Five Minutes with 214 at New Forms Festival

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XLR8R spent much of last weekend taking in the sights and sounds of Vancouver's annual New Forms Festival (our full review can be found here). While making our way around the Northwest city, we took some time to catch up with a number of the weekend's performers. Having already shared our chats with Lee Gamble and Anthony Naples, our final conversation finds us speaking with Chris Roman, a Seattle-based producer better known for his electro-minded 214 alias (or, alternately, by his house-minded J. Alvarez handle), who delivered a rare live hardware performance to close out the festival's Saturday night. We caught up with Roman—a producer we deemed one of 2012's best new artists—for a few minutes during the afternoon before his set to talk about why he decided to trek all his gear north of the US border and what exactly the man has been up to this year.

XLR8R: You're playing a hardware set at New Forms. What made you want to do that instead of just DJing?
Chris Roman: I used to mostly play hardware sets about two or three years ago. I started doing it just as a way to get more gigs, and to be able to differentiate myself a bit. Since that time, I've picked up so much more hardware and have done a lot of new work with all of it. I thought it was time to revive the live set if someone wanted to book me for it. Right now, the set uses a mix of analog and digital gear, which makes it easier to play live as 214 rather than J. Alvarez. I've just found it a little harder to play straight-up house on analog gear.

What had made you stop doing the live hardware sets more recently?
It ended up just being too time consuming; packing everything up, then setting up and breaking down—it was just a lot of time and effort. And honestly, the pay usually wasn't good enough for me to continue to risk taking my gear out of the studio.

Is that something you're constantly worried about while you're playing live—someone spilling a beer on your gear or knocking over your table?
It really depends on the stage and set-up of the venue. If I'm very close to the audience, then I'm pretty much always having a massive heart attack. [laughs]

What is different about the live set-up now as opposed to how you had it a few years ago?
When I was playing live before, I was only using two Elektron boxes, but now I've added another one and a new drum machine as well. I've tried to make it now to where I have two drum machines available in the set, and a couple of synths that I use for basslines or just noodling around. That makes me much more comfortable. Now, I feel like I have more room to do what I need and [don 't need to] worry about getting limited by the amount of gear at hand.

How much of the set is based on predetermined sequences and how much is improvised usually?
It's definitely not entirely improvised. There is a lot of stuff that I've set up to make things work smoothly and transition correctly, but then there are a few "wild card" moments where I can improvise if I want.

Is the set mostly made up of songs you have already released or plan on releasing, or are these things that were made specifically for the live set?
Most all of it was made just for this set. I've been working on the songs for the past few months, and I'm not sure if they'll eventually become tracks that get released or if they'll just continue to be only a part of the live set.

It's been a while since you played live. Is there anything in particular you're excited or concerned about going into tonight?
I'm just excited to share the set. No one has really heard this stuff yet, so it will be nice to see people's reactions and get a sense for how they feel about it. I'm just hoping I don't fumble through it and that the crowd ends up digging it. In a live situation, you can't really go off course—I can't just put on another record. [laughs] Since it's live, I'm locked into it, and I just have to go for it.

What have you been working on recently? Do you have releases on the way from either alias?
I'm kind of putting the J. Alvarez alias on hiatus for a bit after this winter. I've focused on that side of things for the last year and a half, and it's not that I'm bored, but I like to switch back and forth after some time. I'm going to finish an EP as J. Alvarez for the Peach label, then I've got a track coming out on a compliation for Hallucination Limited later on this year. As 214, I'll be doing another EP for [Clone sublabel] Frustrated Funk and another single track for a compilation that will be coming out very soon via the Touchin' Bass label. I put a record out with them a few years ago, then they sort of took a break, but now they are starting up again and will be putting out a double-LP comp very soon, which will feature one of my tracks alongside a bunch of other artists on the label.

Do you feel like the electro sound has started to regain some traction in the last two or three years?
I think it has, especially with artists like Boddika and others like him that have started to bring the sound back a little bit in their productions. I think some of UK folks who were making dubstep and drum & bass have started messing around in the electro tempo and that's helped, but I still think it's closer to the bottom of the totem pole within the electronic-music community. But there are definitely artists experimenting with that style and within those tempos right now, and that's been good. One of the reasons I'm going back to the 214 alias is that more people have been making electro records, or at least records that somehow reference electro, and I've just been getting inspired again.

Now that we're entering the final stretch of 2013, is there anything specific you hope to accomplish before the year is through?
Really, I just want to play a couple more live gigs, and keep releasing more records and making more music. I've got a day gig, so this music thing is still more of a side hobby. It'd be great to do it full time, but that's tough! [laughs] As long as I can keep making music and doing my thing, I'll be happy.