Sufjan: Why Chickens? Why not Monkeys? Or Stink Bugs? Or Snakes?
Rafter: I named the album the day I started working on it – at that point I had no idea what it was going to be about, just that it would be made in a certain way, process-wise. I recorded it all with a computer, so I had to name the folder something, and it was music for total chikenz. Then it just stuck.
Sufjan: This new album has overarching themes of therapy, self-help, and personal encouragement. What inspired this? Do you feel music should inspire the listener and/or the performer?
Rafter: I feel like much of my adult life has been an attempt to get healthy – emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc. When I was writing this album, at different times I was coming out of dark times, or being friends with people who were going through hard things, or just reading the news and coming to grips w/the amount of challenge that is a part of our lives as people on earth. I felt like I wanted to try to extend a hand or a hug to everyone, including myself. To give encouragement and support and non-judgmental commonsense guidance for good living and health. We are such damaged people, all of us, and I felt like something like this would really be good to do. Also I have read a lot of self-help books, no joke! I like the one The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People. There’s such simple stuff in it but it’s so easy to forget to do a lot of it!
Sufjan: Do you feel music should inspire the listener and/or the performer?
Rafter: I think that one of the many things that music can do is to inspire, but that’s only one thing. Music (and all art for that matter) is so multipurpose! I love that about it. One of my favorite things to get from music is a sense of total doom and annihilation; also I really like feelings of radical acceptance and beauty and feelings of total surrender to romantic fantasy and feelings of confusion and beauty. So I guess the answer is "absolutely, sometimes".
Sufjan: How did you make this new album? It sounds like nothing else I’ve heard.
Rafter: Ahhh the big secret! This album is totally a sculpture – but w/out getting poetic about it –
1 – record a lot of drum improvisation, in song length chunks, w/as much surprise and revolutionary spirit as possible
2 – pick favorite improvs and don’t edit them
3 – write songs around them with a guitar, usually about 5 – 15 seconds at a time because the timing and structure were so unpredictable
4 – flesh them out with bass, more guitars, keyboards, percussion, etc.
4.5 – edit everything to create the illusion that it all actually happened! Walk the line between unreal tightness and realistic humanity
5 – while carrying infant son on endless walks, listen to them in headphones for months and figure out how to sing pretty over these odd structures
6 – write lyrics, make sure they’re totally from the heart! Nothing less is acceptable
7 – record my singing and then the sweet ladies!
8 – mix it rad style
Sufjan: How do you balance nonsense with dead seriousness in a song?
Rafter: For me nonsense is totally serious. I feel like silliness and nonsense are really serious and heartfelt parts of my life – I think there’s a sort of reverence and spiritual depth in nonsense and humor that I really get into, if that makes any sense. So I just approach it like there’s no conflict between nonsense and seriousness, and it seems to work out ok.
Sufjan: What microphone do you find yourself using more than any other, and why?
Rafter: I love my Soundelux U99 because it makes things sound magical, and is super detailed. It sounds like a vial of mercury to me – smooth, silvery, shiny, but also dangerous.
Sufjan: You’ve worked in advertising for the past many years, producing jingles for TV commercials. How has this affected your own music?
Rafter: I think I am more keen to make things w/shorter attention span focus style events. It’s hard for me to write a song longer than 2 minutes right now! Plus I have learned how to create many different types of music I never would have otherwise, and that is helpful even when I’m making my art/pop stuff…
Sufjan: Some people refuse to license their songs for commercial use. And some people make a lot of money at it. What do you think about this?
Rafter: Mmm – complicated question I guess, and everyone has his or her own right answer. On one hand I can’t criticize a poor band for trying to get any sort of $ from their musical endeavors, but also I think it’s kinda bad. I think a) I would never license my art music for any commercials or b) I would do it but give 100% of the $ to a charity that directly opposed the wrong done by the company that licensed it. E.g. McDonalds = rainforests/animal rights, Coca-Cola = water problems in India and elsewhere, etc. I say BIG UPS to people who decline licensing offers. We are supposed to be radicals, right? Real punk rockers! So f*&k those evil mega corps!
Sufjan: You strike me as what one might call a "studio musician," in that you’ve created and managed a commercial music studio for years, you’ve recorded, produced, mixed, mastered, etc., all kinds of projects in the studio, yet rarely play live (outside of San Diego, at least), and almost never tour. Is there anything behind this decision? Do you ever want to hit the road? Why or why not? Are you shy? Are you getting enough sun?
Rafter: I LOVE touring! I wish I could – but ever since I’ve been rocking fiercely, I’ve also been a man of many responsibilities. For the last 7 years it’s been the business that Glen and I started and run together (singing serpent), and now I’m a stay-at-home dad. I can definitely bear the thought of being away from the business, but leaving my son is another matter entirely. I can’t imagine a week away from him. I love him too much and feel so responsible for giving him love and care and dadness. I am not shy. I love people, singing to people, sleeping on floors, etc. It is great – I just don’t see how I can swing a lot of touring and still be a great dad, at least right now.
Sufjan: Your music can be jumpy and aggressive, but your voice has a gentle tone. What do you think of the talented crooners out there, like Antony and Bette Midler, for instance?
Rafter: Mmm, sometimes I really like Antony’s voice and other times it feels too affected. Fo sho it is heartrendingly beautiful, but sometimes it doesn’t work for me. Often I strongly desire for singers to sing from their real voices, and sometimes-affected voices make me feel like the singer is not singing from the heart enough. I really try to sing in as natural a voice as possible, I worked hard on that for a few years because I wanted to not feel like I was singing BS, I wanted to really communicate. I hope it’s working. Especially on the music for total chickens album I wanted to sing in a conversational style.
Sufjan: Do you think Bob Dylan is yanking our chain?
Rafter: Maybe, but I like it.
Sufjan: Who’s your favorite Asthmatic Kitty artist (besides me, of course) and why? Whomever you choose wins 100 dollars. You pay.
Rafter: Oh man, that’s a hard one. Right now, I think it’s Liz Janes, because of a bunch of reasons. She’s a beautiful person, radical mama and wondrous musician. Am I just picking her cause she’s the only other artist who’s a parent? Liz, your check’s in the mail!
Sufjan: With your master ear and audio expertise, what advice can you give someone like me who tends to overstock the recordings with too many arrangements?
Rafter: My advice is = do what feels right to you. Aside from that I’d just say "use it like a spice", but I’d also go to my 2 aphorisms –
1) K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid!
2) Don’t bore us, cut to the chorus.
I love those because they are cute, and because they help me all the time. So um if you feel like your arrangements are overstocked, then stop it. Orrrr you can overstock them like mad and when you mix the song, reduce, reduce, reduce. In my opinion, you have good results with your overstocking. It is still overstocking though.
Sufjan: You have red hair. Do you belong to a Redhead organization? Do you feel Redheads suffer special discrimination in society? Do you think Redheads have special advantages? Do you feel some ulterior motive in my capitalization of the word "Redhead"? I am, in fact, incredibly suspicious of Redheads, on first impression, at least. My drummer, James, I love him to death, but he has very red hair. I am conventionally Mediterranean/Eastern European in my coloring, so I find all that red a little off-putting. I don’t trust him. I’m sorry, I like to see a little melanin every once in a while. How can I overcome this prejudice?
Rafter: I have no close ties with other redheads. Generally I think they’re flighty and untrustworthy, so I guess I agree with you about being suspicious. I am flighty and untrustworthy, like all other redheads, but I am also a lot of other things that balances that out. This might be because of the special circumstances of growing up red: a target for teasing from the youth And sickly sweet affection from the elderly. Kids say "dumb head red head dumb" and grownups say "oh dearie your hair is sooooo beautiful.” I think a good way to combat your prejudice against redheads would to be to decide to embrace your prejudice completely. Kick James out of the band and find a decent brunette or blonde to replace him. Freckles are weird too.
Sufjan: You’ve worked with so many amazing musicians in the past. Who have been some of your favorites and why (30 words or less, go!)?
Rafter: Man o man. I just love it when the person or people I’m working with embrace taking risks with their music. It makes me feel very alive and I get happy and excited. The revolutionary spirit of art can really be alive and well and kicking arses, if you let it. Safety is my #1 enemy in the studio, for better or worse. Of course, it’s important to have enough mysterious talent and faith and psychic ability to have the train jump the tracks in a successful way, but I find that with the right attitude, most of the accidents are so wonderfully wonderful. Some of my favorite bold risk takers are Ray Raposa (Castanets, who’s headed here as I type to make record #3), Glen Galloway (soul junk), Matthew Friedberger (Fiery Furnaces), John Reis (hot snakes, rocket from the crypt, drive like jehu), Daniel Smith, and myself. I feel like I’ve been so privileged to get to work with so many wonderfully talented people. The list could really go on but for each one of those I had specific visceral memories spring up.
Sufjan: Being a native of the Golden State, do you want to collaborate on a record about California?
Rafter: Yes! I think we could probably have a really nice time making a great record. After that it just comes down to specifics: do you like to jog? Do you like kids? What time do you like to go to sleep and wake up? Do you eat breakfast or skip it? Do you ever go out dancing? If no, would you want to try? How long do you like to work in the studio on an average day? Do you listen to music on an mp3 player? How often do you shave your face? How do you write songs?