Nosaj Thing

Pro­foundly in­flu­enced by hip-hop from an early age, Ja­son Chung has helped cre­ate a new lan­guage for the genre through his ab­stract sonic ap­proach. Danny Turner chats to the LA-based pro­ducer prior to the re­lease of his fourth al­bum, Par­al­lels

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

Ja­son Chung talks about his back-to-ba­sics ap­proach, and what in­spires him to move for­ward

With his de­but Nosaj Thing al­bum,

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you had some early hard­ware units, I be­lieve. Was it the Boss sam­pler?

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

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

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

How does hip-hop trans­late through your mu­sic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ac­tu­ally didn’t think of any of that stuff. I’ve been ex­per­i­ment­ing with my sound for three al­bums, and now I’m more in­ter­ested in song struc­tures, so that’s

where I’m tak­ing it. When there’s a vo­cal­ist in­volved, there’s a whole set of new things to think about, like song struc­tures or just ex­chang­ing ideas and de­cid­ing where you want to take some­thing. And mix-wise, you’re cre­at­ing a pal­ette of sound around a vo­cal­ist. On a per­fect day, I’ll try to make five chord pro­gres­sions or ideas, and some­times I’ll ac­tu­ally do the vo­cal my­self and come up with melodies, but over the years I’ve made friends with singers, so I’ll pass ideas to them that I think might fit. With this record, two mu­tual friends of ours thought I’d work well with Steve Spacek, so I sent him four or five dif­fer­ent ideas and he ended up send­ing me a fin­ished song in a few days.”

So you were work­ing very spon­ta­neously in some cases?

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

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

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

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

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

Are these artists from your own Timetable la­bel?

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

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

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

What are you us­ing for your ef­fects pro­cess­ing on sounds?

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

Are you a be­liever in sub­tle use of com­pres­sion?

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

What are your go-to soft­ware synths?

“I like us­ing Na­tive In­stru­ments stuff. They’re re­ally pro­gres­sive, and the whole Reak­tor com­mu­nity is re­ally in­ter­est­ing. I like us­ing Kon­takt be­cause they

I do get into a cer­tain groove, but I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in changing my ap­proach once I catch my­self get­ting into a rou­tine

It re­ally gives you a snap­shot of that time and what worked for cer­tain pro­duc­ers – there’s a pu­rity to be­ing lim­ited

have a lot of in­ter­est­ing synths and li­braries. For ex­am­ple, Rev, by a com­pany called Out­put, is ba­si­cally all re­versed in­stru­ments – mi­cro­phones, strings and vo­cals, and I use an­other one called Vo­calise. I also like to use gran­u­lar syn­the­sis plug­ins; there’s one on Able­ton called Gran­u­la­tor; I think it’s a Max For Live thing. Any sam­ple you drop in you can make a song out of. It’s quite nice to record your own vo­cals and make an in­stru­ment out of them, be­cause it has a lot of pa­ram­e­ters you can change and make the cra­zi­est sounds. There’s an­other gran­u­lar synth made by Sound Guru called The Man­gle; it’s pretty sim­i­lar to Gran­u­la­tor, but you can tweak it dif­fer­ently and cre­ate zones us­ing up to eight dif­fer­ent sam­ples. But even when I’m work­ing with DAWs and plug­ins, just the way they look and their colour af­fects the way I make mu­sic.”

In what way does their ap­pear­ance af­fect how you work?

“If you think about it, FL Stu­dio is more like play­ing a video game, be­cause the whole pro­gramme is based around a 16-step se­quencer, which is great for drum pro­gram­ming. Logic is more of a tra­di­tional lin­ear in­ter­face; you’ll prob­a­bly be record­ing longer takes and us­ing EQ more be­cause it’s built into each track, but it’s all grey. With Able­ton, you can change the skin, and when I’m work­ing in Ses­sion View, all the dif­fer­ent colours af­fect the way I work. I’ve also been us­ing the iPad a lot more, and there’s a pro­gram called Stu­diomux – it’s ba­si­cally an au­dio and MIDI in­ter­face for your iPad. You just plug in your iPad with a reg­u­lar iLink ca­ble, open Stu­diomux and you can send MIDI and au­dio through it. So any of those syn­the­sis­ers for iPad can be brought in as a plugin, and that changes ev­ery­thing too be­cause it’s touch-based.”

Pre­sum­ably, you use some of these MIDI apps?

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

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

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

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

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

Any oth­ers you favour?

“I use the Elek­tron Ana­log Keys be­cause it has some pretty good bass sounds and nice leads, and I have a Voy­ager as well but haven’t re­ally used it that much. I just use the Prophets – I think I could make a whole record with them. I don’t think I’ll get into mod­u­lar, though, as it’s too time-con­sum­ing for my style. I had the first Nord Mod­u­lar, the Nord

Mod­u­lar 2 and the G2, and I was so into them, but that’s some real geek shit. I re­mem­ber spend­ing two hours on one sound and think­ing, I’m not mak­ing any mu­sic. That’s a big fear of mine, be­cause I feel like I was so much more pro­duc­tive when I had noth­ing. If you do have hard­ware, I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to find just a few pieces that re­ally in­spire you. The Prophets are like fur­ni­ture to me – like art pieces.”

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

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

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

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

Where are you at with it right now?

“Right now I’ve been jump­ing into two dif­fer­ent modes. One is a col­lab­o­ra­tion with a me­dia artist called Daito Man­abe based in Tokyo. We’re work­ing with 3D scan­ning; scan­ning our bod­ies and blend­ing re­al­ity with vir­tual re­al­ity. We’ve been tour­ing that and played it at Coachella and Sonar, but it’s an on­go­ing ex­per­i­ment that keeps evolv­ing. I also have a solo tour com­ing up, and I’m in­ter­est­ing in ex­per­i­ment­ing more with space and light. It’s a blend be­tween laser and colour strobe, fig­ur­ing out ways to use the space of the venue and steer fo­cus away from the stage. It’s kind of weird hav­ing a crowd face one di­rec­tion the en­tire time. It both­ers me af­ter a while, es­pe­cially grow­ing up go­ing to raves where you don’t even see the DJ.”

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