As a reserved kid growing up in Brooklyn, Carlos Hernandez would spend his subway rides bumping Al Green and Beethoven on his mp3 player, and weekends writing music on his mom’s piano. He once won a city-wide composers’ scholarship for a classical piece he wrote as a teen. Raised by a funk & soul DJ and a Santera-turned-midwife, Carlos was imbued with a lifelong respect for pop music and witchcraft, history, and sacred geometry.
Obsessed with sounds, adolescent Carlos started singing his private thoughts into a microphone, and called it Ava Luna. Over time this project transitioned into a critically acclaimed international touring group, a sandbox for collaborators Jennifer Vanilla and Felicia Douglass (Gemma, Dirty Projectors), and a cornerstone of Brooklyn’s DIY scene. In between tours, his mid-20s were spent at the beloved DIY sanctuary Silent Barn, where he made a living cutting hair and recording bands in an unrenovated auto shop. He has since cultivated a production career that includes credits from genre-expansive artists like Princess Nokia, Frankie Cosmos, Sneaks, Mr Twin Sister, Gustaf, Taphari, and Palehound.
With Ava Luna on hiatus, Carlos now returns to his songwriting roots as Carlos Truly. Largely produced by his brother Tony Seltzer, his debut Not Mine is out now on Bayonet Records.
Tony Seltzer is a producer who’s worked with artists like Wale, Princess Nokia, French Montana, Eartheater, among many others; Carlos Truly is songwriter, performer, and producer who also fronts the beloved Brooklyn DIY outfit Ava Luna. Tony and Carlos are also brothers, both born and based in Brooklyn, and collaborators on Carlos’s new record Not Mine. To celebrate its release — it’s out now on Bayonet Records — the two sat down to catch up about their musical origins and more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Tony Seltzer: What was the defining moment when you knew that you wanted to pursue music seriously? Or that even that you wanted to become a musician, like when you were young?
Carlos Truly: That’s a good question, because to be honest, I don’t quite exactly remember. I think that basically I have always played piano, even since I was a little baby — you know Ma had a step piano around and even from a very young age, I was just sort of drawn to it.
As far as pursuing it as a career, yeah, it’s funny because on the one hand, I never considered anything else, even when I was young. But on the other hand, I never even really did, and maybe even still to this day don’t know exactly what a quote-unquote “career in music” looks like. You know what I mean? So many of my musical heroes have been sort of all over the map, like singers, composers, writers, producers, mixing engineers — all these people come together. It’s not like there’s any one way to have a music career. So this is something that I’m sort of continually learning, to be honest, even as I get get old.
Tony: So for me, what I was thinking when I thought of the question, was this moment that I was watching cable TV at someone’s house and this Aaron Carter live performance came on the TV, and I was just watching it and I was like, This is it. This is music.
Carlos: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Tony: Music is the best. It’s not that I wanted to be Aaron Carter, but just the whole concept of… I must have been beginning kindergarten or first grade or something — we’ve had music on forever, we’ve been around music, always listening to it, but for some reason seeing him live on a stage in front of people and everyone’s so thrilled, I was just like, Wow, music is the best thing. I need to do music also. And I think that was before I even ever took a drum lesson or anything like that.
Carlos: I remember when you were into the pop stuff. That was such an era.
Tony: Yeah, Aaron Carter, NSYNC — I still listen to that NSYNC song.
Carlos: That one song is really beautiful.
Tony: “I Thought She Knew.” That song to this day is incredible. But yeah, and then obviously starting to take drum lessons solidified it, even though I pretty much always knew from pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be a career drummer, even though I went so hard with the drums. Especially because I was really into the metal stuff, you know that it’s hard to make a career in playing metal drums.
Carlos: Yeah, I was always curious because you definitely were into pop. It was funny, because our ages overlapped in this interesting way where you were getting into pop just at the same time that I was, even though I’m older, because I feel like I spent my youth kind of avoiding pop culture, for what it’s worth. So when you were a kid getting into that stuff — I remember Smashmouth was a big one also.
Tony: Oh, I loved Smashmouth.
Carlos: That was the same time as Deftones and Tool, and then also Linkin Park even, and Slipknot. But I’m curious about how you would transition from being a serious drummer and being into metal music, but then discovering its crossover then with hip hop.
Tony: So when I started, I was initially into Eminem and 50 Cent. Outkast was another big one for my early rap liking. But I didn’t really make the connection in my head, the crossover between metal and rap, until I really got into Atlanta trap music like Gucci Mane, and really Waka Flocka Flame specifically. And this is later in high school now — I’m already making beats, I love J Dilla. It’s like I’m listening to brutal death metal or I’m listening to soulful vibraphone hip hop. Like Big L — who can also be very aggressive too, but production-wise, the beats are jazzy. Mobb Deep, who’s also very aggressive, but the beats can be beautiful at the same time. So I feel like those are the opposite ends of the spectrum, but they really met for me in my mind with Flockaveli, the album by Waka Flocka Flame, because of Waka literally screaming on top of Lex Luger beats that are literally just breakdowns, like metal breakdowns halftime. I was like, Oh, this is this is it now. This is metal. When I made that connection was when I was like, I want to make metal beats, I want to actually be able to really fuse it on the nose instead of hinting at it.
What about you? What was your lineage of music?
Carlos: So when I was a little kid, like I said before, I was sort of drawn to the piano. At a certain point, I think I realized that piano was sort of a solitary comfort space for me. I turned out into kind of a nerdy kid, so for me, music represented that thing that I could come home from school, put down my stuff, clear my head. It’s like a meditation. And I wasn’t really interested in pop culture or pop music kind of all through middle school. I had some friends that would show me stuff, but basically by the time I got into new music I was already like a mid-teenager and it was the late ‘90s, early 2000s. So I kind of slept through Nirvana, I slept through B.I.G. I slept through basically all of the ‘90s because I was in my own little world.
Tony: You were into into classical music.
Carlos: And to an extent I still am. But I think what really turned the tables for me was that when I started getting older and understanding that music exists out in the world, I was like, OK, well, I like piano, I love writing my little string quartets, I’m going to try to get serious about this. And so maybe that was my first career ambition, like I’m going to be some kind of composer. Now, flash forward to when I get to school and I’m suddenly around the classical music world and these people are just — I don’t know, I’m not trying to shit talk, but it just wasn’t my scene. It just felt very conservative. It felt very rooted in Europe. I really love the sound of it and the experience of playing it, but going out into the world and living it, I just quickly realized that was not for me.
Tony: It was like a culture that was not your own.
Carlos: So meanwhile, on the other end of things, it’s like here we are with this dad who’s deejaying these classic hits, with a mom who’s got this crazy salsa record collection, and me who’s got a blossoming interest in new pop music for kind of the first time as a teenager. Fiona Apple.
Tony: Oh, yeah, Fiona Apple. Also, Alicia Keys, I remember. A lot of music I think came to me through originally our parents, then you, then my friends in school and stuff. I remember we had that Alicia Keys CD that we would listen to all the time. Then we had the Rage Against the Machine CD that we would listen to as a family.
Carlos: And the Lauryn Hill CD. I was so grateful to finally get into newer music and understand what I had sort of been running away from all that time. And some of the people I identified with when I was coming around to that were just — I hate to admit this, but They Might Be Giants.
Tony: They Might Be Giants was awesome.
Carlos: Weezer. Honestly, they are awesome. And I think the reason why I was drawn to people like that is because they showed me that it was OK to just be an awkward fool and still do your thing. I mean, I was the kid who if I even showed up at the party in the first place, if you handed me the iPod, I would put on something that were everyone would be like, “What the fuck is this?” [Laughs.] Anyways, all of which is to say I’ve always been really inspired by and attracted to music that is just a little bit pushing the boundaries. Something that makes me feel, something that challenges.
Tony: I think I feel the same way, honestly, which is how [I got to] extreme metal or extreme niche genres of rap. It’s like I start and then quickly move to the edges of the genre.
Carlos: Yeah, exactly. So then there I was as a teen and in college kind of pursuing this classical thing. But meanwhile I was like, OK, time to start a band, time to play with people who are of my own time and history. Time to actually do something that’s for my friends and that’s not for my just myself. So that’s when I started learning how to record myself, that’s when I started using my voice to sing, that’s when I started playing guitar. All these different practices, I just sort of picked it all up at once and I was like, OK, we’re getting off the traditional stuff, we’re going to get into new worlds. That’s when I started Ava Luna, too.
Tony: In high school still.
Carlos: In high school. I mean, Ava Luna is kind of like a continuation of that first instinct. I could talk about that for a long time, but we don’t need to. But Ava Luna continues to be a huge part of my life — we’ve friggin’ played together for 15 years now, toured the world. But all the while, I’m watching you come up — because I’m eight years older, so I got this head start. I’m watching you come up starting to make pathways and put out these amazing sounds and play these cool shows. Up until a couple of years ago, we each had such our own musical development, to the extent that people didn’t even know that we were brothers. People would be surprised.
Tony: Very different styles. Not for nothing, I remember when you showed me rap beats you made with Tool samples when you were in high school. So you were producing early on.
Obviously our genres are different that we’ve dabbled in, but I’ve been in bands before — I was in Ava Luna for a second, when I was 14 years old. You needed a drummer, emergency backup, and I was there. And when Ava Luna did that song with Stalley — you’ve worked with rappers.
But I think it’s funny you started at the piano in solitude and then were in bands, always with people, and I was in bands playing drums with people and then was like, “I’m going to go in my room and make beats.” I mean, I had rapper friends in high school and we would record whenever we found an opportunity to, but I was just making beats to practice making beats, you know. And even the Yung Gutted alias was still kind of instrumental beats. It wasn’t really until Tony Seltzer that I got back into collaborating with people.
Carlos: I’ve come to realize that for me, making music is about community, you know what I mean?
Tony: Why do you think we had such different paths with the music that we made? What do you see as being characteristic of your path that maybe differ from mine?
Carlos: That’s an interesting way to put it. I’ve got my observations about working not just with you, but with other drummers before, and I can sort of see this relationship between drumming and production. Because you literally went from the drum kit to beats, so your conduit to songwriting is essentially through beats, which is loops, which is sort of like a full body thing. A beat and a loop — this is something that is about as old as human beings are. People have always been drumming, people have always been using their bodies to make music and dance. So in a way, I’ve always sort of seen your style and your passion as related to this body function.
And it’s funny too, because I’ve been accused of — and have actually been working in recent years on getting better about this aspect, where Ava Luna songs, for example, I would have this nice groove going, but then suddenly change it.
Tony: That was always my Ava Luna, where I was like, This song is so good, just this part is the pinnacle—
Carlos: But I only do it for, like, two seconds.
Tony: That’s the beauty of it.
Carlos: It was. But it’s funny because I think that was almost my form of teenage rebellion or something. I was like, “Let me show you that I can do something beautiful, but I’ll take it away!”
Tony: Yeah. Which is amazing. And not for nothing, you gotta run the song back and listen to it again. That’s something on the opposite end that I struggle with. Beat making is going to be looping over and over again, so you have to also figure out how to take away. That’s something now working with vocalists, like, “OK, the beat is good, your lyrics, everything is good. What can we take away to give it some more space and a little more release?”
Carlos: It’s kind of funny — for me, the two main genres of music are just loops and not loops.
Tony: I didn’t even really think about it until we started working together. We should mention that a couple times when I started making beats, even as Yung Gutted, that we did collaborate. I had a song called “Begotten,” where I sampled the movie Begotten — which is an incredible movie, by the way. But I was just like, “Carlos, here’s a beat, can you sing on it?” And you were like, “Oh, I don’t know.” I was like, you’re such a good singer and songwriter why would it be difficult for you to just sing on my beat?
Carlos: That was a really interesting moment for me, because I think that I kind of realized it too at that moment, that I had been relying on these shifts in songs almost as a crutch. I started to understand that with music that was more based around loops and movement, it almost requires you to take more responsibility, in a way, for your own voice and your words and what you were saying. Because you can’t rely on some other sound to come in and cover you up or block you out. And that for me was a really terrifying moment, honestly, in a funny kind of way.
Tony: I had really the opposite issue. In college I lived with a bunch of electronic musicians, and they would do more through composed electronic music that had elements perhaps of hip hop beats, or drum sounds that are similar. And I would just look at their Ableton sessions and the automation and the changes and the layers, and I would just be like, I can’t do that.
But I think naturally since then, working with more artists — really more singers, a lot of rappers are more comfortable with just a loop. But then really you, this project being like the pinnacle of that, really making me have to look at the whole song as a producer beyond just like, “OK, I made a hot beat, now rap on it and we’ll do some cool edits and stuff.” I feel like this Carlos Truly project was the first time we got together and really are challenging each other with the project.
Tony: It’s really was a challenge for both of us.
Carlos: I think we’re getting better at co-producing for sure.
Tony: And I think there’s a sound there too, that our two very separate worlds collide. Like your real instruments — really interesting chords and that gritty sound — but then just like toned into some sort of electric drums, or just the mixing style.
Carlos: It’s just a cool supplement. I feel like since I’ve started working with you — and I guess I should go on record as saying we have been amping up our collaborative beat-making for a while.
Tony: Yeah, because I was trying to convince you to make loops for me, so I don’t need to sample stuff. Then it was like, why don’t you just song on this and do songs?
Carlos: Yeah. So I guess that kind of brings us to this album, where we did this for a couple of years and now we have this collection of really cool songs. I made them in a way that I had never done songs before, because a lot of them did just start out on a fixed loop. It almost felt like a spiritual challenge — like, how do you express yourself when you can’t rely on a seismic shift? I remember originally I wanted to call our project Carlos and Tony.
Tony: [Laughs.] Yeah. What took us so long to work together?
Carlos: Why did it take so long? I’ve thought about it, and I sort of chalk it up to just, everything happens at the right time.
It was interesting to have a brother and sister who are way younger, and I think that actually, in a lot of ways made me who I am today. I don’t know if I would have been out partying, I wasn’t really a party kid, but when I was 14, 15, I definitely wasn’t out partying because I was kind of home with the kids, you know? I was helping out. And I actually liked it — I’m not complaining. Having the family vibe for me as a teenager was really like a privilege. I felt very lucky, especially because a lot of my friends didn’t get along so well with their families.
I’s funny because when I got to college and when I started going on tour and playing shows, doing my own thing, I really felt like that was the first time — like I didn’t like smoke weed in high school, I didn’t drink in high school. I feel like I actually started growing up and figuring out who I was in my 20s.
Tony: I started smoking weed when I was 12.
Carlos: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. You may have smoked weed before I ever did — or probably exactly the same time.
Tony: Yeah, we may have smoked weed the same day.
Carlos: Anyways, all of which is to say, I think it maybe took me a little while to circle back around because for my whole 20s, I was very intent on just finding my own way, my own community, my own path. I got into the Brooklyn DIY scene, I had my studio at Silent Barn, I was playing shows at Death By Audio. I was in that era of people running around the city just playing in punk bands and doing noise shit. My own musical development felt very much in that space. And then watching you grow up doing beats, I was like—
Tony: Oh, yeah, it’s a different space.
Carlos: Exactly. But over the years, I always thought about it. But I think it wasn’t until we tried a couple of times, that something finally clicked. I mean, in my own narrative here, it’s like I’m a little kid at the piano alone — but remember, it’s Ma’s piano.
Tony: She’s the one exposing you to the classical music. You mentioned her salsa collection before, but she also had a vast classical collection, avant garde jazz collection. Crazy shit. It’s no wonder that we always would veer toward the extremes of the genres we’re getting into, because she had veered to the extreme.
Carlos: Also, I want to shout out Elisa, our sister. She didn’t work on the album, but she choreographed multiple videos, and videos for Ava Luna.
Tony: And we did score videos of her.
Carlos: Yeah, exactly. It’s really cool.
Tony: It’s a real family collaboration. It’s funny because we did not do family collaboration with our arts — we all had our things. But now we’re working together for the first time.
Carlos: Right. And in a way, if I could justify this whole Carlos Truly project — in essence, why do this? It’s like, I know I’m going to make songs forever, but this project for me is kind of about connecting with you and Elisa in that way. I still have Ava Luna and that’ll always be my thing, but the thing about a band is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for other stuff. So with this, I’m being like, “Look, this is me. This is literally our family. Let’s just make some songs.”