Interview: Nosaj Thing

At the beginning of the yearNosaj Thing broke his three-year radio silence by releasing his much-awaited “Home” LP on Innovative Leisure after his first record “Drift” was released on Alpha Pup Records in 2009. In terms of how beat- and melody-driven “Drift” was, Jason Chung’s sophomore effort did not pick up where his debut left off musically. His followup “Home”, however, still resonated with the driving factors of the Los Angeles-based producer in his ability to create music that is emotion-driven, enchantingly layered and simply beautiful to listen to. Still, the ethereal album is evidently not a necessary indication for what we can expect from Jason in time to come. His recent collaboration with Chance The Rapper curated by Yours Truly SF displays both his firm grasp over a variety of sounds as well as his defining hip-hop influences. We had the chance to speak with Jason a while back in Amsterdam during his first European tour for “Home”, and caught up with him about the making of his latest record, his new label Timetable, vocal collaborations and Los Angeles.

Hi Jason! How have you been and how has your European tour been treating you? “The shows have been going really well so far and the crowds have been responsive. It’s still pretty early in the tour, but I’m only doing eight dates so I’m already half way now. This is the first time for me to play abroad since the new album came out, but my new visual show won’t be ready until the late summer or fall. Right now, I’m just doing more of a low trial run of my new material, just to get out and do it.”

Aside from your live shows, you’ve also recently started curating the Timetable label. Could you tell us a little bit about how this came about? “It’s an imprint under Innovative Leisure. It’s kind of crazy, when they got in contact with me they offered a deal for the “Home” album, and they also came up with the imprint offer. It felt like it was meant to be. They read my mind as it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I realized it’s a lot of work to do something like that, so working with them and having their support behind the imprint really made me want to finally do it.”

Stream: Nosaj Thing x Chance The Rapper – Paranoia (Yours Truly SF)

It’s good to hear that your vision finally came together! There are a lot of small imprints around right now, what made you want to pursue your own vision for this label? “I just needed an outlet to put out new music that I was feeling first and foremost, but I also just wanted to explore and experiment with different types of media.. not only music. I started doing this with my last visual show and by working with different artists, I just think it’ll be a good way for me to experiment more. I don’t want it to strictly just be about music.”  How do you see the multidisciplinary aspect of it packing out? “I haven’t really thought that far ahead yet. I’m just going along with it. I’ll just say that for now I’m really excited about it. There’s a lot in planning for the label right now.”

Could you tell us a little bit about what’s coming up for the label? We heard that you have some material coming out with Charles Murdoch, how did you come in contact with him and what made you want to release his music? “Yeah, we’ve got an EP coming up with Charles who is from Brisbane. I just got a message from him on Soundcloud and I loved everything I heard on his page. So I hit him up, found out where he’s from and told him I’m working on an imprint and he told me he was down to collaborate. We just got his EP mastered and it sounds amazing. I’m also working on a collaboration with Teebs. Everything else is still in development so I don’t want to say too much before it’s concrete.”

Besides the newcomers that you are featuring on your own label, what are some other new artists that you are particularly excited about? “I’ve been listening to this girl Julianna Barwick a lot. Julianna works a lot with vocal loops and huge reverbs, so it sounds almost angelic, like she’s singing in a cathedral. She layers her voice in a way that it’s very therapeutic to listen to. I listen to music a lot when I fly and travel in general. I’ve been listening to King Krule too, he’s a 20 year old singer/songwriter and I’m actually doing a remix for him as well. I’ve actually also been listening to a lot of stuff on Hyperdub lately. I like Scratcha DVA a lot, and the new LV record was crazy.” Yes! I’m really excited to hear new material from Ikonika as well. “Oh, yeah! Ikonika is so good. Her DJ sets are amazing. I always go back to listening to those.”

Moving on to some of your own output, you’ve just released your Home LP on Innovative Leisures. How did the time and hype surrounding his sophomore album shape your attitude going into it? “It definitely shaped me a lot and there was a lot of pressure, actually. With “Drift”, I didn’t expect to be touring and being able to be music for a living.  Right after I finished that album I lost my day job, and I was just kind of freaking out. I was collecting unemployment, I didn’t have a college degree because I dropped out, and I just wasn’t sure about any of it. I actually started looking for jobs again, but then that record came out and it got a lot of good reviews. That was pretty overwhelming and unexpected, I didn’t expect any of that. After that the opportunities came to tour, and I kind of just went with that until I realized that I had to make another album. As I was making the second album, a lot changed in my life personally. I had a lot to deal with in my personal life and I moved three times while writing the record. And then, being able to tour, to work on music and make a living out of my first record; of course there’ll be a certain amount of pressure. All of this started to get to me, it was the perfect storm. That was what the record was about. In the end, I’m just glad it’s out of my system. It’s an honest record.”

Was it a conscious decision to take a distance from music throughout all of this? “I think it was more about finding the right direction. I was writing a lot of different types of music at that time.”  For me personally, the album felt like a huge change from “Drift”. Do you view “Home” as a conscious change sound-wise? “I just made whatever came out of me and I went with it. With “Drift”, I was a lot younger. I made that record in about six months. Everything came out in once. I guess now I am older and things got a bit more real for me. Nowadays I’m getting myself back there again though, switching it back up. I’m getting back into that mode of making music actively again, I call it battle mode.”

Did the actual recording process of “Home” take as long as the time there was between the two releases? “It’s weird, I never really stopped writing music. I always have different sketches going on. I guess that’s the case with everybody, or at least with a lot of friends of mine who make music. We have hundreds of skeletons that we make. With albums you just put out a number of songs, but in reality you write hundreds of them.” With many of the tracks on the album being a few years old, do you feel like you’ve evolved so much up until now that people will be surprised when you release new music that you’ve hinted about previously? “Oh yeah, definitely! That might be a good thing. It’s time to get weird now.”

Stream: Nosaj Thing – Eclipse/Blue (feat. Kazu Makino)

You’ve mentioned before that putting out the “Home” LP was a difficult process for you and that the record is an introspective one for you. What about it would you describe as introspective, and what have you most importantly learned from its process creatively speaking? “Definitely. It felt more like a growing record. With “Drift” it just seemed like such a quick process. It was a basic idea and I went along with it. With “Home”, I explored more in terms of songwriting and different textures. I know that there aren’t as many driving melodies on “Home” as there are on “Drift” but I just wanted to focus more on textures and feelings. It was a very therapeutic record for me. It was like an escape, I guess.”

That makes sense, listening to the album does sound like a cathartic experience. For the lead single’s video, “Eclipse/Blue”, you collaborated with both a visual artist and choreographer to make an unforgettable video, could you share a bit on how that came to be? “I feel that so far everyone I worked with just came together naturally. For “Eclipse/Blue” I worked with Daito Manabe and he’s a crazy genius. I came across him as I was researching different artists when I was working on the first visual show. I saw his video pop up so I hit him up and he happened to be a fan of my music and what was going on in LA. He also produces music as well. He recently sent me a video of what he’s working on for the new live show. It looks amazing. I don’t even know how he does it, it’s like holograms without a screen. I hope that everything falls into place and we can tour this show, that would be my dream.”

That sounds like something to look forward to for sure. I wanted to go back to “Drift” for a little bit, because you had a remix record come out for that which was very well received. “Yeah! I felt like it kind of got lost in the mix and it never came out on vinyl. I was kind of bummed out about that to be honest, I’m gonna re-release that. That roster is crazy, they’re all some of my favourite producers! So I feel like I need to re-release that.” It was truly an incredible remix EP, that Jamie XX remix is a classic to me. Do you have any plans for a remix record for “Home”? “I didn’t get as far as doing a full remix record, but there are some remixes going on. Kyle Hall just finished a remix for me and I’m just about to send stems to Machinedrum as well.”

What has been your most memorable/unexpected reinterpretation of your own work done by another artist to date and could you tell us why? “I really like the remix that Dorian Concept did on the “Drift Remixed” record. I don’t know, that guy is just next level to me. He’s not only a really good producer technically but also a virtuoso musically, so that’s an unstoppable combination.”

You also had the amazing opportunity to remix one of Philip Glass’ tracks for a project curated by Beck. Could you tell us a little bit about how this came to be? “Yeah, that was insane. I got an email that was forwarded to me from Beck directly and I couldn’t believe it. I was just tripping out about it, so of course I immediately agreed to it. For the remix, I wanted to stick with the theme of Philip Glass’ work, so I took a more minimal approach. I think he is definitely an originator of electronic music. He was making these crazy hypnotic loops with just a piano, you know? I wanted to do a nod to that.” Did you find having the task to remix someone like Philip Glass intimidating or daunting at all? “I certainly did. For the project, they asked me what piece I wanted to do, and I didn’t really want to mess with any of the tracks that I really love. I didn’t want to touch those. I chose “Knee 1” because I felt like it had certain parts that I could work with, plus it had some vocal pieces as well. I didn’t want to mess with any of his piano pieces.”

Stream: Philip Glass – Knee 1 (Nosaj Thing Remix) (The Kora Records)

Yeah, I can imagine that the standalone piano pieces could be more intimidating to remix. I want to elaborate on the vocal element you just mentioned. On “Home”, you’ve worked with two vocalists for two different tracks. As a producer, you especially come from a hip-hop background and name people like J. Dilla, Timberland & The Neptunes as defining inspirations. Would you say that working with vocalists is always something you’ve worked towards or envisioned? “Yeah, definitely. When I first started producing I was in highschool and  I was just recreating Neptunes and Dr. Dre beats. I didn’t know anyone to get my music out there, so I got into weird music more. I started listening to noise and other experimental music, just weird shit. It was a good thing though, because all of those influences are infused into my sound now, and I just really trip out that  all things come around in the end. Me being able to work with someone like Kendrick Lamar or even Kazu is just crazy to me.” It does all come full circle! I saw Ryan Hemsworth validly point out that one of Justin Timberlake’s new tracks “Blue Ocean Floor” sounds like it could have been a Nosaj production. “Oh yeah! I saw that. I also had several friends text me simultaneously about that. I was like, why couldn’t he have just hit me up? [laughs]”

But going back to Kendrick Lamar, you had the opportunity to work with him before his second album on a Windows Phone collaboration, right? “I did. Actually, after we worked on that one track together, he was hitting me up for beats for “good kid, m.A.A.d city”. At the time, I was in a crazy mental state and I had nothing that I wanted to send him. I was so frustrated, because I was working on my own new album and I felt like I couldn’t make anything. I was bummed out when Kendrick was asking for beats. I mean, I’m still in contact, but still it was such a crazy opportunity to possibly be on that album, but I just went with my gut for that.”

I can imagine that being frustrating but it’s always better to go with your instinct in the end! What was it like to work with Kendrick on that collaboration, can you tell us a little bit more about how that came about? “Dave Free, who is Kendrick’s manager and also one of his producers, found out about me on a blog one day. Dave got approached for the Windows Phone thing, and I guess he just found out about me around the same time and he hit me up. It was the craziest experience. I had never actually worked in a big studio, so we met up at the studio and I had like twenty tracks to show him. I started playing the first track, and he told me that was the one. I thought to myself, wait a minute, I have much more to show you! But he had made his mind up about it and wanted to roll with that one.  I felt like I had other stuff that went more hard and might have worked more and that I had in mind for him, but he’d heard the first fifteen seconds of this one and just wanted that beat. I did not expect him to pick that one, to be honest. It might have just been the vibe he was in or maybe that’s the type of beat he had in mind for this collaboration, I don’t know.”

You say you had harder beats in mind for Kendrick. Do you think that it’s necessary to go for more aggressive sounding beats when you work with rappers? I’m just reminded of this Drake remix you did a while back, and that was mellow but it worked great. “Oh yeah, wow, that was a long time ago! I suppose it’s more of a mentality I need to be in. Not necessarily that it has to go harder sound-wise, but more a mental thing for myself.” Sure, that makes sense. How did the collaboration proceed after that? “Once he picked the beat, he started singing a melody and came up with the hook on the spot. We recorded it eight times to stack it up. He’d leave the studio for fifteen minutes, come back without a paper or pen and just lay down the verse. His engineer Ali and him had this crazy telepathy going on. I was stunned at his work method. He did that a few times, recorded three verses and then Dave Free got a call from Dre, who told them that he needed them in Las Vegas to record for “Detox”. They had to bounce and I got stuck with the stems so I finished it up at home. It was crazy.”

Stream: Kendrick Lamar & Nosaj Thing – Cloud 10 (Curated by Windows Phone)

Wow! This sounds like an insane and amazing experience. You’ve had all of this experience of working with rappers as well as other types of vocalists. Does your creative process differ between the two? “The story is different each time. When I collaborated with Kazu for instance, it happened much differently. I was working on that track by myself and her voice just popped into my head. I have to mention that The Blonde Redheads is one of my favourite bands. I didn’t know Kazu or anyone that knew her, so my manager just contacted her manager. At first it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen but then her management sent it to her and she called me the very next day. I guess she was just really feeling the vibe and it happened naturally from there onwards. She sent me a quick sketch of the song that she recorded and a few months later I went to New York. We got to record it at Electric Lady, which is Jimi Hendrix’s old apartment studio, so that in itself is crazy, right? She then sent it to her friend Drew Brown who is one of the engineers for Radiohead. He did all of the reverb on it and I really thought that that brought the track to life. Later that year I got to meet him at the studio, and it was just a really humbling experience for me to work on that track.

But then for the track with Toro Y Moi for example, it’s different again. We’ve been friends for a while and we toured together a few years ago as well. Whenever we’re both in Los Angeles we just get together and work on beats and stuff. One day when I was working on the album and we were together, I played him a few tracks and he asked to get on it one of them. So it happened and I  ended up keeping the first take that he recorded for that one.”

All of these experiences sound vastly different from each other. What would you say you enjoy most about all of your collaboration processes? “The general energy. The fact that you come up with ideas that you usually wouldn’t come up with on your own, that’s the beauty of the collaboration process. Also, I learn so much from each time I do it. I’m trying to do more this year. There’s some crazy collaborations coming up actually. One is with Chance The Rapper. There’s also an EP in the works with Prefuse 73 that he’s going to put out.” I recently also saw a picture of you in studio with Teebs and Fatima, is there something happening there? “Yeah! The Teebs thing is definitely happening. I hope Fatima can get on it, I think she’s kind of busy right now though. But she’s the best, that would be amazing. It’s easy for me to work with Teebs because he’s also from Los Angeles so we can meet there more often.”

Ah yes, you’ve worked with quite a lot of LA-based artists. There’s always something interesting going on there in terms of new music – if it wasn’t the Brainfeeder-related music a few years back, it’s a new wave of rappers coming from LA and surrounding cities now. As an LA native, is there a commonality you think that makes LA a specifically great breeding ground for new artists? “Los Angeles is laid-back. I always go and relax when I’m back home. It’s a place that helps me calm down in general. I think that the climate affects everything. Also, I was talking to someone about how music moves a lot quicker in the UK because everything is so close together. With all the clubs and scenes that are going on, the trends move a lot quicker. It’s so fast that it’s kind of exhausting to me. That being said, it’s still so progressive of course. But in LA everything is much more spread out and everyone is in their own pocket. It helps in creating a much more laid-back atmosphere.”

You’ve obviously toured and worked a lot outside of Los Angeles by now as well. Has the experience of touring affected the way you approach making music at all? “It has, yeah. You can feel the energy from the crowd when you’re performing. Throughout the whole set, I can always feel the mood changing and when that happens I do take mental notes for what works and not. It stays with me. That’s what inspires me to make new music as well, filling in those voids.”

When it comes to your shows, you’re someone that pays a lot of attention and detail to make your live experience a memorable one.  When you create new music, is how it translates to the dancefloor something that’s always lingering on your mind? Is “accessibility” in that sense important to your creative process at all? “You would think that I never think about those sort of things at all, especially with the last record. [laughs] It’s definitely a headphone record, no one would play that out. I do think about how my music translates to the dancefloor sometimes, but at a certain point it was hard for me to think about that in relation to “Home”. At a certain point I just had to let those thoughts go and make the record that came out now. I was giving myself a lot of pressure because it takes a lot of energy to write a record but I also have to remind myself that there’s a lot more to come. I’m glad I got this one out of the way and I’m ready to move on.”

You have to look forward. What can we expect from you musically in the near future? “I’m working on a new EP and I’m working on a few remixes right now. I’ve also got a remix going on for this band called How To Destroy Angels, which is Trent Reznor’s band. Aside from that, there’s also some projects that I mentioned before with Prefuse 73 and King Krule.”

Finally, when was the last time you danced? “At home, when I was making music! Lately, the type of music that I’ve been making just makes me dance around my room.” Is that a sign of the type of sounds we can expect from you in time to come? “I think so, yeah! [laughs]”

Sindhuja Shyam
Sindhuja Shyam

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