David Castillo and Igor Cavalera on the Metal-to-Electronic-Music Pipeline

The Confines producer interviews the former Sepultura drummer.

David Castillo is the co-owner and booker for Saint Vitus Bar in Greenpoint, and performs as Confines; Igor Cavalera is half of the electronic duo Mixhell, and was the founding drummer for the legendary Brazilian metal band Sepultura. Igor’s work has been deeply influential on David, so to celebrate the recent release of Confines’ five-song EP, Work Up the Blood, the two hopped on the phone to catch up about it all.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

David Castillo: I want to talk to you a little bit about that time period between when you started up with Mixhell — that kind of transition period, because I’m kind of in that period myself. It’s always sort of fascinating charting that progression, punk people getting into dance music, metal people getting into dance music and stuff. How did that kind of transition start?

Igor Cavalera: It’s a bit crazy, because I remember when I started Mixhell — of course, I’d been into a lot of electronic music in the past from back in the days, some early industrial stuff that me and my brother [Sepultura co-founder Max Cavalera] were really into. We even did the Nailbomb thing [their ‘90s side project], which was very influenced by a lot of the industrial music coming from Chicago, the whole Wax Trax thing. 

David: Fudge Tunnel. 

Igor: Yeah, yeah. And even before that, I remember we saw Neubauten, this German band, in ‘89 in Europe at this abandoned construction. They had a show and me and my brother went there to see it, and it was amazing to see how they were pushing their limits and trying different things out of the box. Which, that’s one of the reasons that I started Mixhell — I just felt that everybody was doing the same thing over and over. Then I went to DJ at this event in São Paulo — it’s this techno club, but they have a rock night, and the guy invited me to come and play some records. But he was expecting me to play metal or rock, and I brought in a bunch of, like, Mexican hip hop. And I was playing that and everyone in the club hated me, you know? And I remember that was the best feeling I had in a long time. It was like, Wow, this is refreshing. Because everyone just knows exactly what they’re going to get, and it becomes a bit of a normal thing.

David: Yeah, it becomes traditional, right? Like very Orthodox for you to be a part of that and entertain know about. Einstürzende Neubauten, when I first heard of them, blew me away too. I was just like, What’s happening here? That sort of being heavy in a very experimental way was really important to me, going back and just understanding what that is, but also defying expectation of what heavy sounds even are, or what they can be, where they even come from.

Igor: Yeah, I can totally relate to what you’re saying, where you find other people who’ve done the same thing. A lot of punk people that I meet, even the guys from Crass or from the early punk scene, they became ravers at one point, because the rave scene at the time to go into the woods and set up a sound system was way more punk rock than going to a regular venue and seeing a band with spikes and leather jackets, you know?

David: Yeah, it kind of feels like at a certain point, when things sort of become traditional, it almost feels like the time to step away. And like Sepultura, for all of its time, had so much innovation within it. You guys never stayed still. But then it was just like, “Hey, Igor is breaking even more, we’re going somewhere else.” So how did that come about? Did your relationship help start that Mixhell project, because you do that with your wife?

Igor: Yeah, it definitely helped. My wife’s worked in many museums — she’s curating the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo — so [she comes from] a different approach than mine, which was always being just this guy who doesn’t know anything else but to play in bands since I was, like, 13. So that opened my eyes to a lot of ways of doing things and approaching music.

I remember it was so new to a lot of people — I remember coming to Chicago to play a gig and at this venue there, which a lot of dance music producers do things there. And when we told the guy that we were going to play live, he thought “live” meant a laptop. And we were like, “No, no, actually, we’re going to have drums.” And he was like, “What?” We set up the drums on the floor, because there was, of course, not a stage there. That’s how we used to do it. So it was a mixture of drumming with some electronics and DJing and stuff,. But that was the kind of surprise we used to get, to the point that even promoters were like, “Wow, I didn’t know you guys meant live by actually playing it.”

David: Yeah, like a real instrument in the space.

Igor: They thought that Ableton was live. Which it is also, but in our case, we wanted to bring this raw element to the things that we were doing at the time

David: And immediately that approach makes you an outsider in this other culture too.

Igor: Totally: 

David: For me, doing Confines and making the stuff that I’m making now, it’s really more about the cultural shift, but I’m playing two samplers through through a DJ mixer, a Pioneer 900. So a lot of people think I’m DJing, but I’m like, “I wrote every part of this and I’m doing it.” But it’s just funny how with electronic music more than most things, it’s like choose-your-own-adventure how you play live. So it’s interesting when that becomes a little bit traditional, and here you walk in like, “Hey, I’m bringing my drums and triggers and like all this other shit,” and they’re like, “Holy crap.” You immediately stand out.

Igor: Yeah. I think it’s also cool, because I’m not a purist in any way. There’s times that I see people come in and play with their laptops and blow my mind, and there’s times where they have different elements, like drum machines and other things, and it’s also amazing. So I don’t have a problem with someone coming in and playing with a laptop. But at that time I used to get hate from, of course, all the metal people — all, “He’s gay. He’s doing this disco shit,” you know, all that stuff. And then when we went to these electronic clubs, we were too radical for it. So at the end of the day, nobody understood what we were doing. And that was kind of the fun of it, also.

David: Yeah. I feel like there’s a bravery there in such a cool way, because you are so known for a particular thing. I love these transitions and people who are willing to make themselves uncomfortable to do the things that they want to. I’ve never even really written songs before, man — I’m like a singer in a band, so I’m just trying to fucking figure it out. It’s like learning a new language. I grew up speaking Spanish and English, and I feel like I have a third language now, learning about DAWs and synthesizers and all this sort of stuff.

Igor: I think, also, that one of the beauties of experimenting in electronic music is that a lot of people, they don’t need to be a crazy musician to do certain things. It’s more about being creative with whatever you’re trying to achieve. That’s also one of the reasons that I got really inspired by doing Mixhell, because I could see that there were more and more people doing that kind of stuff — like a little kid in Uganda with just a laptop, throwing some samples and making some weird, noisy thing. It’s amazing. I think that’s also really important to break those barriers in a way — this whole musician thing that you need you learn your craft, and all these things — I don’t think that’s that important. Because most of the music that I listen to is raw, it comes from from people that are not considered insane musicians. They’re more free-thinking and forward-thinking people. And for me, that’s way more exciting than someone that can play a million things at the same time. Those things for me are just repetition, you know?

David: That’s kind of amazing that you say that, because I consider you pretty virtuosic at your instrument. But I feel the same way, like I don’t give a shit, if what’s coming out is making me feel a visceral way. If I’m just in tune with it, I’m just like, This is amazing. How you arrive there, I don’t even care that much, and I kind of know what’s going on. Do you think that the person who is just coming to a show really gives a fuck? I don’t really think so.

Igor: That’s also a cool thing, talking about electronic music versus the whole metal thing, because in metal, everything is so set. They know what kind of shoes you wear to play the drums, what kind of socks you wear. It becomes a bit insane. And I remember showing up in a club in Berlin to play, I don’t know, like at six in the morning, and this place was like a cave and nobody could even see me. Me and my wife were playing some music and people were just losing their shit. That’s what I love. They don’t care how I look, they don’t care where I come from. It’s all about what’s coming out of the sound system.

David: I forget who said this, it might have been Tony Wilson, but it was like, with dance floor music, the show is the crowd. It kind of democratizes things a little bit. I mean, now with the superstar DJ thing, it’s changed a little bit. But in general, if you’re in a club environment, it tends to be the crowd in of itself being the sort of object of the music,.

Igor: Yeah, either that or or even the sound system. I remember sometimes a club, if they have an insane sound system, that’s what you want to go for. You want to be by the speaker, worshipping that box.

David: It’s also amazing how people really know that as its own instrument, and designing songs for that. That was really different for me to start to understand. I grew up on Long Island, right outside of New York City, so I would just go to hardcore shows. And then I’m like this little fuckin’ Colombian kid who still likes to dance no matter what, and I would go out after and try and find the post-punk clubs. And once I started going out in New York City and experiencing all these different things and knowing people from other musical cultures that weren’t that, you know, punk hardcore metal thing that I grew up with — you know, going to see Vision of Disorder and listening to you guys — I was just like, Woah, this is the other side of the coin for me.

And then now learning about how to design music for the space is just a whole new thing that, until I really got into going to clubs, you don’t really understand how much the environment is so important. I try and put that in my work at Saint Vitus, but also when I’m obviously making music. And so with Mixhell, definitely you could feel there’s a lot of sonic craft going into what you guys are making.

Igor: Yeah. And I guess that’s where it gets a bit more geeky or nerdy. Once you start diving into these sonic things, where you know certain things are going to sound insanely good on a good sound system, then it becomes so much fun, because you’re not relying so much, again, on your skills as a musician. It’s more about what you choose on your track so all those frequencies won’t clash and you’re going to have like this insane sound coming out of it.

David: Totally. And you’re curating that in a very specific way. That’s something that along my sort of songwriting journey — because I make dance music, I want it to be heavy and hard but I want to make people move, and there’s a bit of a science to it. That’s cool to learn.

Igor: Yeah. But I mean, as anyone with Latino blood, we know it’s all about those baselines. 

David: Hundred percent.

Igor: And that’s why sometimes certain kinds of music don’t hit me as hard, because I feel the need of some beef on it. Especially with the lower frequencies and things that can make really your body react to it.

David: If I can make something that I’m like, my shoulders start moving all of a sudden, and I’m like, OK, I’m doing it — if I’m doing it to me, I think I can do it to everybody else. When I’m just there thinking too much, I’m like a fucking scientist. It’s bad.

Igor: Yeah. And again, there is a combination of things. Sometimes it can be not grooving, no bassline, just straight noise and things like that. But it’s always good to go into something else and bring back the rhythm. And I think that combination, that’s what makes a night special. If I go and see a producer, a DJ, it’s if he can play with those elements, and not just kind of be in one thing all night. But also take you into a trip, that can bring happiness, sadness, and make your body move, sweating, and all those elements. I think that’s when I know I’m satisfied about seeing someone that I love playing, if they bring all those elements together.

David: Yeah. I’m on my first EP, and I want to become a well-rounded person. I can make a couple of bangers for sure, and now I’m starting to step out in other ways, too, to try and and fill those those different sort of emotional colors. The low end, the groove, that just happened for me overnight. But these other things, it’s been a process.

I’ve got a question for you: So for the longest time, I didn’t sing, like when I was really experimenting. I was a singer sort of by trade — it’s the only thing that I’ve done for a long time — but I didn’t sing at all. And then I just started after a while. Was it cool to not play drums for a while and maybe try and figure out new things? Did that feel freeing for you?

Igor: It is freeing, but it’s also super scary, because I just did a show here in London at this new art space called Eclectic. I had to do this whole synth set, and I remember talking to my wife and I was like, “When I have my drums, I feel like I have this shield and I feel so comfortable that I can do whatever.” This night, it was only synths, and I had to bring all the stuff that I had in my studio to this place, and I was so scared. I was hitting my shitting myself, man. I couldn’t sleep the night before, because I was thinking all the patterns and things that I wanted to do. I was dreaming of wires. Of course, I forgot a bunch of stuff.

Once I started, I went into this mantra and I was like, This is amazing. So it’s super cool. It’s liberating, because you’re not doing something that you always did, like singing or playing the drums, but it’s also super scary, because not only you’re doing something out of your comfort zone, but you’re also dealing — because I don’t play with a laptop, it’s all the analog machines, so they have a big tendency of fucking up on you.

David: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff you have — there’s some modular stuff in there, I thought I saw an MS-20 in there. I’m like, Alright, we’re really going for it. Because when I play live, I use a lot of hardware synths, and I make a lot of my own samples. My father, Julio Castillo, is a mechanical engineer. So very much like  Einstürzende Neubauten, I went to his shop and I made a lot of my samples that I use for the rhythms — you know, industrial music. [Laughs.]

So I was doing a lot of that stuff, and then I throw them into the samplers, and then they have their own character, right? They have their own thing. But when I play with a lot of stuff, it’s really hard for me to manage. I just bring two samplers with me now, so I can kind of focus in and try and get to that state. It’s almost like you’re running, you know, you get into that runner’s high. And then I almost kind of don’t even remember what the fuck I do. But it’s really weird, because I was so used to singing, and it was a very physical thing. Playing drums, it’s so physical. But I’m totally normal after this, but my mind is so tired. I’m like, I can’t even say my name. It’s like a different drug. It’s crazy.

Igor: Yeah, I’m really glad we can connect on this, because it totally makes sense. The physical part kind of goes out of the window, and then it’s this intense brain war going on between you and the machines to make sure that something’s going to go right and. Also, I think the beauty of it is people know that when you’re doing something that has a big element of of going wrong. I think it adds to the fun of it.

I saw Suzanne Ciani in London, and every time we go see her, me and my wife, we know she is dealing with this Buchla. And sometimes it works perfect, and sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s part of the the the trip going to see her, because you know she’s going to be doing the real thing. It’s really cool.

David: Yeah. I think when you’re in tune with that and you kind of know what’s happening intellectually — people who see that kind of music, they’re in it for that. Like, they’re going to see one of the great synth minds of all time, honestly. So it’s about that; it’s incredible to see what they can get out. But even that somebody who was at the forefront of making this shit up can still live in that precarity —

Igor: Sometimes it goes wrong and you can totally see she’s sweating, man. Or even sometimes when I go see a DJ, and I see that they’re trying something and it doesn’t work, and it’s trainwrecking a little bit. I love that.

David: Yeah, I’m with it too, because I’m like, Oh, we’re we’re human for a minute

Igor: Yeah, because sometimes it can be so German and so efficient that, for me, it doesn’t have that human element to it.

David: Yeah. And that’s what I love about industrial music in general, the way that it can balance the organic and the machine. Like when I recorded those songs in my dad’s shop, those sounds don’t give a fuck what beat I’m doing. And then all of a sudden, they give a character, right? It’s so random, and that’s what’s beautiful about it, is that randomness kind of puts you down a different path.

Igor: I also have to say, right now with so many people producing certain sounds out of their computer, I recognize a lot of the sounds. And that for me, it’s a bit of a bummer. I like to be, Is this a guitar? Is this a synth? What kind of sample is this? Those things for me, it’s way more exciting than another track with an 808 and a 303 doing its thing.

David: Yeah, yeah.

Igor: I like the idea of having certain sounds that I don’t even know what they are.

David: Yeah, I agree. When you get into it the other way, then you start seeing in electronic music all of a sudden, certain things become very efficient. Another orthodoxy is sort of erected for you that way. And I’m kind of like, I don’t give a shit. I’m like some hardcore dude. I just know what I like. I couldn’t even tell you all of these microgenres of, like, Dutch this, blah blah blah that. I’m like, Is it sick? Does it bang? Am I excited about it? And that could be such a wide range of things. There’s not too many genres that actually matter in that kind of music. 

Igor: I like the idea of mixing certain things that are not supposed to make sense, but they do.

(Photo Credit: right, Markus Felix)

David Castillo is an NYC-based vocalist and producer who performs as Confines. He’s also the co-owner and booker for Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus Bar. The debut Confines EP Work Up the Blood is out now via Synthicide.