers it as they will. People seem to connect with Goddamn Electric Bill because they can interpret so many different things from each song. Even I hear something new every once in a while. It's that part of music that allows you to immerse yourself in a different world for a while."