We are psyched that you’re coming to Charlotte in a couple of weeks. How did that gig come about?
Like most of these, it was pretty straightforward. Armando [Bellmas of McColl Center] reached out first and gave us a small amount of background about what they’re doing with the [New Frequencies] series, and it sounded great. I tend to gravitate toward art spaces or spaces that are unconventional. A lot of my work tends to be in clubs or venues that are presenting music. But playing spaces like McColl Center is great because it gives you the ability to be in front of a whole group of people that may not ever go to your show at a club.
I saw you open for Sylvan Esso a couple of years ago, and you’re back on tour with them right now. How did that relationship begin?
They’re just friends [laughs]. They asked me to go on tour a while ago, and then I did a remix for them. They just hit me up again this time. It’s been pretty natural.
As I’m sure you know, Sylvan Esso is part of a strong and vibrant music community in North Carolina. How closely connected to it are you? Do you just happen to be on tour with Sylvan Esso, or do you have other North Carolina connections?
I don’t really have too many ties to North Carolina. I’ve played in Greensboro for a radio station there. I played Hopscotch years ago, and I’ve played Asheville twice.
Obviously the most noticeable thing about your stage setup is the Tinsel Mammals. Are they professionals, or do you still get volunteers from the audience to wear the suits and dance?
The first year I did it was in 2014, and we sourced a lot of volunteers. After that, starting in 2015, we would mostly hire professional dancers for that kind of work.
Are you bringing them with you to Charlotte?
We’re sourcing professional dancers in Charlotte. It gives me the opportunity to meet new people each night. And it gives a connection to a whole other scene, which has parallels to music.
Can you talk a little about what that visual element does for your music? Do you write the songs with the visuals in mind?
It started off as a response to a big festival I had coming up, but it ended up as an evolution of movement based on my own movements. Then, I started to feel strongly about writing music that would share the same space in a visual sense. It’s been a constant evolution. It’s evolved so much, and I’m now understanding it in a different way. I have new places and spaces I want to explore with it. So it’s going to start moving a little more in a different direction. [The visual element] is not just one thing. It’s changed so much over time, and it’s now integrated into the show.
It’s funny. I have people come up to me and say they’ve never known anything about my music but that it’s really cool. A couple of times people have asked if I’ve ever played with a live band, and I thought that was so funny. I said, “Didn’t you just them?”
I had a goal in 2010 to eliminate association with instruments. It was a very conscious decision to make sure people weren’t looking at anything that felt like an instrument. They couldn’t say, “Oh he’s playing guitar and he’s playing drums. This is where it’s all coming from. I feel comfortable.” I want people to feel uncomfortable – not to alienate them, but to make them feel and ask and be intrigued in a space that’s not theirs. It’s my space, and I’m asking them to share it with me. That’s what the Tinsel Mammals create. This opportunity for questions and reactions.
As you were developing the Tinsel Mammals concept, were there other artists that you were looking to as examples? In your opinion, what other artists are the best at incorporating visual elements into pop music?
I didn’t really formally look at anyone. I was more exposed to goofier things. The Tinsel Mammals are directly influenced by Cousin It [from the Addams Family]. And Ghillie Suits that people use for camouflage.
What kind of suits?
Ghillie Suits. It’s what people wear when they’re hunting. Those were the two influences I was thinking of when I created these costumes. My wife [artist Kristi Sword] makes all of them. She’s a major collaborator in it, and she’s the one who said I should use tinsel. I was like, “Oh Shit!” And the rest is history.
You used the word “goofy.” Do you see yourself as a humorous performer? Are you trying to make the audience laugh?
A friend of mine who has seen the performance quite a few times had a really cool observation. She said that when I walk out with the Tinsel Mammals, there’s an immediate reaction where people start laughing. Haha that’s so funny, the kind of laughter when someone is uncertain or confused. You can make fun of it or kind of joke. Then the HaHa’s change into a laugh that says “I don’t know how I feel about this. I’m uncomfortable.” And then there’s a moment of, like, “Aaaah.” I’ve disarmed them in a way that they’re now watching and waiting. I try to play on that.
I’m happy on stage. It’s not necessarily about being goofy. It’s about trying to extend the happiness that I feel when I’m doing this stuff.
You’re on tour in support of Private Energy (Expanded), a reissue of the record you did last year for Asthmatic Kitty. I know you’ve re-recorded a couple of songs, but what else is new about this version? How does it expand upon or move last year’s release forward?
As a musician releasing music and as a person with an appreciation for physical objects, this release is a symbolic gesture from the label [RVNG Intl.] and their belief in me. It’s us putting this out together. That’s the foundation. The artwork was redone and it was remastered by Bob Weston.
Was last year’s Private Energy release digital-only?
So another thing this year’s release brings is vinyl?
Yes. And CDs. We’re not letting CDs die [laughs].
CDs are my medium of choice. How do you listen to music on tour?
Streaming is the most practical. But we have the sickness of buying vinyl [laughs].
I’ve got it too. It’s a very bad disease.
Sometimes you don’t realize how bad it’s gotten until you look at what you’ve done over the past three weeks. Put them all together. You’re like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I just did this.” [laughs]
I’m curious about your musical roots. I’ve read some about you growing up in Florida and being influenced by Miami and Fort Lauderdale sounds. But deeper than that – what about Ecuador? Your family is from there and you’re going back there soon to play a show. What role does your Ecuadorian heritage play in your songwriting?
It’s where my family is from. It’s my upbringing that’s embedded in me. It’s not necessarily something that lays on top of my music, but like anyone who is a child of immigrants, you are embedded with a specific kind of culture from your parents. There’s a little bit of nostalgia on their end. They were leaving [Ecuador] at a specific time, so they’re stuck with that on their mind. A lot of those things that were shared with me by my family were nostalgic – but they also provided the understanding that the United States is not the only place that makes music.
That’s also true for music that’s quote unquote “Latin.” That’s a common misconception throughout the music industry. It’s like, if it doesn’t have bongos or timbales, it’s not Latin. My understanding of Latin music is something that sounds like anything. That’s the most important aspect that my background from Ecuador gave me. It was one country that was able to ecapsulate so many different types of music, so many different feelings.
I love to dig through record crates and listen to old music from around the world. Who are some of the Ecuadorian artists I should be looking for?
Dude, if I tell you all my secrets, then you’re going to jump the market [laughs]. There’s an organist that I’ve been pursuing a lot right now. Polibio Mayorga. This dude was making cool ass cumbia. It’s called San Juanito, which has it’s own composition and rhythm. But’s very cumbia-ish. He was using Moog synthesizers and organs. You can hear his progression from playing with bands to organs to starting to incorporate Moogs in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s a lot of really cool cuts.
Your upcoming Ecuador gig is in Quito. What’s the music scene like there today?
You know, I’m not that in tune or in touch with contemporary music there. There are bands that I like but I am not an authority on who is doing what. There’s a group that I like called EVHA. They play darker electronic stuff. Someone who is really popular right now, probably the biggest export, is this guy playing electro-cumbia. Nicolas Cruz is his name. But I wouldn’t say I know everything that’s happening there.