What’s in a voice? When it comes to electronic music, it’s often an afterthought. The voice isn’t an integral or intrinsic aspect of much EDM these days. Much more attention is focused on a killer beat or a mind-melting drop. If there is a voice, it usually comes in the form of pugnacious proclamations (“Turn down for what!”) or soothing singing (often female) to balance out what is an otherwise primal musical exercise designed primarily to get people to move.
While Chile-born, Germany-raised Matias Aguayo is known as an electronic musician, he is a bit of an iconoclast in the scene. Sure, he’s great at crafting a danceable beat, but for him, the voice is everything. One could even say he’s a little obsessed with the sounds that come out of people’s mouths.
“I have this problem,” says Aguayo, speaking to SoundDiego from his home in Cologne, Germany. “Sometimes I ask a person on the street for directions, and when the person answers and describes the way, I get so fascinated by the melodies or the way the person describes the place that I forget what they said. It’s really embarrassing. I’m quite fascinated by the melodies that are formed unconsciously by people. Obviously as we speak throughout our lives and we train this skill every day, we become virtuosos of speech. We make pauses. We stress things. We go up with the voice and down with the voice. So when you really start to listen to people speak, you’ll see that it’s music. I find it to be very inspiring.”
Music. Community. Culture.
A “virtuoso of speech” is an apt enough description for Aguayo’s approach to music. Since the late '90s, he’s been creating music that is both highly distinctive and unidentifiable. Yes, it is electronic-based music, but it’s so much more. Ask someone to describe Aguayo’s music and it’s rare you’ll get the same answer twice. Tribal but technological. Refined but chaotic. And it’s all rooted around the voice. Yes, he sings on many of the tracks, but listen closely and you’ll find that there are voices everywhere. Choruses of sampled snippets of shouts, cries and yelps that add up to a larger sound. It’s as if Aguayo is playing the part of the mad Pied Piper and, behind him, are the gleeful town’s children, yelping and screaming at the prospect of the candy mountain in the distance.
“When I start to compose a vocal melody, I start with the speech and try to turn into a melody,” says Aguayo. “In general, I don’t like the impression that when I do music, I’m inventing something. It’s more that I’m repeating something or listening to something that is already there. If you go to a park and listen to the birds, you’ll find a lot of melodies there that you don’t need to invent. The same goes for if you pass by a children's playground. It’s like a little orchestra. The observation and reinterpretation of something that is already there.”
Nowhere is this approach more evident than on Aguayo’s 2013 release, “The Visitor.” The result of a year’s worth of globetrotting and musical collaboration in places like Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Medellin, it’s definitely Aguayo’s most worldly album, but not so much that anyone would ever be tempted to call it “world music.” Presented in both English and Spanish, songs like “Dear Inspector” loop multiple snippets of sound and voice samples into a collage of syncopation that is underscored by a steady, almost indigenous beat. Even the songs sung in English are heavily accented, with Aguayo’s voice resembling what can almost be described as a rather formidable James Bond villain on “By the Graveyard” and the sexy, nearly rapped opening track, “Rrrrr.” Aguayo says that traveling has always been musically inspiring.
“It wasn’t such a conceptual thing. It was more just the nature of things happening,” says Aguayo, whose parents brought him to Germany when he was young, claiming political asylum in order to escape the rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. “We did move around a lot, and I did recognize that for myself, for my work and for what I love to do, that it’s very useful. To have different backgrounds and to have new contexts… When it comes to travel, if you put yourself in a new musical situation, and you don’t know how you’ll react to that, it’s that moment that great surprises happen.”
One of the more memorable of those new musical situations came in 2011, when Aguayo collaborated with NYC experimental rockers Battles, singing lead vocals on the band’s single, “Ice Cream.” More recently, he worked as a participant in a new project called Rio Negro from two Columbian artists, Sano and Gladkazuka, which Aguayo describes as “danceable, but deep and dark modern dance music” influenced by salsa and boogaloo rhythms. He’s also “ambitiously and intensely” working on a new full-length LP to be released in 2016.
It’s very easy to see Aguayo continuing to make his own brand of electronic music and developing a devoted following of fans who embrace his unique approach to collaboration and experimentation. And while said experimentation might dissuade some of the more traditional EDM hardliners, Aguayo maintains that he’d rather make music that’s both bold and beatific. Something that makes you dance but also makes you think.
“I do it for the people, and I hope they like it, but I’m not doing this out of ambition. I’m doing it out of necessity,” says Aguayo. “I had to learn very early to not care so much about what people think about me or what I do. This has been very useful in my musical life. If people see me as the guy who plays weird music, I don’t care. I feel very safe or happy with what I do. I don’t care, because it gives me so much joy.”
Matias Aguayo plays Soda Bar on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at 9 p.m., $12-$14, 21+. Echo Park Social Club, DJ Viejo Lobo open.