We barely scratched the surface on characters like Marvel's Cloak and Dagger, buddy cops Archer and Armstrong and the vampire hunting Preacher in our hour-long talk. But hearing him speak about plenty of the others he listed in our pre-interview emails makes it clear that comics are a defining influence on both his worldview and his music. Releases on Crème Organization, M>O>S, Nation and Spectral Sound (alongside JTC), have explored imagined worlds in the same way that comic illustrators build self-contained universes for their characters. For Cantu—and kindred spirits like the aforementioned JTC and Chicago's Traxx—music is a tool for transport, a way to briefly break free from your normal day-to-day existence.
Tell me about The Punisher.
I always liked the first issue of The Punisher because it was really raw, sort of in your face. He was always someone I liked because he was a revenge character. DC comics, for instance, didn't really have very many of those types of characters. Marvel, however, sort of just went with it and didn't really care that he was just going for revenge all the time and not really satisfied despite all the people he offed.
I started reading these types of comics in 1992, and that was basically the era of everything that's been popularized nowadays. Everything before that was dominated by DC, and not very many people collect those because they're not nearly as flamboyant or out there.
The thing I found fascinating about him is that he'll go to any length—there's no binding morality to what he's willing to do. A lot of superheroes seem to have some sort of code they live by.
Yeah, Batman, which is DC's biggest revenge character, at the very end of the day stood by a code of ethics that he learned when he was doing his martial arts training. The Punisher, though, is just really dark and always ominous, despite the other characters around him who try to get him to be good.
What about the art in The Punisher? John Romita Jr. is mentioned as one of the more well-known artists involved with it at some point.
Yeah, he was the main artist that did The Punisher series "Warzone." In that series, everybody was really blocky. The men were really masculine, the women really feminine. It had a sort of anime feel to it. Also, the guns in it were always oversize. I play a lot of video games, so I'm fairly familiar with certain weapons when I see them in print ads and stuff. There's an M-16 in this issue I'm looking at now, and it's like five times bigger than it should be. I guess that appealed to me as a kid. He was definitely a character that spoke to me.
You said in an email to me that you spent six years going to comic-cons, shops and online outlets to find mint condition copies of every cover variant of X-Men 1 – 100.
Yep. I finished that up two years ago or so. I had most of that collection when I was younger. It was one of the first comics I ever got into. Before that I was reading very fairy tale-ish DC-type comics, but then X-Men came along and there wasn't really anything out there like it. You can find a lot of these issues, but to get them in mint quality is tough. Comic-cons are a strange place. You just have bins upon bins—it's sort of like looking for records, where you find ten copies of the same record but they're all beat up.
How much do copies of these go for today?
This was a really big thing back in the mid-'90s when I was in high school when Spawn #1 came out. At that time everybody was seeing that the prices for Amazing Spiderman #1, and the first appearance of the X-Men were 15, 20, 25 thousand dollars for some of them. A lot of people thought they could stockpile them, and they'll be worth a ton of money, but then the whole market just tanked. I mean, if I were to sell this whole collection, it's not gonna sell for very much. Anybody who goes into it thinking they're gonna make some money is completely ridiculous.
Who were some of the illustrators in particular that really struck you growing up?
Jim Lee was probably the most influential. I sent you a few sketches, and they were pretty much influenced directly by him.
Why did you like Lee so much?
He had a tendency to exaggerate the characters, which I thought was really cool. I don't know how to describe it. The men were very masculine, super-cut, you get that very classic superhero cover art that everyone associates with comic books. I also always liked the way he got around drawing feet from a distance, from an artistic standpoint. He would always scoop them down, so they would widen and go to a point, sort of allowing him not to have to draw them. I liked a lot of his shortcuts. I don't know if that's necessarily a kind way to put it. But a lot of the problems I was always running into when I was younger, I always liked how he solved them.
Who's your favorite X-Men character?
I would have to say Wolverine. He was pretty cliché, but he's sort of The Punisher in the sense that he's a lone wolf and only cares about getting revenge. He doesn't really care about the mission so much, although depending on the writer he can sometimes have a little bit more of a softer side. The other one I liked was Angel/Archangel. He was one of the original members of the X-Men, and he basically changed from Angel into Archangel when Apocalypse tried to make him a weapon. But he eventually broke free, and that was when he got the blue skin and the wings made of metal. I always thought he was a really cool character—characters that fly always interested me.
If you could have any special power, which one would you choose?
Probably super speed. Because, hypothetically speaking, you could run so fast the world practically stops around you.
Neil Gaiman was the brains behind The Sandman, right?
Yeah. I really liked this one because it was really, umm, dark. I don't really know how else to put it. It was different than everything else that I was reading at the time. I really loved the art style. It was very psychedelic. It didn't really follow any kind of traditional comic art direction, which I thought was really interesting. The other issues that I liked from the same publisher, Vertigo, was The Preacher, which was this character who lives in Louisiana and fights vampires. That was also really dark and violent. I should say, though, that it wasn't so much the violence that attracted me to these comics, but rather the unrelenting brutality of some of these stories was really interesting.
On Wikipedia, there's a quote from Norman Mailer, who described this series as "a comic strip for intellectuals."
I would definitely agree with that. It was over my head I would say. It's definitely one of the first series that would have been geared towards adults rather than kids and early teens. At the time, everybody talked it up. It was the cool thing to read, because it was so much different from everything else that was out there.
When you emailed me your list of comics that you'd like to talk about, you put in parentheses after Walking Dead: "Cliché, but it's amazing."
Well, because they have the TV show now everybody's jumped on board. The story seems like it's not going anywhere, and the show doesn't mirror the comics in any way shape or form. In the comic, the storytelling is less about the zombies, and more about the characters. How, for instance, would you deal with people from different walks of life in the Zombie apocalypse? There is also this interesting question of whether it's more important to deal with what you and your family needs versus the good of a larger group. I loved that. I hope the show picks it up a little bit. We'll see.
In terms of screen depictions of comic books, what are some of your favorites? Are you someone who wants to see a faithful adaptation of a story?
I guess the Batman relaunch was much better at staying true to the character, but Batman's always been an easy character to do that with since he's merely a guy in a suit, and has all these gadgets. I mean it's a little harder when you're talking about The Avengers, for instance. I will admit, though, that The Avengers movie was probably one of the best comic adaptations ever to be released, but only because they were able to fill everybody in on the backstories of each character in the previous movies. They could spend more time with the action in The Avengers. It had a lot of great scenes that were straight out of comic books. You could take a picture and be like, "Yep, that's a storyboard right there."
Are there adaptations that you think are particularly bad?
The Wolverine movie that came out a few years ago. It just failed on all fronts. They show Gambit in that movie, for instance, and completely ignored what makes Gambit Gambit. It was just ridiculous. I didn't care for any of the Spiderman films, didn't care for any of the Hulk movies. As a movie they're fine, but as someone who loves comic books and then goes to see those films, they just didn't make any sense to me.
I was reading a little bit about Lobo, and I found it quite fascinating that he's apparently a parody character.
It's really fun. The whole series is a joke. With Lobo you take Wolverine, Deadpool and a couple of other characters and sort of make it an in-your-face kinda space pirate type guy who can't be killed and does whatever the heck he wants. I haven't really read any Lobo books since I was younger, but for a 14 year-old, it's hilarious.
Do you go for humor in your own music? I feel like your music's pretty serious usually.
The overtones are serious, but I don't take myself too seriously if that makes any sense. For instance, I hate the way my voice sounds and I really hate it the way it sounds when I attempt to sing. So if somebody asks for a vocal, I'll be a smart-ass and put them in there, but have them real quiet or have them saying gibberish. I always try to do stuff like that, like putting in instruments that are just completely silly.
I've got these old maracas that I've sampled before. And I will sometimes put the SK1 hats and snare in there because they're really lo-fi sounds just to spice it up a bit...
What about song titles? "Shoot the Fish"?
When I'm working on stuff with JTC, it'll take us 20 minutes to think of a song title. For me, it's just the first thing that pops in my head, like "Shoot the Fish." I mean, the whole concept of doing that is just ridiculous. I can't remember where I got that from...
I always liked Spawn, because as a young kid I didn't necessarily have a lot of black superheroes to look up to. There was only Black Panther or a couple of other characters who were sort of insignificant. I liked the political side of Spawn, and the fact that he made a pact with the Devil just to give him a chance for revenge was really cool.
Was it something that was immediate when you saw him? "Oh, wow, wait a second, there are black superheroes?!"
Growing up I didn't really interact with a lot of people of color until I was in high school, so I was sort of limited in terms of my role models. I didn't really care for sports, so I was a nerd trying to find some sort of connection with comics and video games. It wasn't necessarily something I was actively looking for. I didn't write publishers letters saying, "Hey, make a black superhero!" But it's definitely something I thought was interesting. In the media in general there seems to be sort of a… I mean it's getting better and better over time, but there is a lack of diversity and it was kinda cool to see in comic books especially since it was a white male-dominated industry.
I feel like it's also worth mentioning the soundtrack to the Spawn movie, which was these weird collaborations between metal and electronic groups.
I haven't heard the soundtrack, but I imagine it's like Chemical Brothers and Pantera, right? I guess these movie directors see electronic music as still sort of a fringe thing, so I guess it plays well into that concept. But I did always like soundtracks in general that used electronic music. There was something eerie about analogue keyboards. I don't really care for the literal interpretation of electronic music in these soundtracks or… just really bad dance music mixed with metal, like you described…
If you were asked to do a soundtrack for a comic book, what do you think might work for you in particular?
Maybe a Silver Surfer movie, or something along those lines. A little more space-based. I would think that would work. I tend to fantasize a lot about space travel and the cosmos and that type of thing when I'm creating a lot of these airier tracks, so creating a Silver Surfer movie in which you see him and Galactus traveling around the universe from a great distance just devouring planets would be really cool. I would probably reduce the amount of four-to- the-floor stuff and keep it a lot more dreamy.
Which superhero do you think is the most techno of them all?
[laughs] Probably Dazzler, who was a character from the disco era. Her power was to shoot sparks. She was very similar to Jubilee in that sense. The original series of her character basically made her look like a disco queen with super powers. Kind of ridiculous, but...
You mentioned to me that science fiction and astrophysics in general have played a significant role in shaping the sounds of the music that you make. Can you explain that?
I've always been really interested in physics, astronomy, astrophysics and how the universe works. I guess it's more of a fantasy kind of thing. I'll make a track and listen to it, for example, and sort of close my eyes and try to envision traversing through the space. I've watched a lot of documentaries, and some of my favorite were the ones by Carl Sagan. Some of things he was talking about in there blew me away when I was little.
I've always wanted to make soundtracks. Early on I did a lot of minimal noise stuff, where I used a speaker and had it plugged into an amp, and I basically had an acoustic pickup attached to that, so it was making these really strange repetitive patterns. I would run that through a 4-track, and then cut up sections of it that I really liked. Or I would create my own instruments using frayed speaker wire rubbing against random metal to create very strange electronic organic sounds. I'd like to be able to go back to doing that, and not have to worry so much about making things marketable.