Rafter Roberts stands no taller than your average human male, yet his fiery red-haired head is filled with the minutiae of music, swirling and churning constantly. Fortunately, this leaves little room for fear, of which Rafter has nearly none. His fearlessness has led him to do just about everything he sets his mind to, which of course includes free-for-all rowdy sweatiness, hanky-panky, and rolling on the stage, yelping. (Not to mention playing in bands since the age of two, new fatherhood and marriage, running a business, goin’ to shows, building a new studio, makin’ his own music, recording bands, and eating raw–all without going furiously nuts.) He’s strong willed and tempered by humor. One of the most intense and powerful music nerds you may ever meet, there is a refreshing lack of poseur hipness to Rafter Roberts. In its stead is a pure enthusiasm for people, for doing it yourself, and the helping hand, for kicking against the pricks and kicking out the jams. – from the Asthmatic Kitty Records website
Perverse: adjective —contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice.
There is no one in San Diego, nor quite possibly across the face of this awesomely almighty globe, that is even remotely wired like Rafter Roberts. In a world teeming with bland, stale, corporate, cookie-cutter conformity, this is a beautiful and natural fact: Rafter is the perpetual feel-good hit of the summer.
A magical Libra, seeking and achieving balance, Rafter was born September 30, 1975, and raised in the rustic environs of Northern California’s Sebastapol. Engaged in a life-long love affair with electronics, musical gear, and capturing sounds since he was 16, Rafter has recorded hundreds of original compositions over the last 25 years, and has released ten titles under his own name since 2006 (on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty imprint). He owns and operates his own commercial recording studio, Singing Serpent, in the heart of Kensington (there is also a sister studio located in New York City). His day gig, when he isn’t exploring the depths of his own psyche and creating his “art,” is working in the lucrative (and highly dubious) field of advertising, churning out music beds and jingles for the likes of Target, American Auto Parts, Uncle Ben’s Rice, Kraft, the NHL, Volkswagen, Subaru, Harley Davison, and Burger King.
If you’re wondering what his music sounds like, it is beyond definition. Experimental, melodic, quirky, danceable, it makes you think and can inspire daydreaming for periods of up to 24 hours straight. It prances all over the musical landscape, obliterating the boundaries of the known universe, with an aforementioned “fearlessness” that is willing to plum the depths of wherever his schizophrenic muse takes him. His latest CD, It’s Reggae, “dropped” in April and continues in the “what will he possibly come up with next” tradition. An experimental groove-fest par excellence, it’s sobriquet is the epitome of truth in advertising, sounding like it was dredged from the mines of Kingston, circa ’70. Except that the guys who made this record are white, from San Diego, and didn’t smoke any ganja before, during, or after the sessions.
On a typical summer’s day at Singing Serpent, Rafter was building a modular synthesizer when the Troubadour came calling to check in with his process. Over a span of two hours, the mad scientist of sound had a gazillion insights to share regarding art history, songwriting, touring, and the world in general. Rafter Roberts: a classicist flying the spirit-of-punk-rock flag, dressed in no-wave clothing.
Tell me about growing up in Sebastopol?
It’s a small town, up in the mountains where I grew up with no electricity, no television, and no telephone until my early teens: 13, 14. The closest pay phone was an hour and a half walk away.
What kind of community did you grow up in?
Oh, I don’t know, just the kind of people who would drop out of college and go buy land in the mountains with their college buddies who also dropped out.
An agrarian, back-to-the-land, communal, kind of thing?
Yes, three families with ten people that all lived together.
Yeah, just people who bought some land together and built various bedrooms for themselves in the woods and there was one main, geodesic dome with a kitchen and a common area that people would spend the evenings in. It wasn’t like a commune where Rainbow is leading her Om chants with Chrysalis and Chrysanthemum. It was people who thought to themselves: “let’s leave the city and go live in the woods.” It was more anarchic – there were no leaders, or religion involved. It seemed more basic than that.
Everyone had his or her own private property?
Yes. I think the most communal it got was, you would have a dish night and wash dishes after dinner. It wasn’t polygamous, or religion/philosophy-based. It was just good friends from college who all just said, “You know what, let’s just do this instead.” They’re all still there, up on the mountain.
Did you go to a public school?
Some. I kind of bounced back and forth between public schools and private schools. I liked private school a lot more, but I felt public school would show me more of what the people in the world would be like. So, I wanted to try that, but I hated it. It’s conflicting. I didn’t want to go out into the world after finishing school and be like “all right, everybody’s a hippie like private school” and then be slapped in the face by the “regular world.” But in hindsight, I probably should have just stayed with the hippies ’cause it was more fun [laughs].
Do you have any siblings?
Sorta. I’ve got like half-brothers and half-sisters, a lot of extended family. But I’m also an only child. I think it was good, because I learned to entertain myself, that’s what it was all about. There was nothing but books in the woods. You walk in the woods, you draw and paint, you read books. There’s no passive entertaining.
You weren’t plunked down in front of a TV or a computer all day. Did you have access to the radio? Or records?
No records, just the radio and sometimes cassettes. I think when I was about nine, I got a boom box and as often as I could, I’d get my parents to buy me C batteries so I could listen to mix tapes that my older brother would make me. I had an older brother who was really into new wave/no wave and experimental rock. When I was a kid my favorite bands were Devo, the Residents, and the Beatles, because that’s what he would play me. I have mix tapes with all sorts of new wave stuff. And I’d watch Urgh! A Music War, again and again.
Tell me about when you started out making commercial jingles. What’s the process, do the visuals come first and you write to that, or do you do the music first?
Well, first, we didn’t start out making commercials – that just happened after I started making records for years. Each one is different. They’re TV commercials, they’re trying to sell some thing or another and they have music in them. The range is orchestral to jazz, hip-hop to metal, to rock, to folk, to whatever.
Have you ever entertained the idea of putting together an album of those pieces?
Oh no, these things are abominations to me. Because, if there’s anything I’m opposed to, it’s advertising and big corporations. And that’s what all this stuff goes to serve. I’m happy to crap out little “things” for them to use, to push their stuff because I get paid well to do it. [But] TV commercials? Does it get any crappier than TV commercials? I don’t think so.
That reminds me of Bill Hicks saying: “By the way, if there’s anyone here tonight from advertising or marketing, please kill yourself.”
Exactly! That’s totally true. I really, really would never want to make a record of the things that I have done for ads because none of them come from a pure place. You’re trying to serve a need. If you’re doing it from a pure, artistic place, you’re missing the point of what you’re supposed to be doing.
Well, because it’s not just like rolling into the studio one morning and Target’s like “We need music.” No. Target’s like “We’re selling…we’re trying to get our grocery business up, right? And we’ve got this idea and so we want something like ‘this’ but sort of feels like ‘this’ and makes this scene feel ‘this way.’ So you’re doing it in a way where you aren’t serving art. Well, maybe one percent of your brain is, but if you’re doing the job right, you’re laser-missile focused, and it needs to do “this.” Which conventions would you exploit to do that? How would you make it feel that way? And then, if you’re smart, you do those things. You do it with the sensibilities of the producer in that genre. You use production techniques, mix techniques, mastering techniques, and performance techniques to do it the right way. But, no – I would never want to put out an album of jingles.
Is sampling a foregone conclusion at this stage of the game?
I think so. It’s unfortunate that the element of “danger” in it, just the ballsiness of it is gone, because it’s been a part of popular culture for so long now that it doesn’t feel transgressive any longer to take something that somebody else made and say “this is mine, watch what I do with it.” And I think there is an essentially transgressive nature to sampling, which I love. It’s exciting. I have a whole album I’m working on that isn’t finished yet, but I probably have 15 songs where I didn’t play a single sound on it: it’s all just other people’s music.
What exactly do you mean by transgressive?
There’s something ballsy about being an artist, but your art is taking other people’s paintings, or etchings, and chopping them up and making your own thing. That’s exciting! It’s kind of wrong, and it’s kind of right, so it’s fantastic.
I think the fundamentals of recontextualizing something, where somebody says: “I made this. And it’s done! And here, here’s my record, I put out my record.” But then, you can take their “done thing” and go: “what if I slowed it down and did ‘this’ along with it?” I think there’s some friction there that’s really exciting.
Isn’t that a bit like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa?
Yeah! Totally. Or doing anything with anything else, you know? Like ordering a dish from a restaurant, taking it home, and throwing it in a pan and adding some stuff to it, and cooking it up some more. Art doesn’t have to be “done” and you can do whatever with it, you know?
There’s no absolute right or wrong in art. The thing is, for me, if it’s art, value judgments are almost like outlawed. You can’t just listen to something and say “yeah, that sounds right or that sounds wrong,” because wherever the wheel stops spinning, that’s “right.” When I’m making a record or helping somebody else make a record, I really try to help that be a comfortable and real part of the process, where if half way through the verse the vocal cuts out, and it’s just gone and there’s a hissing sound through the rest of the verse, “Sure!”
I mean any sort of thing where we’ve come at it aesthetically thinking that this is what it should be, is automatically suspect. Like opinions, desires: suspect. Aesthetic decisions: suspect. It’s all ridiculous.
You don’t go into the studio thinking you’re going to make some French toast and if it comes out as Huevos Rancheros, you’re okay with that?
Oh, yeah. But I feel like I rarely go in… I try to have it be just exploratory, always.
Yeah, although that’s probably a lie. When we started making the reggae record, it was a gas. We had just gotten done with the [Quiet Storm] tour. Nathan [Hubbard] came over to the studio and we were just hanging out and I went, “Hey, let’s make reggae music.” [laughs]
It’s Reggae has vocals on it, but no lyrics?
Yes, my wife, Lizeth, sings a little bit, I sing a little bit: it’s very minimal, and there are no lyrics. I messed with singing lyrics, but then it just felt like it took it too far away from the spirit of what I wanted it to be, which was a love letter to the genre.
Both Nathan and I LOVE reggae music, but we also know that we’re white guys in Southern California, in our mid-30s, and if you do that sort of thing, you should probably get kicked in the nuts, or have all your teeth extracted with pliers, one by one. It’s a shitty thing to do – you shouldn’t do it – DON’T do it. Which is exactly why I HAD to do it, right? It’s the same thing with my noisy black metal record, Quiet Storm. That’s probably one of my most extreme albums. And I love it. I totally love that record.
That is something distinctly different about you and me. I hear distortion and I’m reminded of driving around at 16 in my neighbor’s Vega, with the stereo sounding like utter shite.
But you seem to like that aesthetic.
I think it’s just part of growing up with boom boxes and crappy cars and the experience of hearing music you love, things that are fantastic, but not coming at you in a clean fashion. There’s something nostalgic about it. And four-track recording is inherently “dirty.” The aesthetics of amateur recording is very romantic to me, because you get some of the most pure, wonderful music in the world that isn’t made in some fancy old studio where you’ve got everything just right. I have a strong, emotional connection to home-recorded aesthetics.
So, here we are in this beautiful studio with a 1,000 guitars and synthesizers and the best of this and that, I’m still trying to blend the nostalgic and romantic with enjoyable, full-spectrum sound, which is fun. If you listen to something and there’s no range in it, it can be fatiguing. So I like to have range, and have it be dynamic, and plenty of sonic interest, but I also like to call out to things like noise and distortion. I love to use them as elements in music. Like that Quiet Storm record is terrifyingly distorted. It’s brutal, but there’s so much melody in it and there’s attention to structure that makes for a real sweet and sour experience.
The over-the-top distortion of the music bed is totally unappealing to me sonically.
Yeah! See, I love that stuff. Like if it’s unappealing, it’s appealing. If I don’t like it, I like it!
[laughter] Doesn’t that strike you as profoundly perverse?
Totally. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Like if I’m eating spicy food, I want it to make me quiver and cry; or a really hot sauna, or a freezing lake. I want that with everything, except family or friendships, I guess. The extremes, the edges are where it’s interesting. The middle ground? That’s all right, that’s cool. But where it gets interesting is pushing the edges. I want to be kind and loving and gentle to my family. But something as inconsequential as art? Just go for it, have fun, because nobody cares what you do. Nobody cares what you make and it ultimately doesn’t matter. We’re all living our own trip and that’s great: trip on trippers! But don’t feel like if you do it this way, or that way, it’s going to matter. Just do it and enjoy it, and if it gets you off, do it. If it makes you laugh, do it.
If I’m in my right mind at a live performance, I always say a little non-denominational prayer before a show and ask “for the spirit of freedom to guide me.” And, wherever it goes, trust it, go there, do it. Believe in it wholeheartedly as you do it, even if it’s something that you wouldn’t choose. It’s just like a philosophical thing.
But then there are things in which you probably shouldn’t go for the “freedom of spirit style.” I will still try to make sure that my son is reading in bed before 10:30pm. You know, instead of going “SPIRIT OF FREEDOM!” it’s 4am, let’s go do fireworks!
So you do have elements where there is a frame, and there is grounding, and there is conventionality?
Oh, absolutely. Conventions should be rooted in principles of kindness, and generosity, and respect. But yeah, totally I think that in your personal things it’s fun to fart around and play games together and playfully tease the boundaries of what relationships are with friends and to not take things too seriously, but it’s also really important to be kind and loving and gentle: things that don’t necessarily need to be in art. You know, like art can be brutal or terrifying or transgressive or violent or too much or not enough, and that’s great, you know? Like you can listen to a record where there’s just not enough, and that’s fantastic, with an abstract sound every 20 seconds, and that’s okay that you made a record like that.
So, you have this new reggae record. Are you planning to tour? Or is the statement made and that’s it and you move on?
I’ve played some shows where I have the record on a eight-track cassette player and split into stems, and then I have a space echo, and a reverb, and I just play it, dubbing it live, and that’s really been fun. But I’m not sure that it provides a compelling enough performance in a rock show context. Because it’s just me in front of a mixer dancing, having a good time, shaking the spring reverb and making it crash. But I’m not sure it’s necessarily a show that I would want to watch.
It’s fun while you’re doing it.
Yeah, totally. People who like reggae and appreciate dub-music will be stoked, because that’s how dub is performed. But I feel like I’m not sure if I want to try to make that my thing right now because I don’t like watching people perform laptop music. It makes me want to kill them, even if I really like their record.
Tell me how did you get so in love with the talk box?
Zapp & Roger probably. Lizeth gave me the talk box for Christmas or my birthday a few years ago, because we jam it old school, driving around listening to “Computer Love” on 92.5. I started messing around with it, and made a ton of songs with it. It’s fun, it’s funny, there’s a built-in “thing” about it that’s just entertaining. I remember when I was a kid, my dad saw Bo Diddley and he came back so excited. “I don’t know how he did it, but he could actually make his guitar talk! He was so good at playing guitar he could make it say things. He’s probably the best guitar player I’ve ever seen.” Now, in hindsight, I can see that my dad was probably a little stoned and had no idea what a talk box was, and with just the incredible magic of his fingers, he could make it say, “How’s it goin’ Santa Rosa!”
When I first heard Animal Feelings and the way you used the talk box on your utterly brilliant track “No Fucking Around,” I knew from your art that you are a guy worth getting to know.
Thanks! I could talk about art and music for days and days.
Before we wrap, tell me a bit about your songwriting process. Besides being a practitioner of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s The Manual, you also gleaned a bunch of stuff from Paul Zollo’s Songwriters and Songwriting, right?
I think that’s one of the most relevant books to making records. One of things in there I love is one of the artists talking about their songs and saying: “You know my body of work as being these 15 albums. Those are the songs that I’ve finished and said: ‘you’re done.’ For every song I release, I write ten. For every song of mine that you’ve heard, I’ve written nine that were terrible. And you think I’m a good songwriter because you’ve heard that one out of ten. If you heard the other nine, you’d be like, who is this schmuck?”
I try to do that: to let myself write crap or write whatever I write. Don’t worry about it: just write! It’s not about thinking: “Is this good? Is this good enough? Maybe I should use this chord?” Get off it, just write. Get through it, and write the next one. Keep mining, because you’ll strike gold. “Here I am at this river bed. I heard there’s gold around here. Here’s this rock, I think it can be gold.” If I keep working on it – you just have to be like a dog, and get into it. And that’s how you get the good stuff.
10 Songs, September 12, 2006
Music for Total Chickens, January 23, 2007
Sex Death Cassette, January 22, 2008
Sweaty Magic EP, September 9, 2008
Animal Feelings, March 13, 2010
Animal Feelings Remixes, May 18, 2010
Eponymous [Roberts and Lord], September 12, 2011
Quiet Storm, January 28, 2011
Covers EP [Roberts and Lord], July 7, 2012
It’s Reggae, April 1, 2014