At times like these, when everyone is urged to stay home, I feel the need to disclose that this interview took place in January of 2020, long before the pandemic was declared.
When RT-FACT asked me where I would like to meet, I told him what I always tell people: “your choice. Wherever you feel most comfortable”.
I lead these interviews more like a guided conversation than anything else. I don’t want to pry, I don’t want people to feel like they have to answer me in a certain way, and I definitely don’t want them to spit out a rehearsed verbal version of a press release. So, for me, it’s important that the location, more than convenience, means something to them.
We meet on an unusually warm Saturday afternoon in mid-January at àPortuguesa, a café/bar in the old part of Barreiro – the former industrial city 20 minutes by ferry from Lisbon, currently reinventing itself as a day trip destination and continuing its legacy of an alternative cultural hub.
“I’m very fond of this place [àPortuguesa] and I feel at peace here. It’s one of the first places where I played live and the audience was so welcoming. [That night] I had planned to play for one hour and ended up playing for nearly three! I even played songs that weren’t finished yet!”
At the time of our interview, RT-FACT was about to turn 30 years old at the end of February. For now, making music is not his main occupation but he wishes it will be soon. I assured him I didn’t care about his day job; that’s not the person I set out to interview anyway.
But first, I was curious, what’s behind the stage name RT-FACT?
“I wanted it to be a play with words, with different possible readings. So people can read it as artifact (one word) or two separate words “art” and “fact”. It’s whatever people feel it means.”
I read it as two separate words, art and fact, by the way. But don’t ask me to explain why.
From discovering music to wanting to become a creator
In 2012, RT-FACT gave his first steps at creating his own music. In part, because music was always a part of his life growing up – his sister played the piano and his father played the violin. It was a very musical household.
“I always loved music and it’s always been a part of my life. We were always listening to music at home. As a teenager, while in high school, I decided to learn to play the drums by myself. Eventually, I met other guys who wanted to start bands and I was invited to be the drummer. Some bands played originals, others played covers. After a while, I grew out of it and began to DJ at some bars. I didn’t play techno or house, my style was more alternative, sort of a nu jazz vibe, mixing jazz and electronic music.”
And how did people react to that style?
“Surprisingly well. Most of them weren’t familiar with that style, a lot of them had never heard about nu jazz.”
This audience reaction prompted him to discover something else about himself: that he was done playing other people’s material and he wanted to create his own thing. Electronic music was his creative outlet of choice.
“I began learning all I could about making my own music, watching tutorials online, attending some conferences on the topic, reaching out to friends. I believe if a person has creative skills, they should use it and make the best of it. I bought better equipment, specific software, and taught myself how to use it. At one point, I felt confident enough to start creating my own music and it just flowed. The first song came out, then the second, then another, and another. I realized I could attempt to put out a whole album. The first came out in 2015.”
“My Night Book”, experimentalism, and the first gigs
“My Night Book” was released in 2015. RT-FACT’s debut album is a testimony of his experiments, growth, and a message to all creators: the process is as important (perhaps more) than the outcome.
“The name [My Night Book] made sense for a number of reasons. Mainly because my creative energy was stronger at night. After a day at work, making music was more than an outlet and the night was like my bubble. On the other hand, that was the time when I could let go of all my emotions and let them run free. What I wanted in the future, what to make of it, my ambitions; all of that came out in the night’s peaceful environment.”
“The first time I played the album live for an audience (well, actually it was my first concert ever) was at an Open Day at ADAO. It was so dark that I couldn’t see anyone, so it was a perfect setting for an album called “My Night Book”. I was nervous but I also felt that adrenaline kick and I knew then, for sure, that this is what I wanted to do. I want to continue to make music and play live.”
ADAO is a cultural organization in Barreiro, set inside a restored former firefighters headquarters. In addition to being the workshop for local artists, it also hosts events (called Open Days) where they can showcase their work. It’s a well-received community event that attracts people of all generations.
The city is notorious for its rock-and-roll background, with now-defunct festivals like Barreiro Rocks, and alternative non-commercial music. I was curious to know how RT-FACT’s electronic music fits here and I was intrigued why he used the adjective “experimental” so much to describe his musical persona. Is he in it for the long run?
“I do use that word a lot!” [smiles]
After a pause, I push him to answer. Does it define him as an artist? Do people understand that electronic music can be experimental? Is being experimental possible beyond music genres like jazz?
“I think it depends a lot on the person or the kind of audience. But I think experimental music is not so far fetched as people think it is, it doesn’t have to be completely out of this world to feel like it’s experimental. In my case, I’ve tried to create a brand new music genre. One that’s my own. For example, I can attempt to create a song similar to trip hop or house but the outcome is always different. In the end, it will sound like me, it won’t sound like typical hip hop music.”
Touché! But does he feel like an outsider in the Barreiro music scene?
“Sometimes I still feel like an outsider but because I feel there should be more opportunities for local talent to showcase their work. Barreiro is a very creative city, with lots happening all the time, and places like ADAO really make the effort to open their doors and give space to everyone. Every time they do an open call for artists they try to make it as diverse as possible. To many, it’s their first break.”
On the second album (“IIDENTITY”, 2019) and the collaboration with Surma
His second album, released in 2019, is called “IIDENTITY”. No, it’s not a typo. It’s really “identity” with two iis. Again, a play with words that can have a meaning to you, another to me, and definitely a third one to RT-FACT.
“After the first album, I decided it was about time I poured a little more of myself on the new work. Each track is a piece of my personality, my identity. All of them pieced together make up the album, which in a way make up myself.”
After Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time ever in 2017, the country began paying attention to the competition again after years of neglecting it with a “we never win anyway” attitude. For younger generations of Portuguese musicians, it was a new way to showcase their work beyond what had been their outlet of choice for years: the Internet.
Surma was one of those artists that took the leap from the alternative music scene into everyone’s television screens. A favorite of many viewers, unfortunately she didn’t make it to the final cut to be Portugal’s representative at Eurovision 2019. Despite that, she has a track record of performances at top festivals like SXSW and Eurosonic Noorderslaag.
“I had been following Surma’s career online, before the Eurovision competition. We have similar paths — she plays solo, mixing acoustic instruments with electronic music too. The only difference between us is that she sings and I don’t. One of her tracks is called Maasai, like the tribe in Kenya. Coincidentally, when I was in Kenya I visited that tribe. I reached out to her on social media and told her that story, so we connected over that. At one point I proposed to remix one of her songs and she gave me full creative freedom to remix any of her tracks. I’ll be the first person to ever remix a song by Surma.”
“Plass” (RT-FACT Remix) was released on March 10, 2020.
On influences, family, and the future
Throughout this interview, I confessed my ignorance regarding electronic music. I can’t say it’s a genre I listen to a lot and my knowledge doesn’t go much beyond well-known hits by Massive Attack, Daft Punk, or LCD Soundsystem (which I don’t even know if it qualifies as electronic music?).
So, I was naturally curious about his influences. What influences a young electronic music creator who grew up in a household with two classical music players?
“That’s hard to answer! I have so many different influences! Of course, I grew up listening to my sister playing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin on the piano, but I also listened to a lot of jazz with my father. I remember listening to jazz from an early age. On the other hand, I also listened to bands that were popular in the 1980s like Queen. So, I really have a hard time pinpointing what actually influenced me.”
“The influence of electronic music came much later. It grew stronger as I thought I wanted to create a sort of ambient music, but then I wasn’t able to create music that followed a formula, or a set of rules. All my different influences lead me to create something unique, that’s just mine. I’m not gloating or anything!”
I reassure him I understand. For creators, it’s very hard to explain the creative process when people see only the outcome.
“I enjoy making music, I enjoy playing live, and I feel like I am connecting with people when I do. My number one goal is not to be famous. My number one goal is to be able to play my music live, share my work with an audience, connect with people.”
We talked briefly about the role of the internet on his generation’s achievements as creators, the good and the bad and the ugly. How it brings them the opportunity of reaching the whole world in seconds but how it also gives a stage to the talentless hustlers — I know far too well how easy it is to game the system. Are the number of followers and likes and shares and upvotes really the same as doing good work?
But I didn’t bring up the internet for a philosophical debate about its virtues and dangers. I brought it up because I wanted to touch a nerve: does the electronic music he creates require any talent and creativity?
“That’s precisely what I try to convey with my project. When I mention that I play electronic music, people think it’s an automatic thing, like I’m pressing demo buttons at random. You know, like those demos on the organs we had as kids? And that’s when I have to be very clear, that I’m not a DJ, I actually play instruments. Yes, I have some tools that help me create what an instrument can’t, but the rest of it it’s me playing on a keyboard.”
We both take a breather. The Internet has allowed artists to showcase their work but it has also brought out a growing crowd of critics. Just because something is in our screens, it doesn’t mean the artist behind it was creating it for us.
So, what does the ideal future look like for RT-FACT?
“The more live gigs I get, the better. That’s all I want to do as an artist: play for people. On the side, I keep creating soundtracks for videos — that’s something I like doing, too. And, of course, the cherry on top would be to find a label that believes in me and my work and takes me to the next level.”