Photo via Nosaj Thing/ Instagram

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Over the past two years, in a downtown loft devoid of unnecessary possessions, Nosaj Thing made a movie. Continua is not quite yet a film. For now, it’s an album. But Nosaj Thing wanted his fifth full-length LP to sound cinematic. So he enlisted Donnie Darko composer Michael Andrews and an eclectic ensemble cast, then directed a movie in music form. Soon, Continua will be—if Nosaj Thing’s dream comes true—a modern Koyaanisqatsi

Like Koyaanisqatsi—the 1982 experimental film in which Philip Glass synths arpeggiate over dialogue-free time-lapses—Continua’s music is inextricable from the associated visuals. Before recording, Nosaj Thing made a mood board. Then drew songwriting inspiration from the self-curated artwork. His primary muse was the photograph on the album cover: an empty road in the Scottish highlands, captured by legendary music photographer Eddie Otchere. Filmmakers Phil Nisco and Donovan Novotny have been creating music videos for Continua in a style indebted to, but not derivative of, Godfrey Reggio. 

Without looking at the cover art, or watching the videos, or knowing film composers contributed, Continua’s songs do play out like a score. The tone of the album, across every track, is unified. The reverb effect, uniform. Whereas other producers use airy synth pads as an afterthought, to add extra texture behind prominent melodies and drums, Nosaj Thing pushes those elements to the foreground. He establishes an atmosphere, builds upon it to moments of intensity and emotion, then recedes again. Like he’s the conductor of an orchestra stripped down to its most essential instruments. 

Nosaj Thing has always been conscious of sonic space: subtracting where others would add. During the making of Continua, during the pandemic, his personal life also became more minimalist. He moved to a loft and got rid of 40% of his possessions. He stopped traveling constantly. Spent valuable time at home, with weekly check-ins on his mother. In our interview below, he tells me these unexpected lifestyle changes allowed him to focus on the music in a way he hadn’t done since the leadup to his 2010 debut Drift

The leadup to Drift was a quarter-century of firsthand music education and experience in the diverse scenes of greater L.A. County. Raised in Cerritos, Nosaj Thing listened to Power 106 on the way to elementary school, snuck out to Pomona raves in middle school, and joined the noise punk community at downtown all-ages venue The Smell in high school. In his early 20s—with DJ sets that favored house and techno, avant-garde beats that blurred genre boundaries, and a natural rapport with rappers—he fit in at The Airliner. Emerged as one of Low End Theory’s most prominent representatives. Amidst higher-profile production for rappers, like “Paranoia” on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, Nosaj Thing released instrumental music unbeholden to traditional structure. Audio collages of synth-driven ideas he seemed to be discovering in real time.

When he made Drift, Nosaj Thing was a bedroom producer. Now, he’s a loft producer. The difference is subtle but significant. His home studio environment hasn’t changed much, and neither has his music. Continua is still pared down. It also sounds fuller than any of his preceding work. The albums he made in his bedroom either had empty space, or space occupied mostly by him alone. The album he made from the loft has plenty of room for brilliant others. He’s not just making beats. He’s producing songs.

In reaching out to the album’s many featured artists, Nosaj Thing was reluctant. He already enjoyed all of their music, and cold-calling them made him anxious. As soon as he established a connection, all worry dissipated. The collaborations developed naturally. Most of the artists he reached out to were already fans of his. Wanted to work with him, too. Also had friends who had mentioned they should make a song together. 

That mutual appreciation and understanding between Nosaj Thing and Continua’s atypically long guest list comes through in the music. Nosaj Thing’s beats alone have proven capable of bringing out toned-down, introspective versions of artists who often operate at different energy levels, like the early Chance songs or Kid Cudi’s sampling of “Aquarium” on A Kid Named Cudi. For Continua, Nosaj Thing says he didn’t give much direction to the featured artists, but was intentionally more communicative of his vision. 

On his first four albums, Nosaj Thing communicated mostly through instrumentals. Continua is a communication between artistic forms that can’t be translated into logical language. The photograph became beats. The beats became collaborations. The collaborations became scenes in a cohesive work. Continua became—or will become—a movie. – Will Hagle

You worked on Continua for the past two years. Low End Theory ended in 2018, then live venues shut down during the pandemic. While you were working on this project, did the lack of a live music scene around LA—and not having a live outlet to test your songs—change your writing or recording process at all?

Nosaj Thing: I mean, it has. I really just value the time that we had during the pandemic. When you’re on tour, as a musician, or any artist or anyone traveling consistently, it kind of inspires you but it also kind of could throw you off track a bit. Because it takes time to get acclimated when you come back home to get in that rhythm of focus. So I haven’t had this much focus since my first album. I just really valued the time that we had at home, and I just gave it my everything. Touring for 10 years, I started to get a little burnt out, and I felt almost like a robot. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing, and very inspiring. But when you’re on the road a lot you just miss a lot. You’re seeing a lot, but you could also miss a lot in your personal life.

Did you get in a different routine or mindset while working on this album from home?

Nosaj Thing: Yeah, I also moved. It was my first time living in this space of a loft. I did a lot of minimizing, which I’ve always wanted to do, because I just live in a rectangle. So I got rid of like 40% of my belongings. That also helped me with my focus.

Did you record in a studio at all? Or were you mostly writing and recording from home?

Nosaj Thing: Mostly [from home]. This is my straight up pandemic record. I did go to another studio. Mike Andrew’s studio. He’s a collaborator on the project. He’s a film composer. He’s known for doing Donnie Darko. I met him through Amir Azimi, who played violin and guitar on the record. I really just pictured this album like a movie. So it was important to include Amir and Mike on the project. To have their musicianship on the record and to just really bring it more to life, or a human element. Most of my stuff is programmed and synthesized.

In some of the write-ups of the album I’ve seen people use the word “cinematic.” I definitely hear that too, but I was wondering if you would agree with the album being cinematic, and if you can put into words what “cinematic” means in terms of music?

Nosaj Thing: I would say that’s spot on. Being a bedroom producer—in my bedroom in 2007 when I was writing Drift—everything’s in your room. Your bed. Your desk. Basically like, student life. I was inspired by having my TV on, and I would put it on mute while writing the record. I was getting inspired, and there would be little bits where I would write music to picture. That stuck with me since that first album, and I’ve always done it since.

This is the first time I worked backwards. I made a mood board and chose the photo on the record cover before finishing the record. All the collaborators on the record, I would send them a folder of demos along with the photo just so they could kind of see the world of this record.

The photo was shot by the photographer Eddie Otchere. He was introduced to me by a mutual friend. I just admire him. He’s an OG. He shot, like, Biggie and Wu-Tang and Aliyah and Goldie. He’s from the UK so he was there during that whole era of jungle. When we met, he was just like, ‘Yo, I was listening to your music when you dropped Drift.” I was like, “Wow that means so much to me.

I was following his Instagram, and one day he posted that photo. It was almost like he took that image out of my head. So I asked him, “Hey, I think this would inspire me to write some music. Is it okay with you if I use this for the next record cover?” And he was just like, “Yes.” He sent me a print of that photo. During the pandemic, he wanted to get some air with his homie, so he took a trip to the countryside of Scotland. He took one shot of one side of the road. Then he turned around and shot another photo of the other side of the road. On the back, he wrote “Look both ways,” which also inspired the song with Pink Siifu.

Did you send Pink Siifu that picture? And he read that on it?

Nosaj Thing: Pink Siifu was one of the rare instances where he actually pulled up to my crib given two things: the pandemic, and also most of the guest features are international. He was in town, and it just worked out. He pulled up. First time meeting. I just played him the record. I showed him the print of the photos. He absorbed the world of the record. Then he was like, “Alright, just play this track on loop.” He wrote to it for about 20-30 minutes. Then he was like, “I’m ready.” He tracked the vocals in one take. I was just like, “Wait, are you done? Do you want to punch in?” He was like “Nah that’s it.” I was like, “Wow.” You only hear about this in like the Fade to Black documentary or something. Then he did a couple adlibs. And that was it.

He was the one that suggested, like, “Yo, you should fuck with my vocals and maybe scratch “Look Both Ways.” I tried to give that a go. I haven’t scratched for years. I was really into DJing as a teenager in high school, and I looked up to guys like D-Styles and Beat Junkies and Invisibl Skratch Piklz. I contacted D-Styles, coming from Low End Theory, and sent him the track. Thirty minutes later he sent me those scratches. It was crazy.

On “Look Both Ways” and some other songs with featured artists that you’ve worked on in the past, like your Chance the Rapper collaborations, you bring out vocals that are more toned-down or subdued than those featured artists are on other production. Is that something you bring out of artists, or do artists naturally adapt to the sounds that you make?

Nosaj Thing: Prior to this record I would say my albums have been more explorative and experimental. Whereas on this record, I was really trying to make songs. A good friend of mine helped me really realize what a song is. His name is Sunny Levine. He really helped me finish this record. Because I was kind of going crazy at a certain point. Coming from being a bedroom producer, I would just send a beat or instrumental to an artist, get it back, and that was it. This time, I was thinking about structure and song forms. All of the features on the record are artists I’m personally a fan of, and admire, and have been listening to for a good while. So there’s a certain level of trust and expectations. I was also very curious what they would do, and didn’t really want to get in the way, because again there was a certain level of trust. I didn’t really direct the vocals much. I sent a photo of the album cover before the graphics were on there. Just the photo. Just painted them a picture of what this record is about. And they just did their thing.

Did you give each of them one song or a couple of choices of beats?

Nosaj Thing: I gave each artist about four or five ideas and let them choose which one they gravitated towards.

Since you said your friend showed you what a song is, is there something specific that makes a song? Or were you just more intentional with structure and editing rather than being as experimental as on your past albums?

Nosaj Thing: Once I got the vocals, it gave some sort of structure. For certain songs I just moved vocals around, muted, subtracted. Another inspiration was I realized that when I was in the car during the time I was making this record, I was listening to a lot of music with vocals. I’ve been dipping into music with vocals throughout my last few records, like one or two features, and I just wanted to learn more about it. Also, I’ve been doing more work producing for other artists, so I just became really interested in wanting to learn more about constructing songs.

A big influence of mine is artists like Unkle, Portishead, and Massive Attack. They’ve shaped my music already. I just felt like there’s been a void in that lane. I was very careful, like I didn’t want to be nostalgic. But it was like, what would be my version of this? Or, what would be the futuristic version of this? Like, my version. I’m not saying their music [isn’t futuristic]. It still sounds futuristic to me. I have so much love for those artists and bands that I just wanted to do my version of it.

I know what you mean. Taking their sound and approach as inspiration but pushing it forward with your own sound. And that definitely comes across.

Nosaj Thing: Of course. Everything always starts with some type of inspiration or whatever, so it was just like… Man, I want to hear more of this. Those records came out in the mid-90s, which is insane. I was like, what would be my version of this?

Your albums are all cohesive. This one especially flows really well. Do you ever make beats just for yourself that have a totally different sound we wouldn’t expect? Or your fans wouldn’t expect to hear?

Nosaj Thing: Oh yeah. I write music kind of like a diary. There’s so many sketches and ideas that I would never release. I would say Fated, my third album, is kind of closest to my process being shown. That record is like diary entries that are curated. Like, selected works.

Like an in-the-moment style, more so than this album? Would that be accurate?

Nosaj Thing: Yeah. This record is maybe not sonically similar to Drift, my first album, but in a way the level of focus and vision is similar. What might happen to anyone that travels a lot is it’s harder to find that quiet place to focus when you’re just touring. So my second, third and fourth albums were being recorded while I was in and out of town. It was hard for all of us during the pandemic, but I also just really valued the time I had at home. I had a lot of time to think and focus on what I’m doing. The process was my first time since Drift that I got to slow cook the record.

What was the thought process behind putting the title track as the first song, which features Duval Timothy, and how did that collaboration come about?

Nosaj Thing: Oh, man. I first heard Duval’s music on a radio show. It might have been NTS or something. I Shazamed it. I think it was the song “Ball.” Since then, I’ve just been a big fan of Duval. He’s been in constant rotation. Especially during the process of the record, and during the pandemic, his music was in constant rotation. It really lifted me up. I would just play it. All moods, whether cleaning the house or eating or just writing down ideas or even working out. It just worked and made me feel so good.

This record having so many collaborations was really difficult for me. I learned that I could be socially anxious, or a bit shy. To reach out to this many artists was really difficult. Sometimes it would take me like a month just to actually do it. To build enough courage to do it. I finally hit up Duval and told him that I was a fan of his and would love to collaborate. It took me by surprise that he was familiar with my music. He said he was listening to a lot of my work back in the day, from the early times. So I was just like, “Man, that means so much.” I sent him a few ideas. And it was easy. It wasn’t easy, but the process of the communication was just like, we knew each other already or something. It was just like… I got you. Then he just sent me back the part and that was it. There was not much back and forth. I sent him the chord progression with the pads and the bass line. He just did his thing. And took it probably way beyond what I would have imagined.

On “Grasp,” is that live instrumentation?

Nosaj Thing: Yes. That song started with Slauson Malone. He laid down that guitar riff and bass line. I was just starting to program the drums and just held on to it. There was something about it that I really liked, and just kept it.

Donovan, who co-directed the music videos and shot the portraits for my record was over, and I was playing Sam Gendel. He was like, “Yo, you should work with him.” I was like “What? That’s crazy.” Like, yeah, I should. I didn’t even think about that. I learned through a few mutual friends that he lived in LA and finally met with him at the studio. He was just like, “So many of my friends told me I should work with you.” I was like, “That’s crazy.” Like, same, you know? So I just started playing him these demos I had. He naturally gravitated toward that song with Slauson Malone.

Then after a while I was like, well, this is already super beautiful. But I think there’s space for vocals that could bring it together. I was talking to Dom from LuckyMe, who’s also been part of the process of the record, because I trust his taste. He was like, “Coby Sey would be crazy on this.” I was like, I’m familiar with his work and familiar with his production on the Tirzah record. I was super down. Let’s see what happens. He gravitated toward that same song, which was also in a folder of four or five different demos.

That song came together with this crazy collaborative list of names to me, because I’m such a fan of all three. To have them on one song, I didn’t even imagine that. That’s actually one of my favorites on the record. Like how that formed, it just kind of naturally went that direction. I’m still amazed by that one. It was all remotely done, which is insane.

That is insane, because they all gravitated toward that one song without being pushed toward it necessarily. Then they added stuff on top of each other, and it doesn’t sound like it was recorded remotely.

Nosaj Thing: That’s what’s amazing too. Going back to learning how to make a song work, that’s when my boy Suny really helped me make those decisions. Like with Sam’s part and Coby’s vocals, it became more of a call-and-response type format.

I’m not going to go through every single feature even though I could, but I wanted to ask about the next track, “We are (우리는).” I wasn’t as familiar with Hyukoh so I was wondering how that one came together.

Nosaj Thing: Oh yeah. This one’s interesting. My mom and I are close. My mom put me on to Hyukoh. She put me on, dude. I’d heard of them, but I didn’t do a deep dive at the time. During the pandemic, you needed to check up on your mom. So I was just there like every week, taking COVID tests and things like that. I was just like, man that’d be crazy if we do a song together.

Within a couple years I was noticing we had mutual friends. You know when you notice something and start seeing it everywhere? It was like that. I also saw, with Virgil at the time, they did music for one of the fashion shows for Louie Vuitton. I was just like… Man, it’s a sign, it’s coming together. It wasn’t specifically that show, but I was just starting to see signs.

So I contacted Oh Hyuk, who’s the singer of Hyukoh. It was kind of a similar story to Duval. He was just like, “I was listening to your music a lot back in the day” or whatever. I was like, “Wow that’s crazy.” I sent him some ideas and the song came together.

That song was the most difficult. Maybe it was the time difference, because I had to catch him in Seoul time. Something just wasn’t hitting on that song. I couldn’t figure it out. I was struggling with the drums. I also love DJing. When I DJ, I mostly play house and techno. And this rhythm just came in my head. There was a track by Martyn called EF40. It took me a while to gather the courage to contact him. Also I felt like I was breaking some rules by sampling a drum loop from a friend or a record that came out 10 years ago… I was like, Is this okay? Is this okay to do? So I contacted Martyn and played him the song. He was like, bro this is what I’m thinking… He gave me his blessing, and sent me the original stems to those drums. That was it. It came together. That was the final ingredient.

You said a couple times that you were a little nervous to reach out to people but then they were actually already familiar with your work and excited to work with you. Was there anyone who wasn’t familiar with you? Or learned about you and still wanted to work with you?

Nosaj Thing: I don’t know. I would say the furthest was maybe Panda Bear, because he’s so OG. We had a mutual friend that’s also from Baltimore, and we got connected. I don’t know if this relates to whether he was familiar because we never spoke about that, but I told him “Hey I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, and I saw your show when you opened for Múm way back at the Henry Fonda Theater. He was like, “Oh that was actually our first show in LA.” When Sung Tongs came out, I had that record on constant rotation. It’s like a full circle situation for me.

To bring it full circle here, since I was asking about live performance during the pandemic, I’m curious how it’s been getting back into live performance now. With this album in particular having so many features, are you performing it live? Is there anything visual you’re doing with it?

Nosaj Thing: I don’t really see an extensive tour. Especially with what I’m hearing these days with the current state of touring. It seems kind of difficult right now. Two friends of mine—Phil Nisco and Donovan Novotny, they directed all the videos for the record so far—we’re planning to do a visual album form. A dream of mine would be to display it in installation form. Really deconstructing the album, almost like we’re doing an audio visual sound piece. I would break down the stems, rewrite certain parts, and rescore it to picture. I was very inspired by Koyaanisqaatsi, the film. That was scored by Philip Glass. That film came out in 1982. And I’m watching it every day. It’s crazy. Where’s today’s version of this? I was just looking for more because I’ve been watching it for so long. So that was an inspiration. And I hope to do a long form of video. Whether it lives in installation form or a tour, that would be the dream. I’m trying to figure out a way to make that happen. If we can make a whole film, and go back to what inspired the album, that would be the goal. Hopefully that will happen. I’m throwing it out in the universe.

I read in another interview from years ago that you said you learn something new every time you make a record

Nosaj Thing: Yep.

What did you learn on this record? Would you say it’s putting a song together or working with other artists or something we haven’t touched on yet?

Nosaj Thing: I would say I learned how to communicate better. Being a solo musician or producer-artist—I don’t know what you want to call it—and coming from a bedroom producer world, it’s easy to be in your head all the time. My favorite producers, I’ve noticed that they’re great communicators. You gotta get your idea and vision across. That was a big learning moment for me. “Communication is key” is real. I went through a lot of uncomfortable moments to try to communicate this vision as best as I can. I would just say, whatever’s in your head, or these ideas that you have, you gotta listen to that voice, and just go for it.

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