Remy // Arlington, Virginia
A dance music composer talks about France, food trucks, and 1984.
At 6 feet and pushing, Remy barely fits below the ceiling on Filter's upper floor. He's shoehorned himself into a corner seat at a table that barely fits past the other patrons, and I've just turned on my microphone, when he stops himself to ask,
"Do you want to hear something first?"
Thus begins another round of maneuvering, as Remy attempts to maintain his seat in deference to the other guests' tranquility, while reaching a cord around to the room's only electrical outlet. (Filter is self-avowedly indisposed toward accommodating laptops.)
A man in horn-rimmed glasses and a khaki windbreaker, meets our eyes for a brief moment and offers an inaudible murmur. This is District-speak that he hates us dearly and wishes we were dead.
"We're trying to get to the outlet, man. Sorry," says Remy, in a voice that manages to be deferential, assertive, and charming all at once. The man is disarmed, we plug in the computer, and Remy plays a couple of his tracks for me.
This isn't what I'm used to listening to.
I feel like I did, ages ago, when I went into a funhouse in Paris for the first time since I was a child, wondering if it would be scary like the first time I remember. The scary parts were thrilling, kitschy; and the garish effects were a revelation.
They turned on my imagination.
That's what this music does; I find myself smiling at the sheer unexpected garish techno-kitsch of it all. Colors pop and explode, and I wish I was on a dance floor with a hundred other people under a string of colored lights.
My knees won't stop bouncing, even after I take the headphones off.
I met Remy for the first time during Christmas break in San Diego, where his family was visiting in anticipation of moving there later in the year. He asked me to teach him how to surf, which I couldn't--I was barely capable of it, myself. But flopping around uselessly in the frigid December ocean gave us a point of connection. We both had a foot in the culture of opposite coasts, and didn't quite fit into either.
I don't think we saw each other again until I moved back to San Diego from New York City. I remember the horror I felt when he walked into the corporate coffee chain where I was working. "Dear God," I thought, "don't let him notice me here." I was lost in a labyrinth of personal failure of my own standards of success, and Remy was the guy with highbrow taste, outsize confidence and, above all, great connections.
"I love making connections between people," was how he'd introduced himself to me, way back in the day. That love of his was what I feared. I didn't want to connect with anybody until I knew where I fit in, and I didn't want help from someone who found it so easy.
What I didn't know was that he'd gone through several phases of trying to fit in, and still felt as if he didn't.
He pauses, looking for a way to say it nicely.
"It's like I wasn't challenged mentally, a lot?"
He'd finished as much school as he wanted to do, had got married, was working in various capacities--in a bike shop, learning day trading, landscaping for his dad--all while going full bore on music composition and production.
To those who know him, Remy's name is synonymous with music. He has an instinct for sampling and mixing that is at once speed-of-sound cool and slyly humorous. He manages somehow to create music that sounds like your favorite snarky friend. It's a natural extension, I suppose, of his personality--while he loves people, he's sharply attuned to their ridiculousness.
"The conversation was so...sunbaked. Soft, and gentle. It's almost as if there isn't a tier of understanding on a deep level that most people function at.
"In San Diego, we're all talking about fantasy football, arguing the same point about legalizing marijuana, for 45 minutes!"
They were people he liked, and he knew they liked him--he couldn't understand why he wasn't having any fun, hanging out with them. The less his social life satisfied him, the more books he read: science, biographies, fiction.
"1984 really captured me. It was like an intangible suppression that you couldn't really quantify, but you had to interact with it, and push forward without knowing what you were pushing against. That's what San Diego felt like to me."
He advances his palms arthritically toward me.
"I can't...get...traction here..."
With his outsize confidence and his sensitivity, Remy is one of the better guy friends a single girl can have. But during those years when we lived in San Diego, I felt an aversion to hang out with him...one that seems really stupid, in retrospect. There was a hovering feeling--mostly by folks our parents' age, and those whose lifestyle was in the same direction as theirs--that Remy was squandering his talent out of stubbornness and an inveterate need to buck the system. More than once, he was held up as an example to me of what not to do. (Always, naturally, prefaced by the indemnity clause, "I love him to death, but...")
The idea hovering over him...and over me, though I didn't know it...was that yes, we were talented and special, but those things were worth nothing if we didn't get going on our lives. It didn't have to be like everybody else, but better that than the nothing we were doing.
I ask him if he was ever aware of this perception.
"I was always that guy."
At his family's church in Maryland, he stood out for being the first to wear skinny jeans and long hair. His talents were tapped at an early age in their music production department, but his original approach to it went largely ignored. This continued to be the case, the more music he produced. It wasn't that people didn't like it; it was that they didn't know what to do with it.
Hearing this, I wish now that we'd hung out more. I ask him what advice he'd have for someone who finds herself still caught in that strait.
Remy usually has a ready answer, due to his constant analysis. But at this moment, he's very slow to answer...another unusual thing for him.
"The only thing I could really say to somebody is: Be more concerned about being faithful than about being understood or valued by people. I don't think there's anything you can say to make it easier, because you can't even help them understand why it's hard!"
In January of last year, Remy and his wife Joanne returned to the D.C. area. Joanne's job skills transferred fairly easily; Remy's not so much. They spent the first several months between their basement apartment and the Beltway. In interest of getting their own place more quickly, Remy found a job at Trader Joe's, which he calls "factory work."
"I had to consciously turn off part of my brain, in order to function. As soon as I'd turn on any sort of dignity, any attempt to control my environment, ...I don't feel in the need to be in complete control of it, but I do like to be able to move things around. Influence it. There was none of that, and the paychecks were $400 every two weeks."
They found the social scene that Remy had been looking for--intellectual "juggernauts," he says, populated their tiny urban church. "I immediately found myself the little guy, intellectually." He mentions one of his friends, a 30-year-old millionaire who had been a high-ranking government official by the age of 24; another, the head writer for Politico, had been on the cover of Time.
Being around people of this caliber made him reassess his personal worth. It wasn't, he realized, simply a matter of being around people who were smart. It was the mutual value for discourse, for learning lots of things and being excited to share them with each other.
"Life got to a point where it was just so...joyful. You know that feeling: a room full of people, everywhere I turn, I see something precious. Going to a party and feeling drunk on friendship. So much fun, so many people who respect me for me, for being nonlinear. There was so much interest, and love, and fascination and creativity...
"For some reason, dance music came to my head."
In making music, Remy had always loved complexity for its own sake--polyrhythms, high concepts, intellectually challenging parts. It was what he'd been making for years.
But the joyful feelings he had now brought to mind something different. Growing up, his family had spent the summers in France with his mother's relatives. Their friends down the road, he says, were a different community, who lived in cinder-block houses and partied late into the night with 90s Euro-dance music.
"Gypsies, Algerians, kind of lower-class French...and I didn't know that. They were the coolest guys ever, all driving their mod-ed out Peugeots and Citroëns, with their Nike track suits and their bumpin' house music."
His smile takes over his tone, stretching his voice as he talks.
"It was so rad! To this day, I still love it. I wanted to share some of that affection and motion in songs. I want it to be entertaining, and aggressive, and super-interactive.
"The great thing about dance music is it's very instructional. The cues are all there for slowing down, building up, then going crazy, then pulling back again. Every moment you have to pull the dancers in and tell them what you're doing throughout the song. And I love that, because I'm thinking about people. The song is a complete failure if people aren't affected."
It doesn't surprise me that Remy's musical chops were re-upped by the desire to connect with people. What does surprise me is how he embraces this form of music, in all its kitsch and constraints. Dance music, after all, is a genre of limitations: a certain bpm, a demand of energy. He acknowledges this, but says that's what makes it interesting.
"I think being creative within boundaries is a lot more fun than having it be 'do whatever you want.'"
He calls it "fairly highbrow dance music"--just poppy enough, with an intelligence or a genre-bending edge that keeps it from fading into the background. It usually swirls between three different sections, with transitions that marry everything together at the end of the song.
Remy works with his friend Duke, a singer/songwriter/poet/mortgage broker whom he's known for years. They call their outfit "Homeschool Co-op." It's a snarky homage to the genre of limitations they both grew up in. Remy will spend about 30-40 hours putting together a song, then have Duke over for a 2-hour writing and recording blitz.
"Put him in front of a mic, and he'll go through the song twice, and just sing nonsense. Then we'll sit down and pull out melody parts that we like, and we'll have a story concept and then what we'll do is we'll form a story around it."
He proffers the headphones again
"This one is called 'Escape from Asfaclap.' It's about us robbing a liquor store and escaping from prison."
He watches the second-counter on his iPod as I listen; I can hear him commenting, as the song progresses--"I love the low vibrato. I love the warble. I love when he starts screaming. He just kind of goes punk over those parts. "
As he does with most of his friends, Remy can't say enough about how great a singer Duke is.
"Phenomenal, Brooklyn-esque. There's no contrivance in it. Put him in the Fleet Foxes category, he will effortlessly destroy it. . "
When he was 19, Remy went on a missions trip in India. He was the youngest in the group and, he says, the most boisterous. The man leading their group, Yesu Padam, would make fun of him in front of everyone else.
"But he'd sit with me afterwards and talk with me. He told me once, 'I can see you're an impatient person. But waiting is not wasting.' That's always stuck with me.
"My ambition was to be this demigod at 21."
"Like, observe what my hands have wrought. And then all of a sudden I'm at Trader Joe's at 28. That is not quite what I expected to happen.
"I think those frustrating moments were important to strip down what I thought was valuable, who I thought I was, and what I thought being a worthwhile person was. And also learn how to wait, learn how to be still..."
"Why?" I blurt out. "Why is that important?"
He looks at me, broken off mid-sentence.
"Everybody says it's important," I acknowledge. "But why is it?"
"I think it has a compressing quality on your personality.
"It has a way of taking the good and the bad, and squeezing the shit out of it. When you're a person who doesn't like to wait and you're forced to incubate for five years, your creativity does weird things. Your empathy does weird things; your anger does weird things. You have these explosions of frustration, and then you have these moments of still calmness you never would have had otherwise, because you don't have any other option.
"I think it was very good for me to rage against the lack of control, till I realized I could hang my hands limp, take a deep breath, and receive what comes to me, versus trying to mold the world around me with my mighty will."
After he says this, we're both still for a moment. Then his face breaks into a weak smile.
"I hope I don't have a lot more waiting ahead of me? I don't know if I wasted time, but I look back and kind of shudder. But it was good to take all these loose strands of thought and energy, and push them into one spot."
While acknowledging that the people who chide us for not using our talents may actually be right, he adds,
"What do you say to the guys who have a blanket solution to an insanely complicated process? Particularly for a creative person...creativity, that sort of talent, it's not like football."
"Well, perhaps it is. But it's so intertwined with pain, joy, fear, neurosis, that it's hard for someone to say 'squeeze that ability into this avenue'"--that is to say, a 9-to-5 job--"'and you'll finally find something to be proud of.'
"I'd say you have to have flagstones, and markers in your life. Choose your people that you will actually resonate with."
He brings up his friend Seth, as an example:
"His dream is to move, and push further. He feels like he has something, and hopefully it will take off. That's the same with me."
Those are the people, he says, that it's important to listen to. Their advice carries more weight, he says, because "they understand me, the process, the disappointments."
"Everybody loves it," Remy says, when I ask how the record has been received. His voice has the buoyant flatness of someone trying to keep their delight from exploding.
"It's incredibly well-received. I'm sending it around to a lot of people--people don't know what to do with it."
This time, he means it in a good way. He puts it in people's hands and it circulates, and everyone comes back excited about it. Which makes sense, because he wrote it for them--all of them. Even to the point of writing the "cuss words" out of a few songs. "It's a little thing--a lot of our friends are going to want to play this in their minivan, since that's the phase of life our friends are in right now."
Making his music more accessible, in these ways, doesn't feel like a compromise, Remy says.
"Because I don't feel like it's me. I rarely listen to my music and think 'That was so clever, when I did that.' You have these songs, and when they're done, they're not you anymore. It's its own little thing, and it affects people in different ways. I want to stand back and enjoy it."
"Ultimately, I make music because I want this to happen right now, and I'll make it happen. That's the hard part. This feel, this sense. 'I want it to be like this.' You can't really put it into words, so you start fiddling around until that happens. That's what's taken so many years--to do that to the extent to which you want to feel it.
"And then every now and then, you surprise yourself and go 'Whoa! I didn't know I had that in me. That was even stronger than what I could have anticipated.' You step back and see this Frankenstein you've stitched together."
He says in a tone of satisfied wonder, like a father marevling at the genuine genius of his child's artwork,
"That is so entertaining."
If Remy had had any like-minded friends when he started making dance music, they might accuse him now of compromising his artistic integrity. That's usually the charge, when high-concept starts catering to mass appeal. But for Remy, the key to his artistic integrity is the mass appeal. It's forging connections through music, instead of filtering them out.
"The great thing about being a dance musician is people don't have to care about you. You just have to make them have fun. " A singer-songwriter outpouring of soul, he says, is only appealing if you like them to begin with. "But if you're making me dance, and it's awesome, who cares who you are? It's...it's alcoholic! It gives me a buzz."
He chuckles like a kid who heard a dirty word.
These days, Remy's day job is running one of D.C.'s most popular food trucks. The connections that are made over that job are similar to the connections made over his EP. When people like something you've given them--be it music, or food, or whatever--suddenly there's an assigned credibility:
"All of a sudden, I'm some sort of expert on something. 'I want to learn from you, I want to talk with you.' Music opens doors and conversations.
"My goal is to do that on a bigger scale. I don't want to be famous, on the cover of magazines. But I want to be able to influence and have conversations with people. I want to have relationships with people. It's not an end--it's ongoing."
Find Remy on Soundcloud.