Amtrac's recent emergence in the South Florida house/dubstep scene reflects the eclecticism of many young, post-Napster artists. Currently performing in venues up and down the Sunshine State with a focus on college towns such as Gainesville, Tallahassee, and Orlando, 23-year-old Caleb Cornett explains that his moniker, formerly Amtrak, comes from the "passenger train [that] has the tendency to break down" as well as his "tendency to break it down." Unlike his contemporaries who are getting people sweaty at Liv or the W Hotel in South Beach, his story has a unique country flavor.
Cornett was raised in the small town of Morehead, Kentucky, which lies about an hour east of Lexington. Bluegrass and psychedelic rock were key components of his early years in the South long before Daft Punk and Giorgio Moroder took over. "My dad was really into bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Tangerine Dream," says Cornett. Early on, he explored the Highwaymen and other artists with a uniquely Southern, folksy lean. In high school, his musical projects were modeled from the aesthetics of "more dramatic music" like Sigur Rós and Explosions in the Sky.
For anyone just a few years his senior, this step away from the mainstream would've been much more challenging in Morehead. Cornett's exposure to indie acts, and eventually to house music, came from spending Friday nights watching MTV's Subterranean. During the half-hour chunk of indie programming, he fell in love with the tones of songs like Dirty Vegas' "Days Go By" and Prodigy's "Breathe" and the "kick drum... high hat... snare" notably absent from classic rock, indie, and folk. With the then-nascent Napster, Cornett feverishly downloaded and digested records from the likes of Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers without even stepping foot in a record store.
Admittedly, Amtrac's current obsession with dubstep and house has little to do with his post-rock past. But one aspect remains central to all of his musical endeavors: At heart, he's an engineer obsessed with how music sounds rather than what it sounds like. Switching from a guitarist/keyboardist to an electronic music songwriter and producer came down to house's unique ability to "fill out an entire space."
This musical pilgrimage — from Morehead to Miami, from psychedelic rock to house — had stops in Indianapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta. Along the way, Amtrac has created his own synth-based compositions with vocals detailing relationships gone awry and taken on remix projects for ribald singer Amanda Blank and experimental acts like Jookabox. All the while, he's chased after every possible gig, from five-person audiences in Kentucky to art galleries in the Midwest and now nightclubs alongside DJ Steve Aoki in Orlando.
The latest Amtrac EP, Why?, was released via Super Music Group earlier this month. The infectious, retro-fused "Why You Look So Blue" leads the set. His previous projects, notably the In Transit EP and last year's Dirty Dancing full-length, are more reflective of the pure house influence that dominated his teens. Cornett also released the Goldmine EP, a "dubstep project," earlier this year under his other alias, Kartma (Amtrak spelled backward).
As for future recordings, Cornett claims that more "happy" music is on the horizon, drawing on artists like Diplo and the less aggressive spectrum of dubstep. Regardless of where his sound goes next, Amtrac won't quit searching for new sounds and influences. "I only really play what I'm into," he says. "And I won't play it if doesn't sound good, even if it's what's popular and what people like to hear."
As for his set at Friday's Dancegiving Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, expect to hear mainly original Amtrac material. "I'm really looking forward to playing," he says. "And seeing how people react."