Around 4 a.m. in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, 21-year-old Rafa Alvarez sits hazily at his computer working on a track for his debut album, due early next year. This is where he’s most inspired, when the melancholy moonlit city mirrors the sound of his laidback electronic music project, Different Sleep. His Conflict EP, released last spring off Friends of Friends, channeled this downtempo, dream-like tenor, asserting Alvarez as a major player within Chicago’s bubbling music scene. He’s since continued building buzz by playing underground parties across America, and more recently collaborating with Chicago rappers Lil Chris and Kid Sister on “Hurt You,” a hypnotic, self-reflective track that breathes new life into auto-tune.
With his upcoming album, Alvarez says he will explore a more maximal sound, as shown through his latest release, “Secrets,” available now for free download. The longing track, which samples Kirko Bangz, is a taste of what’s to come for the rising DJ, but will not be included in his official full-length debut. We had the chance to talk with Different Sleep about growing up in San Diego, Chicago’s music scene, and his love of early 2000s trance music.
Tell us about the name, Different Sleep.
I came up with “Different Sleep” a long time ago, before I was really taking music seriously. I woke up from a really crazy dream one day and was still in that halfway state of being awake and asleep, and the name just stuck with me. I’ve always made more down-tempo, melancholy music, so “Different Sleep” really made sense. I think over time, it has become a mindset for me when I am making music to create things that put you in this altered state of being only somewhat conscious.
You make your music at odd hours—why?
I think that’s why my music sounds so melancholy, just because it’s made in the early hours of the morning. That’s when I come up with the best ideas—I’m a night owl. It’s a time for me to be in my own little shell, my own creative space. It’s the best time because I’m not around other people and I’m really in my own zone.
When did you start making music in San Diego?
I started when I first got an iMac back in the 7th grade—I was probably like 12 or 13. I had been playing guitar for a year and wanted to begin recording my own songs, which eventually turned into me making full-blown productions on my computer. I think a large part of why I started making music had to do with where I lived in California—I lived really far south in San Diego, like 30 minutes from most of my friends. So most of the time I hung out at my house and music was the one thing I had to stay entertained. Throughout high school, I’d sell albums to my friends and teachers, but it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago for school that I started to take everything more seriously.
How did the move from San Diego to Chicago affect your sound?
It showed me a lot of new music that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I stayed in San Diego, like going to a party here and seeing people do footwork for the first time or hearing juke music. I was just like a sponge, taking in all these new genres. Living in a city, you feel sort of locked inside, you get stuck in your room. In the winter here, especially, you’re inside so much, you become a hermit. That’s one of the best things that could’ve happened to me, though, being forced to stay inside and work on my music.
How do you think Chicago’s music scene could be stronger?
There’s so much music here, but it’s all very separated. People in Chicago are making all this great music, but they all stay in their own groups. There’s Teklife making footwork music, all these bop artists like Dlo and Lil Chris and then there’s the electronic scene of songwriters and producers like Supreme Cuts, The GTW and The-Drum. We have all these cool artists, but it’s rare for them to come together under the same roof. That’s what would make Chicago’s music scene stronger—collaboration is a beautiful thing.
What music are you into right now?
Chicago hip-hop, no doubt, but I’ve also recently been drawn to this new style of music that’s reminiscent of early 2000s trance. Some artists on that new record label PC Music like SOPHIE—they’re making this really maximal trance, electronic music that brings you back to artists like Tiësto. That sound has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.
Tell us about getting signed to your record label, Friends of Friends.
I signed with Friends of Friends earlier this year, which was an awesome moment because I’d grown up listening to music off Friends of Friends like Shlohmo and Salva. It’s just been really awesome working with them because they really understand the artistic process of putting together music. They realize it’s not something that could be said and done—it takes time. They’ve never rushed me, so I’m really excited for this upcoming album.
What can we expect from your full length debut album?
I’ve been making more songs as opposed to just beats—music that’s not just meant for Soundcloud. I want my new music to make an impact on people, so that a few years down the line, they can still feel connected to it. I’ve been going back and listening to the albums that influenced me when I first started making music—Give Up by The Postal Service was such an important album for me. I’m trying to make music with more purpose than just being a dope beat on Soundcloud—I think that’s the issue nowadays. Too many people are making music for the platform and not for the sake of creating really good music. Internet hype can distract from music’s real purpose.