Nosaj Thing on finding his sound and working in the box

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With his debut Nosaj Thing album, Drift, coming to prominence at the end of the last decade, producer Jason Chung demonstrated a nonconformist approach to making music from the very beginning. Despite having only a loaned version of FL studio and a Sony Walkman to keep him company, he managed to skilfully create a unique brand of leftfield glitch-hop, fractured by chromatic melodies and dark atmospheres.

Further albums Home (2013) and Fated (2015) exemplified Chung’s laptop-driven production style. Cementing his status on the live circuit, accompanied by a strong audio-visual aesthetic, the LA-based beat maker has expanded his creative empire with the formation of his self-run label, Timetable. Meanwhile, Chung has discovered a new musical vocabulary on his latest album, Parallels, through spontaneous collaboration with others. 

You were just a kid when you got into turntables and production. When did that hobby translate into wanting to create music?

“I was DJing when I was about 12 or 13 years old and a good friend of mine passed me some software - FL Studio and Reason - and it took me a little bit of time to figure it out. I started out just making rap beats. It was quite tough trying to make it sound good, because third-party VSTs that sounded good didn’t really exist. It was definitely primitive compared to now. I didn’t even have a way to listen to it afterwards, because I didn’t have a CD burner on my computer - I had to burn my own CDs just to be able to listen to it. I had an old Walkman, so I’d record from the output of my soundcard onto cassette. It didn’t sound too good, but it was interesting, and it’s funny because now that’s a sound I like.”

Right from the start you’ve had a very leftfield approach to production. Was that led by the technology itself or just a characteristic?

“I did want to make hip-hop. Growing up in LA, I was really into The Neptunes and Dr Dre, Warren G, DJ Quick and West Coast rap. But not knowing anybody in that world, I took the experimental route, and programs like Reason really encouraged that - just being able to flip the rack and reroute all the devices. Also, Napster became really big during that period, so that was the first time I was able to dig in, go through other people’s libraries and discover a lot of music. By that point, I’d really got into Autechre, noise and other leftfield music.”

And you had some early hardware units, right? Was it the Boss sampler?

“I did have the Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample and an Akai MPC for a little bit, but I actually didn’t end up using them that much. Having started out with software, I was so used to the fact it was instantaneous. Moving to hardware just seemed to take so much more time and didn’t really fit my style or sound either - I don’t really sample that much. I did listen to a lot of sample-based music growing up, hip-hop stuff by DJ Shadow and DJ Krush; so I did mess with that for a while, but it didn’t sound like what I wanted to make and I ended up selling the gear and moving on to a better computer and Logic.”

You have hip-hop artists like Erik B & Rakim, Public Enemy and DJ Shadow that are all so diverse. What does hip-hop mean to you?

“Growing up in LA, that’s all I heard since I was seven or eight years old. Before that, my parents played a lot of The Beatles, Dylan and classical music, but as soon as I turned on the radio, all I’d hear was Dr Dre or Snoop, and we were blessed because the Beat Junkies were on the radio and doing a lot of trick mixing and scratching every day. And radio was different, too - they didn’t just play the same songs all the time, so I got a pretty good musical education. But I wouldn’t say it’s changed for the worse, because we have so much accessibility to music now with platforms like SoundCloud, Mixcloud, internet radio, Radar Radio and DubLab.”

How does hip-hop translate through your music?

“Sometimes, I don’t think it’s about the rhythm, although the easiest way to identify hip-hop is maybe through how the drums are programmed. I think it’s more about the feel of something. You’ll hear little influences and references in my sound, like a synth lead or a sine wave that relates to it.”

Do you have a clear idea of what you want to create before you even go into the studio?

“Because I started out experimenting, I’ve always been interested in sound and how that creates a whole atmosphere. That’s what’s so interesting about electronic music, because you can express a lot just through sound versus a melody, and create so much texture through just one tone. It’s not quite new technology any more, because there are so many possibilities, but I was always interested in how a synth patch, field recording or noise could make you feel.” 

Your new album, Parallels, came from you having a bit of an identity crisis. How did that manifest?

“I wouldn’t say it was a personal identity crisis, but more of a musical one. The new record has a dancefloor track, a 4/4 track, a track that goes back to rap drums, and an ambient track. One day I’d get called into a session with a rapper, the next I’d be working on this ambient music, and at the weekend I’d do a DJ gig and just play house and techno, or work with a singer from a band doing rock music. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be - acting more as a producer. It’s been enjoyable, and I’ve learned a lot more by working with different genres and styles.”

The album sounds more concise. Not mainstream, but more definable hooks, which makes it more immediately appealing. Was that the intention?

“I actually didn’t think of any of that stuff. I’ve been experimenting with my sound for three albums, and now I’m more interested in song structures, so that’s where I’m taking it. When there’s a vocalist involved, there’s a whole set of new things to think about, like song structures or just exchanging ideas and deciding where you want to take something. And mix-wise, you’re creating a palette of sound around a vocalist. On a perfect day, I’ll try to make five chord progressions or ideas, and sometimes I’ll actually do the vocal myself and come up with melodies, but over the years I’ve made friends with singers, so I’ll pass ideas to them that I think might fit. With this record, two mutual friends of ours thought I’d work well with Steve Spacek, so I sent him four or five different ideas and he ended up sending me a finished song in a few days.”

That’s where I’ve always wanted to be - acting more as a producer. It’s been enjoyable, and I’ve learned a lot more by working with different genres and styles.

So you were working very spontaneously in some cases?

“Yeah, that’s my favourite - that’s what makes it fun. Growing up and being a bedroom producer and making music yourself for a long time can get quite frustrating. You’re on your own little island, battling with ideas in your head going back and forth, so collaborating makes it more enjoyable.”

How We Do, with Kazu Makino from Blonde Redhead, is a real standout track and her vocal is totally unique. Was she always on your wish list?

“I’ve been listening to Blonde Redhead for quite a while. We actually first connected on my second album. Her management was quite tough at the time. I’d made an instrumental and my track got sent to her, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen, but the next day she ended up calling me and we did the song Eclipse/Blue and became good friends. We’ve actually done a lot of songs together; maybe enough for a whole album.”

Having had this experience, would you like to produce other artists?

“Yes, definitely. I’ve been doing that more and more actually these days, taking sessions and seeing where they go. When you’re comfortable with artists who share a similar view on things, the music tends to come out better.”

Are these artists from your own Timetable label?

“The artists on my own label are friends, but mostly producers as well. The label does take up a lot of my time; we’re experimenting a lot and trying new things. But Timetable’s not just limited to music these days; we’ve been experimenting with different types of events, making different products and also producing films.”

So what would be your default creative position for creating a track? Are there certain tenets or principles you stick to?

“I do get into a certain groove, but I’ve always been interested in changing my approach once I catch myself getting into a routine. I feel like the best ideas come when you’re not thinking technically. With electronic music, it can get really technical, but I’ve learned that once you have a setup that you’re really familiar and comfortable with, whether it’s software, a plugin or a specific synthesizer, to me the goal is to be able to output your ideas without thinking at all. Sometimes you come up with really nice sounds and ideas by accident with new gear, but it’s great if you can get into a flow, making any idea that comes into your head without even thinking about it.”

What are you using for your effects processing on sounds?

“I really like using the UAD stuff. It’s kind of tough when I’m travelling because I don’t have the portable interface, but for mixing they do a really good job of emulating the hardware. I like using the API 2500 stereo compressor. I actually used to have a real one and did use hardware compressors and stuff like that for a while, but I ended up getting rid of it because I didn’t like how long it took to process the audio and rerecord it. I was so used to using plugins all the time, it messed up my flow. I really like the SSL G-Master bus compressor plugin - I throw it on my master channel and it adds a nice, instant pump compression to drums. I combo it with the API 2500 and add that to everything these days, especially dancefloor-based tracks.”

Are you a believer in the subtle use of compression?

“Yeah, I don’t like to overcompress anything. Even when I use the 2500 with drums, there’s a parallel mode built in, so I like to have the original track and an uncompressed channel mixed together. But even for mixing, I don’t EQ that much, either. I like to use sounds or make sounds that fit the whole spectrum of the space instead of sweeping everything.”

What are your go-to software synths?

“I like using Native Instruments stuff. They’re really progressive, and the whole Reaktor community is really interesting. I like using Kontakt because they have a lot of interesting synths and libraries. For example, Rev, by a company called Output, is basically all reversed instruments - microphones, strings and vocals, and I use another one called Vocalise. I also like to use granular synthesis plugins; there’s one on Ableton called Granulator; I think it’s a Max For Live thing. Any sample you drop in you can make a song out of. It’s quite nice to record your own vocals and make an instrument out of them, because it has a lot of parameters you can change and make the craziest sounds.

“There’s another granular synth made by Sound Guru called The Mangle; it’s pretty similar to Granulator, but you can tweak it differently and create zones using up to eight different samples. But even when I’m working with DAWs and plugins, just the way they look and their colour affects the way I make music.”

In what way does their appearance affect how you work?

“If you think about it, FL Studio is more like playing a video game, because the whole programme is based around a 16-step sequencer, which is great for drum programming. Logic is more of a traditional linear interface; you’ll probably be recording longer takes and using EQ more because it’s built into each track, but it’s all grey. With Ableton, you can change the skin, and when I’m working in Session View, all the different colours affect the way I work.

“I’ve also been using the iPad a lot more, and there’s a program called Studiomux - it’s basically an audio and MIDI interface for your iPad. You just plug in your iPad with a regular iLink cable, open Studiomux, and you can send MIDI and audio through it. So any of those synthesisers for iPad can be brought in as a plugin, and that changes everything too because it’s touch-based.”

Presumably, you use some MIDI apps?

“There are a few MIDI apps that I like to use. SoundPrism Pro by Audanika is one of them; it has its own interface, which I’ve never even seen before. It’s for creating chord progressions, but I would come up with progressions that I could never come up with playing keys or even Ableton Push, because you’re playing them in a completely new way. If you’re playing chords through a keyboard, you tend to use your go-to chords, but this allows you to think out of the box because you don’t know exactly how it works. You could study it, but it’s designed in a way that you can play it instantly. I really like to encourage people to be open to things like that. Once in a while, I’ll do a search to see what new plugins and apps are out there, and I really appreciate all of these programmers that are kind of invisible and anonymous yet creating all these things.”

With each project, are you always looking to scrap everything you did before and come at things with a totally new palette of sounds?

“I’ve been thinking about this pretty recently. Like you said, I’ve always been into destroying and rebuilding and never using the same sounds twice, but these days I’ve been interested in creating a specific palette to work with over and over again. If you listen to The Neptunes, they have a specific palette you can instantly identify with - to me, that’s the Korg Triton. And if you listen to Dr Dre and Scott Storch, they used the Yamaha Motif in their workstation days. It really gives you a snapshot of that time and what worked for certain producers - there’s a purity to being limited that’s quite interesting, too. I’m trying to find that balance. With all these unlimited tools and plugins that we have, it’s interesting to find the ones that you can really identify with, and make a record out of that.”

With that in mind, do you have any favourite hardware synths?

“My favourite would be the Prophets. I finally picked up a Prophet-5, and I’ve been looking for that for years and years. I wanted it because I had the VST that Native Instruments made. It was called the Pro-53, but it stopped working in 2010 or 2011, maybe because of licensing issues, and it didn’t work anyway because it wasn’t compatible with later versions of OS X. I know Arturia made a VST version, but it sounded totally different. So I had his void and it was the only synth I wanted, but it was so expensive. It’s amazing, it sounds alive - the oscillator’s drifting, so just playing a simple chord sounds interesting because it’s imperfect. I have the Prophet-6 as well, but they’re completely different.”

Any others you favour?

“I use the Elektron Analog Keys, because it has some pretty good bass sounds and nice leads, and I have a Voyager as well but haven’t really used it that much. I just use the Prophets - I think I could make a whole record with them. I don’t think I’ll get into modular, though, as it’s too time-consuming for my style. I had the first Nord Modular, the Nord Modular 2 and the G2, and I was so into them, but that’s some real geek shit. I remember spending two hours on one sound and thinking, ‘I’m not making any music’. That’s a big fear of mine, because I feel like I was so much more productive when I had nothing. If you do have hardware, I think it’s really important to find just a few pieces that really inspire you. The Prophets are like furniture to me - like art pieces.”

I had the first Nord Modular, the Nord Modular 2 and the G2, and I was so into them, but that’s some real geek shit. I remember spending two hours on one sound and thinking, ‘I’m not making any music’.

A couple of years ago you had three years’ worth of music stolen from a hard drive. Can you tell us the impact that had on your career, emotionally and practically?

“Man, that fucked me up for a while. I was on tour in 2015 in Houston, and after our gig we went to a diner. I think they followed us and pretty much took everything I needed to make a living - my entire live setup and all my hard drives. I lost two and a half years of work, including an album that no one will ever hear. It was unreal. It sounds kind of crazy to travel with all that stuff, but I was also working from the road. I basically just started over and did the best that I could to deal with that situation. It gave me the opportunity to explore a good new palette of plugins because I didn’t want to get the same things that I’d had before or have any reminders. I took me quite a while to get back into the groove of things; maybe a year.”

I read a while ago that you were interested in putting on a fully immersive live show. Have you made any developments in that area?

“To me it’s more about the experience for the audience and trying to imagine that, if I were at the show, what would be interesting to me. I started experimenting in 2008 with limited resources, working with projection and animation. It was more like a colour study, because at that time there were a lot of really bad visuals at shows that didn’t really make any sense. We stripped it back and played with colour because having a specific colour projected
on a wall is a lot more powerful than having all this other stuff going on.”

Where are you at with it right now?

“Right now I’ve been jumping into two different modes. One is a collaboration with a media artist called Daito Manabe based in Tokyo. We’re working with 3D scanning; scanning our bodies and blending reality with virtual reality. We’ve been touring that and played it at Coachella and Sonar, but it’s an ongoing experiment that keeps evolving. 

“I also have a solo tour coming up, and I’m interesting in experimenting more with space and light. It’s a blend between laser and colour strobe, figuring out ways to use the space of the venue and steer focus away from the stage. It’s kind of weird having a crowd face one direction the entire time. It bothers me after a while, especially growing up going to raves, where you don’t even see the DJ.”

The latest Nosaj Thing album, Parallels, is out now. Check out the official website for more info.

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