Baltra on Philadelphia, YouTube, and Hedge Funds
Rising electronic DJ and producer Michael Baltra is beginning to see his hard work pay off. After years spent building his name in New York’s underground circuit and with a bevy of acclaimed releases under his belt, the Philadelphia native capped off a whirlwind 2017 with a skillful Boiler Room debut. Subsequent touring and remix requests diverted his attention from original releases, but after a year’s hiatus he’s finally back with his latest offering. Baltra’s Can’t Explain It EP, the first release on Of Paradise’s new white label series, is a dazzlingly emotive record informed by a transformative period in both his career and personal life. Baltra sat down to discuss the new EP (releasing September 28), his early days in Philadelphia and New York, and how an oil dividends trader on Wall Street ended up remixing tracks for Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Do you remember wanting to make music when you were younger?
No, it kind of found me –– if I remember correctly, I think I was in class one day and the music teacher came through with a box of instruments and asked if anyone was interested. I said sure and chose a violin, and I remember thinking immediately, ‘I don’t like this instrument,’ but I was a shy kid –– I was like the smallest kid in my class growing up, even through high school. I didn’t have the courage or audacity to speak up and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t for me.’
I also remember wanting to make my parents proud, so I kind of stuck with it for a while (laughs). So yeah, I did that for about two or three years, and then it kind of faded out –– I was and still am really into sports, so I consciously shifted over to playing soccer and baseball. It was just too much to keep up with that, my schoolwork and the music.
You’re from Philadelphia –– what was life like growing up there?
I’m from Northeast Philadelphia, on the border of the city proper and the suburbs –– walk about 200 yards and you’re in what’s considered the city. That was really cool; it made me feel like I had the best of both worlds. I guess, that is, until I moved to New York! (laughs)
Looking back, my hometown was really cool and I’m happy it shaped who I am, but having the perspective I have now I realize I kind of grew up in a bubble. Even though Philadelphia’s a top-10 city in the U.S., I feel like I always view it as a sort of younger sibling to New York City. There’s a lot of cool shit happening there, but it feels like it’s always somewhat of a late-adopter in many cases. I think it will always be that way, and honestly I think that’s cool.
It’s because Philadelphia is overwhelmingly more blue collar than New York City –– and that’s a good thing. There are a lot of blue-collar workers here in New York, but that’s balanced out by all the financial and cultural institutions, the old money, all of that. Another thing is that the majority of the population of Philadelphia was born and raised there, whereas in New York it’s a much smaller percentage –– still a big percentage, but not in comparison to Philadelphia. You have such an influx of people who move here for so many different reasons, and it just changes the culture and vibe of the city.
How is Philadelphia’s music scene distinct from its Northeastern counterparts?
I think it has to do with the pride of everyone who lives there. It’s not a pride that’s obnoxious in any way; it’s just really authentic. The music and art there has always felt very grassroots ––when I mentioned they’re slightly behind New York in those terms, I think that’s a good thing. You’ve got things being gentrified there as obviously they are [in New York], but later. And that means you still have genuinely cool shit happening, it’s just being progressively pushed out of the city, but it is there.
What do you think Philadelphians are proud of?
I think they’re proud of the experiences they’ve had in their life and that they made it through. Like New York, Philadelphia can afford great opportunities, but it’s not an easy place to live. And all these people are still living and pushing and working their asses off… When you live in a place for a long time, like the majority of Philadelphia residents, they’re proud of what they’ve cultivated –– whatever culture, music, sports team, whatever they may support and dedicate themselves to under those conditions.
I think that comes from the mentality Philadelphia has in general –– it’s a bit more of a simple place than New York, but that means it’s a bit more grounded. I love New York, but it can get too much even for me; I really enjoy breaking away and going back to my roots, being around a bit more greenery. It resets me personally and creatively, helps me realize that I don’t need to rely on technology 24/7.
Has the scene in Philadelphia changed from when you were living there?
Yeah –– really dope warehouse parties that weren’t even there a couple of years ago have popped up all over. What we want right now in New York, underground events in interesting locations free from authoritative scrutiny, is happening in Philadelphia. They’re definitely catering to a smaller audience, but they have a lot more freedom. It’s an interesting trade-off.
We also have a few great new radio stations there –– I went back last weekend to see my mother and I noticed some really cool internet radio stations that are playing great shit. It’s refreshing to hear that –– the only time I was able to hear stuff like that growing up, other than the Beats in Space show, was in Europe.
I’m so accustomed to the specificity of American radio: every station is dialed into a very specific, very commercial genre with little deviation from the norm. I was in Kiev or Austria and remember hearing this FM radio station that was playing super weird electronic music mixed in with deep jazz cuts. That was so cool to me, I was like, ‘Why don’t we have this where I’m from?’
What did you listen to growing up?
Some stuff on MTV; late night they had some house music but it was very few and far between. Other than that, I was going into record shops and buying CDs here and there –– I grew up on hip-hop so that represented the majority of my purchases. I didn’t get into electronic music until a little later, so for me it was hip-hop and R&B.
Did your experiences in Philadelphia’s scene shape your taste in music?
I’d say it influenced me subconsciously. There are so many good artists who’ve come out of Philadelphia over the years, and they’ve always had such a big impact on the city. The pure instrumentation of some of those musicians –– the jazz and hip-hop history the city has is really special.
I wouldn’t say I was super influenced by any of the electronic music coming out of Philadelphia! (laughs).
Yeah, it’s interesting you mention that. There’s such a rich music history in New York to the East and Chicago and Detroit a little further to the West, but it seems to have passed over Philadelphia.
Yeah –– years and years and years ago Philadelphia certainly had a big musical moment, especially during the doo-wop era that my dad used to listen to. After that you had a couple of big acts popping up here and there, but nothing really sustained. Even in hip-hop, everything wanted to be so underground and so specific to a honed style that just never came into its own in Philadelphia –– it never got to the level of distinction of New York underground hip-hop, or the stuff coming out of Atlanta with Outkast and Three Six Mafia a little later on.
What made you move to New York?
I came here for school originally. I went to school for two years in Philly, at Drexel, and tried to leave after my first year (laughs). It was fine, but it just felt like a continuation of what I was used to in high school. I went there for graphic design and remember staying up for days at a time working on my assignments –– stuff like making a grey-scale from scratch using paint. And we had this teacher who would critique everyone’s work so viciously –– he would flippantly declare that the entire finished piece was wrong and that only a little corner was correct, and would rip off that corner and throw the rest out the window from the third floor. Having him critique my work made it even more difficult to express myself emotionally as an artist; the course was too subjective.
So after a couple of years, I got fed up and decided to go into something safe. I decided to go study business at NYU (laughs). I was always pretty good with numbers; I would memorize statistics as a kid, stuff like sports cards that I traded like it was the stock market. Still, I didn’t know what I was doing so figured I’d just try my best. Around that time I also started clubbing here, going to places like Cielo, and found myself getting more interested in that. As a result I only pulled like a 3.5 GPA when I got my degree, which wasn’t bad, but compared to my classmates who had these perfect 4.0s it wasn’t good.
So what did you do?
I decided to grit my teeth and find a job, just try to stack some cash for a few years and then get out. I was coming from a top five finance university, and figured even though I don’t love it, it was something to pay the bills for the next couple of years. But when I graduated, I wasn’t able to get a ‘proper’ job offer; I had interviews with a bunch of big multinational banks but nothing worked out. Somehow I wound up getting a job for the venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family, and for about eight months I worked on the 57th floor of 30 Rock –– a pretty small, very old-school venture capital office.
I was essentially an assistant accountant, but didn’t take it super seriously and devoted most of my energy to going out all the time. I’d show up to my desk smelling like alcohol from the night before, simply because I knew what was required of me and that it didn’t challenge me in the slightest (laughs). Just turn up, do these spreadsheets, and leave. I didn’t really see a career path for myself at the company, especially within the timeframe I’d set –– so while it was an easy job that paid the bills, I figured I’d see what else is out there.
And where did that take you?
I was looking online and came across this posting for a job at a hedge fund on Wall Street, and figured that since I’d be paying off my degree for years I’d just found an easy out. I could do this job, make a bunch of money fast, and then do something else. Somehow I breezed through the interview, and got the job –– I accepted and it was not what I thought I was getting myself into. It was really intense. I had to be in the office every morning at 5 a.m., and would stay there until 8 or 9 p.m. I literally had no life for the year and a half I worked there.
My only escape was going home and fucking around on these two turntables I’d bought because I couldn’t go out as much. I’d just mess around and end up teaching myself the basics –– it became my ‘fix’ in a way, my passion. I’d manage to get the odd gig here or there when I had some free time –– playing on Serato and early CDJs, stuff like that. Work definitely wasn’t my passion; it was a means to an end. I found myself getting sucked deeper into my job and getting less from it personally and financially.
And then, about a year and a half in, I lost my job.
They fired you?
I was trading options, trading oil. I was trading gasoline and crude oil, had my own portfolio within the firm to invest with. The numbers would get so astronomically crazy that I literally became numb to everything. When you’re up $25 million on a trade, you don’t feel it, just as you don’t feel it when you’re down $25 million. It was insane, and it kind of desensitized you to any sort of reasonable perspective.
And, one day, I didn’t triple-check a trade I put in and ended up losing the firm about $1.5 million. This wasn’t even a drop in the bucket to them, but to make an example to the rest of the team they fired me. And all this happened on October 7th, 2008, less than a month before the financial collapse.
Looking back, it was a massive blessing. At the time, my parents had noticed how depressed I was with work and were really supportive of me not finding another job in finance. I mean, I was moving the crude oil market by deviations of one or two percent just by myself –– as a 22-year-old. Nobody should have that much power; that kind of stuff would be reported on the news! It was just crazy. But after the crash, any other potential leads I had to other jobs in finance dried up –– and I was just like, ‘OK, well that’s my answer. Thanks universe for making my decision for me!’ (laughs)
What happened after that?
I played my first proper DJ gig as Baltra on Halloween of that year, about three weeks after I was fired. From that I managed to get some bookings on the fashion party circuit, and it picked up pretty crazily from there. I remember playing these nights as this club called Le Royale in the Village on Leroy Street, playing disco, house, techno, blog-house shit. And that kind of segued into doing more ‘club’ performances.
I did that for quite a while, and it led to me getting the itch to start producing my own stuff. I started playing around in Logic a bit, and the more I got into it the less time I spent going out to play and attend parties. It all just felt a little repetitive to me, a bit cliquey. I guess I realized I had to stop playing music to make money, and start making music for no money! (laughs)
So yeah, I ended up working in a clothing store to pay rent and spending my free time making music. The pay sucked, but it was kind of nice having a regular routine after the jobs I’d had before –– I knew when I’d get to go to bed and when the paychecks are coming. I really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my sound was. I wasn’t trying to emulate something or be someone ‘cool’ who ‘fit in.’ I actively tried to remove myself from that and just be myself. And I did, and I feel so fortunate and lucky that I did.
A few of your tracks, such as ‘Fade Away,’ have racked up millions of YouTube hits. How did you get started on the platform?
The first things I put out were ‘Tears Drop,’ ‘O’Neal,’ and ‘Fade Away.’ I was listening to some other similar sounding stuff coming out around that time on YouTube, and would always wonder who did these weirdly perfect videos for them. I stumbled across the heavy-hitters of that scene –– OOUKFunkyOO, hurfyd, Moskalus –– and then later guys like Slav. Shout out to all those dudes! But yeah, I went to their channels because that was the shit I was listening to, and I figured I’d naively send over my tracks simultaneously to Moskalus and UKFunky.
I sent them out and Moskalus gets back to me within 12 hours with an email saying, ‘Here are your tracks with links to videos.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ But then I got a message a bit later from UKFunky, and he was like, ‘Hey mate, love these, but I don’t do reposts.’ And I was just like, ‘Fuck, I ruined my chance.’
So I wrote to him being like, ‘I’m so sorry, I have another track I’m about to finish. I’ll give it to you ASAP.’ And less than a week later, I had a free day and finished the track and sent it off to him. He said he thought it was great and to give him a couple of weeks to put a video together.
So I’m sitting there waiting for the days to go by, obsessing over this track that I’ve sent in, sneaking in a play at work here and there. And the more I listen to it, the more I’m convinced it needs something else –– it needs a vocal. But I didn’t know anyone who could ‘do vocals.’ I’d also cut out a lot of people from my life who didn’t contribute positively, and had this mentality that I was kind of in things on my own opinion-wise, friend-wise.
I figured, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just write it myself.’ So I wrote the lyric and recorded it –– I showed it to my wife and she wasn’t super sure, but I was determined to go ahead with it. I messaged UKFunky apologizing that it was late and asking if he could substitute the audio in the video with the updated track. He said, ‘No problem, I like it without the vocals, but it’s up to you.’ That track turned out to be ‘Fade Away’ and from there… the rest is kind of history (laughs). I just feel so fortunate in regards to being in the right place at the right time and having that intuition to go with my gut feeling and record the vocal.
How do you maintain balance between conveying sincere feelings and making something people want to dance to?
It’s strange. I don’t know how people are going to digest my music. I can only hope that people enjoy it. But I definitely want to make something that has replay value –– some tracks I make for the club and some are definitely not made with the club in mind. But either way I’m conscientious of what type of track I want to make when I’m making it; whether it’s going to be four-on-the-floor or a bit more out there. But my main goal is it has some sort of replay value.
I like the juxtaposition between something beautiful and something raw –– messing with sounds and rhythms that shouldn’t go together but somehow do. I think that keeps things interesting and challenging for myself and the listener. It’s more organic; we’re both surprised.
The new Can’t Explain It EP is your first full release in over a year. Why did you take a break?
I was pretty scatterbrained last year –– I lost my father about 13 months ago and that had a huge impact on me and the music I subsequently made. I poured a lot out into music that’s now coming out, and into preparing for my Boiler Room set in November –– then I got caught up in touring after that.
In terms of the contents, two of the tracks I had built specifically for my Boiler Room set: the A2, which was the most asked about track, and the B1, which I made after my father passed. The B2 was a track that I’d had out for a while that people had been asking for a physical release of, and the A1 was the most recent –– something a bit more where I’m at currently.
Angela, your wife, is listed as the feature on that titular A1 track. How was it recording with and integrating her into your work?
I actually wrote the lyrics myself, but had this idea that since the lyrics deal with a dual-perspective it’d be interesting to have her sing them as well as myself. I asked if she wanted to be a part of it, that it’d be really special for me if we did it together. We hadn’t recorded anything together before, but we worked together really well. She translated everything into perfect French, I directed her on the delivery and cadence, and the take was done in like two minutes. It was perfect.
Does she influence you?
Definitely. Angela has great music taste, but more importantly with her I have my family. With family you can be yourself, expose yourself in any sort of way without fear of being judged –– no insecurities.
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