The Outsiders

Will Schematic have to compromise to get its avant-garde music heard?

Months later they joined forces with an old friend of Clemetson's, Paul Floyd, to launch a new group called Supersoul, a name del Castillo says was inspired by the trio's budding fascination with Krishna consciousness. Supersoul managed to land a pair of tracks on the first two volumes of The Trip-Hop Test, a best-selling compilation series released by L.A. imprint Moonshine in the mid-Nineties that featured early songs by other influential artists, such as the Dust Brothers and the Crystal Method. More labels clamored for Supersoul tracks, but the three blithely shrugged off those offers. "We were really young and clueless," chuckles Clemetson during a phone interview. Now freelancing as an engineer, he also runs his own label, Metatronix. "We thought that when you sent out a demo tape, labels were supposed to get back to you immediately. We didn't realize that it was a big deal."

While del Castillo was attending Miami-Dade Community College and taking classes in music engineering, Josh Kay (now 30 years old) arrived from Dallas in 1994 to reunite with his parents, who'd moved here several years before. He quickly attracted friends, thanks to a handful of progressive house records he and former partner Rob Vaughn had made in Dallas under the pseudonyms United Space and Soul Odyssey for their own Space Records label. Although Kay had earned accolades in Dallas, he grew bored with the city's rave scene, he says, and didn't intend to hang out with the same crowd in Miami.

He did, however, connect with del Castillo. The two bonded over their love of jazz-fusion legend Herbie Hancock and the progressive British electronic label Warp Records, internationally known for its propulgation of IDM, or intelligent dance music, and innovative artists like Aphex Twin, Plaid, and LFO. "Romulo started getting more into the Warp stuff," recalls Clemetson of those early years. "I didn't care for the Warp stuff at all. He and Josh found a common ground in all that." So in 1995, Clemetson and del Castillo broke up, with Clemetson keeping the Supersoul name.

Schematic's Romulo del Castillo (left) and Josh Kay inside the lab
Jonathan Postal
Schematic's Romulo del Castillo (left) and Josh Kay inside the lab

That same year, as Soul Oddity, Kay and del Castillo recorded their first track, "DJ Tokyo," a fresh electro amalgamation that rendered standard breakbeats into something icily sleek and abstract, yet danceable all the same. They played it for various label representatives at the 1995 Winter Music Conference, attracting considerable interest from Peter Wohelski, then an A&R executive for L.A.-based Astralwerks Records, a dance-music imprint owned by Caroline/Virgin Records. "I bumped into Romulo, who gave me a tape," Wohelski recalls over the phone from the New York City office of underground music giant Studio Distribution. "I brought it back to New York, and we were really impressed."

Astralwerks signed Soul Oddity to a one-album deal, along with an $8000 advance, according to del Castillo. Unfortunately the ensuing recording sessions for what would become Tone Capsule found Wohelski clashing with the group's artistic vision. The business executive envisioned Soul Oddity as a futuristic breakbeat act in the vein of San Francisco's Hardkiss Brothers and L.A.'s Uberzone, "a marriage of Miami bass and West Coast tweekiness," while the group wanted to explore the outer reaches of electro and IDM.

Released in May 1996, Tone Capsule became a minor classic. But at the time, it was a commercial disappointment. Wohelski disputes del Castillo's claim that it sold around 10,000 copies, estimating that it only sold about 5000 worldwide. He notes sympathetically, however, that another hot new breakbeat act on the label led to major changes at Astralwerks. Buoyed by the Chemical Brothers' near-gold sales for Dig Your Own Hole, observers began referring to "electronica" as the next big thing, and in that climate, selling a couple thousand copies of a brilliantly eccentric dance album was no longer enough. "Sometimes records that are ahead of their time are not necessarily well received," says Wohelski of Tone Capsule.

Though the original one-album deal included an option for another record, Astralwerks demanded to hear new demos from Soul Oddity before signing a contract. "I'd come down to Miami to hear the new music," recalls Wohelski. "It wasn't even close to what I expected. I brought it back to New York to play it to my boss, and he wanted to drop them." (Those demos emerged on Phoenecia's Randa Roomet EP for Warp Records in 1997.) Nonetheless, he says, he persuaded his boss to give the group another chance: "I told him, 'No, I know these guys have it in them to really deliver this, if they want to.'"

Wohelski instructed Soul Oddity to come up with something more commercial; in turn, the pair offered "Get Fresh." (It was included on the 12-inch "Odd Job" single on Schematic in 1999.) Impressed, Wohelski tried to encourage them: "It was a really amazing, banging electro track. I was, like, 'Guys, this is more like it. This is what we're talking about. Give me two more tracks like this, and we can sign off on your option.'"

But by then, Soul Oddity had grown tired of industry politics and decided to walk away. The struggle to turn their art into a commercial product had left a bitter taste. "They were trying to tell us how to make our music," says del Castillo. "I guess back then we were too sensitive ... no one's really ready for that."

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