chris free the robots by Michael Ng Photo by Michael Ng

Somewhere between the neck-snapping, gritty hip-hop of the FatBeats era, the fuzzy, distorted psychedelia of the 60s & 70s, cool jazz, and the woozy beats scene of the last decade lies the music of Free The Robots, a/k/a Santa Ana’s Chris Alfaro. Via releases on labels like Obey and Alpha Pup, as well as a blistering live show that has taken him all over the world, Alfaro has built a reputation as a creator of unsettling yet undeniably funky productions which incorporate elements of a vast swathe of musical traditions. On the eve of the release of his self-released LP The Balance, we sat down with Alfaro to discuss the darker side of suburbia, his musical inspirations, and the importance of a supportive creative community.

>>> Purchase Free The Robots – The Balance (via iTunes)

Okayfuture: What’s the connection between Southern California and dirty, sample-based beats? The typical outsider’s view of the region (nice weather, relaxed attitude, beautiful people) doesn’t really mesh with gritty drums and dark atmospherics, but producers in LA and San Diego, from the Low End Theory and Sketchbook crowds to artists like Skrapez, Gonjasufi & MRR-ADM are making some of the dirtiest stuff out right now. Is there a dark side to Southern California life, or maybe a shared sonic reference point or influence?

Free The Robots: San Diego definitely has way more of that dark, moody, dirt than any where else I’ve noticed, and the atmosphere of SD reminds me a lot like where I am from. Regardless of how relaxed everything is around us, music comes from inside, and some of the darkest inspiration can be sparked by the opposite. Speaking for myself, being from the suburbs, I saw a lot of frustrated kids who turned their bottled up energy in to Punk or Hip-Hop culture. Take elements of that, go through a Psychedelic drug, or rave phase, survive with a story to tell… Dirtwave is born.

OKF: Quite a few producers of note (yourself, Hudson Mohawke, GLK, Cashmere Cat, to name a few) come from a scratch DJ / battle / turntablism background. Are there elements of that scene (for example a way of looking at sound, an atmosphere of competition, or the structure of an underground community) that inform your work, even when turntables aren’t involved?

FTR: The DJ, like the producer, has historically somewhat played the background role in Hip-Hop behind the MC. Both crafts broke free, and were able to stand alone eventually, when artists got more creative with it. A lot of producers are DJs, and those who came from the Turntablist world just took what they were already doing further. My approach to Turntablism was my earliest form of beats. Drumming live with just a kick and snare, using pitch control to create melody, cutting up a “Fressh.. Ahhh..” as a solo bit; the act of using something to create something else is kinda the same thing.

OKF: Your new album Balance is self-released, whereas other projects have been in conjunction with a record label. How has that experience been for you? Is releasing music autonamously something you would recommend to other artists?

FTR: I started Free the Robots on a DIY level during the MySpace era, and it was huge eye opener for me to see how well the music was organically received. Going through that, and knowing what is possible stayed with me and I’ve learned a lot about how things work over the years. I personally enjoy being a part of everything during the process of putting out a record. It’s definitely way more work, but its gratifying do see it all through.

I would recommend balance with label and DIY releases through a career. Learn the tools to do it yourself, but if a record you make finds a perfect home, and can give you a solid look in a world that may not know of you yet, then I would say it’s a great route. If you get signed, it means they believe in your music and are willing to invest their energy as much as you would on your own. In the end, if the music is good, and you feel good about putting it out, do it how you want.

OKF: Your production work touches on a wide variety of musical traditions, from Jazz to Psychedelia to Punk Rock and Dance music, but Hip-Hop is clearly an underlying thread. While you’ve worked with several vocalists, rappers generally haven’t featured on your own releases. Have you enjoyed the experience of working with artists like Busdriver and Nocando on their own projects? Any vocalists (past or present, of any genre) that would be a dream collaboration?

FTR: I definitely enjoyed my Hip-Hop projects and plan to do more. It’s actually what I am doing now. I have this thing, where every time i finish an album, I get right on to adding new pieces to my studio to feed my post-album inspiration. I picked up a couple new synths, a vintage organ, and Maschine, which has got me making nothing but Hip-Hop and and even House beats. Might be generally contrary to the sound of The Balance, but new equipment and a blank canvas equals what’s next… As for vocalists, I never really had any dream collaborations. I honestly like just working with who I am comfortable with in the studio; just friends or people who are are easy to work with.

OKF: What is the importance community (creative contemporaries, supportive appreciators, infrastructure like labels, press, venues, etc.) to creating quality art? How to you think Free The Robots would be different if you’d come up in a completely different location?

FTR: For myself, the actual creative process is a solitary thing. Quality art would be created regardless of surroundings, but it can’t stop there. Community is very important in order to keep this going in terms of inspiration, collaboration, etc. Creativity starts as a selfish thing, but it needs to keep moving and community is key. I feel lucky to be part of the LA movement in its beginnings because of how collaborative and helpful the energy is here. Things might have been different somewhere else, but if the music is good, and it’s out there, people will find it somehow. #Internet

OKF: For the past several years you’ve been a co-owner and entertainment organizer for The Crosby restaurant & gallery in Santa Ana. Musically speaking, are there events, bookings or parties that you’ve put on there of which you’re particularly proud?

FTR: Nights at The Crosby have been amazing since the very beginning and it makes me proud have a place where we have the freedom to book our friends. Thankfully we have great friends who happen to be some of the greatest in the world who call The Crosby home. In the early years.. Kutmah & Gaslamp Killer had a night called Spit, My Hollow Drum had their first residency here, We’ve had Punk, Garage and Psych nights with some great local promoters, ROAM-Int and myself booked all the greats under the OBEY branded night… Over recent years I and handed nights over to close family residents. Some are local, but most are LA based, which is extremely rare in OC. These days we have resident nights with folks like the legendary Delicious Vinyl label, Rhettmatic of the Beat Junkies, Low Limit + Anticon Shaun (Sodapop), Soulection, Ham on Everything and more. This is not to mention the great one off events we do on a whim with secret guests and corky concepts. Musically, Los Angeles is where most of my family is and The Crosby is their island of dope, south of the county line…

OKF: It seems like you are a big fan of The Roots. We’ve noticed you blend some rather obscure (yet new) Roots tracks into mixes over the years. Talk to us about that.

FTR: The Roots have always been on my favorite bands list since “Do you want more?” and are one of the reasons I started to take playing instruments more seriously. I grew up mostly on Hip Hop and Jazz; to see them actually do it live was one of my earliest sparks to look at music more live.

OKF: And the Grateful Dead?

FTR: Farrrout!

OKF: Lastly, are there any artists or pieces of music that you’ve had in heavy rotation lately that you feel the world at large isn’t up on? Anything you think should be getting more recognition right now?

FTR: Beats wise, I would give it up to Soulection, HW&W, Tar, Leaving and such… artists like Sango, Kaytranada, Djemba Djemba, Mr Carmack, Co.fee, Cohen Beats and such have been in rotation.

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