“I Wanna Do Walt Disney Hall With My Dick Out”: An Interview with Jordan Raf

Will Schube and Jordan Raf talk about fame, depression, and movies.
By    September 2, 2016

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Jordan Raf is one of those people you meet and say “I thought he’d be taller.” He’s 22 and about to release a record of R&B hits that you’d hear in a quaalude haze in hell. He takes drugs and curses constantly. He survived a stint in a psychiatric ward and art school at UCLA. He’s confused like we’re all confused. He’s a modern man, but painfully aware of the absurdity that connotes. This is the struggle at the heart of Jordan Raf and his debut album, Double Negative — out today on POW Recordings.

When I first planned on interviewing Raf, we decided to meet at a gun range near his house. Other commitments forced this interview to become a phone call, but Raf’s innate storytelling and almost manic energy rang true across the cellular network. Raf seems to simultaneously embrace and run from the sort of irony-laced disillusioned youth who makes R&B music and loves gun ranges. He knows the sort of eye rolls this can induce. This paradox is what Double Negative tries to sift through.

Raf tries to stomp on a certain ironic distance plaguing our world. It’s contradictory, sure—the dude in all black popping pain pills and going to the driving range, but who gives a shit? If anything, Raf is trying to become a better person by allowing himself some freedom to exist free from the internet culture. He’s also an active participant in it. There’s always an irreconcilable gap between the ironic and the authentic, but in that space can lie an attempt at genuineness and honesty; Double Negative lives in that space. —Will Schube

 


Do you write and conceive your own videos? They’re wild.


Jordan Raf: I do, yeah.


Do you direct them as well?


Jordan Raf: It’s a collaborative effort with a good friend of mine named Tucker who I’ve known for a long time. We’re sort of like the Coen Brothers when it comes down to it. I write and he directs.


Are you from LA originally?


Jordan Raf: Fuck no. Thank God. I was born in Texas and I moved to San Diego when I was a kid and I grew up mostly there.


Where in Texas?


Jordan Raf: I was born in Dallas.


How old were you when you moved to San Diego?


Jordan Raf: I was seven years old.


Do you remember anything from the Texas days?


Jordan Raf: Yeah, that it was extremely hot like Dante’s Inferno. It was so, so hot. A lot of people probably said the n-word. I don’t know there were lots of fire ants that I would always get bit by. It drove me crazy.


Have you ever done South By before?


Jordan Raf: No, but hopefully one year I can and Narduwar can interview me and bring me a drawing I made when I was six years old. Or like save a lock of my hair from when I was born. That nightmare, beautiful man. I was offered to do a small South By showcase about a year ago but the thing about me is I’m the humblest person I know [laughs].
No, I’m kidding…I’m very good live, but I’d much rather be a recording artist that has a lot of fans that would want to see me play…Like Frank Ocean or Lana Del Rey. They weren’t at The Echo every Saturday trying to play for a couple of people with stick ‘n poke tattoos. I’m just trying to get some sort of fan base so that I can play a full room and then go home and cry and watch Gilmore Girls.


Do you want to be famous?


Jordan Raf: It’s so funny when everyone asks me that.


Do you get that a lot?


Jordan Raf: I guess…I’m the sick fuck that chose to be in this industry. Yes and no. There are days when I wake up and I want to be on Iron Chef America as a food panel guest and be on Oprah talking about my substance abuse issues and my ex-wife. I want to have a matching car with David Letterman, his and her matching fragrances at Macy’s. I want everything. But some days all I want is for people to respect me as an artist. It’s a bizarre dichotomy that I go through.

Some days, I’m like fuck it, I want to be on a yacht with an Italian millionaire and a Swedish prince doing poppers, and one day all I want is for someone to like me on Soundcloud.


Do you take drugs?


Jordan Raf: Yeah. I do.


What’s your drug of choice?


Jordan Raf: I like pain pills.


You wrote “Roses” after a mental breakdown. Do you feel comfortable talking about what happened?


Jordan Raf: I just did an interview with ID and we just went through the whole gamut of that story, but let’s do it again [laughs]! Basically, it’s fine. It’s an important story. One of the most important things about me being an artist is using this special thing—my voice, my musicianship—to spread important stories. And that’s definitely an important story.

I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety my entire life. I was going through a really bad break-up and Double Negative is very much a breakup album…As much as I hate saying that. Down the pit I went, and I just became super masochistic and mixed a lot of drugs and drank a lot and didn’t take care of the responsibilities in my life. Not really because of the drugs, I guess, more because I was depressed and anxious.

I did a lot of bad things to good people and went deep and deep into a hole. I bought a tattoo gun and just wrote all over my legs. My legs look like a kid’s yearbook. It was really terrible. I was taken away from the things I’m really passionate about. I was trying to be a good person—someone who cares about music and social change—but instead turned into a masochistic shell of a human. I just cared about my ego being hurt so bad. I went down to Mexico and lost all my money. I went back to my house in San Diego and my dad—who’s my rock, the best person in the world…We never ever fight and I ended up having a very Gatsby-esque moment where I threw everything I had into a pool. It was a weird Zen Buddhist mental panic attack thing.

I caught a ride back to LA and took a bunch of pain pills, drew a bath, and cut my wrists. An ambulance came, I got a 5150 and I was in Las Encinas—this spooky ass psychiatric hospital—for three days and it was an extremely eye-opening experience. There are lots of incredible people in there that shouldn’t be and there are a lot of people in there that should be there, but shouldn’t be treated the way they are.

I don’t think a lot has changed regarding the stigma of mental illness. If a lot more money went into places like Las Encinas, rather than prisons and wars—the institutionalization of all these people, especially people of color who have an even bigger stigma against them regarding mental illness would be handled differently. There are just such varying degrees in these programs. Someone like me who’s a narcissistic middle class kid who had the ability to fuck up and get a second chance…There are a lot of people that don’t get that chance and they’re treated like shit. But after being there for about two hours, I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my life and that I had some sort of talent and that I had surrounded myself with a lot of beautiful people. I got out of that place and hit the restart button.


Were you writing the record before this happened?


Jordan Raf: I’ve been writing the record for the past two and a half years. I have this friend John Wurlick, he goes by John War, and he’s one of my main writing partners. He produces about half of my stuff. Even if he doesn’t make the beat whole or write the song, at one point the music touches him. He’s just a friend from high school. He’s brilliant. He could have made a robot or some shit but he decided to make music of all things.

He and I have been working on Double Negative for two years. It’s been off and on for a long time. We had this one band a while ago called Ponyboy that was this indie, alt-rock, folk thing that I made during the first year of college. It was fun but I realized my heart wasn’t in it. I just started doing music from my heart and that’s R & B obviously. It’s hard being a white boy doing R & B because it’s like, what do we have to work with, you know? We got James Blake, that imperialistic ass British dude and then How To Dress Well, who looks like he texts girls, “you up?” all the time. It’s a hard roster to break into but I’m trying.


How old are you?


Jordan Raf: I’m 22.


How did you get together with POW Recordings?


Jordan Raf: A week after all that shit happened—I had been talking to Jeff for a while and we decided to meet up and I guess he saw something in me. He listened to this one song that me and Walker—Toy Light—made…He’s awesome, he’s an amazing producer. I don’t know how he does it. It’s like he’s got the Da Vinci Code on the back of his laptop or some shit. But anyways, he and I made a song called “Glass” and I guess Jeff liked it. I sent him most of Double Negative, and he saw something in it. It’s the first offer I’ve ever had, as far as being on a label, which is great. Some real Hustle & Flow shit.


What do you study at UCLA?


Jordan Raf: I graduated a couple of months ago. I learned so much as you can tell [laughs]. I studied Design Media Arts.


Are you glad you went to college?


Jordan Raf: Of course. It’s a giant luxury. Whether I want to be this dark brooding artist and say fuck school, that’s blasphemous. I’ve learned so much. It’s made me a more well-rounded person. UCLA is a great establishment. As easy as it is to badmouth the colossal structure that is organized education and public schooling, I can’t. Education is only gonna make you a stronger and better person. Probably the only thing I have going for me is my college degree, which I haven’t seen yet, and when I do I’ll probably do something dumb with it.


Do you play many shows?


Jordan Raf: I played the Passion of the Weiss fest that Vince Staples and Jonwayne were at. That was a great experience. It was really fun and during my song “Roses” I passed out a bunch of roses. It was a beautiful experience. I’ve played other shows for friends and stuff and it’s still a religious experience being on stage—not to sound like Matthew McConaughey—it’s so fun.


Do you play solo or do you have a band?


Jordan Raf: I have a big ass live set-up. I have my friend Jimmy who’s a guitar prodigy and then John who does electronic drums and stuff. One day I’d love a huge ensemble. I wanna do Walt Disney Hall with my dick out and play some Tchaikovsky.


When you’re not working on music what do you like doing? What does an average day look like?


Jordan Raf: It depends if I have music stuff, because if I have something to hash out that consumes everything. But besides that in these weird purgatory days, I wake up around 11 or noon. I usually go on my computer and read or read a book. I read as much as I can to soak up some information. I’ll go out and do something menial to keep me alive like a human. Keep my health in check, go to the gym. I’ll eventually go to the studio and start drinking around 5 or 6 so I don’t get the shakes [laughs]. Just do something that’ll make me feel anything, you know? Some days are really boring. I’ll just stay home and watch The Wire.


I just re-watched the entire thing. It’s the best.


Jordan Raf: I’m on Season 3 right now I just finished the whole dock workers thing. It’s so fucking good. Some days I’ll just watch HBO until I’m catatonic. And then some days I’ll be real domesticated and cook for myself. If I’m lucky I’ll go out with a girl, a real human woman which is cool. It just depends.


Were there any particular artists you were listening to while writing and recording?


Jordan Raf: I was listening to a lot of Oneohtrix [Point Never] and Lapalux. Those were the sort of producers that inspired me. I listened to a lot of Jackson Browne, I think he’s an incredible songwriter. Even though that genre’s stupid in the first place…I listen to a lot of Smokey Robinson. And then just to get a barometer of the social climate, I listen to a lot of FKA Twigs and King Krule. A lot of people try to put me in the same category as them, so I think it’s important to know what I’m being compared to.

I listen to a lot of D’Angelo. I think he’s one of the most virtuosic singers around. Black Messiah was crazy. I love inc., too. I think they’re great. I like Dean Blunt a lot, too.


What part of LA do you live in?


Jordan Raf: I live in the (F)Art District, dog. I don’t even know if it’s the Arts District. I live right between Boyle Heights and Downtown, right next to a big strip club called Dames n’ Games.


Do you ever go there?


Jordan Raf: I’m not a huge fan of strip clubs. When I was 18 or 19, sure. But now that I’m a little older…Women choose to do whatever empowers them and obviously there are lots of arguments about strip clubs. I don’t have anything super morally against them, but one, I don’t have the expendable income to frequent them, and two, it’s too human for me. I consider myself a feminist, so it’s one thing to go as friends just to enjoy ourselves and things like that, paying people for their services which is important in sex work, but for me just going in there it just wouldn’t feel right.

Every time I get in an Uber, there’s this weird misogynistic glaze over the driver’s eyes, and he’s like, “Hey, you get some pussy bro?” And I’m just like, “No, I’m just trying to go to Echo Park to fucking look into the abyss one more time.”


Do you have a favorite song on the record?


Jordan Raf: It’s probably “Roses.” That was the first song I wrote when I got out of the psych ward. It means the most to me. Conceptually I’m really proud of it.


I like “King Prince” a lot.


Jordan Raf: Aw thanks. I was trying to write the best intro I possibly could. I was listening to a lot of Stones, Jackson Browne, some Bruce Springsteen—trying to put that stuff in an R & B light.


What Stones record is your favorite?


Jordan Raf: I like Some Girls. “Beast of Burden” is probably the greatest song ever written.


Have you ever been to The Badlands before [Raf has a song on Double Negative titled “Badlands.”]?
 


Jordan Raf: No, that song was mostly inspired by the Terrence Malick movie. Just because he had a really good way of humanizing that serial killer. The whole song is about mental illness and trying to humanize the stigma attached to it. You know, the chorus goes, “First there was color/then there was sex/now it’s my head.” It’s just trying to go through the timeline of American socio-political awareness. There was color and gender, and it still is obviously, but hopefully in the next 20 years we’ll see more understanding regarding mental illness. I also mention The Thin Red Line in the song. It’s all Malick stuff because I think he’s a brilliant director.


Are you a big movie guy?


Jordan Raf: Yeah, that was my first passion before I did music. I always wanted to do film and acting. The only thing about film and acting—I mean, I’m the fool now because everything’s about commodity—but I thought music was more about your soul than trying to sell something. Acting can be more about fitting a certain type in that big, booming business…I always thought music had a little more artistic merit in it, but that’s not necessarily true anymore.


Who’s your favorite director?


Jordan Raf: I like Paul Thomas Anderson a lot.


Bless you. He’s my hero.


Jordan Raf: Yeah he’s a really brilliant guy. I love Malick, of course. I love Wim Wenders. Paris, TX is one of my favorites.


That scene at the end when he’s talking to his wife across the glass…


Jordan Raf: Yeah, it’s such a beautiful shot. Yeah, that shot…I love Elia Kazan, too. East of Eden is one of my favorite movies ever. I really like Truffaut and Godard. Kurosawa, too. I like Herzog a lot. Mostly his documentaries, though. I’ve never really been able to get into his narratives.


What’s your favorite PTA movie?


Jordan Raf: Fuck dude, that’s so hard. Shit. Honestly, I love Punch-Drunk Love. I love it for some reason. I love it so much. I love The Master even though it’s difficult to get through. Boogie Nights is really good.


Yeah, they’re all amazing. Speaking of those LA movies, do you consider yourself an LA artist? Do you think place plays an important role in your music?


Jordan Raf: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s super important to translate the narrative of LA in some way. It’s so rich culturally, and even though I am a transplant, I think that kind of lets me be a sonic anthropologist about it. You hear that, sonic anthropologist? That’s pretty good.


The album has a really particular aesthetic to it. Do you have an ideal setting in which it should be listened to?


Jordan Raf: Wherever you can listen to it from start to finish. That’s really the most important thing to me. Whether that’s in the privacy of your own home, or wherever, I just want it heard start to finish. A lot of deliberation went into picking the order of the songs. If you don’t ride it like it is, you’re not gonna get half the satisfaction out of it.
It can be in your bedroom, hopefully there are a couple songs you can listen to out and about, but I think there are some singles I’m gonna drop on Soundcloud and also the second album will have more club potential. This one is definitely a journey through the past couple years, so I like people listening to it somewhere solitary.


It’s one of those albums that’s a party for yourself.


Jordan Raf: Exactly. That’s well put.


Do you have a favorite color?


Jordan Raf: Black. It sounds so nihilistic [laughs]. I just like black. It’s easiest.


Are you a fashion guy?


Jordan Raf: I’m an art guy. I’m a corny art motherfucker. I’ve dedicated my life to it and music’s just another medium. I have a lot of clothes that I’ve spent too much money on.


Do you have a favorite author?


Jordan Raf: Definitely David Foster Wallace. No one else competes for me. I’ve been getting into Judith Butler, I know she’s well known for her gender theory, but I’ve been into this book called The Psychic Life of Power. I love heteronormative ass shit like Hemingway, too. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. That’s a book I’ll read once a year.


I know some of the beats on your new record are made by John War, but regarding outside collaborators, how do you navigate keeping a coherent sound when you’re outsourcing beats?


Jordan Raf: I think the only beat not by me and John is by a dude named Edo Lee from Berklee School of Music who’s a wonderful multi-instrumentalist. He did the beat for “Duvet.” That one is probably different from a lot of the record but it did capture an emotion. The most important thing for me is to capture an emotion. I think the second album, Empathy, will have a larger variation of emotions and producers with it.


Are you already working on the new record?


Jordan Raf: It’s pretty much done. We have six or seven songs that are ready to go. I want to make it a little longer. I have more stories to tell as life goes on. I want this one closer to 15 or 20 songs. Empathy is getting there. It’s not like Double Negative in the way it’s got one story and is a little more mellow, but a lot of it is more upbeat and then a lot of it is dark and brooding, too. It appeals more to your pathos.