Arcane Soundscapes

Reclusive Tucson producer Altrice steps into the spotlight

Thirty-year-old Tucson electronic producer Altrice moves gazelle-like through the pulsing field of instrumentals and drinkers gathered at R Bar for a late-night reprieve. Sonoran-silhouetted scenes glow red. Altrice steps behind the console and begins his set.

After Altrice's world nearly slipped away, DJ gigs like tonight, or Pushing Buttons, the producer showcase from Phen of Jivin Scientists, Roch Mirabeau and Jed Baker, are solace. It's a new chapter for the reserved and soft-spoken artist, who for years perfected his music in solitude. The crowd dances in electric waves. Phones shimmer like stardust. Head nodding, Altrice is at peace.

Born Mehran Michael Sadatmousavi to an Iranian father and Mexican mother who met at the University of Arizona, he was raised in Tucson.

On a visit to Tehran, Iran, when Altrice was 5, his uncle Peyman taught him a Brazilian song on piano. (The song title escapes Altrice, but he remembers the tune was in "A minor.") He had an immediate sense of how the ivories worked, so his parents signed him up for piano lessons in Tucson.

He began extended formal training, including violin in fifth grade, but he bucked against it. He wanted to do his own thing. He didn't get into beat-making until University High School when his cousin introduced him to FL Studio, then known as Fruity Loops, a popular musical production software. Altrice spent that year studying his cousin's work, looking for ways to improve.

In 2010 Caribou, a musical project of Canadian producer Dan Snaith, organized a remix contest for his album Swim. Altrice entered and won with "Sun," his remix of "Only What You Gave Me." In Pitchfork's review of the Swim remixes, they highlighted Altrice's mix as "easily one of the best cuts."

"Sun" churns like a monsoon of obsidian sunlight. Samples cleaved together, shard by shard. The Caribou-contest win led to Thom Yorke's camp asking him to remix "Lotus Flower," the lead single from the Radiohead album The King of Limbs, for their remix album TKOL RMX 1234567.

Altrice used samples from the entire album for his track TKOL. In 2011, with Caribou's support, he released a full Swim remix album, Stem. For the next few years, he immersed himself in the construction of his debut album, as well as releasing several remix EPs.  

After a decade of producing with FL Studio, feeling restricted by its time-signature grid structure, he switched to REAPER, a gridless production program. The evolution out of the grid was like being born and exploring an open boundless world after being confined to the womb. He said this change allowed his music to grow more organic and more human.

When his grandparents Abelardo and Elsa Pesqueira grew ill and moved into his parents house for care, Altrice began working on his debut album Mehran while tending to their home with his cousin.

Altrice didn't get to show his tata Abelardo the landscaping work he had done to his grandparents' house. His tata passed away January 2014.

In the process of mourning, Altrice started DJing. On a May night out at Congress, he drank a few more beers than his usual single and began to feel strange.

He said it was like a vice grip clamping down on his skull. He felt his left arm go tingly and went home. He went to bed and woke feeling "pressurized" as if "everything was closer to his face," then went to the ER and got scanned, yet nothing showed up.

Altrice's world started distorting. When walking, the ground beneath him warped, and people and objects around him shrunk, growing smaller and smaller until he was an isolated giant in the center of a microcosmic world. He'd hear his own voice three-dimensionally around him, the way it sounds when we hear our voice played back in a recording. Altrice stopped being able to recognize faces. Eyes and mouths would deconstruct into abstract shapes and lose the meaning they had to him before.

He finds himself describing this shrinking world as spherical, but the part everyone is trapped in is flat.

Altrice spent the next few months going through tests and visits to naturopaths, cematic therapists and three or four neurologists, who didn't see anything but said that the distortions could be mechanical or an equilibrium imbalance from the anatomical shape of his inner ear. Exhausted, he took a few months break from tests then started again. Through all this, the music continued, his anchor in a sea of distortion.

He avoids triggers like alcohol, caffeine and marijuana, which makes some collaborations difficult. He's careful to keep his equilibrium and prevent this psychedelia, which is always "simmering on the stove," from "boiling over."

Fearing he'd lose himself and his ability to create in this terrifying "funhouse," Altrice stepped further out of his creative isolation. Until these events, he avoided collaboration, performance, promotion and interviews.

Slowly, the outside world has been drawing the stoic Altrice outwards. Respected by producers like Roch Mirabeau for his timing and attention to detail, he continued DJing and participating in showcases like Pushing Buttons. Then this year he began collaborating, producing a track on Lando Chill's 2017 release The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, as well as unreleased track with Jaca Zulu.

Last fall he began previewing his debut album, the hauntingly incandescent Mehran. He used his first name, which means kindness, as a cairn, marking the shift into a more public musical life. He released the album quietly this summer. He'd like to tour at some point, but is hesitant to fly, though his partner, Ariel Fry, has been inspiring travel and openness.

Currently his life is carving time for new music. He tends to his livestock and gardens, the one at home with Ariel, and the one at Nosotros Academy, the charter K-12 school where he began teaching this summer. Early this year, DJ Andrew Shuta of Spork Press and Nosotros Academy reached out to Altrice about an open position to teach music production. He began preparing their garden this summer, tutoring and teaching FL Studio. Each class he'll craft a beat from scratch.

Altrice hopes to have time to work on new projects, but for now he teaches. Whatever musical realms Altrice explores, this city and culture is better off when he surfaces. ■

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