Q&A: André Allen Anjos on his new RAC album and earning a paycheck during the concert blackout

André Allen Anjos, Andre Allen Anjos, RAC

André Allen Anjos (RAC), Courtesy: Jules Davies.

It’s March 48 (who’s keeping track, though?) and musician-producer André Allen Anjos, better known as RAC, seems happy to see a new human face. After several weeks of keeping indoors at his Portland, Oregon apartment, Anjos, like most of us, is living comfortably in a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt.

Counter Records, May 8

The 35-year-old Portugal-born artist, who’s lived here with his wife for 10 years, doesn’t mind the COVID-19-induced seclusion.

“I kind of live this lifestyle anyway, so it didn’t take much adjustment—but it still is pretty weird about basically just not going outside or like not really interacting with other people in real life. Interesting times, I’m sure,” he says.

Behind Anjos is some shelving with instruments, various consoles, a studio microphone and a “Destiny 2” statuette he received from Sony along with some other video game swag after playing at the E3 video game conference some years back.

“I actually just put this new desk here for quarantine,” he says. “I don’t usually do calls here, so nobody’s ever asked me about that.”

We’re inside RAC’s home studio. Well, virtually inside, through the magic of Zoom. Anjos calls the trendy Pearl District his home, overlooking the Willamette River and the picturesque Fremont Bridge. On some weekends, he likes to go to Eugene or to Bend to go hiking with his friends. Well, before, at least. These days?

“I’ll go outside to pick up food or have food delivered or pick up packages or anything like that. It’s been an interesting time for sure,” he says.

Anjos and his wife are safe and healthy. So are his parents, who live in Pennsylvania and are used to working from home. He considers his family fortunate.

Everything is different now. RAC will still release a new album, BOY, on May 8. That’s still on. But Anjos had just announced a tour on the morning of March 11 to start in conjunction with the album. Several hours later, the National Basketball Association postponed the rest of its season.

“At first, I think a lot of people were maybe assuming that it would be like a couple weeks. I think it’s pretty clear at this point that we’re going to be in this for a while,” he says. The tour was postponed and he’s trying to reschedule for August or later.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic. That’s not my usual state of mind, but I just want to be realistic about it. We’re in this for a while, unfortunately,” he says. “We’re just trying to be as safe as possible, like the last thing we want to do is go out and cause some kind of outbreak. We’re just trying to play music, you know?”

BOY is RAC’s third solo album, though the Grammy-winning producer and songwriter has appeared on countless compositions and remixed a who’s who of rock and pop all-stars, from U2 to Weezer, Lana Del Rey, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, Bob Marley, New Order, The Shins. In 2017 he won the Grammy for Best Remixed Recording (Bob Moses’ “Tearing Me Up”).

On his first two solo records, 2014’s Strangers and 2017’s EGO, he collaborated with the likes of Rivers Cuomo, Rostam, K.Flay, St. Lucia, Tegan and Sara, Tokyo Police Club and Kele Okereke of Bloc Party. It’s hard to keep track, but he also worked on Linkin Park’s final album, various TV and film soundtracks and even found time to score a ballet.

The new 18-song album of airy indietronica includes mostly younger, hungrier vocalists like electronica duo Louis The Child, Maddie Jay, Phil Good and LeyeT, though St. Lucia again makes an appearance on album closer “Better Days,” as does Anjos’ close friend Matthew Koma, as Winnetka Bowling League.

It’s also an extremely personal album, which might take some by surprise considering RAC collaborators supplied their own lyrics. Anjos’ mother is American and his father Portuguese. As a child, music became an additional language after he felt uncomfortable speaking with adults because he didn’t feel like he belonged in either nationality. RAC recorded his melodies, which speak to Anjos’ coming of age, using only equipment and instruments around during his childhood; the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“I think that there’s something intangible in music that is far deeper than any lyrical content,” Anjos explains. “When I was writing this material, I was very much channeling a period of my life and culling from memories and very specific things that I put into that music. When I was working with all these different people, I was telling them a lot of these stories. We were sharing experiences of our childhood. … Everybody was a child, at some point. We ended up finding some common ground, and that ended up informing what they did. It’s deeply personal but that’s the essence and the starting point of it. It eventually became something bigger than that.”

RIFF: Over the past decade you’ve partnered with many artists to sing on your songs. I never would have considered that you felt uncomfortable communicating by speaking as a child. Did that directly correlate with how you chose to communicate in much of your music?

André Allen Anjos (RAC): There’s a couple sides to it. Just to give it context: I grew up in Portugal. I was born and raised there until I was 20, and my mom’s American, so I’m bilingual and when I was in first and second grade, I was sort of confused about the languages, and I wasn’t really comfortable with either. So my natural reaction was to not speak to adults.

It was just adults?

Yeah, it was just adults. I talked to kids, no problem. So I was capable. It wasn’t like I didn’t understand it. … I just know that at the time, that’s when I discovered music, and it became sort of like a third language in a way where I was able to communicate some level of emotion. So fast forward many, many years, I eventually started speaking to adults.

You seem like a very well-adjusted person right now.

It’s like growing pains. When you’re a child, sometimes you go through some weird stuff that you don’t fully understand. … In 2007, I started doing remixes because it was a way in [to music]. It was a way where I didn’t have to sing, and I would have access to vocals, basically. So I get to do my production, and that’s all I wanted to do. I just wasn’t really interested in the vocal, lyrical side of things. So at first it was really just like a creative exercise. … I wrote my own songs around [the vocals]. It sounds so counterintuitive, but at the time, it made sense. …

I can sing, but I don’t think it’s anything special. There’s this part of me that really likes working with all kinds of different people, and I think it keeps it really interesting. In a way, it’s like having a different lead singer for every song. I think there’s a lot of upside to it. Obviously, there’s the marketing side of it, cross-pollinating audiences. There’s something to that that definitely helps me. You could say the same about remixing, where you’re sort of reaching a new audience that maybe never heard of you. Maybe they’ll go check out your other stuff.

I’ll use my voice, sometimes—I’ll sample it, then put it in the background, these like “oohs” and “ahhs” and things like that. So it’s not like I’m incapable of doing it, but it’s more I just find it really fun to work with different people and get their take on it. So much of this is done in isolation, and I have all these big ideas of how I wanted to like play out instrumentally. It’s kind of nice to take that and give it to somebody else that’s coming into it completely fresh. … I’ll give them a couple options and whatever they gravitate toward is usually something they immediately picked up on, like, “OK, yeah, this is what I want to do. I feel connected to this.” They get to tell their version of that story, inspired by the instrumental that I wrote.

What are some of your favorite memories from when you were growing up, and whether that was in Portugal or after your family went to Pennsylvania, before you went to college in Illinois?

I did live in Pennsylvania for third and fourth grade. And then I moved back to Portugal, so I went back and forth a bit. … All things considered; I had a pretty good childhood. I had a bit of a weird childhood in a sense that my parents are missionaries. I grew up in a very religious environment. For example, I wasn’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music, which essentially means that I couldn’t listen to music. …

I would catch little snippets of things here and there, but I didn’t know what they were. It’s weird discovering the Beatles later in life. Because of that, I was sort of forced to create music, like in a vacuum. When I was really young, I was basically just making stuff up that I thought sounded good. I actually really appreciate that sort of innocent time where nobody was telling me what was good or bad. … I think that was pretty formative. … I would sit down with my acoustic guitar. Actually I still have it. [Anjos snags and shows off his first guitar, strumming a Latin-like melody before turning it into a poppy tune.]

I would just write all these really simple songs, like the most basic kind of chord progressions. I have very fond memories of playing these songs to my dog, which sounds really funny, but in a way that was my only outlet. It’s like, “OK, you’re forced to listen to this,” and he kind of pretended like he actually enjoyed it. So I have these vivid memories of the song. I took some of those progressions and obviously made them a little more modern. [Here Anjos changes his tempo to add some funk into the melody.] That’s such a basic chord progression, but that ended up turning into this song “MIA,” which is the third song on the album. There’s a lot of that, where it’s like picking up little melodies, things that I wrote that I remember and just kind of infusing them into this music. It’s such a mix of all these different memories that it’s hard to be specific about one thing. It’s just a general feeling of that of that time period.

You limited your production techniques and equipment for the record to stuff that was made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Those are formative years for you. Were you trying to limit yourself to date your material or to expand your creativity with what you could do with fewer resources?

I think it’s the latter. I talk about this a lot with other musician friends. We’re in an era of insane prosperity. We have every single piece of equipment, every single plug-in. We have so many options. You pick an era, and there’s an emulation for that rare amp that you know isn’t available anymore. And you can dial in the preamp. … There’s this thing that we talk about a lot; it’s called “analysis paralysis,” where you basically have too many options, and you can’t make a decision because, how could you possibly make the right decision when you have every single option available to you?

This is an idea that I’ve been working on for a long time … of just really limiting what I’m using and just trying to be as creative as possible within those constraints. That applies to equipment. “I’m going to use a Roland Juno-60 from ‘82;” it’s going to sound like that era. Or certain guitar amps like the Roland JC-120; stuff like that is going to be very much of that era. That’s the kind of textural stuff that I like playing with, but also I really like to apply that to the structure on this album.

A lot of songs are pretty short, but for the most part, I stick to the pop structure, like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. It’s tried and true. I try to keep it around three minutes, maybe a little bit under. Those are sort of rules that are understood. With all that said, if you have those rules, then you can break them. You can be as creative as you want around them.

It’s kind of like a safety net. This is going to be, at least on paper, commercially viable. I don’t feel like I’m selling out or anything like that, but I know that this will at least work for something. If it connects with people, at least it has a minor chance at radio. … Limitations can be, in this day and age, really powerful. I think some of my favorite albums are like [that]. … When you really limit yourself to a specific set of things, it really forces you to learn it and just execute on it.

Leading to the album, you released a cover of Third Eye Blind’s “I’ll Never Let You Go,” with Matthew Koma and Hilary Duff, his wife. Did you record that song because it’s, again, from your formative years?

I grew up with that song. I love Third Eye Blind. It was one of the first MP3s I ever had, which is kind of funny, too. I think I actually got the song “Graduate” from MP3.com. I don’t know if that still exists. I got “Graduate” legally, and then the rest, we don’t need to talk about that. Growing up in Portugal, we didn’t have access to any music. You could buy a couple of records at a store, but you actually didn’t have access to most things. So when Napster came out, it was amazing because nobody was thinking about the monetization. It was just like, “Oh, we have access to everything now.” A world of music opened up. In my mind, I was like, “Oh yeah, you’ll figure it out. They’ll charge you at some point.” Nobody assumed that the industry was going to have such a negative reaction to it. Side note!

I’m sorry. What’s the question again?

Your connection to the song.

It was more of a fun thing. I wasn’t even thinking it’d be related to the album. My pitch to Matt … was, “Hey, we both love this song. Let’s do it as a cover for a Japanese B-side or something small.” … He was so nice and super down to do it because he also really loves Third Eye Blind, and he kind of likes to troll Stephan Jenkins. There’s some history there, so we just thought it’d be really funny. …

I’ve met Stephan once … but Matt has sort of had a history of kind of trolling him on the internet, and he has his number and just calls him up and leaves him voicemails. Matt’s just trying to be funny, but there’s … sort of an inside joke within the friend group, just kind of poking fun at it, but we all love the music. …

When he was home, he was hanging out with Hilary a lot, and I felt kind of bad [because] he was trying to hang out with his family. … He texted me, and he’s like, “Would it be cool if Hilary jumps in this?” I’m like, “Absolutely, yes, 100 percent.” … But it came out so good. We were all really stoked about it. … We were going to put it out around Valentine’s Day. So a lot of things kind of fell into place. It was that period where I discovered Third Eye Blind and a lot of stuff like that that I’m pulling from [for BOY], so it kind of made sense. It is kind of an introduction, like “Hey world, I’m back.” …

We’re not trying to parody it or anything like that. We have a legitimate appreciation for it. … We were kind of hoping that [Jenkins] reacts, and I don’t think he did. Although I did get a message from [former Third Eye Blind bassist] Arion [Salazar]. He’s amazing, by the way. Some of his other projects like Bullmark and some of the funk stuff that he’s done is absolutely brilliant. I love his work as well.

There’s a song on BOY called “Oakland,” and another called “Dolores Park.” You’ve never lived in the Bay Area. Does that mean that your contributors named those songs?

Even though I don’t live there, I do spend a fair amount of time there. I have a group of friends. The song “Oakland” is actually kind of funny. That was more Matt’s idea. Matthew Koma. He decided to do that song under Winnetka Bowling League, which is his other project. The song is about San Francisco—kind of. It’s about leaving a girl in San Francisco. He just thought it would be really funny to call it Oakland. It’s just kind of a dumb inside joke. … It has to do with this other thing that happened the last time I played at the Fillmore.

Our driver … looks like [producer] Rick Rubin. When we have shows, sometimes we thought it would be really funny to have him introduce us; to be like, ‘Hi, I’m Rick Rubin, and this is RAC.” People inevitably would Tweet about it and tag the real Rick Rubin. He’d be like, “What are you talking about? This is so weird.” … It really backfired this one time playing the Fillmore in San Francisco. He was really annoyed that we kept asking him to do this. It’s a sold-out Fillmore show, and I’m so stoked about it. He gets up there, and he’s like, “I don’t like San Francisco. I really don’t like it.” He just kind of went on this rant about it. “I like Oakland better.”

“Dolores Park” is … sort of inspired by a variety of different memories of hanging out in San Francisco in the summer. It’s a beautiful city. The music that I wrote; I was channeling a lot of that.

You have recorded with St. Lucia a couple times, and Jean-Philip Grobler and Patti Baranek appear on the album closer, “Better Days.”

They’re great. I started working with them on the first record. We were in the same circles; we were touring a lot, playing the same shows. We got booked at a lot of college events at the same time. So we inevitably became friends. They’re great people, and the whole band is such great people to hang out with. They’re like “the New York crew,” if that makes sense. If I’m there, I’m always hanging out with that whole crew. They’re actually the only artists that I’ve worked with on all three albums. The only ones that survived the gauntlet, I guess. I like to change it up quite a bit. Even with that said, I think that the song on the new album is a quite different than a lot of the other stuff.

It’s kind of somber. Why did all of you decide to record that song and end the album with it?

Yeah. Not as happy. The way that I work, I’ll write like 50 to 60 demos. And then I’ll pick like four or five of them and send them to an individual artist, so they have options. They’ll find the one that they like. So I sent them a couple options. Some of them happy and upbeat, and then they really gravitated toward that one. And it was actually one of my favorite … instrumentals that I had written. I was really hoping that somebody would be into it and write over it. … I really felt like it would fit their style, even though it’s different than other stuff they’ve done. This sort of ‘80s ballad kind of sad song. I actually thought about opening with it, but in hindsight, I don’t think that would have been smart. But … the opening melody is actually the same thing as the final song, if you listen to it on repeat.

How do you know artists like Luna Shadows or Minke? They’re younger, more up-and-coming than who you typically include on your albums.

That’s been another theme of this whole album, actually: working with younger artists. In contrast with like some of my other records, where I work with basically my idols … like Rivers from Weezer. … Coming into this one, I just wanted to change it up and try something different. I worked with a lot of different people. The final track list is pretty slimmed down. I had to cut a lot of stuff. … There’s something to be said about an artist that’s just starting out. They’re kind of hungrier. They really have something to prove. And this is probably a bigger opportunity for them than [for] Weezer. Weezer doesn’t need RAC. Not to say that Rivers was slacking off or anything. But it’s just a different mindset. I really enjoyed that, and it was really refreshing. And [it leads to] new ideas, different ideas, unexpected stuff. I think Jamie Liddell is the only other person older than me. I think everybody else is younger.

Which of your remixes from your past, are you most proud of today? I think your U2 remix of “Magnificent” was the first time I heard you, around 2009 or 2010. I thought that version was better than the original.

That was funny because, in hindsight, [it was] a little bold of me to AutoTune Bono and change the entire song to a major key and to make it a lot more U2 than they did. At that point, I was just like, “Screw it. I’m just gonna do it and see what happens.” That was relatively early on. With U2 it was a little bit different, because that was like, “Will they even listen to this? I don’t know.” It was just through the label, so I was, maybe, less concerned with it. Obviously, I grew up with U2 and know what they sound like. I was just trying to do something I felt was appropriate without taking away from it. … I ended up changing it quite a bit. But my whole ethos with remixing is to do something as appropriate and common sense. Do something that shows it in a different light but doesn’t completely ruin it.

What are you most proud of today from what you’ve done over the past decade?

The Bob Marley one, to me, was a very unique opportunity. … I did “Could You Be Loved,” which is one of his most well-known songs. It’s not so much the remix itself; it’s the entire process of going through that. Getting an email from the Marley family … is interesting. Just to be considered on that level is amazing.

Getting Bob Marley stems and listening to the stuff instrument-by-instrument is a wild thing. But it turns out of the version that I got was actually a [different] version of the song. They lost the original tapes, but they had this other version that was a demo version. So what I worked with was an unfinished version of the song, where he’s still figuring out some lyrics and he doesn’t sing every single different part. There’s a drum machine and some of the guitar parts are different. From the remixing perspective, it was incredibly difficult because I basically had to recreate … and approximate this classic song that is so important to so many people and try not to butcher it. Meanwhile, I’m listening to this historic thing that not many people have had the opportunity to hear.

What’s your mindset going into your next tour, whenever that happens. October is going to be a busy month for concerts — assuming we go back to a new normal sometime this summer.

It’s going to be so competitive—if it even opens in the fall. Are people actually going to go to shows even if it does open? I think it’s a fair question. Are people going to be willing to getting into very compact small spaces? I don’t know. I think no matter what happens, the music industry is changed forever. I really think this is sort of like a pivotal moment. And dare I say, maybe for the best? What I mean by that is maybe we’ll finally be less reliant on live performances. It’s great. It’s wonderful to do that. But as your sole income, that’s so risky. And now we’re seeing that play out where a lot of people don’t have income; just can’t make money because they can’t perform. Maybe it’ll force the industry to adopt a different model.

What kind of model?

André Allen Anjos, Andre Allen Anjos, RAC, Portland

André Allen Anjos (RAC) shows off his view of nearly empty Portland streets on March 25, 2020. Anjos was more than two weeks into his shelter-in-place at his home. Photo via Zoom.

There’s a couple ways to tackle it. I feel like I’m like leading into plugging my own Patreon, but I’m going to do it. … Fortunately, I do have other sources of income, so I’m not freaking out like some other people. It definitely is a significant portion of my income, and without that I’m going to have to figure out other options. The option that I’m trying is Patreon, so a subscription-type model where people subscribe and get B-sides and vinyl and things like that. Maybe some people are moving to live streaming. It’s weird when you can’t perform live. This is unprecedented. The industry was not prepared for this in any way.

Have you been doing livestreams?

Everybody’s doing so many livestreams and things like that. I have been doing a little bit of that. I’m not doing it on Instagram Live because everybody’s doing it there, and it’s like too many people doing it. I had already done some live streaming on YouTube. So I just picked that up a little bit more, and I already have a little bit of an audience there. I’m not going to be as wide as some other people, but I’m just kind of having fun with it. My whole approach is just as more of a hangout thing. I’m performing a little bit. I’m sitting down with the guitar and just kind of noodling around, improvising, and then taking questions and just talking to people. … I enjoy it.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

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