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Escape Velocity

Pulse LAX: An Interview With Nguzunguzu
Angus Finlayson , July 12th, 2012 05:26

LA duo Nguzunguzu's thoughtful and playful party music draws for global sounds and the mechanics of the UK dancefloor. With new EP Warm Pulse just released, Angus Finlayson met them to discuss throwing DJ curveballs and the life of grime

Nguzunguzu (nn-goo-zoo-nn-goo-zoo - use the middle 'n' as a place marker and you should make it through) are the duo of Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, based in Los Angeles but with ears attuned to the furthest reaches of the globe. You may have come across them first as a DJing unit (Maroof is also M.I.A.'s tour DJ) - 2010's Moments in Love mixtape in particular, featuring two dozen versions of the Art of Noise classic ranging from ghetto house to cumbia to jungle, is a stunning feat of digging and blending, showing a mastery of a certain web-age logic of ceaseless discovery and seamless re-contextualisation.

But, in the past couple of years, it's the duo's productions that have shone out. Last year's Timesup EP on Night Slugs' US counterpart Fade To Mind distilled global ghetto signifiers into a potent brew, often stark in construction but never less than playful - party music with a brutalist edge. This month has seen the release of the Warm Pulse EP on the Hippos In Tanks label - a sideways step for the duo perhaps, but one that seems eminently logical: their love for chart R&B and hip-hop as well as the more obscure corners of the electronic underground slots in neatly alongside the concerns of d'Eon, Hype Williams et al.

The Quietus caught up with the duo at Sonar festival, where they were playing the Red Bull Music Academy stage alongside a host of other alumni (Maroof participated in the Academy's 2011 installment in Madrid). It's testament to RBMA's commitment to their students that their stage, populated almost exclusively by alumni, read like a who's who of burgeoning talent. Nguzu are foremost among them.

Is this your first Sonar?

Daniel Pineda: Our first as Nguzu.

Asma Maroof: I came last year, DJing with M.I.A.

The two of you are known for putting a lot of effort into your mixtapes - your Moments In Love mixtape, for example. Were you DJs before you produced?

DP: Yeah, pretty much.

So does your record digging inform your production, or the other way round?

AM: Definitely, DJing - the way you can blend certain percussion or samples from totally different genres and make something new and kind of unknown - that's very inspiring to how we create. Not wanting to fit into some sort of idea - like 'oh this is house'... Although I admire people that are like that, that are focused - like 'I am a dubstep DJ, this is what I do' - because we never really know how to explain ourselves! [laughs]

When you're making a track, are you thinking about how it's going to fit into a set?

DP: Not like in the middle of making it, but yeah sometimes you'll be DJing and think, 'it'd be cool to have something that could work with this'. Or you'll be making something, it won't be finished but you'll think 'let me try mixing with it', and then that can give you ideas.

You mentioned not knowing how to describe your sound. Is the eclecticism in your production and DJing deliberate? Did you at some point decide you wanted to operate in that way?

AM: It's deliberate in the sense that our taste is so broad. What attracts us, or me personally, to music is that there's so much of it, coming from so many different places, and it can all sound so different but at the same time there's little elements that tie it all together. That's just what interests me personally.

DP: I feel I come from an eclectic place - I always have. So I find that interesting, but it's also like second nature.

What role do you think the internet plays in that - things would be different if this was fifteen years ago...

AM: I know, yeah - the Internet plays a major part in it.

DP: You mean in our eclecticism?

Yeah, and in terms of the music you've discovered.

AM: Well it's so much more readily available, you don't have to leave your country to find dance music in Angola, stuff like that... You can surf it. It's amazing what you can do.

DP: That's a bit weird too though, because everybody can be in a really random place with it - that's why it can be refreshing when someone's coming from a really specific place, and not just saying [distractedly] 'Yeah that's cool; so's that.' But even before the internet was such a big part of it, I still felt really eclectic with my tastes, so...

AM: It felt more precious though, you know, when you found something - when you got hold of that Baile funk tape you were like 'woah!'.

The scarcity element.

DP: Some people still try and maintain that scarcity - keeping tracks exclusive to make them valuable. And I think that's really cool, but also the free-ness of music right now is really cool too. It's kind of a balance.

So are you guys attached to vinyl, cassettes, any format like that? Or are you mostly digital these days?

DP: Pretty digital.

AM: I definitely had a love affair with cassettes, with vinyl - I still have that love! [laughs] But it's hard, I don't know... We play on CDs and USB now. I don't even like bringing my computer to the club.

So when you're DJing, how does the balance work - are you basically just back-to-back for the duration? Do you feel like you get more out of it than DJing on your own?

AM: Yeah, we usually go two for two, though sometimes one of us has an idea and we go with it.

DP: Usually I think it makes it better.

AM: Two heads are better than one...

Do you ever feel limited by it, in the sense that one of you wants to go down some rabbit hole and the other person pulls it the other way..?

DP: It's a little awkward sometimes if you want to talk about that kind of thing - 'I wanna speed up' 'No wait I wanna slow down!'

AM: We're constantly throwing each other curveballs, which is fun but also sometimes like [frustrated] 'Argh!' When I have a certain idea and I'm pulling out a CD 'cos of a certain track he's playing, then he switches it up and I'm like 'Oh... better put it back again'. But we've been playing with each other for a while now, so we often have the same ideas in terms of mixes.

How about with production, how does the balance work? Are there specific roles you both have?

AM: We try to switch it up, you know.

DP: I think within different tracks we'll take on different roles, but it's not fixed.

Are you always in the room together, or can one person work on something alone and then bring it to the other person?

AM: We've been having problems with that. If he's working on a track and hands it to me, sometimes I feel like it already sounds done, I don't really know what to do with it - I struggle with that personally. He's really good at making something sound more finished. But I think our best stuff comes out when we improvise, when we sit in a room and just jam. That's how we started collaborating, and it's always just a breath of fresh air.

DP: Yeah, that's why it makes so much sense to work with someone else - you're doing one thing, they add another thing and you're like 'That sounds perfect' - it's just really free. Instead of like, you're doing something, you record it and then you think 'Ok, let me try and add this other thing' and you get stuck...

So you had this EP out on Fade To Mind last year, which is kind of a sister label of Night Slugs. I wanted to ask how much you follow what's going on in the UK - has it been a big influence?

Both: Definitely.

DP: Night Slugs has been a huge influence - such a solid label, all its music sounds really amazing.

AM: Very innovative.

DP: And lots of grime producers we find equally inspiring.

AM: Yeah it's crazy now, grime's getting a lot of love [in the US]. And I know a lot of people in London are saying - 'what? you guys are late!' - but a lot of people in America are just getting into it. But yeah, it's so cool that people are still listening, even if it's old.

You've got an EP coming on Hippos In Tanks. As a label it's more known for the weirder end of things - not necessarily dancefloor-focussed music. Is that reflected in the music you're putting out through them? Has your sound changed would you say?

DP: Yeah. The record's not that dancefloor really. Which, with that label, I'm fine with - we're leaning towards thinking, 'OK, we'll let it be a bit different'. But we weren't even really pushing it in that direction, it just came out that way, which I think is fine. We're still putting out stuff on Fade To Mind. I feel like the Nguzu project has always been pretty dancefloor-based, even though it's been kind of far out sometimes...

AM: Well it wasn't always dancefloor, that's not where it came out of. I think we were always inspired by the dancefloor and the club environment. I think pertaining to your first question - do you wanna make stuff for the dancefloor or do you not - that's definitely something we think about. I don't know. Sometimes we want to make club tracks, but if you're hearing that all the time....You know, when you're sitting at home, you don't always want to hear some club shit - you want something else. It's really nice, as a creator, to create both.

Within that, are you conscious of keeping consistency - from what I've heard of the EP, it still sounds like you. But were you worried that, in changing focus, people might think it was too much of a shift?

DP: Yeah, we thought about whether people might think that we're an indie band now.

AM: And that's not the case! I hope that doesn't happen. I feel like this record still sounds like us definitely, there's still a lot of sub and bass, some of the tracks are still 135bpm, or halftime.

One last thing - Asma, you went to RBMA Madrid - how did that affect what you guys did afterwards? Was it a major career moment for you?

AM: Well, I tested the [Roland] 909 [drum machine] out at RBMA and fell in love with it, so I've got one and now I'm using it in our productions. It was just really inspiring - the lectures were my favourite: the guy who created Funktion 1 Soundsystems, Frankie Knuckles, Erykah Badu - it was really cool to hear them talk, hear where they came from. It gives you perspective on your own production, what you want to do with it, where you want to take it.

Nguzunguzu's Warm Pulse EP is out now on Hippos In Tanks