Interview: RAC on better songs through remixing, the mythology of a touring band, and shady college promoters
At this point in the evolution of electronic music, remixes don’t have to mean club-thumping, strobe-ready rehashes of popular songs. Sometimes remixes can make songs better, while still existing in the same space as the originals. That’s exactly what RAC, real name André Allen Anjos, strives for, both in his adaptations of others’ work and his own original music.
RAC hasn’t always been just Anjos. He founded the Remix Artist Collective almost a decade ago as an international collection of remix artists. Today, however, Anjos exclusively performs and records under the RAC moniker, remixing everyone from Kings of Leon (“Use Somebody”) and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“Zero”) to Katy Perry (“Part of Me”) and Echosmith (“Cool Kids”).
Anjos’ work is a lesson in a hook-writing master class: Innovative yet innate, fresh yet familiar — employing synths, guitars, and drums to build tracks that are both dreamy and catchy as hell. His work ranges from the definitive remix to “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros to RAC’s boppy, adventurous “Back of the Car,” which could soundtrack the next film adaptation of a Young Adult novel. His are the kinds of songs that you could play at a backyard barbecue in Allston or in a gridlock among a cluster of Massholes and feel perfectly at home.
Anjos released his first original album, Strangers, last year, and it just may be pop’s best-kept secret of 2014, the counterweight to the David Guettas and AVICIIs as of recent years. Strangers features collaborations with highlights from the alt-pop scene, including Tegan and Sara, Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, MNDR, St. Lucia, and a handful of others. The album also features a collaboration with Anjos’ wife Liz, who performs as Pink Feathers. (André and Liz have released a series of covers worth checking out, including “Dreams” originally by The Cranberries.)
This Wednesday, RAC and friends Big Data, Filous, Karl Kling, and Pink Feathers bring the Going Our Own Way Tour to Royale in downtown Boston. Last week we spoke with Anjos over the phone about the differences between DJing and performing with a live band, finishing a remix in less than two days, and Anjos’ most interesting release yet, a soundtrack to the new video game Master Spy.
Cory Lamz: One of the things that you’ve been saying a little bit in social media is that it’s a different experience doing a live band show versus a DJ show, behind-the-deck sort of thing. What’s different for you? Which do you prefer?
André Anjos: First of all, I’m not really sure I have a preference. I think they’re both very different kinds of performance. I don’t compare them in that way. I compare them in the sense that they’re both shows; they’re very different.
I can start with the live show. It’s a five-piece band — pretty standard rock show, with drums, guitar, bass, keys, a full light show. We travel on a bus. There’s a trailer. It feels like more the traditional kind of touring like the bands in the ‘70s — the kind of touring that bands do.
It’s like that scene in Almost Famous in which they’re traveling together and they’re all singing “Tiny Dancer.”
Yeah, yeah, there’s a certain — not “nostalgia,” that’s not the right word — sort of this mythology behind the touring band. When you grow up with this ridiculous dream to play music, you kind of latch on to that feeling. With movies like Almost Famous you really internalize that movie and what they’re doing and how life must be on the road. And then you get out there and you realize it’s not really like that at all [laughs].
So we’re doing those live shows that way. For DJ stuff, it’s something I’ve been doing for a lot longer. It’s a very different kind of performance. For the most part, you’re playing clubs, and the DJ isn’t necessarily the focus. It’s more about the vibe of the night — you’re playing music that hopefully caters to the audience there. It’s less of a show in that sense.
A DJ set is about connecting with the audience; a live show is prepared. The thing that’s really fun about DJ sets is improvisation. We have no idea what we’re going to play until we get up there. We know there are going to be some songs that we’re going to play, but we leave it open. Which I think is pretty nice.
The live show and a DJ set are very different. From a technical perspective, like I mentioned for the live show, you’re traveling in a bus with a trailer full of gear and nine-person crew. It’s a big operation. Whereas with DJ sets, we do it with two people — you don’t even have to do that; one person can easily do it. It’s just a much smaller thing.
Sure, and the DJ set is a bit more contained, too.
Going off of that, how do you build the set-list for your live show? What thoughts go into that versus at least the certain songs you know you’re going to play in your DJ set?
With the DJ set it’s easy: you play the hits. You play what’s popular, what people want to hear. Everything else in between — that’s what’s malleable. You can mess around with other stuff. You can throw in tracks and throw people off or something like that, in a good way. That’s what we strive for in the DJ sets.
But the live show is a lot of trial and error. We’ve been doing the live show pretty much full-time for two years now. You really get a sense of what songs work and where they work.
For example, something I like doing is throwing in one of the popular songs in the beginning, and that gets people pumped up. Then you throw in more of a b-side after that, and that’s okay. It’s kind of a trial-and-error thing. You want to keep a flow to the night that keeps people interested and excited, and then maybe you bring it down a notch before the grand finale or whatever. It’s a show — it’s meant to entertain.
It also has to be feasible as a performer, too. If you’re going to do the big, grand finale, you’ve got to take a little bit of a breather before then.
Of course, yes.
Any tour horror stories that you might have?
We’ve actually been pretty lucky. We haven’t had to cancel a show ever. I think we actually canceled one show in Detroit, but that was like three months out — so it didn’t feel the same. We’ve never missed a flight. Fortunately, that’s never happened. I may eat those words, but…
There have been a couple of situations where security has been a little lax, and that can be a little overwhelming. That happens a lot internationally. Sometimes the response is unexpected. For example, a lot of people want to come up and talk to me or something like that, and it’s too many people so I can’t even move. So it’s sometimes scary situations like that, where you get kind of mobbed. Obviously I’m flattered by it, but it’s also pretty scary when it’s happening.
Pretty early in my DJ days, I met some very interesting, shady club promoters. My favorites, though, are the shady college promoters. They’re still in college, but they’re a shady promoter in the works. Some of the stuff they say is really funny. Overall, it’s been a pretty good experience.
That’s really awesome. Hopefully that will continue into the future, too. I want to switch gears now — before you released Strangers last year you did several remixes and are still doing them. How do you select a song to remix?
The remixes are two-sided. You have to make a living primarily. There’s obviously a business side to it — it’s my job. If the label purchases a remix, we’ve already worked that side out. There’s that, and there’s obviously the creative side, where I’m basically listening to the song to see if I can do anything that’s worthwhile. I have to like the song. I have to have some kind of affinity toward something, I guess.
It’s a combination of the business side and me liking something and finding it worthwhile and not wasting everybody’s time. If I get an offer for a remix and maybe the money’s good, but I’ll hate the song or don’t feel like I can add anything to it, then it’s not worth anybody’s time. That’s how I approach it. Basically everything right now in terms of song selections are requests from labels and maybe past connections, like people I’ve worked with before. In the early days, it was a lot of email and begging people, “Please, let me do a remix.”
But now you’re working with artists left and right. I’ve interviewed Amanda Warner [who performs and releases music as MNDR] before and she was actually at this conference I attended in Washington D.C., called the Future of Music Policy Summit — a bunch of different business people and law-makers and what have you, talking about the music industry. And Amanda was there and she was speaking about time management as an artist. We were talking about it afterward. One, she says hello…
Tell her hi [laughs].
…and two, I was curious if you could speak more to how you select your collaborators, and how do you manage your time — as a remixer, original composer, etc.?
The collaborating is a very different process than the remixing. I think there has to be some level of compatibility musically. I don’t think I should be writing with everybody I possibly can. I want to work with artists I really admire. With Amanda, she was actually one of the few people on the last record that I cold-called. I had not worked with her in the past. I had done a remix at the time, and it was just like, “Hey, you’re really good. Do you want to work on this song?” And she said yes, so that was awesome.
A lot of the collaboration on the first record, a lot of the people came from past remixes — Edward Sharpe or Kele, all of these people that I had some sort of level of relationship professionally. As far as time management, it really just means that I work all of the time. It seems never-ending, but it’s something that I really enjoy. I sort of built my whole life around that.
I’m trying to think of a good way of explaining this, but… I’ve learned how to harness my creative process. That sounds really weird, but if you know what things are working and what things don’t and what you need to do to get yourself to that place where you can be creative, then things just kind of work out. I’m at a point where I’m able to do a remix in about a day and a half. That sounds fast, but if you really focus in on it, it’s really not that fast. I feel like I take my time and think about things a lot. It’s just that I focus on that specific project for that period of time. It has to do with knowing yourself, and you do it enough times that you figure it out.
From a technical standpoint, I do a lot of work to make things as seamless as possible for my studio. I spend a lot of time working on templates. A lot of the studio work that takes a lot of time – adding the drums, adding this and that, setting up the mix, stuff that can easily be done beforehand – you have this ready-to-go template that you can take off with relatively easily.
How is that creative process discussion different from the Master Spy stuff?
Yeah, that was actually a really fun project, mostly because it was just a fun thing. I’m very into video games, so it was something that I’ve always wanted to do. The opportunity came through because an old college buddy was building this game and he had a composer that backed out. I don’t remember if I asked him or he asked me or how it came about, but basically we talked about doing it and it felt like the right time.
I thought it was going to take about a month. It ended up taking a year. It’s been kind of a long time, but it was really fun because, like I mentioned, there was no pressure, but also because it was a very different format. I was writing for extreme repetition. You might be playing that level for 30 minutes, and I have an eight-minute track. Hopefully I can make it interesting so that you don’t even notice the track playing over and over and over again. You can only push that so far — I can’t write 30 minutes of music for every level. That’s just kind of crazy. But you’ve got to find a middle ground in there somewhere to make it enjoyable, enhancing the game experience.
It’s something that I’m pretty proud of. I really enjoyed doing that, creating momentum in this very intense, weird little 8-bit game. It’s very difficult, if you ever get the chance to play it.
Yeah! I actually have. I was fascinated by the fact that it doesn’t sound like your other work and yet it still very much does. It works so well in the video game context.
Yeah, I’m really proud of that.
GOING OUR OWN WAY TOUR WITH RAC + BIG DATA + FILOUS + KARL KLING + PINK FEATHERS :: Wednesday, November 3 at Royale, 279 Tremont St. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $29.50 in advance and $32 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Bowery Boston event page