Make Things Sound Amazing: Interviews with DAEDELUS and Nosaj Thing

Greg Merrell speaks with the co-headlining electronic artists about their work and influences.

The co-headlining tour for DAEDELUS, a venerable figure known for his diversity of sound, and Nosaj Thing, recognized as an “up-and-coming” DJ by folks like Fader and The New Yorker, represents two electronic artists with very different backgrounds. Inspired by the emotional expressivity of jazz, DAEDELUS has made everything from trippy, lo-fi hip-hop beats to dance/breakbeats; Nosaj Thing, who grew up idolizing Dr. Dre and attending raves, creates glitchy hip-hop beats that could easily have come from a robot’s dream. I spoke with both artists at their Seattle show last Wednesday about their influences, beat-making process, and of course, video games.


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DAEDELUS

The Bygone Bureau: When did you start writing music? Was it initially with electronics?

DAEDELUS: I studied classical music and jazz all throughout my teenage years through college. I really thought I was going to be a jazz musician when I grew up. I just surrendered to it in a way. I didn’t have that much imagination toward other kinds of compositional output. I’m going to be a double bass player when I grow up. I was composing all the time. I was writing pieces for double bass and bass clarinet. Also, I was playing in a ska/punk/surf band. I think it’s inevitable when you’re playing instruments that you meet other players… Like everyone needs a bass player or everyone needs woodwinds for a ska group. I would just try to fit in and play with other people. I don’t know if I play well with other people.

After a period of time, I got frustrated with that and started to find electronics to be a lot freer. That was around 1998. I started to really try to compose with electronics, but I had no idea what I was doing. The programs were really intimidating and all the computer stuff was really intimidating. I knew instruments and notation, but making the computer make all the sounds that I was hearing from all these records I was buying wasn’t a natural thing. It took three years before I put out my first record.

What are all the instruments you play?

Well, I don’t play any of them well. I mainly play double bass and bass clarinet. I play a little accordion and keyboard instruments. I attempted to try to play guitar a little while back. I couldn’t deal with six strings, so I have a four-string guitar. I play that with the Long Lost with my wife. It’s a modified tuning system. B-flat is the E string tuned down, and the other three strings are all tuned up. It’s silly, but it makes everything sound sonorous. When you make any shapes it kind of plays itself.

How often do you tour and perform with the Long Lost?

Not often enough. My wife isn’t a big fan of touring. I wouldn’t wish the touring life on my worst enemy. There are wonderful highs and terrible lows. A lot of the highs come from being in front of people and sharing this great experience. So, if you’re not doing that and you have all the lows of being constantly on the run and moving around, it’s not that fun. She doesn’t join me on my touring that often, but when we tour together, it’s wonderful. We just finished a tour of Japan late last year, and we toured Europe early [last year]. We do dates occasionally in LA when we find unique venues that deal well with quiet music. The world doesn’t deal well with pretty music.

To make sad pretty music is a life long dream of my wife’s and mine. Songs of longing and loss.

What’s your songwriting process?

It varies. I try to find a device that works for me — a musical device, a reason to write a song. If you don’t have a reason to write a song, why are you doing it? There has to be a story. There has to be some kind of plot. Because if you’re just making sounds for sounds sake, it just kind of sits on the page and it doesn’t really fly. My whole thing is that I want it to be evocative. Songs write themselves.

I’m also a vastly unhappy person with my output.

Why is that?

It never works. In my mind, I’ll write a song that really captures a feeling of drowning. I did a song called “Dreamt of Drowning” and I had kids approaching me saying, “Oh this is our couples song; this is the song we share when we’re falling in love.” You guys failed to see the point of the song! I was angry at myself, but it’s totally valid on their part. It just means I have to write another song. That’s okay. Being sad with things just means you have to do it again. That makes me sound like a melancholy person, but I’m really not.

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I’ve noticed you play with a Monome. How exactly does this machine work?

It’s an open source OSC (open sound controller) music controller. It’s some clever programming by a whole team of people, but mainly by this guy named Brian Crabtree who invented the device and also made a lot of the original software for it. It allows for endless improvisations, in my case with sample material. So I’ll take my new music or other people’s music and just twist and turn, change it about, make new melodies, and make new rhythms. It’s fun. You can easily feel like a kid in a sandbox that has really cool sandcastles.

Is there a reason you play with the device facing the audience?

There are two reasons mainly. One of them is really silly and one is more obvious. The obvious one is that the audience has a lot to do with any kind of improvisation — to allow the audience to see the mechanism that they’re inspiring. I’m not sitting there just dictating a night to people. I’m waiting for input. That one dancer who’s really good on the floor — I’m just playing for [him/her]. It’s cool if there are other people in the crowd, but that one really good dancer is the person who’s inspiring me. I want to inspire them to go further or whatever it is that we’re doing together. So by facing the Monome [at the audience], the interaction is more obvious.

The silly, academic reason is that every major instrument has a forward-facing stance. If you imagine the electric guitar, it doesn’t really need to be faced forward. The display of performance is a really integral part of what musical performance is. Turntables are kind of an exception to the rule. They face the user. Piano kind of is too, but there’s always an emphasis on the movement of the hands. I guess I’m kind of here to take it back to the old school.

What were some of the bigger musical influences you had when you were getting started?

One huge one for me was a talented producer named ACEN. He was a rave producer in the ’90s. He did this perfect combination of real interesting difficult breakbeat, hardcore, strange loops, bleeps, and string samples from like John Berry and all over the place. He’d fuse them together in this really beautiful way be it R&B samples from like Prince or whatever it was, but found this way to have noise and beauty push forward that was really listenable and extremely danceable. That’s what I listened to as a kid, but I got caught up in all that jazz stuff. I love Charles Mingus and all of those hard bop guys that came out. I listened to a lot of Archie Shep and a lot of that free stuff.

I really didn’t want to worship at the altar of dead people. It kind of gets morbid after a while. That’s classical music in a nutshell. There’s something gray goth about it.

What are some of your hobbies?

I was very enthusiastic about martial arts for a time. I fell out of it for a while though.

Also video games. A lot of RPG, fantasy, and storytelling kind of games. I think it’s pretty obvious that I did a lot of [Dungeons & Dragons] playing.

Where does the name DAEDELUS come from?

Daedelus was the greatest inventor of his era in ancient Greek times. Father of Icarus, a petty man who killed his cousin and created labyrinths that were the destruction of many men. He killed his son by accident… all this wonderful Sturm und Drang, this German term used in music often for this lightning and thunder kind of feeling, real tumultuous.

How has it been working with artists like MF DOOM, CYNE, and Prefuse 73?

Great mostly. Any time you get a chance to get out of your own skin. Whether it’s hip-hop, or you’re remixing people, and you have a chance to collaborate with them, it’s great. I feel that way with my samples and records. When I’m taking a horn sample, it’s like I’m collaborating with them. Someone like MF DOOM especially, he comes up with a story and it’s the easiest thing in the universe. You just get a little out of his way and let him go with it.

“Impending Doom” is amazing. It feels like most of the time there’s not a solid beat going on.

I mean, he picked it. It’s great. I gave him a lot of beats, and most of them were traditional boom-bap and he picked that one. He’s a fantastic individual, however crazy and villainous he is.

I’ve noticed that you have switched record labels pretty frequently, releasing albums with Plug Research, Alpha Pup, Mush Records, and Ninja Tune. You have an album coming out on March 23, Righteous Fists of Harmony on Brainfeeder.

It’s a reference. It’s the self-imposed name of the boxers from the Boxer Rebellion. The boxer rebellion was a war that happened in China from 1898 to 1901. 100,000 well-trained martial artists rebelled against the British. They were imposing a rule over China. These Righteous Fists of Harmony killed foreigners and thought themselves to be the supreme warriors to do this task. They thought themselves to have magic powers: the power to fly, raise the dead, and being invulnerable to bullets. The cannon fire of the British opposition killed them.

There was one promotional video for the song “Fin de Siecle” put out recently. This song is pretty ambient. Do you feel this album will be mellower?

The album is quite done. The album ranges quite a bit, but it is more on the mellow side. That song is the last track on the record. It has more of a feeling of an overture or a requiem. It has this finality to it. It was a really interesting choice to use for the video. The rest of the tracks have beats and bass. There are some vocals on the record. My wife sings on a track, Kid A sings on a track, and I sing on a track.

You were mentioning all of these labels before. Every record label you work with has a personality. You make the record that’s right for that personality. You’re in a group effectively with that label. Ninja Tune is like a partying UK kid, so you try to make a record that tries to party in the UK.

Would you say Mush and Plug Research are pretty similar?

Now they’ve blended together a little bit, but for a long time Plug Research was like Emotronica. Emotionally charged evocative electronic music. Of Snowdonia and Invention really fit that, I hope.

What would you say Mush is?

The bastard child of hip-hop. The forgotten son of Ol’ Dirty Bastard.


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Nosaj Thing

The Bygone Bureau: When did you start playing music? What instruments do you play?

Nosaj Thing: I started playing music when I was in third grade. I started out playing saxophone, and a couple years later, I switched to clarinet. I started DJing when I was twelve and started playing guitar around the same age. My best friend was a tomboy that had a Technics 1200 set up. I was really interested in DJing but didn’t have enough money to afford equipment. So I would just go over there and practice every single day. Her older brother had access to a whole record pool. They had fourteen crates of records.

What kind of music did you initially start mixing?

Hip-hop. That was in the late ’90s. I really liked the mainstream stuff that was coming out around that time. Later on in high school, I started going to raves and was spinning house and drum and bass. Eventually I went into production. I got a bootleg version of Reason and Fruityloops and would use it every day. I used Logic for a while, and now I use Ableton Live.

What were some of the best shows you went to growing up?

A lot of raves. I went to quite a few. I can’t pinpoint the best one. 2000 or 2001 there was this rave in LA called Nation. That was the same promoters that did the Audiotistic [Music Festival] where they combine hip-hop with drum and bass and house to appeal to a bigger audience. They had some of my favorite drum and bass artists — J Magic, Shy FX, and DJ Hype — with some of my favorite scratch DJs — DJ Qbert and D-Styles. I was so into scratch DJing.

What creative inspirations have had the most impact on you since you started playing?

Seeing all the acts. One of my inspirations for doing the visual show was this indie band from Japan, Cornelius. I was so blown away. I didn’t want to do a show that was just me doing my thing. I wanted to create more of an experience than a show. [I] put together a team: my girlfriend and a mutual friend. They’re both going to design school.

Tell me about the Nosaj Thing Visual show. Who did lights/visuals for that? How many visual shows did you have? Do they have any other productions?

Julia Tsao and Adam Guzman. They got more interested in doing visuals after that show. We had a video clip that became a little viral. They’re working with Flying Lotus for his Coachella show.

I did three visual shows with them. One in LA, one in San Francisco, and one in Montreal. It’s still in a beta version. They just got out of grad school and will have more time to work on it. We’re doing it this summer at Sonar in Barcelona.

What artists have you done remixes for?

I did quite a bit.

I’ve seen a long list.

It’s getting ridiculous. I almost have as many remixes as original material.

Is that something you have a problem with?

Not really. These opportunities just came in. I’ve been getting remix requests from artists I really like. How could you say no to that? I have a couple more to finish and then I’ll be spending my time on the next record. I just finished the xx, a band from the UK. I did a remix for Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has a new project with Beck. I also just started a remix for Fever Ray right now.

You released your last record Drift on Alpha Pup. When are you expecting to release another album or EP and with who?

Next album, hopefully if it goes as planned, will be out first quarter of 2011. We’re having a remix EP released on Alpha Pup over the summer: Dntel, Dorian Concept, DAEDELUS, and maybe Fly Lo (Flying Lotus).

What is your beat-making process?

I tend to work on stuff when I feel like I have the urge to do it. When I’m writing music, it’s very therapeutic for me. It’s an emotional release every time I do it. It works best when some type of incident has happened to me.

What is your favorite Nintendo NES game?

For some reason, I like this game called RC Pro-Am a lot. It was a three-quarter aerial view where you drive this remote control car.

Have you worked with any MCs? Do you expect to work with MCs in the future or stay mostly instrumental?

Recently, I did the first track off Nocando’s recent release. I also did a beat for [rapper] Busdriver. I did a remix for this Mc Donis out of Atlanta. DJ 8-track released his EP.

I have been secretly working on beats as well outside of Nosaj Thing. That’s why I started. I was a big fan of Dre and always wanted to be a hip-hop producer growing up.

When I’m at home I don’t listen to too much electronic music. Of course, I listen to what’s going on out there, but at home I like listening to indie rock or classical music. Actually, I like listening to mainstream hip-hop radio while I’m driving. When I’m in LA, I drive a lot.

How has touring with DAEDELUS been?

It’s been amazing. I first saw DAEDELUS in 2003 when he first started using the Monome controller. It’s crazy, it’s been seven years now. I used to go to all of his shows. I’ve never seen anyone perform electronic music like he does. 2003 was a time where music technology and controllers were booming. To see someone like DAEDELUS work a prototype version of the Monome was really inspiring to me. After seven years, co-headlining a tour is really crazy.

Digital or analog synth?

Both. Analog will never go away. You can’t emulate that sound of analog. Maybe. It’s getting close right? I think being a younger dude being around a lot of software has influenced me. It’s tough to record with midi or find that one patch to make the right sound. I really like working with software instruments. We’re at a time where you can make things sound amazing.


DAEDELUS and Nosaj Thing are touring together until the end of February. Check their MySpace pages for dates. Photos by Daniel Adler.

Greg Merrell enjoys music equivalent to post-modern art, believes the spoon is a superior eating utensil to the fork, and believes the analog synthesizer is the song of god. He currently plays in the bands $2,000 Puma and Mellowtron and the Harp.