Voltaire Records is the synthesized sound of San Francisco
“Voltaire is basically synthesizer music. It’s what we’re into.” –Randy Ellis
Voltaire Records is a modern-day synthesizer label birthed in the eucalyptus-scented air and mild sunshine of Northern California. It is owned and operated by three friends, Randy Ellis aka Hotthobo, Dave “Loose Shus,” and Matt Fenster aka Fen. Ellis and Dave are both ride-or-die skate rats that have a shared penchant for zombie horror and sci-fi cinema obscurities. Randy and Dave initially met at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), a well-respected skate spot in San Francisco. From these afternoon skate sessions near the Panhandle, the two acquaintances started to map out the blueprint for a musical venture. Over time, with steady effort, Voltaire has kick-pushed forward into one of the best contemporary synth labels in the country.
In an even-keeled Californian manner, Ellis openly reflects on the seeds of his partnership with Dave: “I first met Dave at the DMV skate spot in the city. He would always be there. Almost every day after work, we’d skate, drink, and sesh. In the skater world, you pretty much either listen to metal or hip-hop, but I had always been into disco and electro. I later found out that Dave and I liked the same music.” Dave chimes in, “I lived across the street from the DMV and hung out there a lot. There’s really not much to skate there, so people just mess around and do a lot of really old ’80s tricks like ‘slappys.’ It is funny because the DMV is literally just a parking lot, but I’ve met people from all over the world there.” Randy and Dave abide by a free-spirited skater punk mentality. They play by their own rules and do not allow their label or themselves to be musically boxed in.
Voltaire’s releases are varied and not easy to classify. At the end of the day, the label is West Coast drum machine and synthesizer music at its finest. However, unlike other modern-funk labels, Voltaire’s projects also include outside elements of psych, house, Krautrock, prog, disco, electro, Italo, and new wave. Voltaire has its own individuality and its releases are often cross-pollinated with multiple styles of music. Ellis elucidates, “I like the idea of being able to take multiple influences and elements to create a new mosaic of sound.” As a label, Voltaire takes creative risks and does not follow any predictable formula; they continue to confidently sniff out fresh creativity in unlikely places.
Voltaire’s catalog includes impressive projects—Loose Shus, Brian Ellis, PLAzA aka Johan Churchill, Shock, DMX Krew, and appearances by XL Middleton and Eddy Funkster (MoFunk Records), K-Maxx (Sound Boutique), Jonas Reinhardt (100% Silk), Mickey de Grand IV incarnated as Night School (Cosmic Chronic), and many others.
However, the label’s crown jewel up until this point is quite possibly Brian Ellis’s Reflection EP, which was released in mid-2014. Reflection is hands down one of the best modern-funk efforts to come out in the past few years. The EP includes a cameo from West Coast electro pioneer and super freak, the Egyptian Lover, and showcases Brian’s one-of-a-kind musical witchcraft. Brian Ellis—no relation to label boss Randy—is a multi-instrumentalist maestro from Escondido, California; he is an uncommon talent that can slay in many different musical styles. On a recent stopover in Austin, Brian was en route to play keys behind the Egyptian Lover for the forty-third annual Tejano Super Car Show in Odessa, Texas. On Reflection, he musically cuts throats with the Oberheim DX, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Roland SVC-350 Vocoder, and an arsenal of other synths and outboard effects. Brian Ellis has quickly become a fiery comet in the modern-funk movement and beyond.
Another notable Voltaire release is Loose Shus’ self-titled EP from early 2014. Loose Shus studied film before he transitioned into music production. Consequently, his influences are deeply rooted in the style of film compositions (especially Italian) from the early ’70s. His music sounds like a soundtrack from a late-’70s cop movie or jammies perfect for your cassette desk as you approach Berlin on the autobahn at 3:00 AM—with a Ziploc of pure Colombian stashed under the driver’s seat. Listen to “Ladies,” an ambient anthem, and crawl into a wormhole of synthed-out electro bliss.
In conversation, Dave Loose Shus nonchalantly nerds-out about his passion for weirdo horror film. “I like zombie movies and some of the Italian stuff. Suspiria  and Tenebre  are incredible in all aspects. I used to be into the more gnar stuff like Fulci’s Zombie  and The Beyond , also random ones like Burial Ground . After a while, I realized it really was the music that I kept watching those for. There are some notable modern artists like Umberto and Steve Moore making this style of music, which I think is pretty cool.” Randy, in an unhurried and laidback tone, pitches in, “There are a lot of awful horror movies that have epic soundtracks. The music alone makes them worth checking out. Around the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Italians especially would write these disco/funk themes for their movies, and would often hire full orchestras to compose Herculean takes. A good example is Cannibal Ferox , which was just issued on vinyl for the first time recently. I also love utter garbage, if it makes me laugh.” This like-minded love for eccentric horror movies further bonds the two comrades and business partners.
In addition to Voltaire’s impressive musical yield, the label also boasts an attractive overall aesthetic. Their record covers often include hand-illustrated art, which are printed onto quality cardstock. Ellis explains, “Voltaire doesn’t necessarily have an artistic director, but if we did, it would definitely be Dave. He did the label’s logo, website, and music videos. We also get outside help from guest artists on the look and design of almost every record.” On the Reflection EP, the cerebral cover art—created by Danica Molenaar—is an uncanny painted picture of Brian Ellis, as he stares into a mirror with a wooly white cat held in his arms. A scaly snake whose tail circles back around into its own wide-open mouth surrounds the frame, as tiny chubby cherubs hold up the serpentine oval. Brian peers into his own reflection; the backdrop inside the mirror is the vast unknown expansiveness of the cosmic universe. On Private Function, an essential modern-funk comp, the artwork chopped by Primo Pitino is a wacky illustration of nine drunken canines and felines piled into what appears to be a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
Voltaire personifies and embodies a West Coast sense of freedom. “When I first moved up to San Francisco,” Randy Ellis says, “it was right after the first tech bubble burst, it was the recession, and the place was relatively cheap in comparison to today. Maybe it was just because I was younger, but there was a really vibrant music scene then, and rent, although expensive, was not as crazy as it is now. That being said, I love that in SF you don’t need a car to get around and you can sort of just aimlessly leave your house on foot or skateboard and cruise the city without much of a plan and have a great time.” The Bay Area has a rich and deep-seated modern-funk scene, with major contributions from the Beat Electric, Sound Boutique, and Sweater Funk crews. Randy states, “The weekly Sweater Funk party at Li Po Lounge changed my life, dude. I was really into disco and electro at that time, but didn’t know shit about boogie, modern soul, or two-step. I was instantly converted and started to do my homework on boogie records.” Voltaire is an important piece to this Northern Cal modern-funk puzzle and a definite mover and shaker in the scene.
Randy talks in a relaxed tone about his vision, “The future of Voltaire is to keep putting out records that we believe in, and to take some chances with stuff we like in uncharted territory. I see the modern-funk scene starting to blossom a bit, and I think both great records and consistent performances are going to help to spread the sound.” Voltaire’s next project is a modern-funk comp entitled Endeavors. Loose Dave humbly tips his hat, “We’d like to thank all our artists, cover designers, distributors, fellows labels, and especially all the DJs who ever played a Voltaire record. You mean the world to us. Thank you!”
In 2015 and beyond, Voltaire will skate into brand new territory, hit its stride as a label, and continue to bless eardrums worldwide with their synthesized sound of San Francisco.
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