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Escape Velocity

Constantly Horrible Things: NAH On MANIAC INFERNO
Bernie Brooks , March 21st, 2022 09:11

Ahead of the premiere of his new audiovisual onslaught MANIAC INFERNO, NAH speaks to Bernie Brooks about the project and the impetus behind it

"Everything fucking sucks right now," says NAH on the phone from Belgium, where he currently resides. "And honestly, pretty much always sucked." It occurs to me that we might be simpatico, and I think of a tweet I saw not too long ago by I can't remember who: "I just want one thing in the news I can be happy about." It's still early in the morning here in Michigan and my coffee's cold. Right now, we're all doomed.

It's mid-afternoon CET and NAH's in his "weird bunker" preparing for the official premiere of his audiovisual onslaught MANIAC INFERNO at this year's Out The Frame festival this month. From the trailer: multi-channel video, picture-in-picture horror, the score fried and buzzing. Officially, the project "seeks to address the confusion, disconnection, narcissism, anxiety, and fear that pervades the Americanized modern experience", and based on the trailer – well, it's gonna be intense.

"I could not hear a guitar anymore," says NAH on the genesis of his long-running solo project. "I had been playing in a band for a long time. We did a bunch of records. A sort of underground, two-piece punk band thing. And it was never really my interest. I just liked playing the drums a lot and touring with my friends. Then, summer 2011, we did a tour that was just crazy. It was the US for maybe six, eight weeks, and then directly to Europe and the UK to do like 39 shows in thirty days or something. At the end of it, I couldn't stand the guitar, and I needed to be by myself, really."

So, NAH retreated to his basement, eventually getting into production and samplers and drum machines. "It's just me finding out how to make music on my own for ten years, basically. And tapping into working on visual ideas on my own," he explains. "I started putting everything on the internet, and eventually, maybe 2014 or so, a video of mine got picked up by Complex. Then, out of nowhere, I was on all these festivals around Europe – big festivals – and playing shows. So, I upped my game a little bit and started recording even more and collaborating with people, touring a lot. Just trying to be myself and express myself and be a good person."

Over the course of some 22 releases the Philadelphia native has developed a raw, omnivorous production style rooted as firmly in noise as it is in hip hop, working with the likes of Moor Mother, NAPPYNAPPA, Iggor Cavalera, and others along the way. With MANIAC INFERNO, however, NAH has shifted his approach, a move that has the potential to up his game again. Which I suppose is one thing to be happy about.

What was the impetus behind MANIAC INFERNO?

NAH: I think the big thing for me is, I've been doing this project for over ten years, and it's always been more about just documenting creative stuff that I'm doing – no rules or anything like that. And then this year led to some changes for me. When I started working on it, I knew I had a baby on the way. I knew that I couldn't spend every day just waking up in the morning and working on music until I fell asleep. I had to change up my workflow and my responsibilities and stuff.

I also realised that most of my recorded output doesn't actually have me playing drums on it. Even though everybody thinks that's my whole thing. So, I wanted to focus on something that doesn't have live drums. And then, how could I perform that live? And how could I implement something else to make it a bit more exciting, so that's when the visual aspect came into it. I've been doing all my own videos, mostly, since I started NAH. So, it seemed natural.

Topically, it doesn't seem very hard to comprehend that everything sucks right now. So, I wanted to do a little bit of reflecting on that and provide MANIAC INFERNO as sort of an escape, but also present – on a very large screen – constantly horrible things to people in a way that a lot of the films that I grew up with in the 80s and 90s did. Verhoeven and Cronenberg and Carpenter were presenting everything that was going on in such a way that people didn't seem to fully realise that these movies were showing them their actual surroundings. They're going to see something thinking they're just escaping, but they're unknowingly being presented with the shit that they're going through every day – in a stylish manner.

Kind of like how people can somehow miss the point of, say, Robocop, but can still watch it and be entertained?

N: Yeah. You can just watch it and think it's cool looking or whatever. But if you have any bit of sensitivity or empathy in your daily life, you're like, "Oh, shit! This is it! This is what's going on!"

So, is MANIAC INFERNO your way of doing essentially the same thing? Is that a goal of the project?

N: I mean, I'm not saying I'm trying to do the same thing, but yeah, it is a bit – maybe it's twisted, but maybe it's a bit therapeutic as a way to process it. Every day you're walking down the street, and there's piss and broken glass and you're confronted with all these things on the news, and people's fucking selfies and NFTs and shit. It's kind of a way to poke fun at it. Or take it less seriously.

Yeah, I feel like if you're paying attention to anything that's going on in the world – and you're the kind of person that does – you need coping strategies, right?

N: Yeah, but it's never supposed to be too obvious, you know? I'm not going around videotaping the news for the project. But if you're an artist or musician or creative person, and you're not creating something to get through the day, or to process things, I don't really know why you'd be doing anything. Maybe that's a little extreme. Sometimes it can just be fun and feel good. And that's cool. But for me, I need to make stuff to get through my day. It's not even escapism, it's confronting stuff. It's dealing with it. It's important for me.

That seems to be present throughout the NAH catalogue. In that respect, it doesn't necessarily seem like MANIAC INFERNO is going to be a wild departure from what came before.

N: Sonically and visually, it'll be a big expansion upon all the older stuff. And it's something I'm actually taking my time with, which I don't normally do. So, not a culmination but a realization that I've been doing this for a long time, and I should focus on it in a different way. It's going to have the same feeling as most things that I've done, but it's going to be much more cohesive. And performing something without the shield of the drum set, I think I'm gonna feel a bit naked.

Yeah, I imagine drums can function like a wall between you and the audience.

N: A wall of cannons, basically. Letting go of that, you're just standing there on the field, kinda naked [laughs]. There are a lot of musicians and people that bear themselves in that way, but I've never done that, so it feels kind of weird. It's a big change.

Going back to what you said earlier about focusing on NAH in a different way: our media ecosystem has the tendency to minimise the importance of refinement in the artistic practice in favour of reinvention, so much so that committing to artistic refinement can seem like a radical act. Do you feel like with MANIAC INFERNO you're refining in this way? Perhaps striving to achieve the full potential of the NAH project?

N: I feel what you're saying, and maybe there is something to that. But I think what it is achieving is digging into a side of it that was always there, but that I was never fully pushing, and then presenting that side. As of now, I'm just doing this project live. But when I get to record it, I hope to be able to do it properly in the studio and do horrible stuff to it. As opposed to before, I would just plug it in and record it in my house. So, I'd like to take the time with it. Yeah, properly realise a side of NAH that I've never bothered to.

Maybe it's corny, but I've always tried to approach the project with sort of a jazz mindset where I've always wanted every record to be something different – maybe technique-wise, or I'm recording something differently. And then I always want to play live differently. I've rarely ever played the same thing, or the same type of setup. And it can confuse people, but I think it's important. Yeah, pop stars having a different identity or a different sound every record is kind of weird. But with them, it never seems like they're being the same person. But then you could have Miles Davis, with this whole trajectory, and see him doing very different things. But he's always sort of doing the same thing somehow. He's always being himself. Then, all of a sudden, Bitches Brew. And it's not that crazy, because it's just little steps, you know, and it's cool to document that. That's why I was always saying, "Fuck it, I'm just gonna put this out, because in a month I'm not going to care. I'm going to have done something different."

Given that working on MANIAC INFERNO has been a departure from the way you worked on things previously, have you enjoyed it?

N: Yeah, with this I've really been sculpting something, and I've very much enjoyed it. I've been treating it like band practice, and I haven't had band practice in about 11 years. It's been cool to find a way to build something - not just record it right away and say it's done.

NAH will premiere MANIAC INFERNO at Out The Frame, Ghent, Belgium, on 26 March