Rafael Alvarez is a 20-year-old, Southern California transplant studying music business at Columbia College Chicago. Independent of his studies, however, Alvarez teaches music production lessons, plays shows, and DJs house parties under the alter-ego Different Sleep. The artist-producer borrows from an expansive number of musical influences, effortlessly blending distinct sounds of EDM, IDM, R&B, hip hop, chillwave, and synth-pop. As his material becomes increasingly more popular Alvarez remains modest and retrospective, patiently allowing his talent to manifest and develop over time.
Indie Current: What kind of music did you grow up listening to and what are your current favorite albums/artists?
Different Sleep: I’ve always listened to a variety of music. One of the first albums I ever purchased was Confessions by Usher, when I was in like 4th grade. When I was in 6th grade I got really into The Postal Service and Dntel. I consider them to be some of my most influential acts when I first started producing music. Of course acts like Flying Lotus, J Dilla, and Burial were really influential for me as well.
Inc.’s new album No World has been a favorite of mine recently. I love their take on R&B with a mixture of Hip Hop and Electronic style instrumentals. Atu just released an album Pictures of Silence with a similar style of electronic R&B that I really like. Other artists I’ve been listening to a lot lately are Young & Sick, Suicide Year, King Louie, DJ Rashad, Morri$, Trippy Turtle, Blawan, Happa, Kahn, to name a few.
IC: Have you been on any labels other than Svengali?
DS: I did a remix for Hundred Waters with my friend Josh (Troublemaker) that was released on OWSLA. The remix EP also featured Star Slinger, Araabmuzik, Tokimonsta, and Lockah, so it was an honor to be on the same release as those guys.
IC: What inspired you to start making music? How did living in Chicago influence your musical/artistic maturation?
DS: I’ve played guitar since I was 12 and I began producing when I was 13. Where I lived in San Diego I was pretty far away from where a lot of my friends lived. Seeing that I couldn’t drive yet I would spend most weekends and summers bored at my house. This is when I started messing around on software like GarageBand and Logic. I liked the way The Postal Service combined live instruments with electronic beats so I started recording guitar over beats I composed. I would make entire albums throughout high school and go around school selling them to my friends and even teachers.
By my senior year I was using Ableton and putting my beats up onto Soundcloud just for the hell of it. It wasn’t until I came to Chicago for my freshman year of college that my music began to get recognized by a few blogs on the Internet. Flashlight Tag, a blog run by my now good friend Tyler Andere, was one of those first few blogs to pick up my stuff. At that time I was amazed that people on the Internet were showing interest in my music. Once I gained somewhat of an online following I began taking my music seriously and since then I’ve been steadily releasing material. I would say being in Chicago has helped my artistic maturation by giving me the chance to be heard. Chicago is an amazing city for music, especially for hip hop and juke. Before coming to Chicago I had never really listened to juke, but once I arrived and began listening to underground juke artists that were living in the same city as me I became really inspired by the raw, aggressive sound. I definitely would not be making the same music I make today if I had stayed in San Diego.
IC: With the growing popularity of merging traditional R&B/hip-hop with electronic dance music, how do you distinguish yourself as an artist and a producer? What is your relationship to hip-hop?
DS: I think there is a lot of really amazing R&B/hip hop being put out right now. The new Ciara song “Body Party” is amazing. At the same time, however, there is also a lot of bad, tasteless music being put out that is being labeled as hip hop, or “trap” to be specific. I think this stems from people not understanding the history and culture behind genres of music they listen to and create. Having the knowledge of where the music has been and where it is going is what distinguishes an artist to me. I may not be able to personally relate to Three Six Mafia or UGK lyrics but I can understand the context of the music and know how to make forward thinking hip hop beats without having to use big room, EDM laser noises.
IC: More increasingly in the last five years, electronic dance music has experienced a substantial divide between vocal and non-vocal tracks. How do you personally decide which tracks to include vocal samples or featured guest artists? Do you notice a difference in your creative process when working on non-vocal songs as opposed to songs with vocal accompaniment?
DS: When I first started producing I didn’t really have the opportunity to work with many vocalists just because I was sitting in my room by myself and the easiest option for vocals was to sample vocals from another song or from an a capella. Lately, I’ve been able to reach out to vocalists and rappers to collaborate, which is awesome. I still like to use vocal samples in my tracks so it really just depends on whether I’m trying to make an instrumental type beat or for another artist to go over. When I’m creating a track for a vocal accompaniment I try to carve out space in the song to create a pocket for the vocalist. When I’m making a non-vocal song, however, I try to fill up the mix so that the song can stand alone as it’s own track.
IC: What are some of the challenges of being an independent, DIY artist? What kind of plans, if any, do you have of marketing or branding yourself as an artist?
DS: For where I’m at right now, I really enjoy being an independent artist. Without having a record label telling me what type of sound I need to have, I can release whatever I want, whenever I want without having to worry about how well it sells. I like this element of the DIY route because I can experiment with new sounds and genres. I’m still in school so I feel like I still have some time to discover and solidify my own unique sound. When the right time comes I would definitely be interested in releasing through a record label. When that time comes, I want to be as good at what I do as possible. Until then, I just want to keep making music that makes me happy and see where it takes me.
IC: How can you describe the recent convergence of the indie and hip-hop genres, both generally and within your own music?
DS: I would say that the convergence of these two genres comes from the accessibility of music these days via online music publications and the Internet in general. Before Internet was the main source for music consumption, people discovered music by going to see live shows and buying albums from local record stores. Nowadays, a kid from the suburbs of Missouri can be a Chicago juke fanatic with the help of music blogs. Naturally, when people from outside a music culture create their own interpretation of it, it can be taken in a whole new direction. As a kid from San Diego, CA making my own interpretation of hip hop and juke, you could say I’m an example of how the Internet is making new avenues of music possible.
IC: Your current EPs have drastically different sounds and themes. Infinite is high energy and distinctly EDM-influenced, while Next Time I See You is definitively more mellow and R&B-centric. When composing the structural foundation of your EPs, what kind of things inspire you?
DS: Like I mentioned before, I tend to experiment with all sorts of different sounds and genres. I am not one to latch on to trends for too long because I know how fast genres come and go these days. When I made Next Time I See You, I was going for a downtempo vibe that was inspired by artists like Shlohmo and Burial. The Infinite EP, on the other hand, was an experiment of high-energy songs incorporating elements of trance, footwork, and r&b. At the time of making that EP, I was inspired by forward thinking trance artists like Recycle Culture and Unicorn Kid and also juke type artists such as DJ Spinn and DJ Roc. I’m working on strengthening my own cohesive and recognizable sound, which is a goal of mine with each new song I put out.
IC: How did you meet Nick Zanca (of Mister Lies), how did you both decide to collaborate on an EP, and what can you say about the Chicago music scene as influenced by the material both of you make?
DS: Nick and I met our freshman year at Columbia in the dorms through a mutual friend. Upon first meeting, we realized that we had similar tastes in music. Nick mentioned that he produced music as well and from that point on we began hanging out and working on music together pretty frequently, which came naturally seeing that we lived in the same building. The person who suggested the collaboration was our friend Tyler Andere, who I mentioned earlier. In addition to his blog Flashlight Tag, Tyler also runs a DIY digital label called Absent Fever alongside Eloise Hess, a friend of Tyler’s in LA who runs her own blog called Verb/Re/verb and writes for the blog PORTALS with Tyler. When Nick first got posted on Pitchfork, Tyler and Eloise almost immediately came up with the idea of Nick and I making an EP together via Absent Fever, almost as a way to establish the current state of the underground Chicago electronic music scene. What I liked about the Mass EP is that it serves as a relic in time of us at our most raw states of producing, seeing that we were both just 19 and had just started to get our feet wet in the music world.
The music Nick and I make definitely makes the most sense when listening to it riding a train at night or walking down a busy street with headphones on. Something about the aesthetic of living in Chicago makes artists here create very introspective music. This is partially due to the harsh winters that keep us sheltered inside our rooms for extended periods of time. During these cold, dark times is when I tend to come up with some of my best musical ideas, and I know Nick feels the same way.
IC: The artists you tend to sample are mostly hip hop-based (pulling from artists like Drake and Jhene Aiko), but your most recent song, “Feel You Near Me,” heavily samples from Plumb’s “Damaged”– which is… different to say the least. How do you decide on which music to sample?
DS: I’ve always listened to a variety of music, ranging from r&b to trance. The song I sampled is actually a version of “Damaged” done by Plummet, which takes the original song and turns it into an upbeat trance rendition. I remember my sister used to play it a lot when I was younger so the song has always stuck with me. I found the sample powerful in its own context.
When I’m deciding on a sample for a song, I like to find a lyric from a song that sticks with me and repeat it and alter it so that it conveys a new meaning in the context of my song. The genre of the song I sample doesn’t really matter to me, as long as it strikes a chord within me and gives me inspiration I’ll sample it. I have a song coming out where I reversed a Taylor Swift sample and you would never know by listening to it.
IC: What plans, musically and artistically, do you have for the future? Are there any plans for an album soon?
DS: Right now I’m waiting on a few remixes that I’ve finished to come out which I’m really excited about. Otherwise I’m working on an EP with new original material that will be coming out soon. At some point I would definitely like to work on an album, but as of now I don’t have plans to do so. I have a few collaborations with vocalists and rappers that should be coming out soon as well and I’m really excited to release those.
IC: As a lesser-known artist, how can you describe your experience at SXSW this year?
DS: SXSW was really dope. I stayed in a house with a bunch of friends including the guys on the same management roster as me (Sweater Beats, Tony Quattro, and Branchez). I played at the OkayFuture showcase, which was sweet, and I got to see the other dudes perform at various showcases. I got to meet face to face with tons of people for the first time and got to see pretty much every artist I could ever want to see live. So overall, I had a great first experience. I can’t wait for next year, I know it’s going to be even crazier next time around.