Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen strikes out on his own with studio-crafted synth sounds at TRiP

By Michael Aushenker
Layer by layer, Santa Monica’s TRiP became awash in an aural tsunami of ambient music; a slow burn of foreboding, horizon-thawing drone gradually building steam with loping jungle congas, bustling bass lines and bird-of-prey screeches, topped with outlandish, otherworldly noodlings akin to the “Star Wars” cantina scene.

At its core, the bespectacled Mikael Jorgensen stood workman-like in a blue plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up, manipulating the proceedings from his laptop as violet lighting bathed the scene.

On another night, the musician might be standing onstage before thousands as the keyboardist for Wilco, the Chicago indie band that, in its 20-year existence, has valiantly pushed the boundaries of contemporary rock. But on Sunday night, Jorgensen was on his own: no Jeff Tweedy to capture the spotlight; no Glenn Kotche to back him up on percussion.

Just Jorgensen and his analog synthesizer sounds — surrounded by the mocking smiles of the Cheshire Cat beaming from the TRiP sign behind him and multiple Felix the Cat faces from the Jules Muck-painted mural on the club’s northern wall — as he unfurled tracks from his 2009 solo album “The Cheetah,” which Butterscotch Records will re-issue this spring.

“The Cheetah” represents a break from the indie rock stylings of Wilco, the Grammy-winning alternative-country outfit that has headlined Coachella, Lollapalooza and the Hollywood Bowl.

In presenting his own computer-sculpted compositions, Jorgensen experiences a 21st-century music dilemma: “How do you play a live show that just isn’t pressing a space bar?”

Rehearsing at his Ojai home, to which he and his growing family relocated a year ago from Brooklyn, Jorgensen has been “slicing up these songs and remixing them on the fly — the hope is that they will be able to change and adapt,” he said.

Back in high school in the late 1980s, Jorgensen joined his recording engineer father in New York City, where the elder Jorgensen notably worked on “Angela,” Bob James’ bittersweet theme for the late-1970s sitcom “Taxi.” He also discovered the 1980s synthesizer grooves of Art of Noise, Harold Faltermeyer’s “Beverly Hills Cop” theme “Axel F.,” and Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice” theme.

“I never wanted to play Elton John or Billy Joel,” Jorgensen said of rock’s most famous piano men.

Despite a few familiar bells and whistles, Jorgensen’s solo work at TRiP was unrecognizable from his main band’s relatively traditional rock.

On Sunday night, Jorgensen faced “a completely different set of concerns,” he said. “[With Wilco], “it’s me versus six guys. … [On this], you have to do everything yourself.”

Externally, Jorgensen, who tours the world with Wilco, found himself in a tiny Lincoln Boulevard bar on a bill sandwiched between Directors of Photography, a vibrant Culver City emo-pop five-piece that drew a sizable crowd, and his Brooklyn-based Butterscotch labelmates Graph Rabbit.

“It’s fun and exhausting,” said Jorgensen, of working the room armed only with an analog synthesizer and sequencer.

Touch Vinyl owner Sebastian Mathews, who, days earlier, had hosted the Wilco member at his West L.A. record shop, admired the performance.

“Acts like Mikael are perfect,” said Mathews, who appreciates “intelligent electronic dance music.”

With his wife eight-and-a-half-months pregnant, Jorgensen said he intends to stick close to home for now, so sporadic Southern California stints such as the recent gigs at Touch Vinyl and another at Complex in Glendale are ideal.

“This is the closest thing to a live tour I’ll be doing this year,” he told The Argonaut post-performance.

Wilco reconvenes in the studio this fall. Meanwhile, Jorgensen strives to deliver entertainment that does not bleed into self-indulgence. And even after more than a decade performing before thousands, Jorgensen still gets a charge out of playing 150-person capacity clubs such as TRiP.

“It’s almost more nerve-racking,” he said.