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I am not rock, I am Island Boy

Posted: February 13th, 2015 | Arts & Entertainment, Featured, Music | No Comments

Richard Hunter-Rivera on performance, the body, and being alone

By Rutger Rosenborg

Cosmic junkyard

Following Richard through the eclectic maze that leads to his creative workspace at Space4Art feels rather like walking through some cosmic junkyard.

You start on 15th Street in East Village, where a homeless man struggles up a barbed wire fence to escape a vacant lot and find his tent amidst the dozens of others surrounding the block. Leaving the man teetering on the top of the fence, you pass through the art gallery — cement floor, two-by-four ceiling, white walls forming their own maze — and out into your own vacant lot of dried grass. There are cottages to the left and a stage to the right that looks like it sprung into existence from nowhere.

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Richard Hunter-Rivera, or “Island Boy” (Photo by Jessica Sledge)

Richard leads you to the last place you expect: a hall behind the stage, lined with the white doors of artist studios that resemble storage units more than artistic hideaways. Once inside his hideaway, you’re met with yet another world: the sleek grays and blacks of a well-kept music studio.

This private, maintained microcosm within the eclecticism of the universe outside seems apt for the way that Island Boy exists as a project for Richard, and the way that his music reveals itself (or doesn’t) to his audience.

The public and private performance

Island Boy developed as Richard grew more and more tired of playing in rock bands and began to trust his own voice. Publicly, he turned away from the communalism of the “acoustic” music he was playing, finding solace in the interiority of his electronic music.

By its very nature, electronic music blurs the lines between recorded and live performance, the predictable and the spontaneous — even the private and the communal.

Richard straddles these divides. He writes on the same interface with which he performs, turning his PA speakers all the way up to mimic the same dynamism that a live band might have. During a performance, he feeds off the energy in the room, timing his transitions and “builds” (outside the studio, the droning of a loud saw suddenly stops, leaving silence and a textural absence; he begins to stutter, unsure exactly how to pluralize the word “build-up”) to move with the unpredictable rhythm, the surprised murmur of the crowd.

This is the communalism of his music now — the audience, the performance. Privately, he still performs with others — he jams, writes and listens with his friends — but not with the public in mind, not with the possibility of criticism, of failure. He’s hoisted that possibility upon his own shoulders.

Electronic bodies

As Richard acknowledges, a lot of electronic music is derided for being too “perfect,” for being inorganic and computerized. About the electronicism of the Top 40, he remarks, “It’s not all auto-tuned bullshit.” At base, the derision comes from a very simple question: Where is the body?

For Richard, writing comes from the body first. Start with the kick, the snare, the bass and dance. Move the body. Find the groove. “Generate heat.” If something sounds too perfect, move it a few ticks over “until you find the imperfection that moves the body.” In a strange way, only then is it actually perfect.

The body’s importance in Island Boy’s music holds true in a live setting as much as it does in a creative one. Richard sways, bobs, folds over — all in a world of his own and not his own.

“Sometimes I get lonely”

Being in a solo project means being alone for significant periods of time. It affords Richard the ability to accept gigs quickly and freedom from asking people to invest time into putting together the songs that he hears in his head for little or no pay. Nonetheless, he does get lonely and occasionally longs for collaboration.

If you ever decide to contact Richard through email, you’ll notice that his address is “islandboyandgirl@gmail.com.” The “girl” is Jessica Sledge, his fiancée, a visual artist who contributed in a large way to “Basic Instincts,” Island Boy’s recent album. According to Richard, Jessica comes in and out of the project; they collaborate to spend time together, and his email address is homage to that fact. And yet, he remains “island boy.”

Although Richard loves San Diego, it’s not home for him. He lived in Italy for a while, and he spent much of his childhood in Puerto Rico. He vacillates between calling Puerto Rico the only home he’s ever known and admitting that he doesn’t really know what home feels like.

As important as the island of his homeland is to his identity and the identity of his unique brand of atmospheric, Afro-Caribbean electronica, the tension and interaction between that island and the world outside of it has become the real formative force in Island Boy’s music. Take the track “El Dembow Me Salvó” off “Basic Instincts.” The rhythm of his island saved him, and it continues to do so, even though he is always far, far from home.

Life imitating art

Much of Richard’s (and Jessica’s) vocals are disguised by effects on “Basic Instincts.” This technique has become commonplace in some of the most popular electronic indie music, from Youth Lagoon to Washed Out. Rather than becoming the focal point of the song as it is in traditional pop music, the voice blends into the textures around it. Richard explains it this way: “Some people are introverted, and they don’t want to be bombarded with information and messages; they’d rather just be meditative.”

On the other hand, it makes sense to him that Top 40 songs privilege the voice over the music around it.

“The voice is how we communicate, so people want to hear the lyrics; it connects us to the human element of music,” he said.

For him, however, the song is not as important as its structure. A song’s structure is what allows it to breathe without vocals in every section. A good song, for Richard, will capture you with its structure and keep you there with its lyrics. A good song is just as much about its framework as it is about the singularity of its voice.

Island Boy is in the last stages of another album. This one will offer more clarity, more minimalism. He’s been experimenting with taking some of the effects off of his voice. As opposed to the thematic conceptualization of “Basic Instincts,” the new one “just sort of came together.” It will come out in the spring of this year.

Although Richard conducts much of his music — and the business surrounding his music — by himself, there are always friends and loved ones collaborating with him in some way. Richard remains “island boy” in many respects, but perhaps that’s only because he is able to bump — sometimes merge — gracefully into the floating worlds around him.

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