Charlie Salas Humara (of Grapefruit, Regular Music, Sun Angle) Musician Interview

Charlie Salas Humara has been a fixture in the Portland music scene for over a decade now, but these days, you simply can’t avoid him. Right now, the musical polymath has three different projects in full swing. There is the five-piece, improvisational outfit Regular Music, which finds Salas Humara squealing out vintage synth melodies alongside longtime friends Eric Mast (aka E*Rock) and Marius Libman (aka Copy), and dual percussionists John Rau and Papi Fimbres. Libman and Fimbres also make up the rhythm section of Salas Humara’s other band Sun Angle, a group that slams funk and Latin grooves up against the spongy walls of dub and psychedelia.

On his own, Salas Humara writes and records under the name Grapefruit. It’s a suitably tart and tangy name for the synth and drone work he is creating. The music he has released to date has an early morning drowsiness to it, a quality that can only be influenced by the sleep deprivation he must be dealing with as a new father. His work could also work just as easily as the soundtrack to a Blade Runner-style science fiction epic – one that is rain-soaked, neon-lit, and foreboding.

To talk about these three projects and Salas Humara’s work in all of them, we caught up with the musician on a cold early afternoon at a favorite coffee haunt. As expected for someone who was up most of the night caring for an infant, he was drowsy, chatty, and brutally honest.

 

You have three different musical projects going right now; how are you managing that now that you have the new one?

It’s interesting because in the nine months that my partner was pregnant, I tried to get as much done as possible. I just do it at home; I just do it late at night. [With] Sun Angle, we had already written the record and we’re still trying to write, but it’s been kind of tough, I guess. Regular Music is improv, so that’s just super easy. It is what it is… I got a lot done during the pregnancy, but it’s been a little bit harder to get stuff done [since]. I’m trying to finish up some stuff for a 3″ CD… just really late at night when they’re totally asleep… It’s been kind of tough to do that cause I know I’m only going to get five or six hours of sleep, but I’m still trying to do it.

 

Project #1: Grapefruit

RIYL: Tangerine Dream, music so kraut it’s still cabbage & synths creamy enough to attract cats

What happens when you get Klaus Shulze into some American jeans? Yes I know, the perennial question – well we here at Field Hymns have the answer – Grapefruit. Muscular and fluid, Grapefruit speaks a brogue of 70′s Kosmisch and 80′s action flick scores, woven into a rich expanse of arpeggiated streams, analog sunsets and cosmic beaches. Recommended for all lovers of analog synth artistry.” – Field Hymns

Grapefruit – “Phase Accidents”

Grapefruit – “Aleatoric Tone Tunnels”
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I imagine sustaining that can be really difficult. So how did this Grapefruit project get started?

I started making those songs maybe in 2007. I started doing more of like a horror soundtrack thing; I just never did anything about it. I never realized that there were other people doing synth stuff; I just didn’t realize until I started looking at more blogs and checking out some other stuff going in, like, Europe. And then I ran into Adderall Canyonly here, and I thought, “Oh there’s this awesome dude doing this stuff.” And Dylan [McConnell of Portland record label Field Hymns] was like, “Hey man I love your stuff. I’d love to put it out.” From there, I realized there was this whole world of synth stuff that wasn’t drone, you know? I was very aware of the drone stuff; it had been going on for a very long time.

 

So what kind of equipment are you working with?

I borrowed some stuff. I borrowed a buddy’s Juno. I have a microKORG XL. Some of it is real strings – like me playing viola and manipulating it for layers, atmospheric.

 

How do you go about writing a song for this project? You’re doing a lot of this stuff late at night; even the stuff that I’ve already heard has that vibe to it, that horror soundtrack feeling.

I’ll take strings on a keyboard, and I’ll start playing the melody, and build it from there, [then] maybe do another melody and start messing with the arpeggios and trying to make them a little different. Build them up and cut them up, so that they’re not so repetitive and jarring. It’s a lot of going into the keyboard and trying to mess with the sounds and seeing what sounds cool… I didn’t want people to necessarily recognize the sounds off the bat; I try to go in and find something weird. I mean, it’s a keyboard used by millions of people, so you’re going to recognize it. [For] building a little bit of melody, sometimes I would just mess with the arpeggios. I would stack arpeggios on top of each other randomly and see how they sounded. And sometimes they would just serendipitously sound pretty cool; they would phase out.

 

Were you very familiar with the equipment that you’re using, or is it a learning process?

Oh yeah, this is a whole learning process. I wasn’t really familiar. People want to talk to me about synthesizers all the time, and I’m just like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, really.” But that’s the fun part for me – messing with it, not really knowing what I’m doing. That’s kind of why I started doing it: I got kind of sick of guitar. Now I’m back into the guitar again. But you know, you get stuck in your thing where everything I do is the exact same. I’m starting to feel that way about the synthesizer too, kind of getting away from it a little bit more [by] using it as a string machine now and just making ethereal, like classical music or something. Plus everyone’s doing it right now, so it’s really hard. I’m putting out some records, and I feel like after that I’m going to figure out something new.

 

What particularly interests me is how the work you did in Panther and which you are doing now in Sun Angle is very rhythmically based – but with Grapefruit, the focus is on melodies and atmospherics.

Yeah, I have a beat sometimes for Grapefruit, but I try to stay away from that, because I want you to focus on the melodies. I feel like with synthesizer music, you start to focus in on the snare and the dance element of it… there’s a lot of this cool techno house stuff coming out right now that I really like, but it’s hard for me. You start hearing the snare so much. You start hearing the groove, as opposed to having the instruments being the polyrhythmic element to the music or whatever.

 

Were there particular artists you were thinking about when you were creating this material? Folks like John Carpenter or Jean-Michel Jarre?

Oh yeah, for sure. It first started off with me just like, playing piano and guitar stuff like that. It was very very very very horror soundtrack, like Goblin. I just wanted – and totally failed – to sound like Cosmic Jokers, or like Klaus Schulze or something. When I first heard it, I was so into that stuff, the krautrock stuff. I still am. I love that stuff. Then, I decided I’m going to do a little thing that sounds like Harmonia… but it didn’t work; it sounded like this other thing. But thank God, because I look back at some of the Audio Dregs stuff and there were guys doing that well in the late ’90s. I was also totally influenced by friends who have done that, like Eric and Marius, but I wanted to do it in a different way. I mean, they both do it differently; they both do it really well. I make mine almost like it’s on a 4-track or something. But I do utilize being able to edit it on a computer, too. There’s not a lot of tweaking. Sometimes I’ll move stuff over and phase stuff out, but mostly it’s on its own. I like playing and then playing again, and not knowing what’s going on and having the having the randomness work itself out. I like that a lot. And whenever I do that, it ends up sounding a lot like Steve Reich.

 

How does this work in a live setting? Are you very regimented with what you’re doing, or is there still that element of randomness?

Live is usually two different ways. I either have backing tracks that I play to, which I’m doing more and more, because it just depends on the setting. If it’s a mellow zone and not very loud, then I’ll just bring a keyboard and do that, or maybe a guitar or something – and then I’ll just play and loop over and try to get those things going as I go, which is awesome. Sometimes it’s so cool. Sometimes it doesn’t work. My friend Dan [gave me an offer] to play… this cool house show; all these cool people were playing, like Jonathan Sielaff, and my shit just didn’t really work. It just didn’t work out as well as it could’ve. Sometimes I do it and everything’s like, “Ahh, it doesn’t matter; it’s always gonna sound cool!” But sometimes it just doesn’t. I’m doing the sequence tracks that I’ve been playing guitar over, doing arpeggiated guitar and delayed guitar, which has been really fun.

 

Project #2: Regular Music

“The Compact Disc as a medium has very nearly become obsolete as people have evolved their listening habits towards new digital means. In defiance of current music trends, “Compact Digital Audio” cannot be downloaded. It only performs its function when you activate it by hand and the music plays through its tiny speaker. This format can not become obsolete, because it will never become popular. No band in their right mind would try to release their music with an object that costs so much money and takes so long to assemble. The music has also been mangled beyond recognition to conform to the format; its sound quality crushed to fit onto an 8-bit chip, compressed from a 10 minute composition into a 30 second blast, all bass lost in the process due to the size of the speaker. All in all, it is a terrible method for any band to release their music, but all the same, we couldn’t resist. The music object can still be valid beyond its use as vessel if it can capture your imagination.” – Audio Dregs

How does it work then with Regular Music? Is it easy or hard to figure out where the other two guys are going and working your way into it?

It’s weird. The first time we ever sat down, it was like, “Oh, we know how we’re gonna do it,” just from knowing those dudes so well. But we all kind of have our place. We all kind of do our thing. We realized that right away. Ad one of the things we talked about right away was that we all wanted to make sure we listen to each other. We didn’t want to drone out. We wanted to change parts quickly to make it interesting for us and for people watching.

Improv music can be tedious. For the most part, it’s tedious for me. I used to listen to a lot of free jazz; I have a lot of those free jazz records and I can’t really listen to those anymore. It’s just too much. So we just sit and we play and everyone has their place.

We start the songs off quite a bit the same. I’ll play the viola and then Eric plays a lot of the bass notes. Marius has like, a stereo thing going, so he does a lot of weird stereo panning effects. Then I’ll come in with the melody. And we’ll just listen to each other, and whoever’s the first to change it starts the next thing. It’s always after two minutes, just trying to change [the composition] as much as possible. That’s kind of how we work it. And now we have the two drummers, John Rau and Papi Fimbres. They just kind of go off, and we follow them. They lock into a groove, a polyrhythmic groove, and then they change, and they listen to us – only for the changes, but they never really play to us… We realized it’s hard to get something going and have them play to us. It just wasn’t working. It was just too sloppy. If they just get into their thing, then we can play to them, and it ends up really cool. It ends up sounding more like a kraut Boredoms now. It’s so fun.

 

How did you come up with the material that you released on the Real Future Recording cassette? Were those just small chunks of stuff you had worked on edited down?

That one was done at this dude’s house where I was cat sitting. We brought all the stuff over there and did it in one session, and then I edited it some of it down. Some of it was a little bit longer. That was an interesting one because that was the most aggressive. It’s kind of a hard listen. I get into it, but my girlfriend is like, “Oh this is harsh.” Arpeggios going for 3 minutes nonstop – just fast arpeggios. It either can be really soothing or, for some people, it’ll give you a panic attack.

 

I wanted to ask you about the little CD package that you released with the sound chip inside that plays the little clip when you open it. That seems like a very Eric Mast-type creation.

Yeah, that was all Eric. We all came up with some of the concepts behind it, the fetishizing the CD thing. I love that concept. Eric’s really taken that to the next level. If you look at his Tumblr, that’s all it is – just CD fetishizing. Get rid of your record player; the future is here. Compact discs sound amazing. It’s an art piece really, is what it is. I wasn’t into it at first, but Marius came up with the concept where you’re supposed to take it, record the sound clip with a microphone, and then put it on your computer, and then slow it down 200 times, and then you have our record. We knew no one was going to do that, because it’s just dumb. But I fought against it at first, cause I wanted it to sound cool when you open it up. Cause it does just kind of sound like something sped up. It doesn’t matter; people are going to listen to it twice and that’s the end of it. Then you’ll just have it on your shelf until someone comes over and opens it up and goes, “What is this?”

 

Project #3: Sun Angle

How are things going with Sun Angle? I’ve seen you guys a number of times over the last couple of years, and it’s been so interesting to hear how the music has evolved. I was wondering how that feels from the inside?

It’s cool because I feel like with some of my other groups, like The Planet The, I never realized how great it is to have your shit together, to a certain extent. At first, Sun Angle was just me writing all the stuff, and it never felt that great. And then Marius got involved in it, and in that sense, we’ve kind of found our sound. It was totally organic. It was never, like, “Oh, let’s sound like this.” Papi always has his cumbia thing going, but at one point I was like, “Go as crazy as you can. You should go play as much as you want. Past your ability, even.” And we all do that a little bit. It’s cool because in that band we’ve all found our places. Since Marius and Papi play so much in that band, they’re so melodic, and I’ve played less, which is cool. I focus more on the songwriting. The last two songs that were written were just simple pop songs, and then I bring them to practice, and they just fuck it up. I think everything I do in that band is punk influenced in that SST vibe. We’re really aware of skate punk, Saccharine Trust, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Black Flag. But we’re also super influenced by psychedelic music. That’s the guitar stuff. Always have to get the delays and the wahs, and then effects on the vocals, just to give it another layer. We’re pretty stoked on it. We’ve got a record coming out. These two kids that used to run Apes Tapes – they’re putting it out. I feel like it’s been hard because people seem to really like us, but we haven’t really had any label or booking agent stuff. People don’t know what to do with us really. Cause we don’t really sound like anyone else.

 

But it doesn’t seem like you guys have been wanting for opportunities to play out. Every month, I see you on the calendar.

We play too much. We play way too much. I mean it’s really fun, and people seem to keep coming out to our shows, so we don’t really care. We’re writing new songs, and playing for new people and stuff, but we’re playing too much. I don’t know when it’s going to stop. I’m afraid it’s going to be one of those things where people burn out. People are like, “This is the best new band!” So” much hyperbole in this town. And then no one gives a shit about them ever again? You’re just like, “Oh, what happened to that poor band? They were the best band ever.” We’re suffering from that thing where I think we really need to get out of town. It’s funny because with Grapefruit I have so much more opportunity because it’s a little more niche-based. I’m putting out tapes all over the place. I’m putting out a Slow Tapes tape next month. Grapefruit gets to do all this stuff, and write new music even, because there’s more of an audience. Sun Angle – we don’t really fit in with the indie rock bands in town, but we also don’t fit in with the punk music or noise or any of that shit.

 

Plus a throwback video to one of his older projects, Panther, directed by Rob “Whitey” McConnaughy.

 

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Robert Ham

Robert Ham is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Besides REDEFINE, his work can be found with the real and virtual pages of MTV Hive, eMusic, Paste, Village Voice, Alternative Press, Willamette Week, and The Oregonian. Find his most recent work at: http://robert-ham.squarespace.com, and follow him on Twitter at @bob_ham.

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