By Tim Donnelly
Rafter (the assumed persona of musician and producer Rafter Roberts) is a self-proclaimed, music-making nihilist. In terms of his own musical ideas, he believes in nothing.
“Anytime I end up doing something that works, my immediate reaction is to destroy it and do the opposite,” Rafter says, noting his penchant to derail musical concepts once they garner critical acclaim-or threaten to pigeonhole his artistry.
That self-destructive process is crucial to Rafter’s cult-like success and continued rebirth. The restless 35-year-old producer/experimental musician makes dance music that can, at times, come across as a noisy, beautiful mess, seemingly devoid of a genre.
Recognized for his bright red coif, Rafter performs live shows that devolve into sweaty, epic dance parties, inviting even the most aloof hipsters to get down. His songs meld the arty pop of the Talking Heads with the eccentric, white-boy-funk awkwardness of Beck.
Rafter has dabbled in pop, afropop, R&B, electro, disco, funk, Caribbean, punk, noise rock and countless other genres. Normally, this much genre hopscotch would spell career suicide for an artist, but for Rafter...well...not so much. He makes music that he likes, and if someone else likes it, he’s stoked.
Fortunately for Rafter, NYCbased record label Asthmatic Kitty has supported his erratic musical nature since day one, including his spastic side project, Bunky (with Emily Joyce).
His eighth release, Roberts & Lord, a collaboration with U.K. electronic musician Simon Lord (of Black Ghosts fame), is slated for a September 6 release on the AK label.
Lord sold Rafter on the collaboration via Myspace. At the time, Rafter had “cooked up” about 25 instrumental tracks, but he hadn’t been able to find the lyrics to match.
"(Lord) just went crazy on them, and sent back fully developed vocal tracks with huge walls of harmonies,” Rafter says.
He likens the result to “blown-out reggaeton fu#king music, like being in a Jamaican dance club at 2 a.m.- and the speakers just blew out.”
On the surface, that might sound like a miserable listening experience, but Rafter credits Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo and The Beach Boys as influences for the collaborative work-and with that kind of inspiration, he just might pull it off.
Even his last release, Quiet Storm, which Rafter says was inspired by black metal and a “human mind explosion,” managed to be danceable and occasionally pretty (for audible proof, download the track Fire Fire, Water Water for free at rafter.bandcamp.com).
When he’s not stretching the boundaries of artistic expression with his own music, Rafter composes quirky, smart and effective ad jingles for Crayola, Subaru and other corporate clients-something he’s been doing since 2000 via his company and studio, Singing Serpent.
Going commercial is a creative solution for an artist like Rafter, who has a family to support.
“I’m able to use what I’m best at to make a living, which is totally a blessing,” he says. “I know that a lot of people aren’t so lucky.”
Rafter plays Soda Bar with Mr. Tube and The Flying Objects on Friday, August 5; and at the BellyUp Tavern with Bushwalla on Wednesday, August 31.