Interview by Parisa Eshrati
After extensive touring around the world, Chris Alfaro, aka Free the Robots, explored global inspiration for his upcoming release, Karavan. T&E Collective spoke with the LA-based producer and DJ at the start of the Karavan tour to discuss the new record, life-changing perspectives from traveling, and his love for all things music.
Let’s start off by talking about your upcoming collab album with LEFTO, Karavan, coming out this week. It’s a project largely inspired by global music, and the first track that released is called “Lebanon”. Will each track similarly be inspired by a different region?
There isn’t a strict concept to this album, we were more so just inspired by world music. LEFTO and I are both heavy travelers, and we started this project together while on the road. We were touring together, and I believe we started thinking up of a collaboration when we were in Tokyo in 2015. We started making music together throughout our tours, and two years later we have a full length record!
A lot of that travel went into this record, but it doesn’t really focus on regions in particular. We’re both avid collectors of music from around the world. There is a lot of Middle Eastern, African and Asian influence, as well as some Latin sounds thrown in there. We both love diggin’ into these sounds because the music itself can translate the language barriers. As much as I’d like to know what’s being said on some of the samples, that’s not really what the music is all about it. If you can vibe to the beat and melodies, then the music is serving its purpose.
Tell us about the samples that went into this project. You’ve previously said how the rarest record in your collection is an original Mulatu Atsaki, which a friend of yours found at someone’s house in Ethiopia. Do you have any similarly rare finds that went into the Karavan record?
Yeah, a lot of my records are sourced in a unique like that! I’m constantly looking for rare records. To be honest, I don’t even remember much of what I sampled for this record off the top of my head. A lot of these tracks are more original compositions.
So this record is less sampled-based than your previous work?
I would say that the tracks that I worked heavily on are about half-and-half. LEFTO and I both collectively winged it when it came to samples [laughs]. It's an interesting process to work on a project on the road. You get all of these ideas and subtly work on them here and there and touch it up once you get back home. So, when it comes to sampling for a project like this, I might just hear something while I’m traveling and think “Ah, lemme flip this real quick!” Sometimes I won’t even remember where it came from, nevertheless it’ll work its way into the music.
Your previous releases were inspired by your times of solitude and were largely driven by the pressures of finding balance from your music, restaurant, as well as personal struggles. I’m curious, since this project is more about world music, was the creation process as internal as your previous ones or were you looking more outward for inspiration?
Yes, that's a good question. This project is a little different in that sense. Music at its core is always an internal process, clearly. For certain records that I had worked on, I would tune out and get away from the world as much as possible. This record, though, I’m completely in the world! [laughs] But that’s the thing, it’s best to test yourself and see what you come up with in different environmental situations. This was a tour situation, and when you’re on the road you’re connecting with a lot of different people, constantly playing shows – and a lot of that energy went into this record.
The records that I create in solitude become a reflection of the chillin’ and relaxing that I do at home. I’ve been taking a bit of a break from super aggressive music. When you’re in solitude and in your own world, you like to spend a lot of your time in silence…well, at least I do. I reflect more when I’m hiking, going in the ocean, and that’s the atmosphere that reflects when you create music from that side. But Karavan has a touring energy for sure.
Were there any particular travel moments that were pivotal for creating the mood of this record?
Oh yes, for sure. The first and most pivotal moment, at least on my end, was playing my home country of the Philippines. That was a huge eye opener for me because I come from an immigrant family. My family came to America to build better lives for us, and here I am, this fuck up kid [laughs]…but in turn that’s what made me into an artist. I didn’t connect with a lot of what America tried to teach me in terms of what you have to do with your life. And coming from a Filipino family, there was a lot of extra expectation to make it in America.
I grew up in the suburbs, I was frustrated and had a huge identity crisis growing up with these two major aspects of my life. That, however, led me away from normal hobbies and got me to a place where I could focus on my art…and in turn that somehow brought me back to the Philippines! [laughs] That was a total full circle moment. I could have lived there if my dad didn’t get on that boat to come to this country, and there wouldn’t have been a lot of opportunities there, especially coming from a family without a lot of money. That was the biggest and most life changing experience for me, so that was a big drive for this record.
Recently, you co-created an original soundtrack for the documentary Killswitch regarding the battle for control of the internet. What kind of moods did you want to create in your music so that the themes of the documentary could be further pushed?
Hacker shit! Y’know what I mean? [laughs] It was a great experience, because the film makers gave me a free range for what to produce for their soundtrack. This was my first time working on a project like this, so they gave me a lot of freedom to experiment. I worked on it with my buddy Co. fee. We didn’t work together in the same studio, but he came up with his style and I strove to go more atmospheric and less beat-driven…more ambiance and melodic type of sounds. I’m really into sci-fi film sounds, like those weird and moody vibes from 70s Moog synths and instruments. A lot of my work can get dark at times, but it really worked in this scenario. The documentary focuses on a dark issue, and it’s an important message that should be heard. I really connected with the content, so the music came naturally and worked out well.
Right, I read that you're big into sci-fi and vintage psychedelic films. Aside from the synth inspiration, how does the imagery itself from these film work its way into your music? Are there certain aspects of these films that you like to recreate?
I’ve been a fan of those types of films for my entire life – imagery, music, and everything else behind ‘em. I don’t know what exactly it is that I’m so attracted to in that film style, but the imagery automatically paints a picture of certain sounds for me. I still pull a lot of influence from those types of films. I’m not even from that era or grew up on 70s films, but it’s just cool. It’s some real nerd shit [laughs].
You started doing a monthly radio project on NTS called Mild Animals. Can you give us a teaser for upcoming guests, or people you’d like to have on your show? What kind of themes do you want to explore for future shows?
That project is a collaboration between me and my buddy, Phil Nisco, who is also a heavy music collector. Our main goal is just to share music that we really love. A lot of the records we pull are rare, some are classics...overall, just a broad range of shit that we're into. The next show will be with RSI aka Ricky Regretti from DRUMETRICS, which is essentially my favorite group right now. He's a heavy collector and he came through with a lot of his 45s.
This show has been a platform for all of us to be able to share openly. When it comes to rare music, a lot of collectors want to keep those finds to themselves. The whole purpose is to share and affect people in some way, otherwise the music can't live. It's really dope that NTS has given us a platform for that reason.
We also want to feature a variety of collectors on the show. They don't have to be DJs or musicians, because collectors come in any form of artist. We've had visual artists and people who only listen to their collection when they're chillin' at home. If they're not DJs, we'll help them out on the spot and just go with it. The music isn't mixed or anything, we just want this music to be heard and have fun with it.
Finally, who would win in a wrestling match, you or Nacho Libre?
Ha! That’s great because that’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I'd have to say...probably Nacho, he’s pretty badass. I might be able to take Esqueleto but Nacho would whoop my ass.