Internet commenters can be all kinds of awful, but scroll through an artist’s SoundCloud page and the time-stamped reactions are often as illuminating as any critic’s review. In the case of rising producer Arca, there’s an overarching theme. Put simply it’s, “What the actual fuck?” “I don’t even think you are human!” cries one listener, flabbergasted by Broke Up and its squiggling rave synths, which sound as if they’re gasping for life. “Huhhhhhhhh,” goes another, when the drowsy, pitched-down vocal of DOEP drops in, a sliver of R&B squashed under a hobnailed boot. “This is just too crazy!” is a common observation when his freaky beeps and blips clatter and collide.
Somewhere in there, beneath all the clattering beeps and blips, is hip-hop music, but Venezuelan-born Arca – real name Alejandro Ghersi – doesn’t want you to have it that easy. His tracks are ambiguous and, deviating from conventional notions of melody and bass, are more likely to make you think than dance. If this sounds challenging, it’s the way music production is going. Arca’s generation of Ableton-manglers begin their careers making hybrid R&B, hip-hop and electronic music in their bedrooms. These songs then attract the attention of pop vanguardists searching for a way to capture – or, if you like, leech off – the zeitgeist. The trickle-down effect is such that, once the trendsetters have had done with it, you’ll probably end up hearing it on the next Alexandra Burke record.
The momentum of Arca’s career is building quickly already. Last year, he was picked to pitch in with Kanye West’s Yeezus sessions along with Hudson Mohawke, Gesaffelstein and Evian Christ, despite few people knowing who he was. He’s also collaborated with two of this year’s most name-dropped artists, LA singer Kelela and Mercury nominee FKA twigs. His are the spectral, spiralling sounds behind twigs’s breakthrough song Water Me, while his best friend and frequent collaborator Jesse Kanda is the artist behind its video. When I meet him, it’s for an evening in Reykjavik, the only time he has free as he works with Björk co-producing her next record. Arca, by the way, is 24 and his debut album hasn’t come out yet.
He got the Yeezus job, he says, as a result of sending Kanye “the craziest shit I’d been making. I was almost trolling.” He expands a little: “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I love this song’ on the first listen. I want them to listen to it again and again and, by the 10th time, finally see themselves in it.” Another example of his provocative nature came with the 2012 EPs Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, where he matched hip-hop instrumentals with raps about “receiving a penis into you, which is about the wildest thing you could confront a hip-hop community with”. The last thing he says he wants is for people to absorb his music passively; he wants it to wriggle under your skin.
In person, Arca still has that air of youthful rebellion. He turns up for our interview in a candlelit cafe wearing jeans covered in zips and open around the thigh, giving the impression of denim chaps. You get the feeling this is not what he could have got away with during a conservative childhood in Caracas. His experiences were not, perhaps, typical of a young boy in Venezuela: his father was an investment banker and when Alejandro was three, the Ghersi family relocated to Connecticut. When they moved back to Caracas, he lived in a gated community, was privately educated and had the luxury of piano lessons. “Everyone who lives in Venezuela has a love/hate relationship with it because of the political turmoil and the crime,” he says. The country has left an impression on him, yet he makes no bones of the fact that his upbringing “was kind of in a bubble”.
What really defined Arca’s boyhood, however, was the struggle with his sexuality. “I didn’t want to accept the fact that [I was gay],” he says, knowing that Caracas wouldn’t be the easiest place in which to come out. “I hoped that being attracted to men might go away, but what I never ever hoped would go away were the feelings of femininity, and of softness and fragility, that could live inside of a boy. They were private but they were mine.” Music was his coping mechanism. Bored with piano, Arca downloaded production software and started making beats at 14. He liked the pop and R&B stars of the time, such as Nelly Furtado and Aaliyah, as well as Arthur Russell, but he was particularly inspired by his older brother’s Aphex Twin and Nine Inch Nails albums. “I remember walking around a beach and my mind being expanded,” he says. “There’s something in glitchy music that I like to get lost in.”
These formative experiences are funnelled into Arca’s debut album, Xen, which is finally set to come out this month. Instead of the hook-filled songcraft you might expect of a new producer eager to prove his studio weight, he’s opted for improvisational, shape-shifting constructions of strings, keyboard keys and drum claps that could easily be bin lids rattling. There are some beats, inspired by the changa tuki party jams that he grew up around as a boy, a Venezuelan style that Arca says came from “funny guys that wear neon clothes and tinted sunglasses” and was “villainised by the upper class”, never to flourish outside the slums it came from. But for the most part, Xen is a Spirograph of modulating, writhing, diamond-bright sounds.
The concept behind the album has a spiritual importance for Arca, too. As a teenager, he would sign off as Xen in his diary but it was, he says, something more abstract than just an alter ego. “Xen is a genderless being. It’s about resisting labels and integrating different sides of ourselves. The complicating of one and the other is very fertile, emotionally and creatively,” he explains. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Native American tribes who saw homosexuals within their tribe as those who could see things in two different ways. [Their sexuality] could have a practical use, spiritually.” In other words, for Arca, the foggy place between the black and white, male and female, and easy and uneasy listening is the most authentic place to be, artistically: “Maybe the real truth is drawing strength from the grey.”
In turn, his vivid concepts come alive with Kanda, like the Chris Cunningham to Arca’s Aphex Twin. They connected on early, gothy social network deviantArt, and it was seven years before they met in real life and moved in together in London. Kanda creates Arca’s distorted imagery, such as the gender-blurring video for his Thievery single, in which a dancer’s jiggly butt cheeks are transposed onto Arca’s body, or their ongoing film project, Trauma, with its dancing babies that look like they’re made of melted wax. It’s disturbing but there’s logic to it, says Arca. “I think there’s a certain poetry to having your body reflect what you feel inside of you. Perhaps you have a feeling that’s so pure, or overwhelming inside of you that your body disfigures to it – contortions match your confusion.”
It’s easy to see why an artist like Björk would be drawn to Arca. He’s engaging company: three hours with him and you’re knee deep in a compelling world of ideas about gender binaries, meditation and philosophy. Björk and Arca’s music shares similarities, too: the strings on a track such as Xen’s Wound could have easily been on her 1995 album Post. “Listening to her growing up informed the way I make music,” he says, “so it’s very possible that just by making music after that, I [subconsciously] tapped into something that made it make sense. It’s a total openness, and fearlessness to being open – nothing is off limits emotionally. The music is a celebration more than anything else – a celebration of being able to feel.”
Xen is released on Monday on Mute; Arca performs live with Jesse Kanda at the ICA, SW1, 27 Nov