[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
The clarity required for creation can be hard to obtain when you're bussing someone's pork belly pancakes. Most musicians are perpetually trying to reconcile art and commerce, but Chris Alfaro confronts the conflict with a singular perspective.
Under his stage name, Free the Robots, the Orange County native produces music that darts through blistering electronic bass music, psych-rock wormholes, retrofitted trip-hop and cosmic jazz. In the last half-decade, he's established himself as one of the most popular DJs to emerge from the Low End Theory galaxy, frequently attracting capacity crowds in L.A. and overseas. In the last month, his passport has been stamped in Mexico, France, Belgium and Israel.
Then there's his alternate existence as one of three co-owners and managers of the Crosby, the Santa Ana restaurant/bookstore/nightlife venue that opened in 2008 -- not long after he turned 25.
"I like to think of it as an oasis of L.A. in Orange County," Alfaro says. We're meeting at a Silver Lake coffee shop as he handles a few meetings before a two-week international swing in support of his sophomore album, August's The Balance.
The child of two émigrés from the Philippines wears a light goatee, vintage nautical snapback, parka and dark sunglasses, which he removes after a few minutes. "Ninety percent of our talent is from L.A. The Low End Theory and Beat Junkies guys are always there. B-Real [of Cypress Hill] just started a monthly DJ residency."
Handling a thriving bar and venue usually causes enough headaches. But the Crosby also has earned a reputation as a legitimate culinary destination, with OC Weekly naming it the best restaurant of 2011, declaring the food "almost too good for Orange County." Alfaro has been known to bus tables, wash dishes, host and, naturally, perform detonative DJ sets.
"It's been a hectic five years between the restaurant, touring and trying to stay creative. I was going crazy," Alfaro says, reflecting on the gestation period for his latest record. "I had to really find balance in my life, so I started disconnecting and got super into psychedelics ... mainly mushrooms."
Maybe you are a psychedelic cynic rolling your eyes. Maybe you've just witnessed too many aimless, magic mushroom-mangled guitar solos. But in the right gullet, hallucinogens have yielded transcendent music, from George Clinton and Redman to just about everything made during the Nixon years.
Alfaro's previous full-length, 2010's Ctrl Alt Delete, slanted toward heavy beats. But The Balance angles toward a different altar, conscripting guest singers, rapper Jonwayne and ethereal beats to illustrate weirder sagas. Pharoah Sanders and Parisian Gypsy jazz are as influential to its conception as anything in contemporary beat music. It may be Alfaro's most original vision since he first began releasing music under his Free the Robots alias in 2004.
"There's nothing wrong with heavy beat bangers, but I like to challenge myself in different directions," he says.
Barely 30, Alfaro reflects on the various phases of his life that have included stints as an Orange County punk-band bassist and turntablist DJ. Oh, and restaurateur and low-key nightlife impresario.
"There are different audiences for the different parts of my music," Alfaro adds. "There are kids who dig the beats and 45-year-olds who like the jazz elements -- sometimes vice versa. I'm trying to bring those worlds together. There's so much to say, and I'm trying to express all these different moods and energies. Hopefully, people get something spiritual out of it. Blame it on the drugs."
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