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February 16, 2007
When talking with Rafter Roberts, Asthmatic Kitty's favorite producer, you get the sense that the man has no downtime. While we spoke, Roberts was in the studio working on the new Castanets album, occasionally responding to questions while punching data into some audio production program, the click-clacking of the keys quietly setting the interview's cadence. Beyond his production duties, Rafter also owns his own studio, has just released his second solo recording, Music for Total Chickens, and is in the process of creating several additional solo albums. For someone with such a demanding modern job, Rafter's beginnings were much more humble in a Luddite sort of way.

"My parents named me Rafter. I don't know if I want to call them "hippies" but they were definitely counterculture and outside the norm. When my mom was pregnant with me one of the people they lived with in this semi-commune made a joke that they should name the baby Rafter because he was conceived in a loft. And it just sorta stuck."

Rafter Roberts grew up in a commune. His parents chose to live off the grid, far away from the pressures of society and without the amenities the rest of us take for granted; electricity, television and recorded music were nowhere to be found. In fact, Roberts really had no conception of "Pop Music"; in isolation there are no masses to appeal to. As often happens though, an older, more worldly sibling introduced Rafter to a wide variety of music ranging from independent new wave and punk rock to the pop scene.

"I have an older brother who is 13 or 14 years older me. On weekends I would go over to his house, and he was just a total music nut - loving punk and new wave and experimental stuff. I would always bring over a box of ten cassette tapes and fill them all up every time I went to his house. I wasn't exposed to a lot of things that people normally are so, for me, I didn't have any reason to think that the Talking Heads weren't the biggest band in the world. For me, Devo and the Talking Heads, the Beatles and Residents, and especially XTC, were it because my brother made me mix tapes."

Those cassettes went on to shape his musical identity. Experiencing music through the filter of his older brother, Rafter's musical knowledge grew exponentially without the need to sort through the bullshit of the 1980s popular music milieu. As he grew older, Rafter began creating his own music and promoting local shows. He created an incentives package for any visiting band, offering them a chance to perform, a floor to crash on and a homecooked breakfast for the sleepy rockers to wake up to. Roberts ended up moving to New York, but he eventually became somewhat disillusioned and moved back to California, where he began work on his own studio.

Rafter Roberts claims to have cashed in every favor he has ever owed anybody in order to get his studio built. He would offer artists studio time in exchange for physical help with the studio construction. When the studio was finished it cranked out almost all of the early albums for Asthmatic Kitty, a family affair in which Roberts views himself as "The Nice Uncle" who people visit while they make their album. That trend continues even today in Rafter's new studio, where he often spends as much time in the booth as he does on the boards.

Outside of the studio is Bunky, another of Rafter's many projects, a sweet-pop band he plays in with Emily Joyce. Within Rafter Roberts' body of work lie some sharp contrasts, and few could be shaper than the contrast between Bunky's sound and Rafter's solo work. Roberts describes the difference in terms of night and day.

"Bunky, for me, is as straight of a pop band as I could ever play in. I mean it's not straight but, for me, it's super sunny and meant to make sense the first time you hear it, whereas the Music for Total Chickens album is certainly not that way. It is not an easy digest. It may sound familiar to some sort of dream state you may have had at one point, or a hallucination, but not like anything that you would really have experienced in a conscious state before. Hopefully..."

Through the course of Music for Total Chickens, snippets of drum, guitar stabs and keyboards are smashed together to create a cacophony, impossible to reproduce, that challenges the ear and has moments of glorious harmony sandwiched between thick slices of chaos.

"The record got started as an experiment with process. I had this thought: What if you made drum improvisations and then went back and piece-by-piece wrote songs around them? There were several drummers involved. I would set up the drum kit to make it sound a little odd and then I would drum or talk the other drummer through improvisations in song-length chunks. And while I was doing that I would try to keep as much a spirit of freedom in it as possible, and also a spirit of violent revolution. As soon as I felt comfortable with something I would try to do something that made it uncomfortable again. I would tell drummers that, as soon as they realized what they were playing, to stop. Or I would tell them to start as slow as they could go and then get as fast as they could go and then go back to as slow as [they] can go, over the course of three minutes."

The album is, according to the hand that created it, very processed; to create just a few seconds, over 40 minutes of improvisation would be sampled and cut down. Rafter would then take a guitar and write around a few seconds worth of drums at a time. Upon establishing the basic song structure, basses, keyboards, more guitars, vibraphones and percussion were added to round out the mix. The ultimate goal was to create a "surreal, impossibly together feeling."

Lyrically Music for Total Chickens is restrained and even - the antithesis of the dreamlike music upon which Rafter's voice, offering advice in a calm tone, floats. His suggestions are meant to be taken at face value; when he tells listeners to eat healthy and exercise, he means it. There is one song that gets somewhat political, when he advises listeners not to buy unnecessary items, but that is as deep and controversial as the album gets. As a new parent, Rafter is focused on being a good role model, something that shows on the album.

"Musically, I just want to make positive music. I want to disprove the concept that positive music can only be cheesy. I have always loved really dark music through a lot of my life, but at this point, where our culture is at, I feel responsible to try to put something out that is going to be a neat thing, a positive thing."

Although it is worth noting, Music for Total Chickens will probably end up being just another notch in Rafter's musical belt. His career is shaping up to be legendary; at the moment he is at work on four personal music projects, producing the new Castanets album, a new album by Bedroom Walls and a host of other, not yet ready for public discussion, but nonetheless highly anticipated albums. He is also a single dad, raising an almost two-year-old son. It's a wonder the man has time for sleep. Here's to hoping he at least has time for a nap.

SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/rafterroberts
SEE ALSO: www.asthmatickitty.com
SEE ALSO: www.bunkymusic.com

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASís editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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