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Mad Decent’s Newest Curveball

First Houses, now Dawn Golden & Rosy Cross: pop auteur Dexter Tortoriello can’t turn around without landing a record deal.

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Like most artists whose music has been called "chillwave," Dexter Tortoriello chafes at the term—unsurprising, given that it was coined by Carles, the brutally sarcastic persona of an anonymous blogger at Hipster Runoff. Even the critics who rushed to cover the style in the wake of last year's South by Southwest seemed to enjoy predicting that it would be a flash in the pan.

Tortoriello, a 24-year-old Hanover Park native, would prefer that people think of his music in terms of old Elephant 6 recordings, but he knows how it ended up in the chillwave bucket. Houses, his duo with girlfriend Megan Messina, is signed to Lefse Records, whose roster includes several well-known chillwave artists, and the first Houses tracks he posted online sounded enough like chillwave for the label to stick. Specifically, they're pop songs that use decades-old synth tones and heaps of reverb, with production that suggests the cheapest home-recording equipment available circa 1994—though Tortoriello records with his computer, he likes to run the audio through an old tape deck afterward to dirty it up.

All the same, Tortoriello's music lacks the overt nostalgia that gives so much chillwave its characteristic feel—it doesn't sound like a heavily effected fourth-generation tape dub of the Breakfast Club soundtrack, in other words. And there are other departures: most of the Houses long-player, All Night, isn't catchy pop but Eno-influenced ambience, and Tortoriello's solo project Dawn Golden & Rosy Cross is more beat-based than most chillwave. Dawn Golden's debut EP, Blow, is narcotically mellow pop at heart, but its propulsive percussion twitches and shimmies like a Dirty South hip-hop beat or the polyrhythms of the dance-music microstyles grouped under the umbrella "tropical."

"I don't actually listen to a lot of Dirty South hip-hop," Tortoriello says. And he's not a big fan of dance music either. "As dancy as I get is kind of Gold Panda and stuff, newer Four Tet." In high school he played metal and experimented with drone music, and before Houses took off he was making dreamy, rustic-sounding indie pop as the Hospital Tapes and avant-garde noise as the Rainbow Circuit. "When I was gearing up for the Dawn Golden recording, I listened to a lot of death metal," he says. "Neurosis was one of my favorite bands of all time. Their whole doom, sludge-metal stuff is super inspiring to me, and the way they use their drums is a lot like—I mean in a very different way—how I would like to use my drums. Like really pounding and sort of persistent, driving drums."

Tortoriello posted Blow online in August 2010, not expecting much to come of it. But in October he heard from Grammy-nominated DJ and producer Diplo, who runs the tastemaking label Mad Decent. "I didn't get it," Tortoriello says. "He came to me. He messaged me on MySpace and said, 'I love your stuff, who's putting it out?' And I was like, I already put it out on a Bandcamp page and made a couple hundred dollars, and it dropped off."

Tortoriello admits that at the time all he knew of Diplo was his beat for M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" and a few tracks by his avant-dancehall project Major Lazer. He barely listens to hip-hop or dance music, which makes his good fortune hilariously ironic—or incredibly frustrating, if you're one of the bazillion young beat makers all over the world who'd trade a body part for an offer from Mad Decent.

"I'd seen his Blackberry commercial and I was intrigued by him," Tortoriello says. "This guy produced 'Paper Planes' and all of this stuff, and you'd see him in interviews and he'd be kind of trashing the whole pop industry. As a person he is super strange. I kind of expected him to be this Ebonics-talking white dude, you know, and he's not." Dawn Golden & Rosy Cross finalized a deal with Mad Decent in January, and the EP comes out April 12.

At first blush Dawn Golden might seem like an odd fit with a label known for dubstep compilations, Philly club-music 12-inches, and hyperkinetic rave mixes—but only if you forget about Diplo's eccentric tastes. Remember, we're talking about the guy who signed electro-rockabilly weirdo Bosco Delrey. "What Wes [Diplo] and I really believe in is that we should be able to put out music that we like," says Mad Decent label manager Jasper Goggins. "I think people in general know us more for putting out dance music, if you could classify it that way, but even with that stuff we tend to lean more left-field than most."

Tortoriello describes Dawn Golden as a temporary escape from the long-term plan he's developed for Houses. "I have this very large vision for Houses that spans a couple albums of growth," he says. "Whereas with Dawn Golden & Rosy Cross, I recorded six songs because I'd wanted to record them for so long, and there was never really an idea to do much more with it."

Maybe it's because Tortoriello's enjoying a bit of freedom from his self-imposed restraints, or maybe it's just all those death-metal records he's been listening to, but Blow sounds more vital and exciting than Houses. "Blacks," the song Goggins says persuaded him and Diplo to seriously consider Dawn Golden, floats a catchy vocal part over a throbbing, druggy synth line that would fit fine in a dubstep track. The melody to "White Sun" is carried by bummed-out vocals and ghostly piano, but behind it bumps a strip-club beat and what sounds like a sample of Lil Jon shouting "Yeah!"—a combination that provides a bit of intellectual frisson on top of just sounding really, really good.

When Tortoriello first released Blow, he tried to do it anonymously, keeping Dawn Golden's identity a secret—a tactic that's generally more annoying than intriguing, except when employed by a musician who sounds like he could legitimately be a crazy person (see Jandek). He dropped that front pretty quickly, though, and he doesn't seem at all guarded about his plans. He's happy to tell me that new albums by Houses and Dawn Golden are already in the works, for instance. He also explains that he's collaborating via e-mail with chillwave artist Teen Daze because he thinks he's awful to work with in person. "I've tried it before," he says. "I feel like a dick." (He makes an exception for Messina, who he calls "a sounding board for ideas.")

The only subject Tortoriello seems reluctant to discuss is the Dawn Golden & Rosy Cross name—which apparently refers to occult groups like the Rosicrucians and Ordo Templi Orientis. "That's actually something that I can't talk about," he says, laughing. He explained it once in an interview and got what he calls "crazy e-mails" the next day. "Just covering my bases," he says. "There's some pretty serious magical warfare that's been threatened if I'm not careful."

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