During the past year and a half, Singing Serpent was falling on hard times. The San Diego-based jingle production company was struggling through an industry-wide slump, leaving co-owners Rafter Roberts and Glen Galloway no choice but to lay off employees with whom they'd been working for years, many of them close friends. Other staffers quit when payroll didn't come through.
“We were just, like, eating shit,” Roberts says.
For Roberts, a 35-year-old songwriter and producer who's worked with big names like The Rapture and Sufjan Stevens, the struggle prompted some serious soul-searching. When he was younger, he could just dump his responsibilities like shoes that no longer fit. But he doesn't have that luxury anymore. He has a wife and son to support, a mortgage to pay and employees with families of their own.
“Before in life, the answer was always just, like, ‘OK, it's too much; just get away from it,' and now, that's not an option,” he says in an interview at the Kensington Café on an unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon. “It's different. It's weird. That's like the first time I felt like, Something has fundamentally changed.”
On the verge of a breakdown, Roberts found solace in what would seem to be an unlikely source for the playful vegan redhead: Scandinavian black metal. The harsh pagan philosophy of bands like Darkthrone and Burzum, the unforgiving darkness of songs like “Transilvanian Hunger” and “Where the Cold Winds Blow,” the atrocious recording quality of Darkthrone's early demos: It was all so horrible, so apocalyptic, that it was irresistible.
Business has been better lately, he says, but his brush with doom seems to have left a deep impression.
“I'm not a black-metaler or anything, but I sympathize with the extreme sentiment,” Roberts says, as we talk about a ghoulish Swedish black-metal band he recently saw at Ruby Room in Hillcrest. “The most anti-life, anti-light you can get— that's a place worth going. Why not? Life is totally, like, fucked, you know? Being human is fucked.”
Roberts' personal workspace at Singing Serpent's Kensington headquarters shows an imagination working on overdrive. When I visited last week, the modest-sized room was littered with magazines, boxes, random stuff and tons of equipment, including more than a dozen stringed instruments—a banjo, a ukulele, a George Lynch Baritone for heavy-metal riffs, a Fender for surf-rock licks.
“I love having an unholy mess, although right now it's at critical-mess capacity,” he says. “I love being able to reach around me and have something I can do my next overdub with.”
Roberts, who performs under the name Rafter, is working on so many things at once that it's hard to keep track of it all. On top of his commercial jingles and production work, he's been laboring away on eight solo projects, including three EPs of songs themed around single words; a collaboration with Simon Lord, a British composer formerly of electro-rock band Simian; a noise-pop album taking cues from Shrimper Records; a record composed entirely of samples from other records; and meditation music meant to quiet the “great, big, awful, ignorable noise” of global culture.
But his biggest project at the moment is Quiet Storm, an album inspired by two late-'80s demos by Norway's Darkthrone. Roberts loves the ragged riffs and neck-snapping beats, but he's awestruck by the horrid sound quality. The levels are all off: Some tracks have no high-end, others no low-end. The vocals are indecipherable growls, the tape hiss louder than the riffs.
The 12 Quiet Storm tracks that Roberts sent me, all recorded on a four-track with the levels jacked up, still have touches of his characteristic whimsy: In the parts where a gnarly guitar solo would feel right, he inserts random bloops and bleeps from a Moog synthesizer. But it's some of the darkest music he's ever made. His sweet vocals ride over bottom-heavy riffs and Nathan Hubbard's blown-out drums. The lyrics wallow in existential dread: “Pummeled every day / beat down in every way / for having a human heart / a human brain,” Roberts sings in “Pummeled,” as his 5-year-old son Rulian bangs on a guitar.
“I just imagined, like, if you were an airplane and you crashed into the ground, instead of just like coming to a halt, you just kept trying to push into the ground. You wrecked and you're trying to wreck harder,” he says. “I wanted to get that feeling of just, like, it's broken, but that didn't slow it down. It's too loud? Let's turn it up. It hurts? Lemme keep doing it harder.”
But for all of the album's darkness, Roberts' disposition is brightening. It helps that business is going well. On his computer in his workspace, he pulls up a cutesy jingle that Singing Serpent produced for Uncle Ben's, a company that sells parboiled rice. If all goes according to plan, the jingle could be used for a worldwide advertising campaign.
“That could be huge,” he says. “It has the potential to be the biggest budget of any single piece of music that we've ever made.”
Late last week, the contract was approved.
“Sweet!” Roberts wrote in an e-mail. “Have some rice!”
Rafter performs with Jamuel Saxon at Tin Can Ale House on Friday, Jan. 28. You can download Quiet Storm at rafter.bandcamp.com.