John Roberts Combines Everything

The Multi-Talented Producer Discusses Creative Inspiration from the Confines of His New York City Apartment

  • Interview: Bianca Heuser
  • Photography: Brooke Chroman

John Roberts’ artistic identity at first sight is somewhat intangible. The stunning productions through which he first gained popularity, released on Hamburg’s Dial Records, have a romantic in-between allure that is rare in a dance music context: Neither clubby nor exclusively intended for home listening, their rhythms fluctuate freely. Roberts’ aesthetic is elegant, subdued, and studied, just like his demeanor. A glimpse into his New York City apartment reveals his multifaceted reference system succinctly: A Memphis table lamp in his home studio peacefully coexists with the iconic zebra wallpaper that graced the inside of the legendary New York restaurant Gino’s, which welcomed guests such as Frank Sinatra and Ed Sullivan until its owners were driven out—in typical New York real estate fashion—by a perverted rent increase in May 2010. At home, Roberts plays chess, goofs around in looks by Saint Laurent and Reebok Classics, and poses in front of his personal art collection and library.

Manifold as his cultural interests are, Roberts keeps inventing channels to serve them all: Together with Paul Kominek, he founded The Travel Almanac, a biannual magazine and self-described “first true post-tourism publication” the same year Gino’s went out of business. With Brunette Editions, Roberts announced the launch of his very own platform last year, dedicated to cultural productions of whatever form they happen to take on. Its latest publication came in the shape of his new album Plum, accompanied by a film shot and produced by Roberts.

Bianca Heuser, who befriended Roberts during her time working at Dial Records, here discusses textures, the joy of interdisciplinary work, and the artists who inspire him with the eclectic. He shares his personal collection of texture snapshots, taken from his camera roll.

Bianca Heuser

John Roberts

What inspired you to start Brunette Editions?

The idea behind the label is to just have an outlet for any type of creative work I want to do. Continuing on from what I was doing with music, and including any visual projects that didn’t have a home. I wanted to do something that didn't have a definition or set mission statement. Just to have an outlet to experiment in an abstract way, and experiment with combining things in an interdisciplinary way. That’s so important to me personally. I like to have an interdisciplinary approach to all the work I’m doing.

I think most good music, art, or fashion is informed by other cultural productions, so it is weird to keep them separate so forcefully.

Absolutely. I think it’s super exciting and contemporary to have everything be combined. Every so often I check in with what’s happening in the rap or R&B world, and I think it’s so exciting that there are so many people kind of doing everything. There seem to be so many people who are creative directing themselves now. I think it’s much more interesting than having people in these defined roles.

Since we’re talking about that overlap: Do you have some kind of synesthesia?

Not exactly, but I do have something. It’s not quite as mystical as that, but when I hear certain sounds, they pull up certain images for me. I always think about songs like display cases. I imagine arranging sounds like items in the display case, and curating a collection of these things so it has some kind of overall feeling that I’m going for.

Have you ever done music for a fashion show?

I haven’t, but I would really like to. I’d really love to do something for like, Prada or something. It would be so incredible to have the opportunity to do something totally new inspired by the fabrics and designs.

It’s hard to describe a general aesthetic of your productions, but what unites them and the visual aspects of your work is how textural both are. The artwork for Plum lives from all the different textures it shows.

Definitely. I’m always looking at different fabrics, materials, sets of stone or something, and just taking photos of them on my phone. Just to make notes. I have a folder on my computer for these visual notes to call up sound ideas in my mind. They’re reminders of sound textures, I guess. I work with mostly visual things, but then assemble them in a sound collage.

Do movies, art, and fashion inspire your music much?

I watch a lot of movies. I feel like that’s one of my main hobbies. Going to movie theaters and watching movies at home, and I follow what happens in fashion loosely. I really like the concept of shopping, going to department stores and looking at different clothing and textures… not even necessarily buying anything. I’m not really connected to the art world directly. I don’t really go to openings and I don’t have a lot of friends involved in it. I do often go to the Metropolitan and wander around. It’s kind of like a maze. In one room you’ll end up in one era of art, and then 10 steps later, you’re in a completely different culture of the world. I like the idea of being randomly influenced in the same way you would be in a shopping mall or department store. It’s so beautiful at the Met. If you catch it on the right day, my favorite experience there is going into a room when no one else is there. It happens rarely, it seems, but it feels incredible that you can be in this intense, busy city and have that really personal moment.

What was the most gratifying trip you took recently?

I think it was my last trip to Milan. We went to this café called Marchesi, this really intense Italian pastry shop that I guess has been around for years. At some point Prada bought it and they redid the interior. We really did a full-on Prada experience in Milan, which was great since both me and Brooke are pretty huge admirers of hers. I thought the Prada foundation was so, so incredible. I loved the exhibition on stealing in artwork.

Me too!

I just felt like it was the most inspiring museum I’d ever been to. I just loved it so much.

The attention to detail is amazing. All its different spaces have completely different interiors, and yet they’re so consistent.

It makes total sense with what she does with clothing, too. She’s someone who likes breaking down all of these walls and is interested in interdisciplinary things.

The Louise Bourgeois works in the permanent exhibition were shattering.

That was my favorite! The flesh-colored stuffed figure.

The most beautiful artwork I’ve ever seen!

I loved how it was alone in that room. What did you think of the Wes Anderson café?

It’s really nice, no?

I thought it was really nice, too. I loved how the menu was basically like, 400 sandwiches and then 400 alcoholic drinks. When you’re in there, you can also tell someone who works in film designed it. It’s very surface level. The walls are really ornate but they are photographs turned into wallpaper. Same with the tabletops and trash cans. I thought it was interesting how it was some kind of illusion of luxury.

Making music is a pretty solitary job. Will you be working more collaboratively through Brunette Editions?

I think so. For Brunette Editions going forward, I do want there to be more collaborative projects. Before we started The Travel Almanac, I’d never really had a successful collaboration. Personally, I think it has to be a pretty close relationship for it to work well.

Do you have a dream collaborator?

[Laughs] I think it would be really fun to do something with Nicki Minaj. She has such a unique style. I like the way she manipulates words. She has such a rhythmic style and her sense of rhythm is so incredible. The way she bends words is really interesting to me. Also, Young Thug. I really love the way they both take words like they are clay and bend them into whatever they want, you know? I don’t know why more people aren't playful like that with music.

A friend of mine brilliantly called his style “babble rap.”

It’s really so incredible. For me, it doesn't take anything away from the music. It only adds to it. Personally, I never listen to lyrics anyway, I really could care less. Not that there aren't amazing lyrics, but the way I listen to it… I just hear sounds anyway.

  • Interview: Bianca Heuser
  • Photography: Brooke Chroman
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: John Roberts