It’s a predictably rainy night on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and a brony is loose inside Chop Suey. The pegasister wears a full My Little Pony costume à la the character actors who wander through Disneyland. The dance floor around her is packed with kindred spirits. Some flaunt bejeweled outfits and rainbow-hued hair; others sport video game and meme inspired T-shirts. Most of the crowd looks under twenty-five.
Welcome to the inclusive dance party that is a Mystery Skulls show. Somewhere between Comic-Con and Soul Train exists Luis Dubuc’s utopian vision of EDM. He is entirely unlit, save for the occasional glow of a Macbook screen. A slight figure in a Jay-Z and R. Kelly ‘Best Of Both Worlds Tour’ shirt, Dubuc effortlessly summons sounds from his Ableton Live setup. On a screen behind him 8-bit video game graphics and Anime are projected in a geek-friendly visual milieu.
Dubuc’s family relocated from his birth country of Venezuela to cosmopolitan Toronto when he was eight. Upon his arrival in North America, Dubuc was inundated with popular culture. “All I had was Michael Jackson bootleg cassettes and my Mom’s salsa records,” he recalls. “I learned English from watching television. My first sentence was ‘A new car!’ because of Bob Barker. I was brainwashed from an early age.”
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They eventually settled in Texas where Dubuc spent his high school years. There, he began recording as The Secret Handshake, creating a poppy brand of bedroom electronica that connected with the Alternative Press contingent. But Dubuc had a restless musical spirit. Night and Day, his final album under that moniker, embraced the soul revivalism of Mayer Hawthorne and the Daptone roster while displaying rapid artistic growth.
The thick, detailed grooves of Mystery Skulls are evidence of this transformation. From the assertive midtempo funk of opener ‘Forever’ to the pleading falsetto topped poignancy of ‘Every Note’, the lush tracks never veer far from danceability. The album also contains hints of Dubuc’s famously eclectic taste, including covert metal influences. “It’s kind of like Prince meets Michael Jackson meets Daft Punk….meets Metallica and Rage Against The Machine. It’s like there are riffs,” he laughs.
There is a lightness about the young man sitting in Chop Suey’s green room. Much like his music, conversation with Dubuc is breezy and often profound. He peppers answers with the word “beautiful,” and remains on message yet thoroughly genuine. After a year’s worth of album promotion, he still projects undimmed enthusiasm for his career and chosen medium. “I’ve pretty much stopped watching,” he says of modern TV and film. “I’ve become just a music guy.” He answers questions eloquently, but will gleefully veer off on a tangent about his new musical obsession: classical. “I was looking at the Faust cover the other day. It’s so evil. It’s like black metal!”
Many here tonight likely discovered Mystery Skulls via the Samurai Jack meets Scooby Doo style video for single ‘Ghost’. “It took a year and a half and came out the same day as my record,” Dubuc says of the fan-made animated clip which boasts upwards of twelve million views. Luis says these new converts bring fresh energy with them. “It has its own life and its own fans who dress up as the characters,” he enthuses. “It shined like a beacon towards more artists. People come to my shows and they draw me pictures. They make me art.”
The insular Dallas music scene wasn’t an easy fit for Dubuc’s forward thinking electro-soul. Of his new home Los Angeles he says, “When you get a lot of dreamers together it’s less like a bubble. It’s less clawy. There are lots of opportunities.” Early on, Mystery Skulls nabbed a residency at the Eastside hotspot Bootleg Theater. Buzz began to circulate about his blend of DJ performance and potent pop hooks. In an event rife with synchronicity, Dubuc signed to Warner Brothers exactly one year to the day from his arrival in the City of Angels from his longtime Dallas headquarters. He remains visibly awed by the whole experience. “I walk in the lobby and my art is on the wall. It’s beautiful. I’m weirdly a part of this legacy that exists.”
When Warner asked who he wanted as a guest vocalist on the record, ‘90s R&B star Brandy was a no-brainer, her voice possessing a nostalgic quality. And in a city teeming with talent, he is quickly becoming a sought after collaborator. His debut features Nile Rodgers’ distinctive clipped funk guitar playing as well as string arrangements courtesy of Benjamin Wright, most famous for his contributions to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall.
Despite respect from the vanguard of soul music and an expanding audience, Dubuc doesn’t allow himself to coast on mere popularity. He is fueled by the creative process rather than acclaim. “The only thing that matters is your art. No one’s going to remember your follower count or your play count. What matters is your impact and how you make people feel.”