By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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It was 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday at M-80, the tragically hip Design District boutique, when Phoenecia's Josh Kay and Romulo del Castillo finally stepped behind a makeshift stage -- actually, the store counter -- to perform their set. Hours earlier M-80 was bustling with life, powered by fashionistas, music geeks, DJs, and knuckleheads. They'd danced to the sounds generated by Salim Rafiq and Finesse and Runway, among others; they'd bounced around the small room like atoms, socializing and striking poses in thrift-shop threads coordinated into cutting-edge ensembles; they'd spilled out onto NE 36th Street, chugging two-dollar beers and sitting on the sidewalk. But by the time Phoenecia launched into a throbbing set of brusque, electronically textured beats, the store was nearly empty and the throng outside had dwindled to stragglers.
What happened? Did the crowd get so tired, it didn't bother to stick around for the night's headliner? Did it simply not like Phoenecia and decide to beat a hasty exit once the duo began performing? Several weeks afterward, del Castillo offers a blunt answer: "Everyone else wanted to play early," he says, "and we didn't care when we played." Less obvious is the possibility that even hipsters who think they understand weird and wonderful musical trends have trouble grasping what del Castillo and Kay are all about.
These observations come amid a crazy fall afternoon. The two DJs/producers are dashing around the Little Haiti warehouse that holds their Schematic Music Company; www.schematic.net they're selecting random items, from a pair of congas to a turntable mixer, to load into a motorboat for a typically wacky photo shoot. Shortly after this interview, DJ Aura will stop by to record a "mega-mix" CD of the label's best tracks as a promotional tool for Schematic's national Tour de los Guapos, featuring its star artists: Richard Devine, Otto von Schirach, Dino Felipe, Nick Forte, Hearts of Darkness, and Phoenecia.
Del Castillo and Kay make a striking pair. Kay thinks they resemble comedians Penn and Teller. "I'm the short, mute one," he jokes. Which is only partly true. Del Castillo, who keeps a phone wedded to his ear for much of the day, certainly appears to be more outgoing. But Kay's a talker, too, going on tangents that turn a basic wrap-up interview into a winding conversation.
Del Castillo and Kay are optimistic about the future. They're prepping a formidable slate of new recordings for release over the next several months, including an EP by acclaimed British sound anarchist Matthew Herbert (under the pseudonym Radio Boy), the debut album by Miami electro heroes Secret Frequency Crew, and Richard Devine's just-released Asect:Dsect.
But they also sound exhausted by the rigors of running a record label: dealing with distributors, managing overhead costs, designing and paying for ads to trumpet their new releases, and sundry other jobs essential to building a profitable business. They're annoyed that they have to publicize the label's complex, thought-provoking output to a trend-obsessed audience that usually doesn't get it anyway. They're frustrated that they haven't been able to work on their own music -- indeed, Phoenecia hasn't released an album in over two years -- because they spend all their time helping out other Schematic artists. Their conversation has a dark undertone to it, a stark change from the enthusiasm del Castillo displayed two years ago, when he proclaimed in an URB magazine profile, "I'm sittin' on a goldmine here!"
Maybe it's the result of a long day at the office, or a reaction to the two vegetarian pizzas they consumed in less than twenty minutes. Then again, both Kay and del Castillo can grow emotional at times. It's one of their endearing qualities, and it's what makes Schematic's records sound warm and human to those who understand the sometimes willful obscurity of experimental electronic music. After all, it was only several days earlier, in another interview, that del Castillo answered the same question -- Will Schematic ever become a major independent success? -- with a far different response. "I know our stuff is darker," he'd said. "Maybe it's not as kitschy or catchy, but I see endless potential for Schematic."
Del Castillo and Kay's pre-Schematic careers were marked by uncommonly good fortune and precocious, groundbreaking music. Born in Peru, the 29-year-old del Castillo has lived in Miami for most of his life. As a teen he hung out with Jamaican-born Omar Clemetson, a fellow music aficionado he'd met during summer school at Palmetto High School. "We'd dream like anyone else, like, 'We're going to play in an arena,'" he says. "Pure adolescent fantasy."
Mimicking their heroes, the two purchased a sampler to make their own beats. In 1993, a year after graduation, they created their first record label, Drone Musik, and released an EP, called OR for "organized revolution" (or Omar and Romulo). "We scanned this painting of a character with a gun," says del Castillo, "pressed up 500 copies, and went to [the now-defunct New York festival] New Music Seminar to push it. Technically I think we were the first electronic label in Miami." With tracks like "The Future of Eternity," the OR EP was a hodgepodge of influences, from miscellaneous industrial noises to early Aphex Twin, all jostling for attention.