In the small room of a fraternity house on Warring St., the small-time DJ Ryan Francisca recorded his first song with an average microphone and a laptop. He wasn’t terribly proud of it. He felt that if he was seriously going to try to be a musician, he would have to step it up. It was a wake up call.
Francisca and his brother, Troy, started an electronic hip-hop group, Telefunk, which is now based near Los Angeles. Telefunk began while Francisca was in his last semester at UC Berkeley. He and his brother would collaborate over Skype on instrumentals and lyrics — a low budget, do-it-yourself sort of operation.
The band just released their second EP, Dreams, on January 13. They have garnered a tight following — they have performed at local music festivals, heard their songs play from cars driving by and been approached by mall-goers who listen to their music.
In an interview, Francisca described their music as “alternative,” but “alternative to what, I don’t really know.” The band’s website describes it as, “alternative hip-hop/electro house.” Influenced by a diverse group of artists, from people like Kanye West to Nigerian singer, D’banj, it emanates electronic vibes and 808 drumbeats, uses Auto-Tune and unadulterated piano. Yet for being so varied instrumentally, the lyrics consist of common themes of requited and unrequited love, loneliness, fame and fortune, and the lack of it. Much of this lyrical content is pulled from the lives of the two brothers.
Telefunk has also produced a few videos of their songs. They feature Francisca trudging along a beach, dancing in hotel rooms, cruising the freeways of Los Angeles, while another features him and his brother plugging away in their recording studio. The videos are very serious: “Telefunk” appears in behemoth letters on a black screen almost as if to convey the gravity of the music, which actually isn’t grave at all. The videos aren’t true to the artists. They distract from the music, although the world in which the Francisca brothers live, is one where music reigns.
Most of what Francisca knows about music is through self-education. He learned to sing in a choir and to play the drums at church. He can play the piano and the flute. He taught himself music theory and how to record, produce and compose music. He built his first computer when he was five. He learned the computer programming language C, when he was 12. He recorded an album for his mother, also a musician, when he was 14.
When he first went to a professional recording studio in Southern California, it cost $250 an hour, so Francisca and his brother saved up $12,000 and bought their own equipment so they could record from home. He is essentially an autodidact, one who has never been formally trained, a self-taught man.
“I am not held captive by any convention in music theory,” Francisca said. He believes that this means his music doesn’t submit to norms. He has a unique way of arranging his songs. Every track produced by Francisca starts with some kind of a base melody, which he plays on the piano, and then riffs off of. He may add a guitar complement, or the subtle tones of a saxophone.
Most of the artists Francisca admires are ones that he believes would still be making music in a moldy attic or a musty bedroom, even if they hadn’t made it big. An artist is supposed to be in it for the love of the craft, but the worries of financial stability often wriggle their way into the limelight. What struggling artist is not plagued by these devilish doubts, these treasonous thoughts of monetary compensation? Francisca sings his doubts into ruin. In one song he confesses, “Sometimes I think I picked the wrong trade.”
At one point, Francisca, who had been a film and computer science double major, had trodden down the path of job security. When he first graduated, he began to work full time at The Gersh Agency, a prominent talent agency in the entertainment industry. For four months he worked full time, from nine to five, and then he quit. “I don’t have to be confined to an office to make money to live,” Francisca said.
So, to earn a living while making music, Francisca started his own company, called Francisca Media, neatly pairing his skills as an artist with his skills as an engineer. He makes iPhone apps, develops websites, does studio photography, helps shoot films and produces music for other aspiring artists. Evidence not only of an artist, but of a savvy entrepreneur. “If you have a plan and you’re in it for the right reasons, not just for fast, quick money,” Francisca said, “You can endure.”
In one of his songs, Francisca says, “All I’ve got are these 808 drums.” He frets and fumes over his doubts and dreams. Yet this statement is slightly untrue, Francisca has much more than 808 drums, he has a media business, a homemade recording studio, and healthy dose of ingenuity. “I could go get a job as a computer engineer and let this thing I am passionate about go to waste,” Franscisca said. But he won’t do that. For an artist like him, passion trumps practicality.