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Indie-soul collective Foreign Exchange plays the Cat's Cradle (via The News & Observer)
It seems like only yesterday Phonte Coleman was just a North Carolina rapper/singer, one-third of the up-and-coming hip-hop trio Little Brother. Back then, Coleman was also exchanging music files with an Internet help desk employee and aspiring producer in the Netherlands (Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook), hoping the two could make music together.

Phonte and Nicolay remain focused on The Foreign Exchange (via Creative Loafing)
With their fifth studio album, Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange has perfected its sophisticated take on R&B, incorporating not only a range of sticky sweet melodies, but also a smattering of nuanced romantic themes like domesticity and compromise. But whatever you do, don't call it ''grown man music.''

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''More than anything else, the biggest crime as an artist is to be boring.'' Phonte Coleman, the primary songwriter, vocalist and animated gif half of the Foreign Exchange, has probably never been at the receiving end of such an accusation. Over the course five albums with partner Nicolay, Phonte has equated love to an excuse, displayed affection through lunchtime chicken wing delivery, and made a gorgeously passive-aggressive ode to the better mate. His songwriting is unparalleled in its combined frankness, humour and relevance in our everyday dalliances.

The Foreign Exchange introduces its own Song of Solomon: 'Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Washington Post)
Phonte Coleman, the rapping, singing half of the hip-hop/R&B duo the Foreign Exchange, has a complicated relationship with religion. When he was growing up, he detested the mandatory trips to his grandmother’s baptist church, so he joined the choir just to make the ordeal more palatable. At least from the choir stand there was an added element of entertainment. Stationed behind the preacher, young Phonte could gaze upon the flock and see who was fanning themselves, who was trying not to fall asleep and who was struggling to stay on beat.

The Foreign Exchange's Nicolay tours to find new inspiration (via IndyWeek)
Phonte Coleman and Matthijs 'Nicolay' Rook keep their distance. Together, they've made several albums, toured the world, been nominated for a Grammy and built a little independent empire under the name The Foreign Exchange. But Coleman raps and sings from Raleigh, while the Dutch-born Nicolay lives in Wilmington. The space between them must be fertile, as they both pursue separate artistic offshoots. Coleman has his hip-hop and TV endeavors, while Nicolay has just released his expansive fourth solo album, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto, in which he offers up a Euro-soul take on South Africa's native rhythms.

We Be Spirits interviews Nicolay
Nicolay is one of the most eclectic and innovative music producers around, full stop. His first notable achievement as producer came in 2004 after Connected was released – the debut album of The Foreign Exchange, of which he is half. The album was famously recorded with the 'exchange' of electronic files across the Atlantic; the artists meeting only after it had been finished. He has since gone on to cover new and exciting musical ground releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as part of TFE.

Nicolay wraps his experiences abroad into a jazzy album (via Star-News)
It was around 3 a.m. one morning in May of last year when the Wilmington-based musician Nicolay and his neo-soul band, The Foreign Exchange, crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were dead tired from being on tour, and only hours earlier had played a sold-out show for fans they didn't know existed.

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The Last Broadcast interviews Nicolay

by +FE on April 16, 2009 at 12:06 PM · Comments
Hailing from the Netherlands, Nicolay has brought a new sense of style and grace to the world of Hip Hop. A sound that is smooth as silk and has enough beat that it can get your body moving. Music as unique and fantastic as his is compared to very few. Being a solo artists, one half of The Foreign Exchange Producer for numerous artists Nicolay brings a fresh new sound to the world of Hip Hop. He is as cool as his music and as nice as anyone can get. I had the privilege to talk with Nicolay, this is what he had to say.

Turtle: How are you doing today?

Nicolay: I'm not doing too bad today actually, it's a day like any other I'm just working on a few things. Just finishing up a few things so its not bad.

T: Can you give a little back story on how you became a producer?

N: I was actually the type to play in bands, that was my main musical reference point. It didn't always go the way I wanted it to. It wasn't paying the bills, so I decided to stop all of that, and just get a job. In the evening hours I more or less started producing for my own enjoyment. I never really intended doing more than that. Out of that freedom grew something that ultimately people really liked. So, really it was a matter of me almost stepping away from music to get back to it in a very different way.

T: You're one half of The Foreign Exchange, the other half being Phonte Coleman. How did you get involved with that?

N: We met "Online" by the way of a message board. We both hung out at the same sort of forums and talking about the same sort of subjects, so before we were working together in music, I was familiar with him as one of the cats that I was in contact with regularly and we would talk about music and other stuff that was meaningful to us. Around that same time I had been doing production for about a year, so it was time for me to put that online to see if I had something, or if I was on the right path. So I posted a number of tracks online and Phonte, being into most of the topics that I was into, started digging my music a lot. He didn't know what kind of plans I had with some of the music, but if I didn't have any he would really like to try something with some of the tracks. It was the beginning of the end in a way because we haven't really stopped working ever since. That was back in 2002 so we have been a group for a little over six years now. That's more than half a decade, so I consider it a lot.



T: You definitely spend a lot of time with someone and they become a part of your family and a part of your world, they become one of those day to day people you talk to.

N: Absolutely! The cool thing about it is we are very much the same people, but for obvious reasons we are very different. We have different cultural backgrounds, we have different views on things because we come from different sides of the ocean. At the same time we are very much the same, we think the same about music. Its interesting how it all came together.

T: I am a huge fan of your solo records, Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange...

N: Thank you very much...

T: ...I feel that hip hop has taken a dive in recent years, no disrespect to the people on the radio, but I needed something to re-instill that faith and feeling. I discovered The Foreign Exchange and it all came back. That love that feeling, that emotion of why I like hip hop. It was what I needed, it wasn't all that crap about "I'm gonna stick a gun in your face" It was cool, and it was hip hop.

N: I think that in the states a lot of the balance comes from the artists who are on the radio, as opposed to the people who are independent or underground. It feels that that is where a majority of the balance is. That's why the people who are our audience and who dig our stuff are not in that percentage, they are not into the television, radio and even magazines now. For us its almost like going against the grain knowing that we don't have that push to get us over the edge like the people who are on the radio or the TV. But now, we have a little bit of a benefit, people are getting a little bit tired of hearing the same stuff over and over again. People are starting to realize that they have a choice in what they listen to; Outside of the fact that a more casual music listener will turn on the radio and be cool with that. But people in our generation who are really interested in hearing something new and learn a little bit more.



T: For a first time listener, someone who is new to The Foreign Exchange or your solo stuff, how would you describe your sound to them? For me its very smooth, its laid back, its something to set the mood right. It's something that whether its at night partying or if you are cruising to work.

N: It's hard for me to put a flag on our style for the fact that I like a lot of different genres of music. I think that the foundation under everything is a very soulful, jazzy sound. I aim to create a certain atmosphere or vibe or context, whatever you want to call it: something that is easily recognizable and that makes you feel good. The appeal of our strategy is we want to make music sound beautiful. A lot of artists and a lot of sub-genre's that went the opposite direction that we went, but our main aim is to make really good sounding music that appeals to peoples emotions, memories, you name it. People generally don't just like it, they feel really passionate about it. We don't really get casual listeners. The listeners we get are a little bit deeper into it and seek out our other releases. People feel very passionate because it gets them through the day, it gets rid of the bullshit from their job or whatever kind of struggles they have. It seems to help a little bit and if that is something that we can contribute to peoples lives, obviously there is nothing cooler than that.

T: I definitely agree, you are one of the few artists to put out instrumental albums to coincide with your regular releases. You feel that passion for the music.

N: Cool man, I appreciate it. Our music is something that we don't take lightly. We feel to whatever degree that it is a big responsibility to not make any cookie cutter shit. Nowadays in music you have to understand what is going on in the industry to really make up your mind and to plan out a strategy of what you want to do; obviously recording music has less and less and less revenue, but you see people who are into making music for the wrong reasons are leaving it. It sort of evens out the playing field, and now that we see bigger artists who don't sell a certain amount are being affected. It doesn't matter if you are R. Kelly or if you are like us, if you make something that fits and that people will respond to then you can still score something. A name alone, and a label push are not enough to get somebody's record sold. So, really I like that. I realize that a lot of people are dooms day thinkers and are not very optimistic about the future, but I think it's a much needed change. A lot of labels had to let people go, a lot of magazines have gone away. It's a sign on the wall that a music industry for the past 30 or 40 years has lived beyond its means. Every one is taking a step back and are taking things to a basic and simple way, so its wonderful for the creativity. I think it's a cool period in music right now.

T: From you meeting up with Phonte and creating something like The Foreign Exchange, the Internet has allowed a lot of people to accomplish a lot more. The Internet has allowed things to change, you used to go to a record store but now you can download it. It exposes artists that you never would have been able to hear.

N: You are much more likely to discover something on your own terms, as opposed to having a friend of family member expose you to them. With record stores gradually vanishing, we haven't really suffered a blow as hard as other artists. We had a hard time getting into those record stores in the first place. For us, our main way of getting our music out there is word of mouth. People can get our stuff online much easier than in their local record store. For us, it has only lent itself to opportunity.



T: You have been updating your blog over at nicolaymusic.com about being and working in the studio. Do you feel that that kind of takes your brain in one direction that will ultimately lead you to a different direction?

N: Well, one of the reasons that I wanted to write and update the blog section is a lot of the magazines that went under like Scratch and Re-Mix, they were a more technical magazine and they went from being in publication to being online only. It's a euphemism for them basically folding. So, I started writing on a technical level for my blog. It is geared to more of a technical side of music, even if its basic so the fans of that will be very small but I feel the people who are following me are more than just interested to find out things that will help out explain and show more on a technical side. I have always been more open about my working method. I have always felt comfortable with that, and the website was the ultimate platform for me to do that. So, what is cool about it is the people who are not really technically interested can skip it and go right to the music, but the people who are into technology and stuff like that can really get more out of it, other than something that is superficial. I try to be as technical as I can, like I try to get different layers and details so the more and more you read the more and more you find out. It is interesting for the people who want to know what goes on in a studio.

T: I'm one of those people who is interested in that technical side of producing and beat making. One of my best friends is a DJ and hanging with him I was always interested in what equipment he was using, or what programs he used to make his beats. Stuff like Serato Scratch and Ableton Live, What is some of the equipment that you used on "Leave it all behind?"

N: Well, I mainly use Pro-Tools at this point. I want to be compatible with some of the major studios. Sometimes you are working and they are Pro-Tools ran, so I could go there with my sessions in hand or leave there and bring home something that I was working on to work on it some more. So the main thing is Pro-Tools and a ton of instruments. A lot experimentation and trying to make something new. On the blog I am going to explain what the idea was, and how I executed it for "Leave It All Behind." Explaining stuff like, what are some of the instruments I used, what decisions I made to attach a little bit of a back story. It's also a way to attract some traffic to the website, and its been working out so far.



T: I know producing and making music in the studio is one thing but performing live is an entirely different thing. Some people prefer being locked up in a studio and creating new sounds and music, but on the other hand I know people who love playing for a live audience and getting that vibe that you can't get anywhere else. Which do you prefer, playing live for an audience or being in a studio creating something new?

N: It's funny, because I prefer the one that I don't have at the moment. Its similar to how a lot of men complain about being married, but they also complain about being single and wanting to get married. So, in the studio is where overall I do feel the most comfortable because I have control over the final product. If I don't like it I can go back and back and and fix it til I get it right. When you play live, you depend on all the elements to come together. At the same time, playing live like you said with an audience who is feeling and is aware of what you are doing is something special. We have been fortunate enough to do a lot of shows as The Foreign Exchange, and at that point and time there is nothing greater than interpreting yourself with a band live on a stage. You don't really have that net that will catch you if you fall. You just have to breathe. I have a hard time choosing overall, but if I had to I would say in the studio, its where most of my talents are. I'm a pretty good instrumentalist but I'm not nearly as good as a lot of others. Playing live is great because it challenges us and makes us perform on our A-game. It's a very valuable learning experience.



T: Touring and being on the road can be arduous and taxing on the brain, what do you do to break up the day to day rut from being on the road and going from place to place?

N: Really there is nothing that you can do. Ironically it is a continuation of going from one place to the next at several days at a time. Really there is not much you can really do because you have such a tight schedule normally. The way we have been doing it is we get up really early, drive a couple of hours, get some sleep in, arrive at the venue, do a sound check and then perform. There is not a lot that you can do to break out of that. You can listen to a lot of music, check out stuff that you've wanted to listen to but didn't really have a chance to. You can read. Outside of that it's just a big waiting game. You drive, and you don't get to see a lot of a particular area when you get there. At the same time those are all small parts of the day before the moment of when it all goes down and the show starts. The touring itself may sound fun, but for us its fairly uneventful. Just a lot of driving.

T: I can hear that you are very passionate about music, just by talking to you I can feel that you love it. What are some other passions that you have had? Did you ever want to be a film maker or an architect? If the music thing didn't work out, what was your back up plan?

N: I think that I have one main talent, and its music. In my former life when I had a job I was doing a lot of web design and stuff like that. So, it could sustain me if it had to. I wouldn't call it a passion, but I wasn't into it as much as I am with the music. I was brought up with it, and ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a part of music. So, I very strategically made decisions that would ultimately land me there. Sometimes it did and sometimes it took me further than I had ever imagined. It's funny, being on the road and seeing other artists they will be into stuff like sports and what not. I'm not a big sports person, so the music is the one and only big thing that I'm into.



T: The future is really bright for a lot of people. What do you think the future holds for you and The Foreign Exchange?

N: I think that the future holds a lot. I'm going to try and release as many projects as I possibly can. I think the future also is determined by how well we are able to re-invent ourselves as we go a long. It's like I said, the days when people bought CD's out the ass is over. We can even see that in what we sell, and we've done quite alright. So, there will be a moment that could be problematic. I feel there is a lot of development in t.v., movies and licensing. So ultimately for me and us as a part of a bigger circle we need to find new ways to push our music. To find ways to get our music on a t.v. show, or in a movie. Try to do something that crosses over and gives us a bigger audience. My website lends a big part of that, but at the end of the day we just want to try to communicate with people directly and get really good at that. So we don't depend on anyone other than ourselves to give our fans what they want. As long as we work really hard I'm fairly optimistic, in general people don't get the satisfaction of doing what they love everyday. So I just continue to grind it out.

T:Do you have any final words, or plugs?

N: For anyone who really wants to do something, like an aspiring artist, or musician or whatever you need to learn how to promote yourself. Hop on Facebook or Twitter, it is much more important than trying to score a deal or chasing down people who are connected in certain networks. Right now you can do so many things that are available for free. Anyone who calls themselves an aspiring musician should use that to the fullest of their abilities.

Photo Credits: Aimee Flint, Matt Reamer, Tom Sapp, Kris Perry
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