Rafter Roberts kind of sounds like comedian Zach Galifianakis on the phone, minus the cynical outbursts. The San Diego-based musician/producer/renaissance man talks funnily and deliberately about his music, carefully articulating how it’s made and from whence it comes. So it's somewhat ironic that the music he makes under the Rafter appellation is a Waits-like diversion into the wackier, more disjointed valleys of pop music. Sex Death Cassette, his second full-length for Asthmatic Kitty released this past Tuesday, is a sprawling amalgam of hand-clapping, minimal electro beats, fuzzed-out guitars, stringy saxes and a whole lot more. And while this might sound unfocused, the racket is always catchy and concise, with most of the tracks clocking in under the three-minute mark. We caught up with Roberts on release day to talk about putting together the album on a four-track cassette machine, recording music for TV, and how Guided By Voices are totally awesome.
Download: Rafter, "ZZZPenchant" from Sex Death Cassette
Download: Rafter, "Gentlemen" from Music is for Total Chickens
So today is the big day for you with the record coming out. Do you have anything special planned?
Yeah we’re doing the record release show at the Casbah. Besides that, I don’t know. I went to the zoo. That was pretty rad.
You don’t play out very often.
It goes in spurts because I make a band and then I get kinda bored and then I stop it. Because my songs can exist in any number of ways, a little while ago I had a twelve-piece band and we played constantly and it was really, really fun, but because I’m a dad I can’t really go on a lot of tours. I just put together a new band that’s a three-piece. The day-before-yesterday was our first show, in LA at Spaceland. We’ve got a couple shows this week and then more and more!
And you’ve already got new music right?
I’ve got like somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty new songs just written over the last three months that are totally ready to go. I know one set of them makes sense as an album and I’m working on making another one being an EP. But I don’t know what that actually translates into these days, with like, physical CDs, releases. I’m just having fun getting them out kind of scattershot on the different blogs and stuff like that. And then, at some point, we’ll probably compile them into an album with artwork and all that stuff.
How different are the new records? Are they both a jump in a different direction from Sex Death Cassette?
Yeah, totally. I think these songs are more...it’s still very mixed bag like Sex Death Cassette but not so much playing with genre as like mixing it all into the same music. Like on Cassette there’s a lot of songs that feel like big, swinging afro-beat stuff and there are songs that feel like pop music or rock music a little bit and songs that feel like acoustic, quiet stuff. The new stuff that I’m doing, kind of like “Accident”, it’s pop music but it’s still strange sounding. That’s the first one.
The next one I want to be as much as a dancey feeling as possible. Then beyond that, I have at least an EP, maybe a bit longer, of some of the Sex Death Cassette stuff that I didn’t finish in time for it to be on the record but I [still] really like. And then I want to make an album that’s just for going to sleep to. And then another one that should be—I haven’t decided yet, whether it should be for walking or running. Now that everybody’s got MP3 players and spending a lot of time running around listening to music or jogging around listening to music, I just want to make something functional.
So how do you put together a track in studio? Is it like a drum fill that you just layer over? Are there other people in there helping you out?
Not at all. Nobody helps. This record, I made with really, really good equipment, but I made mostly using my four-track. I’d use like a five-thousand dollar microphone going into a fifty-dollar four-track going into a ten-cent cassette. The more used it is the better. I’m very enchanted with the sonics of a four-track cassette. I totally love it.
The process was really similar for each song. I would take my four-track on a little wooden chair that you hear squeaking through the beginnings and ends of all the songs on the album and I would just go plop it down somewhere in the studio. I would either set up the drum set or a lot of the songs I did just with clapping or beatboxing or weird percussion stuff. A lot of the times, I had these headphones with a metronome built into them and I would put the headphones on and just start playing rhythm, whether it was a drum beat or a shaker or whatever. I would play for a couple minutes and I would kind of make a song to myself. Like, “OK, there’s this part and then there’s this part. Then this part again and then it all falls apart in the end.” So I would go and do that about five times. Just record five song-length drumming tracks. I would have an idea of the feel of it in my head a little, but sometimes I would just be like, “Well, this is something I could do a lot of different things with,” and then just record.
So I’d have these five drum things and then I’d rewind the tape to wherever I started and I’d pick up the instrument that was closest to me—a guitar, ukulele, organ, synthesizer, whatever—and I’d go over each one and I’d make up music to go along with it. All the songs would get the same treatment. If it was gonna be clapping and then an old busted up guitar and then an organ and a synthesizer, I’d have like five things with that same instrumentation. And then the tape would be filled up and I’d just knock off for the day. Later I’d dump all the stuff down into the computer and then start to listen to, like, “Well, what’s gonna be something neat?” I think I ended up with over a hundred, sort of like, song germs to start from.
Then I would put them into my MP3 player and walk around with it, listen to it in the car, sing along with it, whatever. Gradually, the ones that are on the record came to the surface of the ones that got finished easily. They were the ones that said, “Finish me!” I think I have about eighty other tracks from it and a lot of them I really, really like but for one reason or another, they just didn’t get finished the same time that the other ones did.
So you recorded analog onto the four track and then dumped them in for editing?
I did some editing and I would record all the singing in the computer and recorded all the saxophones on the computer. [But] even though a lot of the times I’d recorded them in the computer, what I would do is then I would play them back out onto the four-track and then play them back into the computer. So they would have that same hissy, distorted, feel.
So you have a home studio?
My job-job is making music for TV commercials, so about eight years ago I started a business with a friend of mine. It was in my garage at first but then we’ve fortunately been able to buy a pretty nice, large building and turn it into a studio. It’s nice to not have to reconcile your recording space with your home space. I’ve done that before but it just turns crazy, so it’s awesome to be able to make my mess and then leave it.
Does making music for TV commercials influence the fact that a lot of your songs are these snippets?
I don’t know…I think it might. Just over the years, probably from doing the TV but also from the way that we listen to music now, I think my attention span just gets shorter and shorter. But then, the other day, I was doing this thing for Rhapsody, like making a playlist of recommended songs or something like that, and at some point I realized that a lot of the formative songs were like a minute-and-a-half long or two-minutes long. I was just like, “Ah, maybe I’ve always liked that.” Like, Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes—that one thrills me to no end and it has for years. That’s actually a big inspirational record for Sex Death Cassette, just ‘cause I adore the way that album sounds and I love the length of the songs. And it’s just so packed with hooks! It’s so weird and off-putting but also so easy to get into.
So now that we’ve talked about how diverse your music is, how would you describe Rafter to someone who hasn’t heard it?
That’s a good question. I want to make something that is good for people, that is healthy. I don’t know, I try to make music for people that love all sorts of music. I don’t really know how it fits in to whatever current landscape of new music. I try to have it come from as much of a genuine place as possible. I try to have it be from as much of a direct and honest place as possible, because I think maybe you can accomplish something that way, in terms of getting through some of the distance that separates everybody. But then, stylistically and musically, I think I like the idea of accidents and chaos but finding beauty in them. That pops up on the Music For Total Chickens and the Sex Death Cassette records—beauty and balance and also chaos and imbalance. I think that’s somehow like some essential element of what it means or is to be alive. So I try to make music that has that in it because it seems like such a foundation of reality.