By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Andre Anjos leads a somewhat unremarkable daily existence for someone capable of making an entire music venue vibrate with joy.
When we spoke in early October, the sole member of RAC – the C originally stood for “collective” – was hanging out at his home in Portland’s Pearl District, readying himself for a national tour.
“This city has gone through such a drastic change, especially in the last few years,” Anjos says of the Oregon hub. “There are cranes everywhere downtown, and there’s all these new buildings. It’s pretty crazy.”
“I sort of fell into this life,” he says, recounting his earliest forays in producing. “I’ve never been, like, a ‘club person.’ I didn’t go to clubs to see DJs or anything like that.”
It was his attention to detail and ear for a catchy melody that first attracted him to the loosely defined genre, and those are qualities that Anjos brings to his own productions.
“I discovered dance music outside of this context, just as a listener.”
A big part of RAC’s appeal is Anjos’ ability recreate that effect for his legions of devoted fans.
You spent a considerable amount of your formative years living in Porto, Portugal. Did that experience influence your music or tastes?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t know any other experience/ I spent 20 years there, and I’d say it informs most of what I do. The more obvious things that I notice are the prevalence of electronic music when I was growing up. Electronic music was the mainstream.
I remember going to the movie theater, and you know how usually you hear Top 40 hits before or after the film? Over there it was electronic music, and house music. It was pervasive. It was very popular in Europe, and you’d hear it on the radio and everywhere else. I actually didn’t even like it that much because it was a mainstream thing. [Laughs] It was kind of uncool! I was more into guitar-heavy stuff and things that weren’t the norm. That was me being a rebellious teenager, I guess . I just wasn’t into that stuff at the time. But it stuck with me, because it was everywhere, you know? I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing house music.
When I started DJing in college, it was as if I had this general knowledge of it by living in a place where it was popular, and that was a nice way to jump into it with some knowledge of what I was doing, I guess. It also helped that I could tap into some tracks that maybe American DJs didn’t have access to, or they weren’t popular in the US. I feel like that gave me a slightly different edge.
Growing up abroad gives you access to so many other sounds and styles. For me, it was reggaeton and electronic music.
Yeah! It’s one of those things that didn’t cross over into the mainstream. Actually, it’s funny that we’re even talking about this, because I am really surprised that electronic music has become mainstream [in the US]. In its current form, I understand, as it has morphed into something else, but how did dance music become so popular? It’s kind of weird to me.
You’ve mentioned Daft Punk’s Discovery as an important record for you. What records from your childhood still resonate with you?
Discovery is definitely still one of them. It just had some kind of soul to it. Maybe it was the sampling or the way they put it together, but it resonated with me in a way that dance music never had before. I don’t really know what it is. And I’ve never been, like, a “club person.” I didn’t go to clubs to see DJs or anything like that. I sort of fell into this life and discovered dance music outside of this context, just as a listener. That album definitely had a pretty big impact on me.
Graceland by Paul Simon is another amazing album. It’s something I grew up with. My mom used to listen to Simon & Garfunkel. It stuck with me, and I rediscovered it later; that sound and that vibe is something that comes through in a lot of the stuff that I do. It’s something I really enjoy.
I listened to metal for a long while. It was something I was really into. What really drew me to it was the technical prowess of the musicians. As a young musician, I aspired to be a very good musician. It wasn’t about songwriting but rather about playing very complicated things, and that’s something that informs the way I write music. Actually, it sort of reinforced the idea that keeping things simple is better, but that’s a whole other story. [Laughs] If I have to name a specific album, I’d have to say one of the earlier Meshuggah records; I forget the name. It came out in ’97 or something like that [1998’s Chaosphere]. I think they had much more of an impact on me than most.
That whole prog rock thing was big in the late 90s. I think of Angra, Dream Theater, Joe Satriani. They had all had crazy technical prowess.
Yeah, I’ve seen Dream Theater, like, twice. [Laughs] It’s actually a bit much for me, because it’s a three hour show and there’s only so much of that you can really take. What they do is amazing, but ehhh. [Laughs]
Many people have been introduced to RAC through remixes. How do you go about selecting songs? I know that oftentimes people will approach you, but what inspire you to work on a certain song?
There’s two sides to this. First of all, there’s the business side of it: This is what I do for a living, and that obviously informs what I do and what I don’t. Normally, if I’m talking to a label and they’re offering me something, I have to weigh if I want to do something or I don’t.
On the creative side, it’s a little bit more nebulous. It depends on the feel of the song for me. I have to like it and enjoy it.
When I hear a song, I can kind of tell if I can do something worthwhile with it. I’ve turned down songs that I really liked before because I didn’t think I could do something that was worth their time and mine. It’s very difficult to explain, but when you get a song, you get a feeling as to whether it’s going to work or not.
I kind of weigh all those things and decide if I’m going to do it. That’s basically how it goes. [Laughs]
You’ve worked with such a broad range of artists on your original songs – folks like St. Lucia, Tegan and Sara, Body Language, Katie Herzig. What’s the criteria for picking a collaborator?
Most of it is through personal relationships. They’re people I’ve met or people I’ve enjoyed working with on the remix side. Especially on the album, there was a lot of that, because it was the first time I was doing this. It would be like [sheepishly] “Hey, remember I did that remix for you guys? Because that kind of worked out well.” [Laughs]
It wasn’t like I was asking for favors, but we felt like we were onto something that really works. That’s where it starts, and there’s so much other work that goes into it after, so it often comes down to the song. I worked with a lot of people where we didn’t finish the song or it didn’t truly click. There was a lot of trial and error, you know? By the end of it, it ends up being a wide group of people because of that.
How often are you guys working in the same physical space?
Oh, never. That’s part of the reason why I called the album Strangers. A lot of these people I’ve never even met. Sure, we’ll talk over email, but that’s about it. We’ll have a very specific objective in a creative relationship, but these are all strangers to me. [Laughs]
There are a couple obvious exceptions to it – one being my wife [vocalist Liz Anjos], plus a few close friends – but for the most part, I’m working with people I don’t know very well.
There’s gotta be a certain degree of trust in the talent and the process on both sides, really.
Yeah. You want to make sure that both parties feel good about it.
I read that you play video games to help you with writer’s block. What are you playing these days?
Well, I just got the new updated Star Wars Battlefront game. I’ve been playing that for a couple of days. I picked up the Uncharted remaster for the PS4. I love those games, and I own them already, but it’s nice to play them with much better graphics. [Laughs] They’re great games. I really like them.
Actually, the whole video games thing – I do use it specifically to fight writer’s block. It’s partly an excuse to play video games, sure, but it really helps to distract yourself for a second and take a break, instead of trying to hammer away when you’re stuck on something and not feeling anything. At least, when I push and push and push, it doesn’t always lead to great results.
Everyone has their own way of distracting their mind and getting ideas flowing again. I find that taking a shower really helps me when I have to write.
It’s funny you even mention that, because that’s one of the only times you’re actually disconnected from devices. Granted, with video games you’re still doing something with a device, but there’s something to be said from taking a breather away from everything you’re doing and having time alone in your head. That’s so rare. Think about it: I look at my cellphone when I go down in an elevator for two floors. There’s no reception in there! [Laughs] I’m literally looking at nothing. I think you’re onto something there with disconnecting for a second and regaining your thoughts.
What gets you excited about music these days? It can be an artist, a band, a distribution model.
I’m really stoked about where things are. It’s funny you even mention distribution models; it’s not perfect, but I think we’re onto something. We may have finally figured out a way to make things more consistent for artists in a way that they can make a living, or a steady living.
As it is now, it’s an album cycle. You work on an album for three years and then you put it out, and then you write another album for three years and put it out. If the second one doesn’t do well, you might not get to do the third, or you have to do it under much more stressful circumstances.
But I started to do this thing a few months ago where I release a single once a month. It’s not meant to be a gimmick. It’s the rhythm that we’re getting into. I don’t know if it will be one every month, but that’s what we’re shooting for. Instead of working on a second album, we plan on putting out singles for a while and see what happens.
So far, I’ve seen an insane reaction to these new songs! I don’t know, something about the consistency of putting something out on a steady basis keeps you on people’s minds. You can promote tour dates with it. I’m talking to you right now, and I don’t know that I would be if I didn’t have a song coming out. [Laughs incredulously] It’s a way of spreading things out over a longer period of time, and I think it makes more sense in the Internet age. If you’re putting out stuff on the Internet, you’re basically competing with everything else out there, and that’s not just music; we’re talking videos, YouTubers, TV. You’re competing for attention, basically.
Anything that I can do to make this more interesting over a period of time is really fun and a totally new challenge as an artist, instead of thinking about it in the album model, which takes so long. Even on a financial level it makes sense with album sales tanking or pretty much nonexistent, at least compared to what they were. Streaming in this sort of awkward place.
I’m just excited to try something different for now. Four months in, it seems to be working. It makes me very excited for what we’re doing.
You’ve been putting on a lot of shows as RAC with a live component, but you play in another band, The Pragmatic . Is that still happening or has your Wikipedia page led me astray?
[Laughs] Ok, so The Pragmatic has not existed since like maybe 2006. [Laughs] That page is definitely outdated. [Laughs] I guess someone needs to update that. Can you updated your own Wikipedia page? I guess anybody can. I should correct some of the stuff in there.
About the live thing, I started touring as a DJ with my friend Karl Kling in 2010. We toured pretty much everywhere, for a very long time, and we still do. About two years ago, we switched to this live format, and part of the reason was because I was starting to write original material, and a lot of this material was not really dance friendly – at all. [Laughs] I sort of shot myself in the foot because I had built a career on DJing, and then it was like, “Uh-oh, none of these songs are meant to be DJ’d. What am I doing here?”
The live band came to be by necessity. We just did it. That was sort of the early reason. I also grew up playing in bands, and this felt like a return to what I wanted to do originally, anyways, instead of some drastic change.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.