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The first time I saw Armando Santelices, the noisy experimental sound artist known as Peasants with Feathers, he was almost invisible under a black hooded cloak. Huge bear claw slippers swaddled his feet, and in his hands (which were covered in black gloves with long fake fingernails attached) he gripped some kind of stick with a knob at the end, like the kind used to train dolphins. With a faraway, glazed-over look, he swirled the rod rhythmically like a shaman on acid. Another time, he sported a thin pale-gray singlet and — "Oh my God, tell me that guy's gigantic boner is fake!" squealed a friend who spotted him.
These outfits were worn at Otto Von Schirach shows, so it all makes sense. Anyone who's seen a performance by the Miami-based, Cuban-German international breakcore sensation knows he never takes the stage alone. Rather he's constantly surrounded by a coterie of fellow weirdoes — maybe a gravelly voiced dude dressed as a gargantuan cockroach, or another guy introduced as Thug Jesus. His true right-hand man is Peasants with Feathers, a psychedelic hype man who whips crowds into a frenzy while Von Schirach encourages them, in a deep monster voice, to "dance like a ho."
Santelices and I met on a recent Thursday night in a booth at Swenson's in South Miami. Easy-listening tunes blared; a teenage couple behind us canoodled shamelessly over a syrup-soaked banana split. He wants the world to know he's more than just part of Otto's entourage. He makes his own music, too, and is ready to spread the word, which is why he has summoned me here. Offstage he's a little more subdued, but no less weird, and it's difficult to tell which aspects are calculated. "I like things in fours," he explains, swirling a cup of coffee with, well, one of four spoons he's arranged in a semicircle on a stack of four saucers. Into the cup go four shots of creamer, four sugars. In the pocket of his short-sleeve oxford shirt are four pens and pencils. He's diminutive, with socks pulled up to his knees, plaid shorts, thick glasses, and an expectant, innocent smile. He randomly laughs in the middle of sentences, a funny yuk-yuk-yuk sound. The overall effect is almost that of an overgrown, spaced-out, but cheerful ventriloquist dummy.
His musical compositionsare crackly, clanging, stop-and-start things, layers upon layers of samples chewed up and spit back out — the warped, postmodern fever dream of someone glued to glowing screens. "Manufactured by Hand," for instance, sounds a little like splayed, skinned, and dissected drum 'n' bass as conceived by R2D2 as he falls apart. "Moon Water Discovery" pulses with an alien heartbeat in the tense moments before a late-night hostile invasion.
Despite Santelices's insistence that he comes from a water-bearing moon of Saturn, and that his music is birthed with the help of a "new Internet" incomprehensible to puny human minds, his real origins are a little more mundane. Born 33 years ago to Cuban parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he moved as a child with his family to Homestead. In junior high, he began DJing as a hobby, playing what was locally popular at the time — freestyle, booty, and "a lot of love songs, like 'Careless Whisper' [by Wham!], that kids liked to dance close to."
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed the family home, and he transferred to Coral Gables Senior High School, where he met Otto Von Schirach. "I didn't really like him, you know? I had a different mentality back then from growing up in Homestead, which was pretty much, If you look at me the wrong way, that's it," Santelices says. "And I went to Gables and things were a lot different, because everybody was so nice. People were going to class with no shoes, or flip-flops. It was like welcome to 1967 or something."
It was also around this time when he began tinkering with early versions of music creations such as "Fruity Loops," attempting to style his own versions of the electro-based tunes he was playing as a DJ. "After a while of trying, I realized I couldn't make music, like songs, so I just started to try to put music together, like sounds," he says. He began obsessively logging on to the Internet, a habit that continues to this day. ("If you don't get sleep, you'll get sick, I've learned," he warns.)
After graduating high school, he eventually enrolled at the University of Miami (where he's currently studying; he also holds down a square job, as a land surveyor for the Port of Miami), but remained consumed by the computer. "My entire life in making music has been a grand search," he says, and he was a sponge of information, seeking out the latest and most left-field advances in electronic music. He eventually discovered the scene around Schematic Records, the local label run by recording duo Phoenecia, which helped pioneer the bleeping, skittering sounds of IDM ("intelligent dance music," somewhat ironically named). This was also when he rediscovered Von Schirach, who was now making highly regarded music that had followed something of a parallel evolution to Santelices's.
They forged a friendship, and then came Peasants with Feathers' public coming-out, at an early-00s Schematic anniversary party at the now-defunct Piccadilly Garden (later The District and now Pacific Time) in the Design District. Atlanta musician Richard Devine was performing his own sputtering brand of electronic madness when Santelices appeared on the dance floor, wearing brown pajama pants and a homemade mask and carrying an enormous fake pencil. "I was waving the pencil around," he recalls, "and I was pretending to do math on the floor, and people were loving it — the crowd really responded to that. I kept doing shows, and later I became part of Otto's set."
The partnership has continued for about the past three years. Peasants with Feathers regularly appears alongside Von Schirach at nearly all of his area shows (and once or twice in Germany, where Von Schirach is popular). But still, there's a role reversal at times, with Von Schirach becoming Santelices's hype man, screaming into the mike as the latter cranks out seemingly endless sound cutups pasted together specially for each new appearance. And Santelices is in charge when he convenes the Creature Tweaker Council, a group of laptop musicians that plays marathon events, mostly at Churchill's, at bimonthly events dubbed Circuit Sundays. The lineup shifts from time to time as new musicians jump aboard; Santelices pretty much grants all requests for a set time, usually without bothering to listen to song samples first. It's all part of the absurdist, Dada-esque spirit of everything he does.
And while his acclaim grows, he's released precious little in the way of material for public sale or download. At Swenson's, he gives me a black T-shirt with a hot-pink photo of his face baring fangs — but nothing in the way of a burned disc. "Oh, yeah, that's the thing...," he trails off, as if it didn't occur to him. "I don't really make tracks. They're more, uh, time that I spend on preparing one set, say for a half-hour stretch. Sometimes it's all one file. I have a bunch of folders with different sounds."
He's released an LP, Mono Ventrical, on the Florida Internet-based label Laced Milk, and another EP. Other than that, physical CDs have been limited to a few handouts, including a stack given to FIU's radio station that have never been played, he says, giggling again. Instead he prefers to spread his music through the medium in which it gelled — the endlessly jumbled ether of the Internet (the old, Earth's Internet, he clarifies). "The exposure is there as far as people who know me and know what I do," Santelices says. "But would I want other people to have a CD of mine and experience my music as a whole? Um, probably. Maybe. I'm thinking about it."