He's been in countless bands, and has released three solo albums on Asthmatic Kitty that are all vastly different in scope and feel. First, there was the perfect pop of 2006's 10 Songs; then came the messy noise of 2007's Music for Total Chickens, and then the saxophone orgy of Sex Death Cassette, released earlier this year.
What each record has in common is a creative use of instruments and recording techniques: Rafter's records are thoughtfully and carefully constructed down to every last little detail. He's not just a musician--he's a sound artist.
Sweaty Magic, Rafter's most recent EP (also out on Asthmatic Kitty as of Sept. 9), is the result of a joint art project Rafter began with his fiancée, photographer Lizeth Santos. It's eight songs of booty-shakin', sweat-inducing dance/funk/pop with one-word titles like "Sweat," "Juicy," "Sassy" and "Salt."
"When you fall in love and start a relationship ... it tends to eat up a ton of your time," Rafter told me as I talked with him at an amazing chocolate café near his house in San Diego. "If you're an artist--and in our case, we both are--you tend to focus away from your own stuff and on each other. It's wonderful, and it's great, but I think at a certain point, both of us had neglected our art for quite a while--I hadn't made any new music, and she hadn't done any new photo projects."
Santos had an idea: Every day, they would pick a word and each create something inspired by that word.
"I've always longed for, hoped for, somebody in my life to embrace and support the alone time and disconnection it takes to do something like make a lot of art," said Rafter. "So when she was like, 'Let's spend time doing art,' I was like, 'Marry me!' That's why I'm wearing an engagement ring."
Hence, Sweaty Magic's eight songs are giddy explosions of exuberance and love. Dance as both a physical movement and a genre of music are inspirations for these songs: Rafter and Santos had been going dancing nearly every weekend, and, said Rafter, "I also have a lot of love for old-school music, like Zapp and Roger, stuff like that. ... It's classy, but it's not classy. It's totally transcendent."
"Sassy" kicks off with breakdowns and beats straight out of a song like "More Bounce to the Ounce," and then there are the nostalgic beats that collapse and rise on "Magic." But Rafter's sound artistry makes sure that things go way beyond rehash.
"I like trying to organically re-create synthetic things," said Rafter. "The last song on the record is me just banging on items in my studio."
This results in sounds that aren't easy to describe, which, explained Rafter, makes them special.
"It's not as easy for you to either identify or immediately discount," he continued. "When you hear something you immediately recognize, quantify, identify, categorize, it's really easy to say, 'OK, known quantity.' What I try to do is have an abundance of unknown quantities."
Sometimes this even means including musical things he hates.
"The things that I think suck so bad, that I musically loathe--I try to incorporate them and make myself happy about them," he explained. "I'm really attracted to unsafeness, areas of discomfort, awkwardness, repulsion and attraction--those are the interesting dynamics to me in art. So I try to find where those areas are inside me, things that I don't like."
For Sex Death Cassette, it was the saxophone. "I thought it was the most pathetic instrument in the world," said Rafter. "For whatever reason, my inclination is to be like, 'Oh yeah, every song on my record should have saxophone on it.' And now one of my favorite instruments is totally the saxophone."
Sweaty Magic's victim was house music, and while "Juicy" is the only track that has that signature house beat, all of the songs appropriate house techniques and rhythms. Rafter also hates it when bands use backing tracks--so for his current live show, he's using loads of backing tracks.
Rafter's music is not just about celebrating his musical loves--it's about creation, even if it means re-creating and appropriating things he detests so he can finally understand them.