Rafter Roberts wants you to believe in yourself. He doesn't want to sound like a Tony Robbins self-help tape in the process. The sentiments he expresses on his new album, Music for Total Chickens , are very positive, very uplifting, very un-rock 'n' roll. In fact, if they were put to any other music except for Roberts', they might sound completely lame.
"This album was written as sort of a loving, helpful, encouraging thing," says the San Diego musician. "Every song's lyric is a part of that--trying to celebrate what's wonderful [and] positively deal with problems, accept hardship and tragedy but still work on improving our lives. If it was a book, it'd totally be in the self-help section."
The song "Intent"--the 17th of 18 tracks on the album--explains it all. Amid skittering snare drums, some sort of electronic Morse code and erratic, singular guitar notes, Roberts enters with his light, effeminate voice: " I want to sing from my heart/ I want to reach out to you. " Later on, he sings, " I am hopeful that I'm able to share with you/ Warmth when you need it most/ Love when your heart is broke/ Strength when you're feeling weak. "
Before you gag, realize this is all done in fractured, elliptical pop music that sounds like Elliot Smith and Cat Power covering Captain Beefheart's "Cardboard Cutout Sundown"--replacing Beef's cancer-throated yowls with really pretty harmonies. Instead of lyrics about " black patent yarn stinkbugs, " Roberts tries to convince you that " you can fight this fight for your good self. "
Consider it the weirdest self-affirmation tape in history. If listened to repeatedly--to develop "positive thought patterns," as self-help theory goes--you might either blossom great inner strength or develop a rare strain of schizophrenia that enables you to appreciate the music of John Zorn.
It's not surprising, considering Roberts' background as an engineer and producer. The Fiery Furnaces' Matthew Friedberger, who enlisted Roberts' help for their album, Rehearsing My Choir , explains: "There are lots of people who know every recording trick. And some of those same people are ready and willing to play a guitar solo, and then play some sort of solo hitting a knife and fork against the mixing desk, and then play another solo using a Boss synth drum pedal. But Rafter will actually use all those tricks in an interesting way and play all those solos well."
"The musical style [on Music for Total Chickens ]--aside from being pleasant and fun to me--is meant to counter the un-ironic and sincere lyrics," Roberts says. "Because I feel like these same lyrics with almost any other delivery would totally be annoying. I'd want to sock the guy who was strumming his acoustic guitar and telling me to call my mom and get exercise."
Roberts knows about the need for inner strength. During the last two years, his grandmother and uncle died of cancer, his cousin was murdered by a serial killer and he's gone through two major breakups. Yet when he wakes up in the morning, he's faced with the wide-eyed, dependent optimism of his toddler son, Rulian Badasspanda Roberts. This makes Roberts a single dad who composes commercial jingles (at Singing Serpent, co-owned by fellow local musician Glen Galloway), plays in two bands (Rafter and Bunky), engineers albums (The Fiery Furnaces, Hot Snakes, Rogue Wave, etc.) and is training for a half-marathon.
"Now I'm a dad first, musician second, human third," he says, noting that he's eased his workload at Singing Serpent. "I love our business, but it is way better on my soul to spend eight hours a day playing with my son than to spend eight hours a day trying to make the perfect Oscar Meyer Weiner soundtrack."
Music for Total Chickens was a massive effort--recorded over three years with the help of musicians from Sufjan Stevens' band, The Dirty Projectors, Sleeping People and Helsinki. The live group has grown into a beast, with nine musicians on instruments ranging from vibes, keyboards, euphonium, trumpet, sax and flute to the usual drums/guitar/bass setup.
For now, they don't play the songs from the new album "because of their improv and weird nature." Instead, they play the dirtier, funkier party music that Roberts has written for his next release.
So if you want to dance ("I love to make people dance!" he says), see the live show. If you need some affirmation that this world doesn't completely suck, strap on the headphones, assume the lotus position and absorb the avant-healing of Music for Total Chickens .
Music for Total Chickens is out now on Asthmatic Kitty Records. www.myspace.com/rafterroberts.