Nick Malkin in Conversation with Brian Allen Simon
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Nick Malkin has quietly, but firmly been putting down his sonic stamp throughout the city of Los Angeles since the week he arrived here from New Jersey some six and a half years ago. From multiple solo projects to work behind the scenes with LA Vampires and Sun Araw to being one of the first DJ’s involved with Chinatown based experimental radio station KCHUNG, Nick has been a busy guy with a truly personal sonic touch. His sense of aural aesthetics always feels intimate, yet universal. We met a few years ago over a mutual understanding of the intricacies of DJ Shadow and I’m elated to be able to release Christmas Lights Through a Rain-Streaked Migraine, the first record under his own name. Wanting to get some unedited words from Nick, we each had a glass of white wine and sat down on a bench in the courtyard of his girlfriend’s East Hollywood apartment building and riffed while tenants came in and out giving us weird looks. - Brian
Brian Allen Simon One of the things on my mind recently, with the influx of people moving here and with the music scene in a constant fluctuation, is what does it mean to make music in Los Angeles right now? Does it mean anything to you? Is it part of your identity or is it just a geographical location that you happen to live in?
Nick Malkin It’s hard for me to ascribe a certain sound to LA music now. When I first moved here, at least from my perspective, geographically, living in Echo Park and going to the Echo Curio and kind of being stuck in that neighborhood, Not Not Fun was the dominant musical force in the city. To me, then, LA music was very much rooted in that particular sound - lo-fi, droney, pseudo-psychedelic music.
BAS And how did you get linked up with Britt and Amanda from Not Not Fun originally?
NM I met Britt briefly in Austin at the Not Not Fun showcase years back at SXSW as I was driving from New Jersey to California. When I got here, the Echo Curio was so egalitarian and wide open that I just organically and easily linked up with them.
BAS The first legitimate venue (if you can even call it a legitimate venue) Non Projects show that we ever did was at Echo Curio for Asura’s release party back in January 2010 with Asura, myself, RareBit and Ana Caravelle. Up until then we had done things at Mandrake and thrown house shows in Mount Washington. I laugh about it now, but I remember feeling incredibly excited about an email from Grant Capes (Echo Curio founder) saying “yeah, sure, you can play here, let’s do a night!” (laughs)
NM That was the whole thing… when I met Britt, I spoke with him briefly and he said if you end up in LA and if you’re looking to play a show you should email this guy Grant and he can help you out. I emailed him and he got right back to me and offered me a show two weeks from the original email that I sent. I figured I would stay in LA until the show, play and then move along. But I ended up staying.
BAS Was that just a solo show?
NM No, I had put together a small band in the two weeks before that show. It was half a solo set and half full band.
BAS And did that have a name?
BAS I was under the impression that Queen Victoria was just your solo project…
NM Yeah. on tape it was, but live I would play with other people. It seemed like Not Not Fun was very omnipresent in the city so like once every week, week and a half it felt like there was some sort of Not Not Fun show at the Curio, Blu Monkey or Mr. T’s Bowl.
BAS What about M Bar? Were you doing anything over there?
NM M Bar wasn’t a thing that I associated with the music scene at all. That was purely an art world after party spot to me.
BAS I remember the Grown parties happening at that time…
NM I went to the Grown parties but I wasn’t the least bit tuned into that world at that point so I didn’t know that it was anything other than a sort of hipster den. I didn’t know Zane (SFV Acid, partly behind Grown) yet or any of the extended Dublab people at that time.
BAS So you viewed Not Not Fun as the dominant force in at least East Side LA / Northeast LA music. Were you at all aware of the Low End Theory scene or the more electronic music world happening in LA at the time?
NM Not at all. my tastes were completely myopic at that time. Really rooted in long form experimentalism and the more cartoony, lo-fi, psych stuff.
BAS What were some of your key influences at the time in the music you were making?
NM I never quite fit into what was going around here with that particular aesthetic but I was interested in droney, deconstructed folk and Jandek influences.
BAS Would you call it freak folk?
NM No, I never really liked that stuff, I always associated that with like a late-wave psychedelia and I wasn’t really interested in psychedelia at all. Mine was a little bit more of, at least in my mind, a colder, more east coast style experimentalism with very minimal drug affiliation. I wasn’t trying to make “trippy” music per say. I wanted to make even more disjointed, somber, post-folk music or something like that.
BAS How did you make that jump from this guitar and vocal driven Queen Victoria project to Afterhours? Was it an immediate thing right after that or was there some sort of gestation period?
NM I was playing with Cameron (Sun Araw) while Queen Victoria was still active and it probably wasn’t until I started playing with LA Vampires that I became more adept and comfortable playing with more beat oriented music.
BAS LA Vampires had a similar evolution too, right? Starting as distortion heavy, rock sort of stuff and then it became a dance-y, drum machine, beat driven project.
NM Yeah, it wasn’t too dissimilar from Pocahaunted at the time… lo fi, blurry, colorful, but it wasn’t very dance-y.
BAS Yeah, I have this really fond memory of seeing that early rock formation of LA Vampires at Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock with an ex-girlfriend and her visiting Christian parents at the time. Amanda was pulsating wildly on the ground and just sort of making these weird vocal noises and screams into the mic. It was great.
NM Anyways, by the time I got involved, LA Vampires was moving into the production direction and it became more cleaner and about as mainstream as Not Not Fun ever got. The last tour we did was a month plus of being in a club and listening to dance music every night so that definitely began to inform the Afterhours project. The name is tacky for me now… the name came from the fact that it was the music that I was making after I stopped working on Queen Victoria music during the day.
BAS I’ve always liked how obvious the name was, it just works.
NM Yeah, it’s so blank.
BAS Very un-google-able
NM Like every solo project of mine.
NM I shared a house with two other guys and would work on the Queen Victoria stuff during the day because I could sing and not be interrupted and just felt more comfortable. The stuff I would work on at night while everyone was asleep was headphone, direct-in, laptop music and so that’s what I started to experiment with.
BAS At that point were you already rooted in the trip hop aesthetics of DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, Mo’ Wax, James Lavelle, etc? I remember that’s how we met… over a mutual bonding of a love of that era. I had seen you around at shows but I recall meeting you when you DJ’d this show that I played in 2012 or 2013 at The Alexandria Hotel (also booked by Grant Capes). You were playing a bunch of Shadow and I said “keep playing Shadow” or something.
NM Well you just came right up and said hello and which was really nice because that felt like such an organic connection in such a straight forward way.
BAS At this point it seems like Shadow’s Endtroducing… era is an obvious thing to point to now, but even just a few years ago it didn’t seem like people were on that wavelength of having that history of listening to that stuff.
NM You can look at that cynically or choose not to. Not that I thought that this was my own private music by any means, but just the other day, seeing the outpouring of these thoughtful Rest In Peace posts about Susumu Yokota. I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about Susumu Yokota. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about him and so it’s funny when something turns around and becomes this ubiquitous reference point.
BAS that’s just kind of the time that we’re in now. We all have access to these reference points and whenever we want that reference point to be a personal thing it’s just a click away, and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, it just kind of is right now.
NM I don’t listen to it as much of it (DJ Shadow) now as I did when I first started working on Afterhours. With Queen Victoria, I got really tired of hearing myself on tape. I was looking for a way to make music with less of my own trace on it. It almost came out of a sense of self-disgust. I was tired of hearing my own guitar playing and my own voice, and hearing my own capabilities and limitations as a player of a tangible instrument. But obviously the impulse to make music persisted so I just started playing around with samples.
BAS I can definitely hear that in ‘Sleepwalker.’ It’s a very anonymous sounding record to me. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who is behind it.
NM I wanted to make music that was easier for me to listen back to. I would never listen to the Queen Victoria material after I finished recording it… it just felt too perverse in a way. I just didn’t like listening to it.
BAS When you were making Queen Victoria music were you purging?
NM Not even that… it wasn’t based in catharsis or anything, it was just something that I would do and release on tape. I just had a basic epiphany, like “if I don’t enjoy listening back to this music, how can I expect anyone else to?” I was just trying to make music that I personally enjoyed, that I would want to listen to, which is one of many musical tangents that brought me to Afterhours.
When i started working with samples the trip hop aesthetic just kind of naturally manifested. I heard Endtroducing… at the right age. All of those records were pretty early finds for me. Which is funny because I wasn’t a particularly big hip hop or electronic music fan, I was pretty straight-forwardly a rocker through most of junior high and high school.
BAS I always felt that DJ Shadow or Aphex Twin made those sort of bridge records that listeners of Rock and Indie could feel comfortable getting into. Obviously, that division doesn’t really exist now, but I remember being back in college and being heavily into hip hop and trip hop, I’d always run into Indie and Rock people who were like “yeah, I love DJ Shadow, I love Aphex Twin.”
NM Boards of Canada too…
BAS Yeah, definitely. I’ve always wondered why that was. Could be the drums, at least with Shadow being so obviously acoustic based, or it could also have just been as simple as those records hitting the right press outlets at that time.
NM There must be something vaguely rock and roll about the melodic sensibility of those records… there’s definitely some kind of aesthetic connecting point. It’s just pretty universally enjoyable music and that’s part of what makes the genre tacky in a way. It’s funny, working on straightforward trip hop tracks, at least for ‘Low Life’ (Not Not Fun, 2014), I began to really see that there’s a very fine line between DJ Shadow and someone like Moby. That music has that sort of universal appeal. You can play Moby for a pretty conservative listener like somebody’s mother and it’s very safe experimental music. It’s slightly off the beaten path ambient music that appeals to someone who isn’t so familiar with the genre.
BS So ‘Christmas Lights Through a Rain-Streaked Migraine’ marks the first time that you’ve worked under your own name, right?
BAS When we were first talking about doing this project together it was going to be an Afterhours thing, and somehow that evolved into us releasing it under your own name. I totally respect that and in my mind there’s a clear difference in the sound of this record compared to the sound of the Afterhours music that’s been released on Not Not Fun.
NM When I listen back to it now, I hear the difference, but I can also hear how it could go the other way. It was just at some point, it began to feel less like Afterhours and turned into something newer for me. Whether you want to believe that you’re working truly freely or truly improvisationally or not, you set certain criteria, certain rules. There are just certain places that you wouldn’t go on an Anenon track…
NM Not that you wouldn’t make the music, but I’m sure you have folders of stuff that you wouldn’t release. On one hand I think that’s kind of bullshit but I also think that’s kind of nice. I’ve always enjoyed sort of working inside the box, for lack of a better way of putting that.
BAS Which box?
NM I like the idea that there’s something that I would call Afterhours and there’s something that I would not call Afterhours. It’s not like everything I do is Afterhours. I have enough, and maybe respect isn’t the right word, but I just have a rigid enough idea in a way of what a particular project is that I don’t want to just slap my bullshit title on anything that I do and say that’s what this is.
BAS I’m in a weird place with my moniker because the beauty of it to me originally was that it’s both a pseudonym and a distilled version of my own name (Bri[an] All[en] Sim[on]) so it can be all-encompassing. I’ve started a couple of short lived side projects that have gone nowhere, but I’ve always felt really weird delineating like that, but I know that’s not a common thing… a lot of artists tend to have different projects under different names going on.
NM I try very hard not to be precious or be pretentious in the way that I handle my creative life or a particular project like that. For me the whole point of the Post Geography tape (Not Not Fun, 2015) was, I feel like the sonic palette that I choose when recording an Afterhours track is very specific, and there are certain sounds, tones or textures that I reject because they don’t feel appropriate for the track or the general aesthetic of the project. The whole point of that tape was to indulge in those rejected tones and make a playful, intentionally, or stupid sounding record, using all those cartoon tones that I normally work around. Putting this new record under my own name was a way to buy myself the freedom to experiment further. Whether I continue making Afterhours records or not, the point was to explore a few different abstractions of trip hop or downtempo music. I could keep going forward in working with abstracted forms of electronic music, but it gets to a certain point where I’d rather just let Afterhours be this thing and continue to be able to work under my own name.
BAS Do you feel now that you could go anywhere with the Nick Malkin project? Is there a certain freedom now?
NM Yeah… because no one will care, (laughter) and I don’t know who is even paying attention, but I would like the freedom to follow whatever musical whim there is and not have to feel like I’m making some maneuver to reinvent my project or give it some huge overhaul. It’s not about that for me. I wouldn’t make some guitar drone album and call it Afterhours.