NICOLAY – MUSIC PRODUCER
Nicolay is one of the most eclectic and innovative music producers around, full stop. His first notable achievement as producer came in 2004 after Connected was released – the debut album of The Foreign Exchange, of which he is half. The album was famously recorded with the “exchange” of electronic files across the Atlantic; the artists meeting only after it had been finished. He has since gone on to cover new and exciting musical ground releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as part of TFE.
Just as comfortable in a studio setting as in live performance, this gifted Dutch musician, who now resides in North Carolina, recently spoke openly to me about topics such as how both Prince and Thundercat inspire him, the special working relationship he shares with Phonte (his partner in The Foreign Exchange), his opinion on the current wave of African electronic music, and how he views spirituality in terms of his creativity. Read on and be enlightened.
What were your main musical influences growing up?
For me one of the first influences was my mother’s record collection, I really credit this for my eclectic taste and for the fact that I have been brought up with different kinds of music. My mother was a very big fan of music as a whole, especially music from the 60s and the 70s, and bought everything from The Beatles, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix to classical music. It wasn’t until I reached my teens that I started developing my own personal taste in music and certain artists; at that point it was really Prince who fully drew me in to becoming a music fan and what that meant, such as buying records and going to shows. To this day I think Prince is one of my biggest influences; musically, as well as the fact that he has always done things his way, even if it hasn’t always been to the best result.
What was your first equipment that you started making music with, and did you make ‘bedroom joints’?
Oh yeah, I am from the generation of bedroom producers for sure. It was groups like Daft Punk in their very beginnings who really showed me that you could make music with just a sampler or a computer. It didn’t necessarily matter so much anymore what you had as long as you used it in a way that was somehow new or original. My first set-up was just a computer and a few instruments. I have always played instruments – I actually studied Musicology back in Amsterdam for 7 years at the University of Amsterdam. I have always played both classical as well as, what they would like to snobbishly refer to as, popular music. I have always played bass, guitar and keys.
Was Cubase the programme you started with?
It was something similar to that. It was something called MODplug which almost nobody has used or heard of, but the people who have swear by it. It was a perfectly random choice, I just started on something and that’s what it was. It was a real basic software programme that would allow you to sequence a few tracks using some rudimentary samples, and it all grew from there.
Can you tell me a little about the City Lights albums, are you trying to capture the vibe of certain places that you’ve been to?
I would say that it grew more specific over time. Looking back you can always make more of something than it really was, and I could tell you that it was all planned out and conceptualized but it wasn’t really like that. I did the first album as a kind of beat tape; a glorified tape of beats and instrumentals that I had lying around that I wasn’t using at the time. I didn’t have a specific geographic area in mind for that one, other than imagining it was a sort of audio walk through a large city, like New York for example. That was more of a hip hop focused project. When I did the second album Shibuya, which came out in 2009 after I had taken a trip to Tokyo, it was more specifically about the city and our experience there, and how it inspired me. The Soweto album is even more precise because it was not only about my experience but also of Phonte’s, my partner in The Foreign Exchange, who worked with me on the record on certain vocal elements. Speaking of African music and black music, whether you call it dance, disco, house or soul, they’re really branches of the same tree. So I wanted to give something back rather than take, that’s why you’re not hearing djembes or kilembes on the album – I really did not want to come off as a tourist.
So it was it more like a tribute?
Exactly, more like ‘this is what this country made me feel, and this is what I want to give back to it’.
When was the last time you heard a track that really moved you and what was it?
It was the day before yesterday, a new Thundercat track that came out, called ‘Dem Changes’ from a new EP that he’s releasing I think. Thundercat is one of those artists, one of the few select people, that I look up to to a point where their music makes me want to re-do my music. It’s on the level where he’s making the music that I would dream to make, not all of it, but a lot of – it’s really that good. So, even if I dislike it, his music always really challenges me in some way.
There’s this fantastic clip on Youtube from 1984 where Herbie Hancock is showing Quincy Jones how to use the latest electronic equipment out at the time, computers, synthesizers, programmes – it all looks super archaic now. He ends up talking about the fact that electronic instruments are only tools, and that humans still have to manipulate them to make something beautiful out of them – or not.
Still to this day there are many people who are offended by electronic music, favouring more traditional instruments and methods. Why do you think this is?
I think it’s very subjective how you look at that. I think art is human expression, and so Herbie Hancock expressing himself in ‘84 to me is no different to Rembrandt expressing himself in 1700s – I may be out a few centuries – doing The Night Watch, or Vincent Van Gough, or Mozart for that matter using a pen and paper. I think that time always dictates where people go and the good artists, the artists that really push the needle forward, are the ones that are really up on those new developments. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a place for organics, and organic instruments: pianos, guitars, Rhodes and drums etc. But the guys that really do it are guys that are products of both worlds, they’re hybrids, and know how to use the cutting edge technology. They take that with being a musician, with knowing what to play, knowing what instruments to choose, knowing how to record all of that, and make the best of both worlds essentially.
Perhaps people have fear of ‘the new’ in general?
Yeah, there are people who stay off of Facebook out of the same sort of feeling. Personally I feel that as long as people don’t tell me what to do then I am happy that people have their own preference.
There is a brief recurring intro of the first track of all The Foreign Exchange albums so far – albeit with slight differences. What is the idea behind this repetition?
It’s another thing that just started as a happy accident and looking back looks really deliberate. We did the first record and I did an Intro – that’s what I did, and when we did the second one I don’t know what spurred the idea but I brought back that intro sound, although slightly tweaked to reflect the atmosphere of the new album. At that point it almost became a kind of sound logo. We started opening our shows with it and it became a kind of battle call, like the Bat-Signal. If you hear that sound you know that we’re close.
Did or do you ever listen to music from Africa, especially any of the new electronic-based stuff evolving there?
Yeah I started getting into it over the last 2 years and I was specifically South Africa-focused just because I knew we would be going there. There is a South African artist called Black Coffee who stands out, he has a very specific brand of house music and I’ve grown to understand that it’s very South African, in the sense that it’s not necessarily as aggressive as house music that you might hear coming from the States or even Europe, its got a softer feel to it and has a lot of musical and rhythmic content to it. It was actually Phonte who hit me to Black Coffee and after that I got hold of pretty much everything he’d done, and at some point even reached out to him to do a re-mix of one of the tracks on our label. So that was the gateway for me in realising that there’re a lot of African artists that are really quickly getting access to equipment, because that’s incredibly important. What you don’t always realise is that in the States a lot of artists complain that musical technology is becoming as accessible as it is. The other side of the story is of course that in continents like Africa, countries like South Africa – yes their economic situation is improving but its not going as quickly as you’d like – these kids are suddenly getting their hands on stuff, whether they buy a cheap piece of software or whether they download it in an illegal fashion, either way they’re getting their hands on stuff and ultimately it leads to a whole generation of people starting to create stuff that I think is starting to make waves on an international level. Black Coffee for instance is constantly touring in the States and is really bringing out nice crowds. It’s exciting and, because as part of my Musicology studies I’d been familiar with a lot of different types of traditional music from Africa, it’s really interesting to see what is going on now, especially in the electronic music scene.
Is there something specific or special about the way you and Phonte work and create together?
There definitely is. The main thing is that, in the same way I easily move from style to style, from genre to genre, he is no different, and in a multi-platform way he is incredible. Obviously he is a great rapper and has made a fantastic name doing that, but he is also an incredible singer and songwriter. Looking back, he’s the only person that I can think of who I could have done this with; with somebody who is as bold as I am and who is willing to go places that I think a lot of artists would be afraid to go to. If anything, at this point we just completely trust each other and have found a relationship where, because we have shown and proved so much for such a long time, with and for each other, it’s almost like a second language. It’s exciting because it’s a very easy partnership; it’s never been anything that we had to work at, or struggle with. We’re not like those groups that can’t stand each other. It’s pretty amazing that you find someone in your life that you connect with to a point that you can read and write and create with them, and it all feels natural all the time, it’s quite rare.
Do you think that if you had met each other before Connected it would have been a different album?
That’s an interesting question, yeah I suppose it would have been. I think one thing that we grew comfortable with is that we each create in our own space. Essentially I create the music in my studio, if there’s one person around there’s too many, I really don’t like having people around. Phonte is very much the same. If anything, that has really allowed us to dig deep without thinking that there’s somebody looking over your shoulder, so there’s no inhibitions. Whenever I send new music it already is 100% fully-me, it already has my blood, sweat and tears in it because I wasn’t afraid to just put it all out there. There aren’t ten people saying, ‘yeah that’s great’ or ‘you don’t want to do that’. If anything it has created this space where each of us is like a bubble, and at the end of the process the two bubbles burst into one and that’s the end result.
Culturally and racially speaking there are big differences between The Netherlands and North Carolina, and the States in general, has living there changed any outlooks that you had on music, or the history behind certain music?
The main thing that has changed for me is that I’ve gotten to play with all these people here that have all, in their own way, made me a better musician, made me appreciate different types of music, specific artists and songs. We, as The Foreign Exchange, have a live band and they are all incredible musicians. Just from playing with them night after night has opened up all these worlds that I’d never even sniffed at when I was still in The Netherlands. The level of musicianship over here is truly astonishing to see at times, which has to do with the fact there’re a lot of people playing, so you’ve got to be really really good if you want to do something – there’s a a lot of competition here.
The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it? What does spirit mean to you?
I think I definitely relate to it. When I look at creating music, there are so many times when I just know that something or somebody is feeding me. I just know it. I know that what I am doing in that moment is not just me fooling around, I’m being given something. I am not necessarily a religious person but I would consider myself a spiritual person because my life’s work is creating, if you will. I do feel incredibly connected to whatever it is that I’ve been fortunate enough to tap into. I don’t take it lightly, I really owe a lot to music, and I owe a lot to whatever this gift is and who’s given it me. I do feel that, whatever you wanna call it, is part of a bigger human conscience or consciousness. Whatever it is I can definitely feel it at times and I know it is not just me coming up with some chords. You know there are sections of entire tracks and entire songs that just come out and that can’t be just be me doing it.
Do you have any new upcoming projects that you can talk about?
Yes but I can’t talk about it! I have something exciting coming up but no, I can’t talk about it. It’s going to be a really interesting year I will say that; I was very excited to release my album finally because that was a little while in the making. Us as a collective and owning our own label we’re able to figure out our moves and so I’m very excited with what we can do this year, and hopefully they’ll be a lot more music coming.