Photo: Lizeth Santos
Some artists sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar to start writing, but Rafter finds more inspiration setting up a microphone on his desk and dropping books nearby. From there, the industrious 4-track devotee follows a stream-of-consciousness aesthetic, laying down as many tracks as needed until it somehow ends up as an abundance of precariously rhythmic pop rock.
“When you have fun recording, when you do something unusual, fun and playful, I think it comes through in the music,” he says.
Rafter is certainly having fun these days. Besides releasing his enchanting Sex, Death, Cassette (Asthmatic Kitty, 2008), the San Diego musician has an ongoing Song-a-Day project with his photographer girlfriend, Lizeth Santos, that's got him writing and recording at least one new song every day, with the best of each week available for free on Asthmatic Kitty's Website.
An accomplished producer who's worked the boards for Sufjan Stevens, the Fiery Furnaces and many others, Rafter knows how to make things sound great in a well-appointed studio, but his own work starts in a simpler place. Sure, he eventually mixes things down through his computer — a PC running Sony Vegas Pro 6 — but just about everything he does is first recorded into his trusty Tascam 424 mkIII.
“There's something about the sonics of a 4-track,” Rafter says. “It's like listening through a lens. You can get things to sound pretty good on a 4-track if you use them the way they're meant to be used, but if you use them how they're not meant to be, you can get things to sound really, really cool.”
In this digital era, Rafter still prefers what cassette tape can and can't do. Where many producers find frustration in the restrictions of a 4-track, he sees an advantage in tape's limited range, which can be goosed to capture robust sounds with quirky analog blemishes.
For Sex, Death, Cassette, Rafter pulled out the 19 best of the 100 or so tracks he'd written and recorded for the project. He found inspiration for both the quick stylistic jumps and explosive world rhythms listening to the experimental compositions of Radio India: The Eternal Dream of Sound, and mixed those ideas with his own tendencies toward teetering piles of pop noise. Everything on the disc has a bright edge, but nothing more so than the horns his friend Chris Cory provided. Rafter recorded those in Cory's spacious metal shop, and his blasts capture the industrial setting's personality.
For the recording of Sex, Death, Cassette, Rafter used Soundelux U99 and E47 and Shure SM7 and SM57 mics. He taped everything on his 4-track with dbx noise reduction on and then dumped it into his computer with dbx off to preserve the outmoded system's high-end boost and capture its compression style. He records things hot, and with this technique, everything sounds excited.
“If you hit the tape hard, the treble is nice and sparkly sounding, and it gets this crazy-cool fuzzed-out fuckery,” he says. “Distortion is really fun to listen to, so is compression and so is treble; it's like a no-lose situation. I made a whole record out of that technical thrill, and you can still hear it in my voice that I'm still thrilled.”
The bright edge his dbx trick brings to his sounds is all over his Song-a-Day cuts, and the project's scope is allowing him to test his every musical whim. Songs like “Salt” and “Train” find him trying on mutant funk, while “Magic” and “Sassy” take on the latest club sounds (and do it quite well). For the time being, Rafter does not intend to stop his Song-a-Day habit, but he also has designs on some ambitious projects beyond the daily grind.
“With art being about the artist a lot of times, albums that are functional aren't really done,” he says. “A record might be great to go to sleep to, but it wasn't designed for that. I want to start making records that have purposes. I want to make a record that's awesome to fall asleep to.”
There's also the one that's perfect for walking, something built from out-of-context percussion and a follow up to his confidence-building Music for Total Chickens. With all the work to do, it helps that Rafter can take a bit of his studio with him via a Zoom PS-04. He says the pocket-size digital multitrack is an “indispensable” tool. He might use it to capture overdubs, vocals and changes while on the go, but he's not really worried about running out of ideas.
“There's things around all the time,” he says. “There's some energy that's always there. If you miss out on capturing one moment it doesn't really matter because there's a world of moments out there. You let it go and it's fine because there's more on the way.”