Proud Yorta-Yorta man and creator Briggs does many, many things, he’s a comedy writer, best-selling children’s book author, actor and rapper. Latest project EP Always Was sees Briggs back in his wheelhouse and home, making music. He’s stepped out of the safety net of simply writing rhyme though, and taken a leap forward bringing us six joints, each unique, each representing different aspects of his personality, each speaking to the possibilities of where he’s on his way to with upcoming full-length Briggs For PM. Gimmie caught up with Briggs for a dose of inspiration and an insight into his process and passion.
You’re a writer in many capacities – lyrics, scripts, a book – when did your love of words and writing first develop?
BRIGGS: The first thing was the love of entertainment, that’s where it all started for me because I was such a consumer of TV, comedy and music. I didn’t really put it all together until much later and realised that people have to actually write these jokes [laughs].
What is it that you love about the process of creating?
B: It’s a hard thing to wrap up succinctly. I’ve always just liked making things, ever since I was a kid, making stuff was always where I was happiest. Even later on in life, over the lockdown period, I was just making food with my mates. I just like creating and making stuff in general. Like with this EP, I made it and now I’m off making something else.
It’s a pretty cool feeling getting lost in the moment when you’re creating.
B: Yeah, it is.
When did you find the calling for hip-hop?
B: Hip-hop was always the music I had the most affinity for, it was something I was drawn to since I was a kid. It was just the coolest thing there was! [laughs]. It was the simple for me. As a young man I was drawn to the absurdity and audaciousness. Everything I was drawn to was audacious and the absurd. I loved professional wrestling, heavy metal and rap music and action movies; they were the things I enjoyed most. Everything was always over the top! I think Gangster Rap really gave me that fix.
You used to have a punk band in high school before you started rapping, right?
B: Yeah, I had a punk band in the sense that I was a kid that tried to play guitar [laughs]. I think that’s every kid from the country’s right of passage at some point, playing guitar. It really was, I just wanted to be involved in music somehow, whether it was going to be radio, behind the decks, or creating—I just wanted to be involved. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities to make rap music in Shepparton where I grew up for a long time, until I was like, nah, I can do this! I’ll do this! [laughs].
You created your own opportunity!
B: Yeah! You had to.
I’ve heard that setting goals and goal accomplishment is a really big thing for you; when did you first realise the power of setting goals and following through in your life?
B: It was probably around the time of my first EP, the Homemade Bombs EP. I realised that I was essentially starting my own business, I was like, OK, I’m going to get 1,000 CDs made and I’m going to sell 1,000; I’m going to do a video clip; I’m going to do all of these things. They were all really simple things. I started ticking off each one. I wanted to tour nationally, I wanted to sell 1,000 of my CDs, and I wanted to do a video clip. Eventually I did all of those things over the course of a year of having that EP put by myself. There were boxes of CDs and I was with my mates, when we were just able to have fun and could weather the storm and sleep on the floors and do all the hard things, I’m too soft now! [laughs].
I know the feeling of staring out and doing things for yourself, I came from both the punk and hip-hop communities. It’s all very do-it-yourself.
B: They’re very similar, super similar. The difference between punk rock, hardcore and hip-hop is just the jackets! [laughs]. Everyone had buzz cuts but just different jackets on. It’s still the same, at the core of all of the good stuff, the communities of punk rock, hip hop, hardcore, metal, they’re all parallel. I was lucky because I enjoyed all of the music, I was a big fan of all of it. They’re more in tune than they’re not, I don’t think a lot of people realise that.
Same! I wanted to ask you about your philosophy of: good work is hard work; what do you mean by that?
B: It’s a mantra that I kind of spit to myself when things are tough or things are harder than normal. When you go to take the high road on some things, the high road is always the hardest road to take. Good work is hard work reminds me that you’re doing the right thing, that it’s tough now but it pays off. It works in a lot of different facets in my life, be it in the gym doing work and exercising, trying to be healthy—going the extra mile for yourself so it doesn’t suck so hard tomorrow! [laughs].
Previously you’ve mentioned self-esteem and how that’s a big issue you like to address; why is that important to you?
B: I think maybe because I don’t really remember feeling super confident as a kid. I was very performative – I was the class clown – but I was never very confident. There’s a difference there that people need to identify. You might have teachers identify how to better interact with their students; really anyone that interacts with a young person. Performative acts, being loud and boisterous, doesn’t always equal confidence, they might need a hand here or there or something. Self-esteem and tying it back to the Indigenous community because that’s where I grew up, it was extra hard to be yourself in what it felt like, a world that didn’t understand you or want you in it. Ya’know what I mean?
Yes, I really do. As an Indigenous kid, a Bla(c)k kid, growing up I didn’t think there was much different about me until I went to school and other kids, white kids, pointed out I was different. I’d get called all kinds of names.
B: It’s like, everything’s good until it’s not, right?! [laughs]. You don’t realise you’re different until people start telling you you’re different. It’s quantum physics, you change the outcome by measuring it [laughs].
What’s helped you with your confidence?
B: it’s a weird analogy but, I just got a puppy the other day. She’s great, she’s fantastic and she plays really well with me and anyone that comes around, but she was a little bit fearful in the beginning with other people and other dogs. I got her a treat ball, you keep her food in and she pushes it around and gets food out of it. When I first got it she was terrified of it, she stood there and barked at it and didn’t want to go near it. I rolled it near her, she didn’t know there were treats inside, until she did and then she went to work! She now breaks this thing open, even when it’s not meant to be broken open. When she figured out she was a problem solver, it changed her personality. She was suddenly interacting with other dogs much more openly. I feel like that was part of the thing for me, once I figured out that I could get over it and own a stage or speak my mind somewhere on stage and have a microphone and talk about my point of view, it was much easy to interact with people on a daily basis. Do you get what I mean?
Yes, I do. What’s your puppy’s name?
That’s a lovely name. I do get what you mean though, I started making my own zines, independent publications when I was 15, and once you start doing that and using your voice and you know that you can, you just keep going! I did a zine workshop once and a young boy said he didn’t know what to write and I told him he could write anything he wanted to. He replied “What I have to say doesn’t matter” and I told him it did matter; he said no one had ever told him that before and then he started writing.
B: Yeah! Once you get over that first hump, that first moment and you break the ice on it… there’s always challenges but once you learn and fail and fall down, you realise that failure is not the end and you get back up.
Your new EP is called Always Was and the image on the cover is a photo of the tattoo on your hand that says “Always Was” and I know the slogan “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land”; what does the EP title mean to you?
B: I didn’t want to call it Always Was, Always Will Be because it was only an EP [laughs]. I wanted people to understand that this wasn’t the whole story. “Always was, always will be” the slogan itself to me, was one of the very first things that I remember as a kid with protests and being present as Aboriginal People. Bringing it back to my music felt right. I didn’t want to do the whole thing because I wasn’t done yet! I thought it was a good title because it says there’s more to come because it’s only half the slogan. “Always was, always will be” is about longevity. It’s not just a thing to ring off—it is about longevity, it is about strength.
Absolutely! I feel like also with you putting out new music is that you’re back to the fundamentals of Briggs, the core of what you do.
B: Yeah, ‘cause I do a lot of different things. It’s good to be back in the house that I built, making tunes with my friends and doing the stuff that I love.
What’s your favourite lyric you’ve written on the EP?
B: [Pauses and thinks] There’s a few: nervous people make me nervous [laughs]. I like stuff like that.
Do you have a process for writing?
B: I just write to the beat that I get, especially lately, I’m trying to write more songs than just write raps. It’s mostly just write off the beat.
I’ve heard you mention that each song on the EP represents a different aspect of your personality…
B: Yeah! I should have done seven and you could have had them all! [laughs].
What’s the aspect we don’t have?
B: I don’t know, maybe gluttony isn’t on there [laughs]. You got wrath, that’s “Go To War”.
What about the song “Good Morning”?
B: That one might be pride [laughs].
I really love the lyrics of that one: When the sunshine says good morning / Good morning, I say what’s up.
B: That song is about not going to sleep. It’s like “good morning” because I haven’t been to bed. Everything I do is very tongue-in-cheek, more often than not.
I got something totally different from that song. I was thinking it’s more a positive, I’m waking up what can I do today.
B: Well that’s the beauty of music, people can interpret it any way they need it. Whatever that song means to you or whatever you take away from it it’s great! I read this thing about art: once it’s out there, it’s yours!
Yeah, it takes on a life of its own and it keeps evolving beyond the people who created it.
B: Yeah, for sure!
Recently, you were talking about the combination of singing and rapping on your joints and you said something of how it’s light and dark, yin and yang, it’s the balance and that you feel the universe is built on balance; how do you keep the balance in your life?
B: As much possible! That’s all I got [laughs]. That’s all I know.
Do you take time out to reset or do anything like meditation?
B: The closest thing I get to meditation is going to the gym. Anytime I put my phone down and I’m not working, that’s the closet thing I’ve got to meditation. I used to go to the theatre a lot and see movies. I’m terrible with that.
Last question, you’ve supported Ice Cube on his Australian tour, I know hearing his song “Today Was A Good Day” as a youth was a big deal for you; did you learn anything from spending time with him?
B: I’ve learnt things from spending time with all of my heroes. You watch how they work and it’s all about focusing on caring about the art and longevity, whether it’s with Ice Cube or Ice-T, RZA or Matt Groening.
Cleveland musician Lamont Thomas creates an exciting clash of punk, hip-hop and everything in between, with his ultimately genre-defying experimental musical project, Obnox. Lamont’s been prolific in the underground for decades – Bassholes, Puffy Areolas, This Moment In Black History + more – latest release Savage Raygun, shows he’s still got vision, passion and message, all while making jams for listeners to make memories to. There’s a lot of powerful stuff on this double album. Gimmie chatted with Lamont about the new record, the recent BLM protests worldwide, of racism, Black Excellence and more as he picked up some Thai food and his car from the mechanic.
The new album you’ve recently released Savage Raygun is really, really cool.
LAMONT THOMAS: I really appreciate that, thank you.
Why is music important to you?
LT: [Laughs] That’s a really good question! The rhythm, the rhythm is the rhythm of life. I love to play and the energy, art, creativity, you can tell a story; just dancing, moving, and communicating, it’s all a part of it.
How did you first discover music?
LT: Church, my family’s record collection, these types of things. The neighbourhood and hanging out, hanging out with my cousins. It was always around. My folks had good records, my church kinda rocked.
Is there any records that you remember from your parent’s collection that have really stayed with you?
LT: Yeah, lots of them. Prince, Al Green, Bar-kays. Gospel stuff like The Hawkins Family.
What was the first music that you discovered that was your own, independent of your family?
LT: I got into hip-hop right when it was going down. I loved soul music—Black music. It really soaks into your ribcage.
How did you get into punk rock?
LT: Skateboarding and hanging with my buddies in high school. Watching skate videos you would hear a lot of independent punk that was used for the soundtracks. A couple of guys that I went to high school with would make me mix tapes, they kinda got a kick outta the fact that a Black guy was listening to rock n roll.
There’s a lot of parallels between punk rock and hip-hop; basement shows, flyer culture, vinyl releases.
LT: Yeah for sure. When I was young the idea was to not sell out, whereas now selling out is the goal [laughs]. Monetizing your image on the internet, all the crap you gotta do now. I came around at the right time, a different time. I can still be out here doing stuff and not be some internet phenomenon. People just focus on the music when it comes to me. I do have fun with online, keeping up with people and connecting with people feeling the music, we can talk instantly. But, waking up every day feeling like someone has to give a shit about me today, so I’ gonna take selfies and post tracks… ya’know what I mean? That’s most people’s get down and how they do things, whereas I’ trying to write a song, a riff, play some drums, listening to music, I’m just trying not to rip people off with things.
I feel you. It’s so weird to me what’s popular or what a lot of people pay attention to. I’d rather do good work, work on my craft than put selfies out there. I want the attention for my work not for what I look like etc.
LT: The internet is a great way for discovery of new music and art, but people get tired of the other. Even stuff I used to look at or follow on the internet, I don’t even care so much anymore, even though those people are still out there. Maybe it’s just me, but people tend to fall off after a short period of time, two or three years of that kind of popularity, then you better have something really crackin’ or people will forget about you.
People forgot about me before this record [laughs]. I thought I was over! I hadn’t toured in a couple of years, I hadn’t put anything out. Last year I thought; maybe people are just over me? There’s been such an incredible response for the new record! Shout out to Flash Gordon over at ever/never Records for keeping me in the conversation and for still believing in the music.
Who or what has really helped shape your ideas on creativity?
LT: I started out as a teenager skating and catching mix tapes and then you get to reading fanzines and you become aware of the network, the underground… most things that are underground – things that most people would call failure – those are the artists that I tend to gravitate towards. There are certain records where you just can’t believe that it wasn’t a big hit and more people heard it or were into it. I sympathize and empathize with those kinds of stories… or even records that become huge over time that nobody gave a shit about like Funkadelic, nobody gave a shit and now everyone gives a shit. Funkadelic you know are still pretty underground [laughs]. I think they are the greatest American psychedelic rock band to ever set foot out. It wasn’t like that stuff was flying off the shelves.
That was the same with a band like Black Flag. I’ve spoken with Keith Morris and Henry Rollins and they both say that when they were first around people never cared so much, even hated them, now you see so many Black Flag tattoos etc. out there and they’re really loved.
LT: They had to create the network and that influenced that whole scene basically as far as how and where you can tour… someone’s got a basement space or you’re in some weird strip mall and the locals are about to tear your head off.
As a creative person what are the things that matter to you most?
LT: You go from there to college, where I hung out with a lot of radio station guys, that leads to a lot of local shows. I had a little band in high school. I got used to playing then. In college I would see guys that were early influences, they had their little bands and t-shirts and they were good bands and dudes, which I’m still really good friends with a lot of them.
Eventually, I moved to Columbus and that’s when I started playing with Don Holland and The Bassholes when I was twenty-one. Then I meet Jim Sheppard and Ron House, all the guys, and there’s tons of great bands in town at the time like New Bomb Turks. It was a great scene and I really lucked out. There were a handful or indie labels and they were all doing 7-inches. We were real lucky.
The thing that matters creatively to me is not ripping people off. It’s just what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I’ve worked a little bit of everywhere, I’ve worked for record stores, I’ve worked for the phone company, I’ve worked for General Motors, I used to build pedals for EarthQuaker Devices… I’ve always got a little hustle but music… let’s just put it this way, I could never go do that 9 to 5 thing very long. I’ve always had great jobs and there’s probably times when I should have quit playing music and focused on a career. I enjoy music that’s just it. I don’t have any money but I don’t feel poor.
I feel the same way. I work part-time in a library which pays the bills and then interviews, writing, music is what I do the rest of the time. Not having to pay the bills with my passions allows me to never have to compromise in what I do creatively. Any time I’ve tried to make a career out of those things I’ve always ended up having to compromise. I mean since I was a kid I wanted to write for Rolling Stone and I finally got there and was writing for them and then the editor told me to make my interviews less deep! I’m happy where I am now doing Gimmie, doing something that’s my own.
LT: Yeah, we need that perspective. I appreciate you. I’m trying to keep my music raw, that’s the basis of my art per say. Everyone these days has a laptop and can make beats or makes a video, but they’re just a motherfucker with a laptop and a video, you’ll be done in three years. To me an artist is someone that is in it, it’s just what they do, they don’t think so hard about artistry per say, they just in it and try to be creative and get that release. It makes them feel good, when it comes to music as far as I’m concerned, if it feels good it probably sounds damn good.
One thing that I’ve always loved with your music is that it’s always surprising me, you fuse so many genres into your music and when I’m listening to it I don’t know where it’s going to go and I keep listening to find out and hear it unfold. It’s never predictable.
LT: Thank you, I appreciate that. People listen to everything, Spotify shuffles and playlists, people listen to three or four different styles of music in a day, four different types of records—I do! I don’t want to do my beat-funk stuff here and then my noise stuff there or write some pop tunes over there. I’m like, fuck it, let’s put it all together and make the best sequence that we can. Find the best art and pack it up for someone to enjoy for a lifetime.
When you started making Savage Raygun did you have a vision for it?
LT: Yeah, I did. I had a bunch of ideas and I wanted to make something over four sides, I wanted to do a double album just in case I was over! Eventually, I tried to record some stuff digitally like what the modern dudes are doing but it didn’t work, I lost some files. I had beats from friends. I had to double back on all of the stuff that I had lost and staring pieces together stuff. My buddies would come by the studio a couple of days. I just kept going until I got a flow.
How do you know you’ve got the right sequence? Intuition? A feeling?
LT: You listen to it. Certain things don’t sound good back to back. Certain things should be left off of a record or redone. I don’t think about a lot of stuff that most dudes do, I just open myself up to creativity. Lyrically, I try to turn good phrases to see what makes it interesting. I’m recording in my friend’s living room for the most part. Here and there you might be running with Steve Albini or Jim Diamond, someone like that but, you go into those situations a little more well-rehearsed and thought out so you don’t blow a bunch of money in the studio. Those dudes aren’t cheap.
90% of my stuff was recorded in my buddy’s house. It gives you time to try things. When we first started a band, he and I used to record from three o’clock in the afternoon until one in the morning, just trying stuff. Things were coming out a lot more frequently and faster then, that wasn’t the point though—just doing what felt good was the point, just making stuff. I do what comes natural. I like to get stuff out faster so I can do more. I just want to do more, I love it. I’m not trying to impress people.
Do you ever impress yourself with what you create?
LT: I like it. It’s right up there with what’s out there. I can’t say I wish it was more popular, I don’t know what that’s like. When you start talking about popular acts, they have a lot more money and stuff to deal with… there’s different types of stuff to consider, I don’t have to worry about that.
I’ve interviewed many bands over their lifetime and if I’m being honest I’ve found that often with success and popularity their music becomes really boring.
LT: [Laughs] Maybe!
Artists on the fringes of things always seem to be more interesting and exciting. They’re not worrying about being liked, getting on the radio, fulfilling whatever obligations and expectations comes with being popular. Not having those things, you just have the freedom to create and you’re not believing your own hype.
LT: There’s no record business like there used to be now, like the old Tin Pan Alley model, with record advances and accounting and stuff like that. Depending on who I’m working with, I have to consider publishing and certain stuff, that’s me sitting around on a Saturday keeping track of things, keeping right with everybody. I’m not employed by anybody though, and neither is anyone else; these cats run through the music business like there’s still this industry standard that they have to live up to, this checklist of things they have to do before they become famous, it’s a giant myth. People spend so much time focusing on that shit that they never do realise their full potential, ya dig?
Totally! Why did you decide to kick your record off with the track “Super Dope”?
LT: That was just a jam session. We were jamming in Texas, I had a little 8-track machine running and I brought those songs from there and finished them up here. “Catbird” comes from that session and “She (Was about That Life)” does too. Just hanging out and having a good time.
How about “Supernatural”?
LT: There’s a lot of girls that are into witchcraft and astrology and energy and chakras and all that shit [laughs]. It’s like, everybody can’t be a witch! Everybody’s not intuitive. Everybody is not wired like that… c’mon, some of y’all are just trending out! [laughs]. It’s cool though… some people collect comic books, some people collect albums and some people collect personalities; ya know what I mean? Every now and again I’ll run into a girl that’s super witchy and I’m like, OK, I get it I understand, it’s wild out here ya know… collectively witching! [laughs]; watching the stars and the moon and you get your power… I understand but, I gotta write a song about it [laughs].
Are you a spiritual person?
LT: If you’re talking about Christianity and that kind of thing, no, not really. I think Jesus was my uncle! [laughs]. Spirituality for me, relates to being a Black man, I’m the original man, directly connected to God. Everything we’ve been through and everything we’re capable of, all of the innovations: traffic lights, heart surgery… I haven’t had a cold in twenty years, these types of things, these are divine qualities and I think a lot of brothers have them. I think there’s a lot of people working hard to make sure that these qualities don’t manifest, God-like qualities within every Black man—that’s my religion. I just got a copy of the Quran from my job the other day, I’m gonna start reading that to try to understand other ideas.
I’m having my own spiritual journey. Spending more time alone meditating, listening to jazz, trying to channel what made my people great from the beginning.
What kind of meditation do you do?
LT: It’s not any organized practice or anything, not like yoga or chanting, it’s more like prayer, just being silent and taking the time to not have to worry about what might be outside my door—really using the silence. It’s loud within itself though. That’s when I can think about other things that don’t worry me like; how do I want to carry myself? How do I want to atone for my walk in life and my path? How am I going to move forward in the future? How am I going to make the music better? To just stay up! Especially when someone tries to tear you down. They’re the things I think of in my own meditative state. I’m not some spiritual guru or expert on anything, I think a lot of people that say they are, are hustlers!
Black Excellence is my religion. When I need guidance I talk to my elders. I read someone like James Baldwin. I just curl up and read one of his books—it’s so strong. That feeds my soul as much as anything like God or whatever. Baldwin was a god. We get to enjoy this stuff and they figure out ways to sell it but, if you really look at the people behind it and take all of the production and administrative shit away, you’re dealing with some divine people with extraordinary talent. What happens when it’s untainted and it’s in its rawest form and you ain’t got to answer to nobody? If your life is improving on top of that and you’re helping others… I work at a church, I try to live in a way that my music will reflect the real person that I am, it ain’t always pretty but, shit, you put it all together, and it’s really powerful!
Your music is very honest. Life isn’t always pretty.
LT: Yeah, I’ve been through a lot in the last year or two. I’ve finally reckoned with everything. In your late forties you hope you’ll have your shit together, I feel like I’m starting to get things back together.
That’s great news!
Have you had a really life changing moment?
LT: Yeah. I was with my ex for twenty-five years! It takes time to really bounce back from something like that.
Is that what you were talking about when you mentioned you’ve been going through a lot the last couple of years?
LT: Yeah. She’s wonderful and we’re still cool, our daughter is great, that’s all I can ask for. Knowing that and still being able to make an indie record every now and again, I’m fine.
I’ve noticed through speaking with you and through your music, it really does seem like you want to touch people and inspire them. In interviews I notice you’re always encouraging young people, especially young Black people to explore and learn about punk rock and DIY; why is that important to you?
LT: That’s what music is—its communication! If you’re just sitting around only concerned with yourself and not with who the music is reaching… it’s to be shared. The record buying public isn’t just there to pat you on the back, its give and take. You want people to be able to smoke they joints and wiggle they feet and have fun—you want it to be the soundtrack for they life! I hope their life is turning out better because of the music, or I hope my music is what they making their memories to.
Is there a track on Savage Raygun that’s really special to you?
LT: “Return Fire” is an idea that you have a lot of gang members, a lot of shooters in America right now, everybody’s got a pistol and the Black community, brothers don’t hesitate to squeeze the trigger on another brother but, when the cops come down and terrorize the neighbourhood they have no fire power for these cops. The Black Panthers have already showed us that you can protect yourself from the police. Maybe it comes down to illegal weapons, or my stuff isn’t registered, I don’t go to the range or nothin’… if I got a pistol and someone’s choking a man for eight minutes, I’m not reaching for my phone, I’m going to pop his ass right in the shoulder! Just to get him off. “Return Fire” is an imaginary angle on that. You keep this shit up, you keep fucking with our people, we’re going to police you when you come around in our community. Nobody is asking how the Black community got this way? Now it’s all coming out.
You talk about looters, I talk about the Boston Tea Party. You talk about civil rights, and I talk about bringing many nations of people over here to build your country for free and then treating them like shit for centuries after that. That shit is not fair. “Return Fire” that’s basically what that is, the whole damn world is protesting right now! The whole world is tired of this shit! This is what Foundational Black Americans have been dealing with. People are socialised to not care about another Black man. Whether they’re an African guy in Paris or Barbados they’re not feeling me just because I’m an American Black man—it’s insane. They really did a number on our people, it’s global. Everybody knows who “they” are.
People rock with the money. I’m rockin’ with global unity! Everybody all over the damn world has some sort of colour and pigment. Everybody around the world has had they ass kicked to a certain extent. You can’t be out here invading small nations and calling them terrorists and enemies; what the hell can they really do to us? Blow they whole shit up with one missile and all of a sudden you want me to live in fear because somebody that you’re trying to take advantage of, like you took advantage of my people… I can’t rock with this shit! “Return Fire” is about that shit and “Avalanche Grave” is another one. Take your lawyer to the gun range and both of y’all get ready for this shit. What’s the shit? Civil war? I don’t know. Protest? Uprising? I don’t know.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Music Saves”.
LT: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s just like, one of those road songs. It’s a little pop that describes showing up at a venue and ultimately having a great show. There’s a store down the street from a club we play all the time called, Music Saves. The song is a little homage to the girl that used to run that spot. She’s wonderful. She was having a little trouble even before Covid and we wanted to put it out there so she knows we think it’s special.
You’ve been involved in the music community for decades and I know that you’ve never really cared for the industry side of things and you once said that, when you stopped giving a shit about any of that stuff, that’s when things got really fun for you.
LT: That’s right! That’s when the fun happens! The people around me really look after me, when you realise that you’re being treated better than some guy signed to some company, that is redemptive, it’s like, man… I’m doing better than someone that has to be on the internet all day. I can do what I like and I’m having fun with my friends but that guy might have to go rehearse with band members he doesn’t even like! [laughs]. The machine is rolling and they’re popular, its happening! I don’t give a fuck about that shit.
I know you have a beautiful little daughter named Mia; what’s fatherhood mean to you?
LT: She changed everything. She’s wonderful. She’s smart and healthy and happy. I’m just trying to live my life in a way that nothing messes that up. She’s on her way to great things. She’s something to live for! You don’t behave as recklessly as a young man, coming of age and understanding more about women, what they need from us. I falter here and there but I’m trying to get it together so she has everything she needs.
You’ve said that she inspires you when she’s around; how so?
LT: She’s smart and she’s into great music, just like every woman I ever loved! I’m proud of her. I try to match wits with her, she’s incredible. I have to stay up there! [laughs]. It’s a good gauge. She plays a little clarinet and she’s’ in the band now! [laughs].
At this point in your life; what are the things that matter the most to you?
LT: With everything that is going on right now, I hope that people aren’t just trending trying to seem socially conscious, I hope they are really trying to make changes. I hope this isn’t just another one of those things that in a few months people are just onto something else and talking about something else. I hope the election doesn’t supersede this movement and everyone gets… do you know what I mean?
LT: I wanna see equality. I’d love to see a new trend in music that ain’t even rock n roll. I deal with a lot of different people, white and Black—I’m just hoping for some understanding. I can dig where everyone is coming from. Let’s just level the playing field. Not just all this same political yip yap. I hope somebody does something for the Foundational Black community. I hope that people understand that women’s bodies are their own, ease off of the legislation and control and shit. I hope money and the economy and the Black man’s ability to take care of his family becomes easier. We’ve got 2.6% of the nation’s wealth, in the meantime 15% of white families have a million or more—that’s fucked up! Especially considering we built the nation. Real change! Not “oh, I was at the protest the other day! Did you see my photos?” Get your ass out of there! Put a mask on! You trying to look cute at the protest and take a photo! Get your ass out! We don’t need that. People always say they call out racism but we know that’s not true!
I’ve experienced so much racism in my life and there’s been so many times when I’m the only Black person in the room and no one stuck up for me when shit was going down. I really hope that we see real change and that things change in the everyday for us POC.
LT: People can grow. People need to keep things up. Hopefully we change the music game again too and things can get interesting again! We built it! This is my uncle’s shit! This is my family’s shit! Give me my shit back! [laughs].
Chicago musician NNAMDÏ dropped two powerful releases in the last few months. The latest being EP Black Plight – which raised over $10,000 for not-for-profit organizations eatchicago.org and assatasdaughters.org. And the other being LP, BRAT (released in April), an exploration of needs and wants as a human being and of reaffirming life purpose that brings you joy while helping others. Both are timely releases, both just might have you taking a look at your own place in the world and remind you to ask; how I can help those in a place with less privilege? Good art engages and entertains; great art changes you—NNAMDÏ’s genre-bending, breaking and blurring songs – fusing math-rock, hip hop, pop, R&B and more – definitely did this for us.
How are you?
NNAMDÏ: I’m doing OK, Bianca. I just got home, I was at this food drive and we were giving out meals and food to people.
That’s wonderful, I love how there has been so many positive things happening in the community of late, it’s been a rough, crazy time.
NNAMDÏ: It is a crazy time. It’s really been putting into perspective the things that are important. During all this community building, donating groceries is important, especially now, so many people are suffering and can’t go to work or haven’t gone to work for a long time, it’s intense. It got me thinking, there’s always people going through it, this community building energy needs to continue even after all of this. I’m really trying to check myself so I keep the momentum going after things start to look up in the future.
You’ve mentioned that lately you’ve been learning a lot and seeing a lot of community building and positivity amidst all the turmoil that’s been happening right now; what are some of the things that you’ve been learning?
NNAMDÏ: I feel like I’ve always been for the reform of law enforcement… when you grow up in it, I think a lot of people have ingrained in their brain that it just is the way it is, which is not a great way to live. I’m learning from people that have always been pro community based programs and teaching. Especially in Chicago, there’s a lot of conflicting views where the money goes towards police departments, almost half of the city’s budget is spent towards police. There was couple of years ago where they were planning on building a $90 million cop academy and everyone that I met were against it. There’s been a lot of people in Chicago that are police and law enforcement abolitionist so I’m just learning from that; it’s always been a part of my mindset but I was never actively involved. I’m trying to learn from people that have been doing it for a long time.
Last week you released the ‘Black Plight’ EP with sales raising $10,297.78 with proceeds split between eatChicago and Assata’s Daughters and 2K of the total going directly to people in the community that are in immediate need of food and housing assistance; why was it important for you to make this EP now?
NNAMDÏ: There’s a lot of anxiety going on in my mind and it was forming into physical stomach aches, everything has been piling on for a lot of people this year and like most people, I just didn’t know how to handle it. I feel like it just needed to be done, I forced myself to finish it the week that all the shit went down. I’d gone to one protest but I get a lot of anxiety in those situations. I felt this was my best opportunity to use the skills that I have to help anyone. It felt really important so I pushed myself, I went pretty deep down the rabbit hole trying to finish this; it was going to be five songs but I realised that wasn’t going to happen. I did what I could and made sure it got my point across. I think everyone should use their skills in order to help people, music is one skill that I have.
I can relate with getting anxiety when going to protests. I used to go to them all the time but it started to get so overwhelming for me to the point of panic attacks.
NNAMDÏ: It’s wild to me that so many people can just chill in that situation, there’s so many different sounds, especially in something like this protesting violence; there’s horns and people on megaphones and people honking and chanting. It’s very intense. At any moment I’d look around and be like; is this person yelling a chant or are they yelling at some other person? Or is this person honking because they’re in agreement with what’s going on or are they honking ‘cause they’re mad at something? Also, just being engulfed in a huge crowd of people is never something I’ve really been into.
Same! Was there any significance in having the first song ‘My Life’ on the EP kick off with a drumroll?
NNAMDÏ: No. Musically it just happened how it happened honestly. It all just came together. I didn’t really put that much thought into how the music was being placed or where things were going, I just did exactly what felt right to me and felt like it needed to sound like. It’s very much a projection of emotions felt at that point in time.
Last week was also your 30th birthday, Happy Birthday! What did turning 30 mean to you? Did you get reflective?
NNAMDÏ: Aww thank you! I feel like I was too distracted with everything going on in the world to care. A lot of people think of 30 as this crazy benchmark but it never really felt that way to me. It never really felt old to me. People are like, oh thirty is over the hill; but it’s never really felt that way to me at all. It’s such a crazy thing for people to think. I feel like the situation that a lot of people are in made me realise that I have it really good, I live in a comfortable house and can afford groceries. There was no room for any sort of conflict or crisis because I feel I’ve lived a very privileged life compared to a lot of people that are doing a lot worse off than I am right now. It feels the same being 30 [laughs].
I had a “milestone” birthday last year and I didn’t feel any different either, I’ve been doing all I do, things like doing interviews and making zines for over 25 years since I was fifteen and now I just feel like I do everything better than I ever have and I have a better perspective on the world and things; you can totally rule things at any age.
NNAMDÏ: Yeah, you’re kind of settled into most of the things that you’re into, there’s always room for surprises and improvement but, I feel like most people should be comfortable with themselves by this point, hopefully. Luckily I think I’ve reached that point a few years back.
Speaking of surprises, that’s something I love about your music – I love listening on headphones so I can hear everything that’s going on – there’s always so many surprises in your songs and I never know where it’s gonna go! It’s exciting.
NNAMDÏ: Thank you.
What is the importance of music and art in your life?
NNAMDÏ: It’s the most important thing, it’s pretty much all that I think about [laughs]. It’s so interesting just getting into people’s brain and witnessing the world through other people’s eyes and you can present things in whatever way you want—it’s a maximum expansion of people’s imagination and emotions. It teaches people in a way that is very different from what we learn in school and through teachers. It teaches people a different emotional connection and appreciation for humanity. It’s engulfed in everything that I think about [laughs]. It’s pretty much everything to me.
Totally! I know the feeling. Did you have a moment when you realised music is what you were meant to be doing with your life?
NNAMDÏ: Yeah, I still think I’m having that moment [laughs]. I feel anything involving entertainment, I wanted to be a comedian or actor when I was little – I still do – music has been the medium that has allowed me to express myself in the broadest form. I get real silly with it a lot, I can get real serious with it, I can also make happy fun songs. It’s allowed me to most comfortably express myself and a range that I wasn’t able to do through any other medium. It’s definitely something that I’m going to do until I can’t do it anymore.
Yay! That makes me so happy. You’ve mentioned that putting out your latest album BRAT was very therapeutic for you; how so?
NNAMDÏ: A lot of it has to do with the way I was thinking as I was going through the recording process and learning what’s really important to me. If I had to stop everything, if I couldn’t do music anymore; what’s important to me? Interestingly enough, I feel a lot of musicians are feeling that because of the [Corona]virus and not being able to tour, they have to really focus on; what will I do if I’m not working? What is the thing that actually brings me joy outside of what I have to do all of the time? It’s a lot about that. Also, realising that making art is not a selfish pursuit, even though it can feel like it when you have bigger problems in the world, it doesn’t feel like as an immediate solution. I feel like I’m constantly reminded of how important it is. It always shows itself in a different way like—no, this is important! Even after I put on the EP I’m like, OK, art is important! I don’t really need a reminder anymore but I feel any empathic artist goes through that, where they’re like; am I doing enough? Is this just gassing myself up? Does this mean anything to anyone else or am I just doing it because I want to do it? Both are important, you should do things that you want to do and do things for other people. That was a lot of what I was thinking while making this album and it helped me realise what else is important in my life. Things like making time for people that make time for me was a big thing on that record and doing whatever was in my ability to reach people.
BRAT has such a cool flow to it; how did you go about arranging the run order? Did it take you a while?
NNAMDÏ: It didn’t really take a while. The order just falls into place once there’s chunks of songs written. It wasn’t really a task it was more fun, like a Sudoku puzzle [laughs]. I feel like that’s such an important part of records, the flow of it, you can have all great songs and you can put it in a different order to have a different effect. It’s very important.
I love how with your album if you listen closely you realise that each songs is connected to the next whether in theme or sounds etc. It takes you through all these emotions and unfolds, it’s kind of like a movie in a way.
NNAMDÏ: Yeah, thank you.
In regards to BRAT I’ve read that you were stubborn in some of your decisions regarding it; what were they?
NNAMDÏ: I think I’m just stubborn in general when I’m working on my own music, that’s part of the reason I make solo music. I was in a bunch of bands for so long, and I always need an outlet to be solely in control of everything. This was the first record that I mixed with someone else, I mixed it with my bandmate – I play in this band Monobody – he has a studio, it’s where we recorded everything. I think there was a couple of moments where he wanted me to re-record a couple of things and sometimes I was like, no, we’re just going to keep it like that. Other times I was like, he’s absolutely right! I could do this better. I wasn’t stubborn the whole time [laughs] but I think it’s important to be stubborn with your art sometimes. I feel like a lot of people start a project with a specific intention in mind and then the more people they add to the mix the less their original intention shines through. I never want that to happen!
I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Really Don’t’, at the time of writing that you’ve said that you weren’t feeling that great; what was getting you down?
NNAMDÏ: [Laughs] Everything about life. Shit is hard and sad and things are fucked up a whole lot. Sometimes things feel out of your control. It was one of those times that I was in a dark place and I was letting my thoughts get the best of me.
Following that track there’s the song ‘It’s OK’ and its theme is that, it’s OK not to feel OK. That’s something I feel is important to talk about, ‘cause often people feel that they have to be happy all the time. When you are feeling down; what are the things that help you?
NNAMDÏ: Music a lot! Lately though it’s been less music and more funny shows, I watch a lot of Netflix shows, that’s been what cheers me up lately. I’m really into comedy. The beautiful thihng about comedy is that a lot of it comes from pain [laughs]. I feel that’s a good way to escape if you’re feeling down, because you can see the humour in your situation even if it’s not a humorous situation.
Where did the name of your album BRAT come from?
NNAMDÏ: It came from my brain! [laughs]. It wasn’t the original name, it wasn’t the first name that I thought of. As the songs progressed I realised that more and more songs were talking about my wants and my needs as a human… that’s where the humour comes in, I was like, all these songs are about me, me, me! I’m gonna call it BRAT [laughs].
What was the idea behind the cover image?
NNAMDÏ: That was another thing that came pretty quickly, it was the first image that came into my head when I thought of the name BRAT, me wearing a tiara on a blue background. That stuck with me through the recording of the whole album. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and it will evolve over time, it’ll be like, maybe the first idea wasn’t great but I think it’s really cool when an idea stays with you the whole time, then it’s like this is what it definitely needs to be!
One of my favourite tracks on the album is ‘Semantics’. I love how that song really builds. There’s a line in the song: fuck the world in every language…
NNAMDÏ: Yeah [laughs]. That song is like a giant puzzle. I tried to make a bunch of lines that could be perceived in different ways like, I remember I did the full line where it could mean something completely different, every syllable. It will be interesting to explain one day, maybe someone will go and digest it and be nerdy and figure out some of those lines.
You’ve set me a challenge now!
NNAMDÏ: [Laughs] Oh yeah!
Do you have a favourite track right now?
NNAMDÏ: Honestly, I like them all. I feel like they all stand on their own. The only song that isn’t meant to be a song by itself is ‘Really Don’t’. ‘Really Don’t’ without ‘It’s OK’ is complete insanity. It’s so depressing beyond the point of redemption which is not something I want to put out in the world but, the two of them together is a good combination.
Do you write songs or do something creative every day?
NNAMDÏ: Yeah, more or less. I would say I do two days of being creative and then one lazy day [laughs].
Do you find when you’re trying to have a lazy day that your brain is still thinking of creative things?
NNAMDÏ: Oh, yeah. My thoughts don’t stop. I’m still always taking notes and will write little things down, so it never really stops. I guess sometimes it’s just me trying to actively do a song.
I wanted to end by asking you a question that you asked people online not too long ago; comment one thing you’re grateful for?
NNAMDÏ: I’m really grateful for health, being healthy is a big blessings. I’m grateful for people. I feel like there’s so many beautiful people that have beautiful minds. I feel like we can do anything if we really try and that’s pretty amazing!
Thao Nguyen is an Oakland-based musician that is about to drop the most honest, beautiful and self-healing record of her life. Temple finds Thao comfortable in her own skin and sees her finding the courage to finally publicly come out as her whole self, confronting the shame, grief, division and silence she has felt in her life, making for a collection of powerful songs. The album is in essence pop but goes beyond that with elements of hip-hop, funk, folk, with punk roots. Temple is a celebration of living life on your own terms!
THAO NGUYEN: I’ve been screen printing in our garage. I took a screen printing class because I had this idea to offer a tea towel as part of our merch bundle – this was pre-pandemic – I would screen print a tea towel for them. It’s reclaiming my name because kids used to call me “Towel” when I was younger and it was really traumatic. I’ve been screen printing all day.
Nice! It’s cool that people will get to have a handmade little piece of you in their kitchen.
TN: Thank you so much for saying that! I hope they turn out OK. I hope it’s just enough that I’m doing it myself. It’s harder than I thought it would be [laughs].
My husband and I do screen printing in our garage, hand-making things is so much more personal and special.
TN: Totally! It’s been so fun. Do you have trouble with the ink drying up sooner than you think it will and then it gets hard to have a clean print?
Yes! Parts of the screen can get clogged a little, we still haven’t worked out how to combat that, we just try to do the prints as quickly as possible.
TN: [Laughs] Yes! I gotta move faster. It’s getting hotter here, that thickens the ink up too.
I noticed that during the song writing period for your new LP Temple you spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking sourdough bread.
TN: [Laughs] I did. Song writing can be so painful and take you to such dark places, also there can be very little return on a lot of effort. It was so nice to do something tactile and to see your work result in something, besides a song that you don’t know whether it’s good.
With bread I think it’s a food that can be really comforting too.
TN: Oh yeah! It’s been remarkable. Luckily I had already stockpiled a lot of flour from the song writing time, rolling into the pandemic we do have enough flour to keep baking.
What does your new album Temple mean to you?
TN: Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self. It’s the culmination of a whole life that I’ve lived in a very divided way. It has a lot to do with claiming my own life and still belonging to my family, and trying to find out how to still belong to my family and culture while being publicly out. I got married in the process! It was a real culmination of life and a celebration of that.
Congratulations on getting married! I can definitely feel that celebratory vibe on the album. There also seems to be a real feeling of freedom on it.
TN: Yeah, there is. It was like a bloodletting! [laughs]. There are moments of heaviness but also lightness and shedding a lot of the past and ghosts.
On your last album A Man Alive you were talking about your father, and on this record the first song, the title track, is celebrating your mother.
TN: Yeah. They have had drastically different influences on my life. My mom has always been so steady and consistent but, she has her own complex life. I wanted the chance to honour that and make her refugee story to be beyond that, to give her a fuller humanity.
Was it scary to put all of these thoughts and feelings out there?
TN: Oh, terrifying! Absolutely! It took years to make this record, it took probably a year and a half just to get the gumption to write the songs that I knew I had to write. Now it feels almost surreal like it was someone else’s turmoil and toil. It took a lot! I said that I didn’t know if I would make another record because it was such a herculean task to me to confront all these things.
I think sometimes listeners don’t quite get how intense it is for some artists to tap into their pain to write a song. Writing things from an honest place you have to confront yourself and what’s happening in your life, it can be scary.
TN: Yeah. It’s the artists own decision to do that, it was mine. There wasn’t another option for me. It’s the type of work I am drawn to. You hope that people will spend some time with it but it connects how it connects and it finds who it needs to find.
Have you always been creative?
TN: I think so. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of resources. When I started playing guitar that’s when I felt I could tap into creativity, I was about twelve. Before then I watched lot of television [laughs].
I know that some of your favourite writers inspire your lyrics, this time around it was James Baldwin, Octavia Butler and Yiyun Li; what was it about each?
TN: James Baldwin, his language and his eloquence and succinct manner is so remarkable. He’s such an incredible, incisive writer, whenever I reference him it’s the present tense, he is such a presence for so many people. The way he wrote about injustice and abuse of power and systemic inequality, the way he wrote about race, about being queer—it was all inspiring. A real source of courage for me.
Octavia Butler, the way she imagines and created these dystopic realties; this near future dystopia that we have actually been living in now. That was before all of this was happening though, there was already so much to work with as far as the corruption in the world and destruction of the environment and society. She’s a luminary, a prophet.
Yiyun Li, the way she has an incredibly powerful, very potent style of writing that isn’t dramatic at all but it’s devastating to me. The way she writes about families and familial relationships. She writes about Chinese families. I found a lot of similarities and commonalities that resonated with me and my Vietnamese family.
I’ve always liked how in Octavia’s stories she always has fascinating, strong female characters.
TN: Yes. ‘Phenom’ the song that draws the most from Octavia, the narrator of that is the voice that I imagine as one of her strong characters that leads the army of the scorched Earth to come back and bring to bear.
Have there been any books that have had a profound impact onyou?
TN: So many, yeah. I love panoramic, cross-generational, sweeping narratives. The first one that I read like that was The Grapes Of Wrath or East Of Eden. More recently, Grace Paley, all of her short stories. I discovered her in college through my roommate; she influenced my song writing a great deal when I was starting to song write more seriously. Her economy with words is something that I have always admired. She’s a general influence.
For the last record, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, oh man there’s one passage in it where the son is getting on the bus and leaving… that influenced the creation of A Man Alive. There were a few sentences within that that just broke me. From there I could access the emotions that I needed to write the record.
Sonically when you started out writing this record, did you have a vision for it?
TN: Not so much. I knew that I would produce it, and produce it with my bandmate Adam [Thompson]. Whatever happened sonically it would be represented in a more truthful was, a more accurate way than any other, because we were doing it. I wanted to be creating more beats. I knew that there would be a strong rhythm and prominent groove and beats. I wanted a lusher soundscape.
I really love the song ‘Marrow’ on the LP; can you tell us a little about it?
TN: ‘Marrow’ I wrote leading up to marrying my partner. The songs aren’t necessarily chronological but they do follow things that lined up with what was happening in my life at the time. ‘Marrow’ is about saying: here I am, you know all these things about me and you accept me still [*gets teary*].
There’s a couple of songs on the album that make me cry every time, one is ‘Marrow’ and the other is ‘I’ve Got Something’. I like ‘Marauders’ too because it’s the most sincere, whole-hearted love song I’ve ever written.
Were those songs hard for you to write?
TN: They were! Especially ‘I’ve Got Something’ it deals with basically getting to a place where I had to be willing to no longer be a part of my family in order to have my own. There are a lot of scenarios that can end up in estrangement, fortunately that wasn’t mine. It’s really hard! How do you belong to where you come from? How do you belong to yourself? And, what are you willing to risk? How much can you deny of your own life?
Last question; what are some things that make you really, really happy?
TN: I love that question! I really love cooking. I love baking bread. I’ve been really into growing vegetables, I know that probably sounds really, really cliché at this point. The only solace I’ve been able to find is really getting into growing our own food. I spend most of my day trying to figure out how to keep the seedlings alive [laughs] and trying to figure out how to make compost. Just this morning the mint had this rust kind of fungus thing, I have to figure that out. It’s a whole other world of being in tune with the food we grow and eat. It’s so awesome! It’s something that I always wanted to do but I’ve always been so busy with tour. Even if I tried I wouldn’t be fully focused on it and I’d come back from tour and it would be dead.
Melbourne-based musician Zak Olsen is one of those musical wizards. He has a natural talent for songwriting, doesn’t tie himself to one genre, and somehow magically has a knack for them all. He works his magic in heavy psych power-trio ORB, with new wavers Hierophants and as Traffik Island, a project that jumps style from one album to the next. He’s one of our favourite songwriters. We spoke with him last week to get an insight into his world.
ZAK OLSEN: I’m just at the studio right now, saying studio is a bit of a stretch but, I have a room that’s not my house that has some of my music gear in it [laughs]. It’s really close to my house so I just come here most days. I spend all day and all night in here usually.
Where did you grow up?
ZO: I grew up in New Zealand, I grew up in a few places because we moved every year. I mainly grew up on farms in New Zealand and moved to Australia in the year 2000.
What were you like growing up?
ZO: Most of my youth I grew up on a farm, which was really good. My parents had that school of parenting where they just let you go and make your own mistakes. We had lots of space which was good, my dad would say “Just go and do whatever you want just be back before its dark”. I spent heaps of time outside by myself when I was younger. My dad also played in a few heavy metal bands so he would always have huge parties and there’d be all these metalheads around. That was the first music that I got into when I was really young, like five years old. Its’ pretty appealing to a five year old. My dad would have all these heavy metal VHS tapes, I particularly remember the Megadeath one! I loved it so much.
How did you discover music for yourself?
ZO: I’ve always had an interest in it because my dad did. In high school I heard the Sex Pistols and had one of those light bulb moments! Megadeth also did a Sex Pistols’ cover. I remember watching SBS one night and the Sex Pistols being on there and they played ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and I remember the Megadeth song of it from back when I was a kid and it sort of all came back around again. I got into it from there, I decided that I wanted to play guitar and that was that.
Why is music important to you?
ZO: Just the actual act of making it, is the most fun I could ever have. Once it’s made it’s never quite as good, I still love playing live and all that stuff but for me personally the most fun that I can have in music is writing things—making noises! [laughs].
Is there a particular album or albums that’s helped shape your ideas on music?
ZO: Yes. Besides the obvious stuff like ‘60s pop – I got really into that in high school – just the simple things that are catchy that still have an effect that aren’t intimidating; stuff that involves everyone, simple music like The Beatles and The Kinks. That stuff is always with me. I remember the first time I heard R. Stevie Moore, that was a big influence because he didn’t stick to any genre. I know a lot of people claim they don’t stick to one genre but he really, really pushed that, he really went for it. I remember seeing an interview with him and he said that you can just make any noise, it’s still a song, not every song has to be your magnum opus. That allowed me to open up and make any noise.
I really like with him too that people go “you’re the king of lo-fi!” and he tells them something like “It doesn’t matter if it’s lo-fi or hi-fi or whatever-fi, I’m DIY-fi”.
ZO: Yeah, exactly! I’m definitely not going for a lo-fi thing, it’s just out of necessity. If I could make big grand exotica Martin Denny kind of albums I would. I don’t have that kind of money or resources though [laughs].
How did you first start making music yourself? You were in The Frowning Clouds; were you making stuff before that?
ZO: Nah, no. I was barely playing guitar before that, we just decided to start a band. I couldn’t really play at the time, we learnt as we went. I was a really slow learner with music but we all just kept going and here we are [laughs]. I’m still a slow learner!
When you make music then, is it mostly through feeling and intuition for you?
ZO: Absolutely. I don’t read music or know any of that kind of stuff. It’s 100% intuition for me.
The first Traffik Island LP Nature Strip that you put out – I know there was a split tape before that too – sounded kind of Beatles-y and Kinks-y and a little Bonzo Dog Band-ish and Syd Barrett-esque now with your new release Sweat Kollecta’s Peanut Butter Traffik Jam it’s kind of like a DJ Shadow beat tape, they’re such different sounds…
ZO: It goes back to the doing different things like R. Stevie Moore doing whatever you want. I wanted to do that to the max! I just wanted to make something as different from the first one. I was worried about it once it was made and I thought, oh shit, people that liked the first one probably aren’t going to like the new one. Nature Strip is the album that I always wanted to make ever since I was really young, being an obvious Syd Barrett fan, I just wanted to make an album on an acoustic guitar—that was the mission statement.
For the next one I wanted to do the total opposite and make it more computer-based and not write anything before; every one of those songs are made up just as I’m making it, it wasn’t prewritten.
So when you play them live you’ll have to teach yourself how to play them again?
ZO: Well, yeah. The band haven’t learnt any of those live yet, whether I’ll play them in front of an audience is yet to be seen [laughs].
I really hope you do!
ZO: There’s so many ways to do it that I’m just not sure yet. Hopefully one day… if venues open up again!
I really liked the Button Pusher live stream you did the other night!
ZO: Yeah, that was a test of maybe how we can do it live.
Dude, that test went really well, we super impressed. Just how you walked into the room rolled the tape machine and then started playing was so cool! The lighting and mood really added to it all too.
ZO: That’s good! That’s something I’m working on with a couple of other people at the studio too, we’ve started a YouTube channel live stream for performances and sorts of things. We have a few more coming up soon.
On your first release the split tape Sleepy Head/Traffic Island I noticed there’s Hierophants and Sweat Kollecta’s songs on that from back in 2012.
ZO: Yeah, my friend Danny who ran that label Moontown was doing a split with Nick, another Frowning Clouds member, he was doing the A-side. Danny called me asked me if I had any demos laying around to fill up the B-side of the tape. I said, yes, but I didn’t have any at the time. Lucky it was around the time I heard R. Stevie Moore so I had a real jolt of inspiration and just went out the back for two weeks and did all those songs for the tape. Some of them ended up going into Frowning Clouds or Hierophants after the fact.
I really love Hierophants! Spitting Out Moonlight was one of our favourite LPs of last year! We’re big fans of your other releases last year too, it’s so cool when you can find an artist that makes such different things but they’re all incredible. That’s not an easy thing to pull off.
ZO: That’s nice to hear. Thank you. It all has to do with collaboration with people and letting things just happen the way they do between people. You’re not really pushing an aesthetic or an agenda when you’re collaborating, that’s hopefully when more interesting things come out. I think Hierophants lean into that, we purposely do things that maybe sound ugly or we think we shouldn’t do. That’s the most collaborative band, especially in the sense that no idea gets rejected, we do everything. It’s really warts and all, sometimes good, sometimes bad [laughs].
I wanted to ask you about the Hierophants song ‘Everything In Order’; what inspired that one?
ZO: That was nearly going to be a Traffik Island song. That was inspired by, I broke my arm quite badly and had surgery. I spent a couple of weeks doing demos one-handed, that song was one of the one-handed songs [laughs]. Jake [Robertson] heard it and asked if Hierophants could do it. I was trying to do a show tune-y kind of thing [laughs]. Someone told me that the hook is the same from a song from a Disney movie [laughs]. I was trying to do something Robyn Hitchcock-y, when he does these ridiculous sounding show tunes.
I love the lyrics in it: you don’t need friendship anyway / you don’t need family anyway.
ZO: [Laughs] Don’t quote me on that one, it’s a character who is wrong, because you do need family and friends.
What about the song ‘Limousine’?
ZO: It’s about the obvious, but the funny thing about it is that I think I subconsciously took that from watching a Paul Simon interview. He was on the Dick Cavett Show from back in the ‘70s and he was talking about writing a song about someone that’s trapped by fame and they’re riding around in their limousine. Subconsciously years down the track I just wrote that! I re-watched that interview recently and realised I took it [laughs]. The song is original, I promise! The seed of the song maybe I took from Paul Simon.
Do you have a favourite track on the new Traffik Island Sweat Kollecta’s LP?
ZO: I like ‘Rubber Stamps’ it’s the least beats/DJ Shadow-y one. It’s a short instrumental, sort of exotica, ‘60s kind of sounding, crappy Beach Boys instrumental one. It came out the easiest.
I notice though different lyrics or song titles there’s a humour and lightness to your music.
ZO: Humour is always good, it takes the edge off. Frank Zappa had a humorous side or Devo did too, they had a real sense of humour and both had been big influences on me. It’s not too conscious for me. It is a bit easier if you put a sense of humour on things, it’s easier to put it out into the world because… I’m kind of lost for words…
Because it’s too personal? And you’re not overtly putting yourself out there?
ZO: Yeah. I think if people put irony in their music it protects them from criticism. People don’t criticise things, they just say that I’m being ironic. That’s not why I’m trying to be funny in the songs though, I guess it just makes it more enjoyable. I don’t think anyone wants to be yelled at [laughs].
I wanted to ask you about one of my favourite ORB songs, ‘Space Between The Planets’…
ZO: Oh nice! That’s mainly Daff’s song, it took us ages to do that one, we got a bit lost in the riffage [laughs]. It turned out well in the end. There’s no secret with the ORB songs, everyone brings riffs and we smash ‘em together and hope they turn out good—it’s that boneheaded! [laughs].
It’s fun to have that too.
ZO: Yeah, the goal was just to have a fun band and just turn it up! We wanted to make it fun live and be nice and loud, because a lot of our stuff was never like that.
Do you write every day?
ZO: Yeah, in some sense. I haven’t done any acoustic guitar writing in ages. I come to the studio every day I can. I make noises in some sense but I’m not like Randy Newman on the piano every day, as much as I wish I was!
Do you have a particular way you go about writing songs?
ZO: At the moment, because I’m working on remixes and I’m trying to do a hip-hop thing with a friend from America, all the stuff is very beat-based. I’ll start that by just finding cool drum loops. It’s totally different from writing song songs on the guitar, proper songs I guess, is that I usually try to hum a melody first in the shower or something, the catchiest bit, the bit everyone usually remembers about the song. If I can come up with a line or a chorus without any instruments first and then I’ll go to the guitar or the piano and work out what the chords are and go from there. That usually works.
Where did your interest in hip-hop come from?
ZO: It’s always been a faint interest. I grew up skateboarding so there’s lots of great songs in skateboarding videos…
Like A Tribe Called Quest!
ZO: Yeah, heaps of that and even stuff like DJ Shadow. A lot of new release hip-hop came out last year that I really liked.
What kind of stuff?
ZO: Quelle Chris had this album called Guns. There’s another guy I like too called Billy Woods he did an album called Hiding Places. They don’t give into the tropes of hip-hop and the beats are a lot weirder, psychedelic is the only way that I could describe it. There’s FX on the vocals and lots of echo. It’s not focusing on the tropes of gangsta stuff, they’re not rapping about cash or cars, it’s more introverted and weird. It kicked off my interest in it more. Obviously things like Madlib and MF Doom; I was late to the MF Doom thing but when I got into it, it was all I listened to for a year.
I love his Danger Doom project and the song ‘Benzie Box’ is an all-time favourite.
ZO: Hell yeah!
My brother and I owned a skateboard shop in the late ‘90s, he had one in the ‘80s too, and I loved all the skate vids with the hip-hop and punk soundtracks.
ZO: That’s cool. It’s such a good way to get into stuff. I’m very thankful for all those movies they really got me into stuff that I still listen to now.
Do you have a song of yours that stands out as one of the quickest ones to write?
ZO: ‘Looking Up’ it’s a song on Nature Strip. I never write songs in one sitting but that one was written in an hour, the whole thing; that’s never ever happened to me before. I said, ok, I’m going to sit down and write a song and then that came out really quickly.
What do you find challenging about songwriting?
ZO: Trying to be too tricky! It’s really a problem that you can get lost in that. I’ve been trying to make songs for around ten years now and you think that progressing with songwriting, you should have more complex melodies and complex chords, but it’s not necessarily the case. You have to try to remind yourself of that all of the time. There’s been times where I try to make the craziest song that I can and have weird chords and a fancy melody but it just turns out shit! If it’s not memorable, it’s just not going to have a connection with anyone. Instinct and when it comes out naturally and quickly, that usually resonates with people more and is more memorable.
When you’re working on things and they’re not working do you try and push through that or do you give up and move on to something else?
ZO: Usually I move on to something else. Sometimes I do just sit there banging my head against the wall for aaaaaages! That never works usually.
Is there anything you do in those times like go for a walk or something?
ZO: I should! [laughs]. But, nah. I really fucking just try to get something out of it. The only other thing that does work is before I go to sleep, when I’m lying in bed; that’s usually the best time for it. You’ll be thinking about your songs and that’s usually when things happen.
Do you think it’s because you’re more relaxed?
ZO: It must be, it has to be.
Do you do anything else creative outside of music?
ZO: Not really. I do some painting every now and then. My dad is a really good drawer and tattoo artist, so I kind of did that before I was doing music. I used to make poems all the time as a kid and that turned into songs. Making music is my main creative outlet, unless you count cooking! I try and cook more frequently now. My girlfriend is a really good cook.
What’s one of your favourite things to cook?
ZO: Lately I’ve just been going for all the different kinds of roasts and trying to master each one [laughs]. Cooking is just really good in general though, especially if you put aside the whole night and take your time. I love doing that!
I love cooking too, I find it really relaxing.
ZO: Yeah, totally.
You mentioned before that you’re working a hip-hop project; are you working on anything else?
ZO: I’m just trying to collaborate as much as I can this year. Because of the situation in the world right now, a lot of my friends that make music are staying inside right now and we’re all just sending music between each other right now and making things together. I was starting another Traffik Island one but I just ended up sending all of those ideas to friends to put stuff over the top. I’m working on things right now but I don’t know exactly what it is right now. I definitely just want to get into doing more collaborative stuff.
Why do you like working collaboratively so much?
ZO: Them bringing something to it that I could never possibly conceive. Just them adding something to it, some of my friends can come up with melodies that I would never imagine! Some people are just better at certain things.
What’s a song you’ve collaborated on that you were totally surprised where someone took it?
ZO: The first song on Peanut Butter… [Bits and Peace (Bullant Remix)] it was remixed by my friend Joe [Walker]. That one is basically the only song on the record made up of samples. I played some of my favourite records into my computer and gave him all the bits, they weren’t in time or anything like that and I told him to make a song out of all those noises—he sent me that! Impressed.
The film clip for your song ‘Ulla Dulla’ is pretty fun.
ZO: My friend John [Angus Stewart] made that, I know everyone says their friend is talented but, he IS insanely talented. He did some other clips, some King Gizzard [And The Lizard Wizard] ones. He asked me if he could make a clip for me. I said, sure. We wanted to try to really go above and beyond and to really try and push through the boundary. We did the clip and it was so tiring, we started at midday and I got home at one in the morning. We were driving all around the city, I think only two or three locations made it into the final clip but there was six. I had to do that dance to that song hundreds of times, I reckon [laughs]. Then it sat around for a couple of months because the album got pushed and of course in that time I started freaking out about it and got real paranoid. I was just so scared of being so open and vulnerable like that. I saw him at a party a few weeks before it came out and went up to him and told him that I don’t think I could go through with the video. He was not having a bar of it. He was like, “Don’t give me that stoner bullshit! It’s coming out.” [laughs].
What was it about it that made you freak out?
ZO: It was just so much of me! I didn’t want it to be The Zak Olsen Show… that kind of shot started getting to me. In the end I’m glad it came out. It definitely elevates the song a bit more. I’m really glad.
You did a lot of touring with ORB last year, right?
ZO: We did an Australian tour with Thee Oh Sees, then we went to America and Europe, so lots of moving around.
How do you find travelling so much?
ZO: Personally, I love it. There’s this weird thing about touring this feeling that… where people can feel like bands are running from responsibility… we were touring with King Gizzard and those guys work, it’s like seven James Browns! …it’s not the case with them, they work way harder than any other band I’ve ever met! If you’re into the second month of touring and you haven’t really made much and there’s not much time to make songs you can kind of get in a weird limbo mode where you think; what am I doing every day? I’m just playing the same songs!
It’s sort of like the movie Groundhog Day?
ZO: Yeah. But it’s still better than any other job you could have. You have to be careful of getting into the bad habits of drinking every day and eating shit food all the time.
Where do you get your hard work ethic from?
ZO: Probably my dad, he’s a little bit of a hard arse [laughs]. I can’t stand the feeling of not thinking I’m doing enough or giving enough. Having said that though, I do love staying in bed all day on Sunday! For me the guilt of not doing enough is way worse than just getting up and doing it.