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Chrome Dick's Raphael Alvarez on Absolutely Everything

Glimpses of the South Florida Scene is a column devoted to the artists thriving within Broward and Palm Beach counties featuring interviews with the folks making it happen. This week, Chrome Dick.

It goes without saying, but "Chrome Dick" is a jarring phrase, image, and idea. The sounds Raphael Alvarez constructs as Chrome Dick are a little jarring too: harsh, experimental landscapes of sound that move like the ghostly apparitions and reverberations in a haunted house.

"Calling From the Void," from his Portal Between Heaven and Hell EP, is an auditory gateway, an absolute call from the other side, dark, grating, and transformative. Many of his tracks are improvised, so even when vocals are employed -- cries from the inferno in their own right -- we're walking through the halls of Alvarez's brain upon each listen, on a journey dotted with shadows and spectral figures. It's tough, abrasive poetry.

Following his recent performance at the International Noise Conference, we felt it was appropriate to post some emails we exchanged with Alvarez. Be warned: Like his songs, the interview is a dense one, full of epiphanies and smart abstractions. For us, it was a truly joyous exchange. Read on.

New Times: Can you tell me a little bit about your own personal musical history and how you started recording as Chrome Dick?

Raphael Alvarez: Well, I received my first instrument at 12 years old in 1994. It wasn't until late 1999 that I fronted my first pop-punk band called the P-Brains with my brother Will on guitar. In 2001, I played guitar for Club Q emo-punk darlings .ihatejulie. In 2002, the P-Brains guys and I re-formed to write more original songs. We called ourselves Forgotten Superheroes. We wailed like babies and rediscovered our instruments. We then changed our name to Traded to Racine in 2003, scrapped the old songs, and were a band for about six years. 

Even though I left for a brief period, from November of 2004 to the summer of 2006, it is the longest time I have spent in a band. We had an ugly breakup, but we played our last show last January to just end the thing officially and in good spirits. 

In June of 2010, I joined Karras, a spastic-metal band from Margate that included the guys from .ihatejulie. and my good friend Robbie Brantley. I played with them for a year but left because of personal reasons. Toward the end of my time in Karras, I joined Harvey and the Buckets and later on Suede Dudes.

Chrome Dick started during my off period. Traded... had broken up and I had nothing going. By this time, I had started to frequent Radio-Active Records and befriended Mikey Ramirez and Richard Vergez, got reacquainted with Brett Jason (a regular at shows, doing distro and such), and discovered Robbie's own noise project, Human Fluid Rot

In October of 2008, I was going through a rough time personally and then my job sent me to training in Orlando for two weeks. Mikey lent me two books: Wreckers of Civilisation, the story about Throbbing Gristle and their performance-art collective known as Coum Transmissions, and England's Hidden Reverse, which is about the whole underground scene in London that bred bands such as Current 93, Death in June, and Nurse With Wound, to name a few. These two books had a huge impact on me as I was just discovering my love for noise and experimental music.

I had always loved experimenting with new sounds in the early Traded... days, and it was the recording session for our Fourwords EP that set off the idea of how free that music is. We had to record a track of just guitar feedback, so I let loose and felt this surge of energy. I knew then that I had to seek out, and make, this kind of music. My first recordings are quite typical for experimental stuff. I started in 2009 and have sporadically released stuff online. I now have a tape I put out on my own label Deserted Beach as my first official release.

What about the name, Chrome Dick?

The origin of the name is kind of stupid and boring, to be honest. I wanted a music-related name, so I thought of scales, one of which is a chromatic scale. I love a play on words, so thinking I was clever, broke the word in half to make two words: Chrome Attic. 

Thankfully, there was already a band in the U.K. with that name, so I had to come up with something else. I sounded out the words until a Chrome Dick stuck out. I looked it up on Google in case anyone else had it and it turned out that it is a term in which means:

"A man in his early thirties to early forties who thinks he can still pick up 21-year-old chicks. A Chrome Dick has slicked back hair, a gold chain around his neck and/or wrist, chest hair sticking out of the top of his Hawaiian button up shirt, with a cell phone (or pager) clipped onto the side of his pants. This type of man can be seen smoking cigars while driving his sports car on his way to the country club."

I thought this was hilarious and not at all like me, except I do have slicked-back hair and I'm about to turn 30. So, there you have it!

You know, I saw .ihatejulie. play when I was 14 years old...

Wow, I wonder if you saw IHJ when I was in the band. They were a three-piece for a while, so it's more likely that you saw the original lineup. Club Q was my CBGB. It provided my brother and our friends a place to check out what was happening under that radar. It was also the place where I first broke out of my shell and had to "entertain." Luckily the kind of music we played afforded me the opportunity to act like a fool, but it also forced me to try and challenge the crowd with my physical appearance, clothing, banter.

I'm really into the story of Mikey giving you those books, the fact that one of them is about Throbbing Gristle and how I can imagine you reading them in the lonely place that Orlando can be. Too much, maybe? Either way, I'm listening to "A Man Is a Urinal" as I write to you, and at the risk of sounding very cheesy, I want to know what you're feeling when you're recording. When you record, are you completely tripping out? Do you let the music guide you, or do you have ideas of where you want the tracks to go before you start?

When I first started this project, I wanted to compose music in a way I was not used to. At this point, I was tired of doing the same shit I had been for years: write a song with some people, learn it, practice it, then play it over and over. What was interesting to me was that I could tap in to the emotion of that song but, eventually, felt trapped. 

Why did I want to keep repeating myself? I wanted to perform something brand new every single time. I love spontaneity and improvising so I decided to do just that. I would play what I feel at that very moment with whatever tools I have. I would play for as long as it felt right and then I would end it; and I would certainly never play it again. It makes it special and unique. It makes you have to pay attention and live inside that moment until it was over... And that changes you. It can only touch you in that way once.

Also, I wanted to make a clear distinction between my recorded and live music. Those are two completely different entities in which to express yourself as a musician, if you look at it that way. I feel that the only way to "repeat" what I do is to play it on whatever medium it is recorded on. 

I wouldn't want to say, "This song is called so-and-so and is about this," because I had been through that and it sets up a preconceived notion. I want new emotions and the element of improvisation adds a bit of chance, or danger because you don't know if it'll suck a lot.

When I record, I generally come up with how I want to start the track and then see where that takes me so, yes, the music does guide me, because everything that is happening at that moment is affecting me emotionally and determines what I do next until it is over. I let myself go and say whatever comes to mind. 

For example, my tape, Portal Between Heaven and Hell, was recorded on two separate occasions, with two different sets of tools, two different mind sets, two different seasons even! All of those elements affected how I recorded those tracks. So, technically, I kind of trip out, but not in the chemically enhanced sense because I don't do drugs anymore. However, you could say that because of my past drug use, I was able to still tap into that "openness" that I achieved then.

I think even thrashy and noisy music has transportive power, the way dance music does or the way good performance art does. I find that because noise is often performed in these very cathartic ways, it feels like you're watching performance art. How do you feel about that idea: noise music as something transportive and transformative?

I agree with the idea that noise music can transform or transport someone; it's just like any other music, really, that attempts to touch a nerve. We all react to certain sounds emotionally, intellectually. It would be foolish to think otherwise. I especially think that, because noise is essentially limitless, it can really set your mind adrift and take you to subconscious levels of thinking. It can shape what your experience is at the moment. It's like a soundtrack to your daydreams. 

If you really think about it, when you're out driving with the windows down or walking along a busy street, you tune out the bustling noise and drift off into thinking. It's very similar to noise music except when it's abrasive. Or maybe it does it in a much more extreme manner then (Laughs.).

I'm glad that you likened noise to performance art. How can it not be? I mean, there are artists who play in a cold, sterile kind of way, and that's fine, but to me it's much more. I've always felt that music, and its power to heal, is important in daily life. When taking it to the stage or floor, I get a bit anxious and start to get into a head space of whatever I am feeling at the moment. I want to tap in to that feeling and let it loose as much as I can. 

"Cathartic" is the best word to describe what I have felt during and after the performance. I have gone through a lot personally, whether its my own relationship, or with friends and family, that the only way to truly express what I am feeling at the core is to make it as intense as possible. Most of my sets tend to be short and abrasive because that's how I feel at the time. There have been sets that start quiet and may become slightly ambient which probably means I am in a much more deep head space.

From what I have seen of performance art pieces (mainly by my friend Misael Soto, who is a huge inspiration) is how physical it is in its expression of emotions. Sometimes there is a soundtrack of sorts but the artist says nothing, almost trying to will their experience and feelings onto the audience. It is usually successful because after preparing your mind for weeks on end for what's to come, it is almost logical that the vibes are being sent out in an intense manner and people pick up on it.

Anyway, this happened to me once. It was at a house show put together by Isaac Amor of Ass Banana. I was second to last and was deep in thought about everything I absorbed the few weeks leading up to the show. I was inspired by a lot of the spiritual things I was exposed to starting with Easter Sunday. I was born Catholic but consider myself agnostic for the most part, although I can be somewhat spiritual, if that makes any sense. 

I had watched King of Kings at my parents' house on Easter (which used to be a sort of tradition) and had gone to the Vatican Splendor exhibit at MoAFL for my birthday. I started thinking about all of the prophets that had come along before and after Jesus, how they believed they were speaking the word of God. I was fascinated by the idea of trying to tap into a higher being and being used as a vessel for God or whatever was out there, if there is anything at all. I decided that I would try to become a spiritual vessel, that I would let myself go as much as I could so that I could transmit a message of some sort. I would think about it every day leading up to the show.

When it came time to play, I was able to create a loop on my delay pedal using a keyboard I was borrowing and put it through some other distortion pedals. From what I remember, I felt absolutely hypnotized in the beginning and then felt myself swaying in ways I had never done before. I then spouted out some words that I can't remember and, after coming to, I stopped the music. 

A few seconds later, I heard a kid say that it was like watching an exorcism from God or something to that effect. I was pretty shocked, and still am now that I think about it, that I was able to clearly convey what I was going for. I had mentally prepared myself, tapped into another state of consciousness, and let it out unobstructed by pretense and ego.

Sum up for me what you are currently working on and what you hope to do as Chrome Dick. It sounds like I'm asking what you're hoping for your alter-ego-superhero-self to accomplish, and I guess I sort of am.

I'm working on a few releases at the moment. In between our e-mails, I was contacted by George Moore of Prime Egg Sample Records, which is an online label based out of Jamestown, NY, about putting out a digital release. We ended up deciding to do two: an expanding "Singles" collection of the non-album tracks from my SoundCloud account that is now uploaded to the website and a separate recording, called The Farther the Sun, the Holier the Spirit. Also, I am working on a tape release for Jay Hines' Iki Jime Owen Meany label called EFF -- I will be revealing what the title means once I know the release date -- and a split with Robbie Brantley's noise project, Human Fluid Rot, called Let Milo Open The Door.

I will also be concentrating on being more active with my label, Deserted Beach, once I have the funds. There will be releases from Minimalist Blasphemist (my brother, William Alvarez's solo project), Nags Head, Staccato du Mal, Kenny Millions, and maybe a couple more. I really want to be kept busy putting out recordings this year.

With Chrome Dick, I hope to explore the realms of spirituality and sexuality, together and separately. I am not a religious person; for a while I considered myself agnostic, but now not so much and it doesn't really matter. I believe that my views will constantly be changing until the moment I die. For example, I have read up on Satanism and have agreed with a lot of their philosophy. That doesn't necessarily mean that I am a Satanist, or if I did associate with that, it wouldn't mean that a year or two later I wouldn't be considering myself something else.

I view spirituality to be something that stands alone, not tied to religion, because that can be dangerous. I am also very open to experience and continuing to expand my horizons. I think I gravitate to these subjects because you can achieve one with the other and they are very taboo subjects. 

They are quite powerful and the challenge of exploring the mind, body, and spirit through those avenues excites me. I also hope to try to convey these things clearly and without much confusion. Also, those subjects are part of the bigger picture for me, but won't be the only things I express. Chrome Dick is an organic project for me. Everything has an affection on what I decide to put out, and it's the most natural form of personal expression that I hope helps to turn me into a much better person.

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Monica Uszerowicz

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