Kastle Reads Emerson, Makes Beats
DJ/producer takes a philosophical approach to his self-released debut album.
Barrett Richards, the DJ and producer known better as Kastle, is sitting in the guest room that has doubled as a studio inside his manager’s loft in downtown Los Angeles. He’s doing his best to tolerate the lingering air of cigarette smoke (which he despises) and look at ease in front of the mixing board that his friend, area-based dupstep artist DJ 12th Planet, is letting him use while he’s in town. But he seems even less comfortable when asked to assign a genre to his self-titled album, released through his own Symbols Recordings in April–especially in terms of its influences.
“I read a lot of philosophy and science,” Richards says, almost dismissively. “I watch a lot of TED Talks and things like that. I’m extremely interested in ideas and creativity. I read Emerson almost daily.”
Most EDM artists wouldn’t cite one of the great transcendental writers of the 19th century as a source of inspiration, but Kastle, is not most EDM artists. Even his debut artist album diverges from what fans of his DJing might expect.
Born and raised in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania, Richards’ musical beginnings go back to his childhood in the ‘80s. “Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ is my first musical memory,” Richards says, citing the song and the album from which it came, “Future Shock,” as hugely important in his musical life. “My brother is five years older than me and he was big into hip-hop, so I grew up on Run DMC and Herbie Hancock.”
While he started on keyboards as a child, Richards got a guitar at age 12 and then started taking music seriously. He saved his earnings from a paper route and bought his first piece of studio equipment at 13, a Roland Alpha Juno synthesizer.
“I just worked on music constantly,” Richards says. “Every day and night. Especially in the summers, I would wake up at nine in the morning, work until dinnertime, go back to work in my studio, and be awake until four in the morning. I’d go to sleep for five hours and wake up and do it again. It was an obsession from an early age.”
Richards started DJing when he was 17, immersing himself in local rave culture (though he claims to have never been a candy raver). He went to school in Boston, before moving to San Francisco a few years ago, where he recorded the album “Kastle” last year.
“The vision for the album was just to do me, entirely,” Richards explains, citing James Blake as one artist who he thinks defies genre in favor of a sort of true self-expression. “[Blake] definitely blew my mind with how he was so distinctly him. That’s what I wanted. If I’m influenced by any artists, it’s because of that. You can just tell that’s them.”
The result for Richards is an album that encompasses R&B melodies, ’90s vocal house, trip-hop effects, and lush electronica. It’s as much Hancock as it is Blake as it is Kastle, and to some of Kastle’s fans, that might come as a bit of a surprise. In the last few years, Richards has built up a solid following thanks to gigs with friends like AC Slater of the Trouble & Bass crew, Skrillex collaborator Flinch, and 12th Planet.
As a DJ, Kastle can fit in to the bass-heavy sound of his peers. But as a recording artist, he takes a soft left turn. Instead of hard build-ups and heavy drops, there are steady swells and ethereal vocal harmonies. There’s a lot to dance to, and a contemporary edge to his sound, but there are no peak-hour EDM ragers on “Kastle,” and that’s by design.
“A lot of these songs came as eureka moments while reading a book,” Richards confesses. “It’s not like I’m out raging at a party and I’m like, ‘Oh, I have this sick idea for a bass line.’ It comes from a totally different realm.”
He points to his use of vocal pitching as an example: “I’m really big into the idea of dualism and polarity in life: good and bad, life and death. Just taking a vocal and pitching it an octave up and down is the same type of polarity, for instance.”
Such manipulation is heard on “Red Light,” the album’s lead single. It features London vocalist Ayah Marar (known for her work on tracks by Subfocus and Calvin Harris’ “Flashback”). R&B singer Austin Paul and singer/songwriter JMSN contribute vocals to other tracks on the album, almost giving it a feel of a mixtape, united by one very eclectic producer.
“I just wanted to do something totally different,” he says, giving the studio chair a little spin. “As far as the genre, I’ve always said, ‘The feeling is the genre.’”