Oct. 8 2014 02:00 PM

Richard Hunt-Rivera crafts a hypnotic dance-music fusion

Photo by Kelly Davis

Late on a Friday afternoon, just as the happy-hour rush gets into full swing, Richard Hunter-Rivera’s presence is a serene counterpoint to the chaos along 30th Street in North Park. The songwriter and producer behind Island Boy has a calming and thoughtful demeanor, in stark contrast to the arena-rock playlist blaring inside Coin- Op bar and the rowdy group of dudes on the sidewalk trash-talking about football.

But just as the atmosphere settles into a temporary moment of stillness, Hunter-Rivera confesses a particular goal: “I’ve always kind of wanted my music to be sexy and danceable.”

Sexy and danceable is a good way to begin describing the sonic makeup of Island Boy. Composed and performed by Hunter-Rivera—with some lyric and vocal contributions by Jessica Sledge—the music is a complex and fluid thing, with influences pouring in from a variety of sources. In basic terms, it’s electronic pop, crafted on samplers and synthesizers and based heavily in dancefloor beats. But that opens only a small door to Hunter-Rivera’s eclectic musical playground.

Island Boy’s new album, Basic Instincts, which was self-released in June, is a sensual and sensorial journey through the far corners of dance music’s past, present and future. Hunter-Rivera, born in Texas and Puerto Rican by heritage (hence, “Island Boy”), digs deep into traditional Latin American music while fixing his gaze forward, blending seemingly disparate styles into something unexpectedly harmonious. Where opening track “Hospital Bed” juxtaposes eerie darkwave synthesizers with a thumping reggaeton beat, further down the track list, “El Dembow Me Salvo” combines hypnotic neo-psychedelic textures and salsa rhythms.

Hunter-Rivera, who spent his teenage years in Puerto Rico, says the sounds he pursues are equal parts tradition and reinvention.

“The sounds of salsa and merengue and reggaeton—they just got embedded in me,” he says. “When I started this record, I was trying to dig deep and find out what I stood for musically, and I was messing around on my sampler and thought, Maybe I could make a reggaeton beat, just for kicks. And it came together beautifully. It was exactly what I was looking for.

“I don’t like everything about reggaeton,” he clarifies. “Some of the themes that they sing about are kind of boring. But I like that beat, and the swag that comes with it. So, I’ll take what I don’t like, take that out and put in some indie rock or classic French house and make it into something that I do like.”

Island Boy plays Oct. 17 at Soda Bar

Island Boy isn’t Hunter-Rivera’s first musical project. Between 2008 and 2012, he was in local indie-rock group Moviegoers, and he launched his own musical pursuit in the aftermath of that band. But his musical pedigree goes back much further than that. He learned how to play guitar when he was 14, and as a teenager, he immersed himself in learning about home recording while playing in bands with his friends.

“In Puerto Rico at the time, you were either a surfer or a skater or something else—so we decided to be rock ’n’ roll kids,” he says.

Music was also part of his household while he was growing up. His father was a musician who toured Puerto Rico in a van in his early 20s and continued to play music at home even after leaving the tour circuit for an engineering career. Music was something both of Hunter-Rivera’s parents encouraged him to pursue.

“My mother encouraged us to learn piano because she thought it would enrich our lives,” he says. “And as much as I hated piano lessons, because they were sort of forced on me, I’m grateful for it now.”

Hunter-Rivera has taken a long journey—both physically and symbolically—since first learning piano. His first two CD purchases were Billy Joel’s River of Dreams and Green Day’s Dookie, and his taste evolved into a love of classic rock, thanks in part to his dad’s rock roots. And while he wasn’t as interested in Latin dance music as his friends were during his teen years, all of these sounds and textures have stayed with him.

In fact, he sees Island Boy as part of something bigger. For Hunter-Rivera, it feels like part of a broader cultural movement, as well as a project that’s highly autobiographical, in a symbolic way. But, you know, sexy—and you can dance to it.

“I think some of the music represents... if you want to call it the scene that I’m part of, the new Latin wave,” Hunter-Rivera says, “first-, second-, third-generation Latinos living in the United States incorporating the music of their parents’ homeland.

“I feel like the project’s always been kind of inside of me.”

jefft@sdcitybeat.com or follow him at @1000TimesJeff