Q&A: RAC Keeps Indie Rock Up All Night
A remix producer explores the art of noise, and reverse engineers a pop career in the process.
André Allen Anjos is known as RAC, but only because the name Dr. Feelgood was taken. The Portland-based producer (by way of Portugal and Illinois) is a master of sunny summer jams, the kind of warm-synthed, handclap-happy indie-dance numbers that make the babes at the pool party throw their hands in the air. His career kicked off with impeccably-timed remixes of Lana Del Rey, Foster the People, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros—whose folky “Home” he re-imagined as a cinematic Wild West fantasy. By 2012, if it was an indie pop hit, chances are there was a RAC version.
Rather than just chopping choruses and slapping big, paint-by-numbers EDM beats underneath them, RAC became renowned for building entirely new landscapes for your favorite vocalists to cruise around in. But like a reclusive movie director, Anjos was reluctant to take center stage. RAC (which stands for Remix Artists Collective) was originally conceived in 2007 as a four-man production collective—though Anjos did most of the musical heavy-lifting—and he’s comfortable for his songwriting skills and guitar chops to take a backseat to the star power of the vocalists he’s worked with.
That changed this spring with his debut album Strangers, 16 songs that showed RAC can spin irrepressible grooves from scratch. We caught up with RAC a few days after Lollapalooza, where he created a rainy-day dance party with his live band at The Grove stage, then DJed a set of buoyant, starlit 12″s at Subterranean. Still recovering, and with four remixes due, he talked to us about his metal past, musical prostitution, and doing the dishes to dubstep.
You were in bands when you were younger, then you got into remixing, and now you’re back playing live. How is it different being in a band this time?
Well it’s a lot more professional. I played all kinds of stuff before: I played in metal bands, wedding bands, jazz trios, most of it just to make ends meet growing up. But now I have basically control over everything ’cause I’m writing all the music. So that’s a pretty big difference. When you get four people in a band, especially if it’s not a professional setting, there’s a lot of ego issues. And this is just kind of nice because everybody involved knows their place. We’re all just trying to have fun and play music. It certainly helps that we’re playing big shows now.
What were your favorite bands when you were a teenager?
I was really into Nirvana when I was 13 or 14. That’s what really got me into playing guitar, and music in general. Of course, I’ve had my share of embarrassing bands that I was into. I was also pretty into metal at the time, so I was into bands like Meshuggah and Pantera, and even some hardcore stuff. It was kind of borderline nu-metal at times, like Vision of Disorder.
How did did you get put on to electronic music?
My first real introduction was definitely Discovery, the Daft Punk record. In what was that, 2001 or something like that? Or even before that, the first Daft Punk record with “Around the World” on it. That was the first electronic song I was really into. I grew up in Portugal, so electronic music was kind of like the mainstream and rock music was really kind of an afterthought for most people. I was very much into the underground rock stuff, which probably in the U.S. was mainstream, but for me that was my rebellion. Fast-forward many years, and we started getting offers to DJ. We were almost forced to dive into it because it was almost a practical thing: I needed to learn about all this music that people were playing and I needed to also be able to play it, because you can’t really DJ with rock music. So that’s really when I dove into it, and it inevitably began bleeding into my own music. Especially after DJing, I had an appreciation for electronic music that I didn’t have before; I started DJing at clubs more and that kind of setting is really the perfect outlet for it. It’s completely valid and can be very creative but it was so completely foreign to me because I was growing up writing Beatles-type songs. It didn’t follow that format that I was used to so it forced me to really re-think everything and try new stuff.
When you started RAC, there were many indie-dance remixes floating around. What did you want to add to that scene?
I think I just wanted a job. I was in college and I was applying for all these internships and I wasn’t getting anything. I just needed to make a living, and I wanted to do music. I definitely didn’t feel like I had some grand vision to add to the world, you know? I just needed to make ends meet. Thankfully that worked out, and I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to build something where I feel creative and I’m not stuck. At the time, I remember there was one artist in particular that kinda sparked the idea: this Japanese guy called Cornelius. He had put out these remix records called CM1, CM2, CM3. He did remixes of Moby and Sting, stuff like that. They weren’t really indie dance, but they were creative and very different; he created his own brand and sound from these remixes. And that was something that I really latched onto.
What was the first thing that really elevated your career?
I think I got really lucky in the beginning. I reached out to The Shins about remixing them, and they actually said yes. I’m just some college kid with nothing to my name and they’re like, ‘OK, try it out.’ I think it was because nobody had asked them to do a remix ever. Because it’s The Shins, you know? I was at the right place at the right time and I was able to just immediately go from there. There’s been a couple of remixes that have been good to me, like the one I did for Edward Sharpe’s “Home.” I really liked the song, but I didn’t foresee the massive success that that song would become. And then, more recently, maybe the Lana Del Rey remix. At the time I did it she was already blowing up but I didn’t realize she would become the massive headliner she is now. I try to work with bands early in their career; from a business perspective, I will get to ride that wave as well hopefully.
Tell me about the most difficult remix you’ve done.
To put it in perspective, I can do a remix maybe in a day or two. I’m talking about a full day, 14 hours or something like that. I got an email from the Bob Marley family to do a remix for their remix compilation. That was the first time where I really didn’t know what to do, because it’s Bob Marley. How do you even touch that? That was a really difficult one, in the sense of trying to do something that was tasteful and appropriate and wouldn’t piss off all the fans. That one ended up taking me three or four weeks and it was a learning experience. I picked “Could You Be Loved,” which is a song I really like, but then they threw me a curveball. They don’t have the original files, so what I got was actually this demo version that is a lot slower that he recorded with a drum machine. And it doesn’t even have all the lyrics. So I kind of had to recreate this seminal song on my own in my apartment studio.
What’s something that another musician has said that’s stuck with you?
Something that comes to mind is James Blake. He said, “Remixing is like musical prostitution.” I thought that was pretty funny, because it’s totally true. I do remixes for money, but I actually find a lot of satisfaction in it. And I feel completely creative and pretty free to do whatever I want. So maybe it is musical prostitution, but I feel completely fulfilled by it. I don’t see remixing and original music as different things—what I’m doing is actually very similar. With a remix there’s obviously a starting point and it’s derivative, but I’m still creating something new underneath it.
You’re working on a new record now. Do you think conceptually before you go into making albums, or even tracks?
With Strangers, when I reached out to the different artists to sing on it, the only direction I gave them was I wanted a pop album with substance. It’s kind of interesting because most of the lyrics that I got back were relatively dark and kind of moody. And I think that was a direct reaction to how almost sunny a lot of the songs sound, so I really appreciated that, and I really like how that became a theme of the album. But that kind of came together almost by accident. It’s a little early to say now in terms of concepts and stuff like that [for the second record]. I’m just trying different things. I think I’m going for something a little more rock ‘n’roll, but that’s just where I am right now, so we’ll see I guess.
What has been a recurrent theme for you this summer?
I tend to wear all black all the time, so I’m not a very summery person. I’ve been listening to Tango in the Night by Fleetwood Mac a lot. Like way too much. That’s kind of become my summer album, but not really intentionally. This kind of goes back to the nerd side: that album is very digital. It’s just this weird, awkward period of music where it was all those bands that sound amazing from the ’70s, and they were kind of moving into the ’80s, but they didn’t really know how synths and stuff worked yet. There’s some really classic songs on that record.
What sounds do you find unpleasant?
As far as sounds, I’m not really into a lot of the aggressive EDM. It’s annoying to me. I get why people like it, because it’s intense, especially with a lot of the live production. It’s a show. But it’s too abrasive and too harsh—which sounds weird for me to say especially because I was into metal. Maybe I grew out of it.
It could be the frequencies too.
Yeah. A lot of that kind of music, people associate the low end with it .but there’s so much high-end information that’s very piercing. I like more subtle and floaty sounds. It’s not like I’m gonna do the dishes and listen to hardcore dubstep.
What advice can you give to new artists to take their productions to the next level?
I think the best advice I can possibly give is just to be yourself. My biggest complaint about EDM in general is the lack of variety. Well, there is a lot of variety, but none of it rises to the top. That’s what bums me out. Electronic music is more vibrant than it’s ever been, but a lot of the stuff that ends up being in the Beatport or iTunes Top 10 all kind of bleeds together. It’s almost replaceable. So yeah, the best advice I can really give is be yourself and do something that you feel creative with and something you’re personally happy with. Hopefully people latch onto it, but if you can put something out that you’re happy with, then that’s a success.