Chris Alfaro, a.k.a. Free The Robots, is a producer and musician based out of Santa Ana, Orange County but has long been associated with the “beat scene” community of Los Angeles. With his fusion of jazz, psych, electronic and hip-hop, Alfaro’s productions are a refreshing change of pace for the underground hip-hop scene. We speak to the humble beat-smith about his roots in Orange County, and the story behind his self-released LP, ‘The Balance.’
LAC: How has living in Orange County (Santa Ana specifically) influenced your work?
FTR: As frustrating as it was growing up around the various ‘burbs of OC, settling in the city of Santa Ana provided a balance for me creatively and productively. Entertaining enough, but generally secluded from distraction, the vibe of this neighborhood keeps me level headed. It’s a very small downtown where everyone knows everyone. Life here is relatively simple. I love it just for what it is, and accept what it’s not. For everything else I go elsewhere.
LAC: You are part owner in a restaurant/bar in Santa Ana called The Crosby. What role has that played in your development and growth as a musician?
FTR: The two different lives I live somehow compliment each other. Aside from being an artist myself, at The Crosby, I step behind the scenes to manage a whole different world of responsibilities, giving others the stage. I stay inspired from the bookings alone, and my growth as a musician has a lot to do with being there night after night. We have some of the greatest talent in the world sharing our stage week after week. That energy at The Crosby makes it impossible for me to stay creatively stagnant.
LAC: Has running a business taught you anything valuable as an artist?
FTR: We’ve been open over 5 years now, and the whole experience taught me the importance of balance, confidence and humility. I find myself constantly in very opposite situations back to back. One night I’ll be somewhere in Europe enjoying my last evening after a mind-blowing world tour, only to come back home to host, and bus tables… clean the toilet, if I have to, and jump behind the bar when needed. It’s a challenge, but I’ve accepted the fact that both endeavors need 100% of my attention, and as a leader, there’s no room for complaint. Staying active while maintaining balance is crucial. It keeps me proud of what I do, and positive when approaching my craft.
LAC: If you weren’t involved in the Crosby, do you think you’d still be living in OC?
FTR: There are tons of places I’ve been around the world that I could see my self living in for awhile; and I probably would. I’ve always been a natural wanderer, and admirer of different culture, but home is home… LA and OC is where my family is. Between the two is where I would be regardless of The Crosby.
LAC: Are there artists in OC that we in LA should be keeping an eye out for?
FTR: Truth be told, no one really just reps OC… unless you’re into the psych, garage, punk world; in which case, Burger Records runs it in OC. When it comes to hip hop, and beats, the LA, OC, IE, SD scene has a very loose border. Family is spread and united no matter where they are these days. Some labels/ collectives worth checking out are Soulection, HW&W, Team Supreme, My Hollow Drum, Tar, Leaving Records, etc. Check the lineups and listen.
LAC: Is there a story behind your LP? What’s the meaning behind the title, ‘The Balance’?
FTR: ‘The Balance’ is the musical diary of all the chaos that made up my life during the recording process. After the release of my debut, ‘Ctrl Alt Delete,’ and the opening of the The Crosby, too many things started happening at the same time. I won’t go into detail, but it was a major struggle. Maintaining my sense of creativity, touring, owning/operating a restaurant, relationships and my overall lifestyle does not lend itself to idle times. With so many moving parts, balance is what I strive for, and this album tells the story. The overall tone of the album pulls back from the chaos because this record was mainly inspired from my times of solitude… on the train, or a plane… walking around foreign cities with my headphones on… at a random bar somewhere with strangers and language barriers… In meditation, or out in the ocean, paddling into the waves.. this is where i shut everything off to create balance in my life.
LAC: How has your sound progressed since your LP ‘Prototype’?
FTR: That was 2004; the beginning of Free the Robots. I felt creatively liberated for the first time in my life, and I wanted to do everything all at once. I was young, much less experienced, with a scatterbrain full of random ideas that never really made sense together. These days, I have a little bit more than a blank canvas. My daily experiences give me with much to work with, and I’m able to channel my energy, creating a more cohesive flow of sounds with every release. Ultimately, I have much more of a story to tell.
LAC: Why did you decide to self-release this LP?
FTR: I wanted to go back to my DIY roots, from when I first started making music. I’ve always respected people like Ian MacKaye, and others, who did their own thing. They inspired the self-release of ‘The Prototype’ and the first ‘FTR EP,’ which was a huge eye opener for me. I put it out there with no expectation or plan, and an audience organically spread worldwide through word of mouth. Something I’m very grateful for; ‘Til now, people are constantly discovering and supporting what I do, and what I did back in the day. The DIY approach just feels right. Being part of every little bit from the creative process, to coming up with creative ways to put it out there is gratifying to me. My music is a very personal thing, and so is connecting with my audience. We live in different times now and I feel like the tools to connect us directly with the people are becoming more and more available; just have to put in work. It’s also gives me the freedom to work with good friends whom I source out to for things i’d need. In the end we help each other. The power of community is strong, the people are always ready, and my music will have a way of reaching my audience, if not now, then later.
LAC: You’re often associated with the “beat scene” but how would you really describe your sound?
FTR: Some of my most important shows were at the Low End Theory, which is pretty much the home where the beat scene exploded in LA. The Low End family has always played a major role in my career as Free the Robots, constantly supporting what I do; that “beat scene” association is inevitable. To me, it’s more of a community than a definitive sound, and I am honored to be a part of it. Some songs I make may be recognizable as ‘beats,’ while others have more of a straightforward approach, using traditional instrumentation and pop progressions (verse, chorus, bridge). Whatever stamp people put on it, is their own version. To me, it’s just my moods expressed and recorded.
LAC: I saw in another interview that one of your biggest influences is DJ Shadow. Did you go to his show a couple weeks back at the Observatory?
FTR: I couldn’t make it to his show at the Observatory, but I was able to play with him at the Low End Theory (San Francisco). It was a huge experience for me to finally meet the man behind the record that inspired my career. He stayed on stage with me for my entire set, and personally gave me props at the end. It was an honor, and a great feeling to see how music goes full circle.
LAC: Why do you think it is that you gravitate toward an analog sound?
I came from an era of digging; aspiring to make hip hop beats. Jazz, psychedelic rock, soul, dub, obscure stuff were always my focus when finding samples. The act of even finding samples got me listening to different music, and that analog sound is what hooked me. New music technology and picking up different keyboards added more electronics to my sound, but I still have to maintain a bit of analog dirt with my music.
LAC: What’s next on the horizon?
FTR: I’m currently working on some new sounds for a tape release on Leaving Records… also some Psych stuff for TAR; a new LA based collective you’ll be hearing of soon… Some vocal/beat collaborations with Nekochan out of France… also more stuff with Jessie Jones. And other things I can’t really talk about right now. Stay tuned though.