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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.

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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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12ftDwende interviews Nicolay

by +FE on September 6, 2009 at 2:32 PM · Comments
The Foreign Exchange story has been well documented: two musicians, one in North Carolina, the other in the Netherlands, met on an internet message board and created an album by sending files back and forth through e-mail and instant messaging, hence the name Foreign Exchange. In short, 2004's Connected was the product of two brothers connected by their love of music. Emcee Phonte had already made a name for himself as 1/3 of Little Brother, but the album introduced the world to Nicolay, whose lush soundscapes provided the perfect soundtrack to "renew your love affair with hip hop".

Five short years later, Nicolay stands out as one of the most innovative and inspiring producers in hip hop. The Dutch producer expertly harnesses the "organic and emotive qualities of classic soul" with each release. His third solo album, the highly anticipated City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, will be released later this month

Jon: The fifth anniversary of your first album, Connected, just passed. As the record that started it all, can you talk little bit about how it felt the first time you got the physical copy? What was it like to tear the shrink-wrap off the record?

Nicolay: It was really crazy. I remember the first time we got the physical product. We had done these shows in New York and Philly, this was July right before the album dropped, actually, they were Beat Society shows. At the end of that little trip, the cat from BBE showed us the actual copy. There's actually a picture of us getting them and being super geeked about it. It was definitely a huge moment because at that point we had already worked for two years trying to finish that album. So it was really a long road.

Jon: So the whole process took about two years?

Nicolay: It wasn't really like, the moment we started we were focused on [making] an album. It was more like, at some point in time the situation [changed to] where we had the makings of an album. "Nic's Groove", the first track we recorded for the album, dated back to, I want to say February or March of '02. The final version of the Connected album got mixed down like early '04. So it was definitely off and on two years in the making.

Jon: What importance did Herbie Hancock's Speak Like a Child have on Connected?

Nicolay: Phonte was actually going through his stuff, trying to find out where to take inspiration for the cover art. We didn't really know what we necessarily wanted to do, but we did know that we wanted make sure that it wasn't something ordinary or cliché. He came across that album in his collection and from then on, he had the idea to pay homage to it. Our designer at the time, Frank Miller, staged the whole shot. He took the idea, translated it into his vision and positioned the shot with the sunrise and everything. When he came up with that specific shot, we instantly knew that it was the one.

Jon: That ties into the visual consistency you have in a lot of your work. You had a similar concept with Here and Leave it All Behind. The visual art is very reflective of your music.

Nicolay: Yeah. I think for us, we've always had a desire to be different. The first time around, the visual aspect of it really just came to a point where I really wanted to keep it on that level. With all of the albums that came after that, even though they're all very much different, when it comes to the visual aspect, they definitely have a lot of consistency and a lot in common with each other.

Jon: Connected involved several members of the Okayplayer community and had the whole community buzzing about the project before its release. In many ways, it felt like Okayplayer's album; a beautiful example of what could result from such a dynamic community. Can you speak a little the role Okayplayer played in the whole Foreign Exchange project?

Nicolay: Well for [Phonte and I], we knew of each other, originally, just as one dude to another. I knew of him as an Okayplayer handle before he was necessarily Phonte of Little Brother. So when I first started meeting him in the same sort of topics, posts, threads and whatnot, I really didn't know what he had up his sleeves, and he didn't know what I was doing. All we knew was that we sort of had similar likes, tastes and opinions when it came to a lot of stuff. We had established ourselves as people visiting Okayplayer regularly before anything even went down. I think that's also why [the community] supported us so loyally. We didn't just come on there and try to sell the album, but we really came from the community and were just coming up on our own accord. Okayplayer has really just helped a great deal when it comes to that, just for the simple fact that a lot of our initial fans came through Okayplayer.

Jon: Yeah that's how I first heard about the album. I've been under my current handle since '04, but only have about 5,000 posts to my name...lightweight lurker status. Are you a charter member?

Nicolay: Yeah, oh yeah. On Okayplayer, I came on there around early 2000, so I better be. *laughs* But I don't really have a whole lot more, only about 9,000 posts I think. All in all, I'm going on 10 years on there. Pretty much daily, not as frequently as I did before, but I still go back and check it out. I've definitely paid my dues when it comes to that site.

Jon: So what were you doing when you first linked up with Phonte? From what I understand, you played in a few bands as a bass player, but eventually quit music and got yourself a 9-to-5?

Nicolay: Yeah, when I first got on Okayplayer, I was considering myself more of a listener, a fan even, rather than a big participator in music just for the simple fact that I had always kind of banked on playing in bands and stuff. I'd been doing that for 10 years or so. While we definitely had a lot of success in our own relative way, we just never really had a chance to really record. And I think that ultimately I'm just really a recording artist first and foremost. Even though I love playing live, I still think that to whatever degree, I'm supposed to be in the studio. So I kind of quit doing a lot of live playing and was more or less done with all that. At that point, I actually got a job, got a 9-to-5, and started doing beats more at nighttime or free days. I kind of did the opposite of what you would do; I stopped doing things in a more organized form and just started doing it for my own fun. Ironically, that broke everything open. I wasn't really pursuing it as seriously I guess, I was really just doing my thing. [After] about two years, I really got the courage to put some stuff online and see what people thought of it.

Jon: I think having a job outside of music reflected in your work. Connected felt like it was an escape to me. You had your day-to-day grind and needed something to do to relax, and Connected was the product of your escape.

Nicolay: Right, right. Yeah it's very true. Once you start making money with music, and this is a whole different discussion, then obviously, for a lot of people that's where all of a sudden the whole picture changes. They depend on it for their living and at that point a lot of people don't really take the risks that they would take starting out. But like I said that's a whole different discussion right there.

Jon: So how do you feel you've maintained that mentality to take those risks? The Nicolay sound has definitely matured, but it still maintains the same sense of heart that you had in your earlier work.

Nicolay: Yeah, to be honest with you, we really just don't give a fuck. Honestly, our mentality is that "we've formed a society of our own inside of 'society''. For us, we are just so convinced that what we do is the shit that we really just push on regardless of what the trend is or what's on the radio. I realize that it's popular to say that, but for us, we just find a lot of culture outside of mass culture and that goes for our music as well. I think that it's very easy to get blinded to whatever kinds of goals you would normally associate with "making it". But ultimately, "making it", when you define it in ways that make sense, you have to acknowledge the fact that we have made it. The fact that we're lucky enough to have whatever kind of positive impact on peoples lives, to us, means more than whatever kind of financial gain that we get. So we just kind of make our own rules and our own ideals and goals. That's also why we don't really mess with labels anymore. People don't really understand that [mentality when coming] from a business point of view, which is the problem with labels. But artists that sort of have the right idea of what they're trying to do, they'll find that they should do that rather than having a label do that for them.

Jon: Does that mentality, making your own rules, affect the way you construct your albums? I notice you add little details throughout your discography. It's as if your albums exist in its own universe and you weave them all together. For example, you close out Here with a little snippet of a live show, and open up TIME:LINE with what sounds like a live applause. Fans are able to follow breadcrumbs to go from album to album.

Nicolay: Yeah, to whatever degree. Sometimes you'll get lucky, you know what I'm saying? Sometimes people will find more common threads than I necessarily meant to put in, but there's also instances where people have not yet figured out certain things that connect those albums. I try to, like a writer, I like to create that universe and use whatever little tricks to make everything make sense when it comes to their relationship with each other. That doesn't mean that we don't like to switch it up every now and then, because we definitely do. But I think that there are certain elements that you will always hear on our albums and that's how people instantly recognize our sound and our product.

Jon: It even seems to extend to the promotional techniques. I was re-watching the Leave It All Behind trailers again recently and noticed that the chat screen names were song titles, and the conversation between the characters provided additional back-stories to the songs.

Nicolay: Yeah, yeah, yeah! We're really nerds when it comes to that. We have a lot of detail in it. Some of that sometimes gets totally lost, like people just never really pick up on them, but other things people definitely do. Especially over time, people sometimes find out about things that they don't hear until after like 10-12 times listening. Ultimately, we try to make sure that our albums kind of stand the test of time. That's definitely something that's a goal of ours.

Jon: You were saying earlier about how you're more of a studio producer than a live player. That's interesting because the Foreign Exchange live show is a live band setup. How has the transition been from taking the music from the studio to the stage? Are you drawing a lot from your previous band experiences or is this completely different for you?

Nicolay: I do, more and more, draw on those experiences...but at the same time, we really did not know what we were gonna do. We were happily forced into it. The thing was, the album had come out, and we had honestly not talked about what to do live outside of the fact that we knew it would be kind of silly to go out with some record players and just press play. Because the music is so layered, you can't experience it fully if it's just a DJ set up. So we knew that we would at least have to come up with some form of a live performance to do the record. We were able to book a couple shows and were kind of forced to try and figure out what to do. At that point, everything came together in terms of putting the band together and reinterpreting the music in a way that made sense to perform it, for the music as well as the vocals. I would say it's more a "soul revue" in the tradition you'd have with Motown, in where it's a very live, very organic translation of some of the stuff on record. Some of the songs are much different because of that and others are very similar. But playing the album live has really shown us a side of the album that we didn't really know it had. We didn't even know the songs would be really, really, exciting to play live while recording it. It's been fun translating it to stage. Definitely been challenging, but it's been a lot of fun.

Jon: Like a lot of producers, including myself, you cite Dilla as a major influence. Dilla was the one to make you appreciate the musicality in Hip Hop. Was it a specific track or technique that put you on?

Nicolay: I think if anything it was more his ideas, his choices, rather than necessarily his actual technique. The thing that always made me a big fan of Dilla, was not necessarily his drums or his bass, or any of that stuff even though it's all brilliant, but just his musical ideas. Somehow, it always seemed a little bit more deep when he did it. He had tracks like "Fall in Love" and "Climax" and all that shit, and he just had a knack for finding that really, really, good sounding, warm bass type sort of sound that I definitely try to get when I do music. For me, it's much more a matter of him being able to find a different type of sound than other people...even though they use the same set of tools. At the end of the day, anybody can sample a record and do something cool with it, but he always just took it places that somebody else couldn't.

Jon: So how did you end up figuring out "Dilla Time"?

Nicolay: I don't know if I ever really figured it out. *laughs* It's just something where you hear what something sounds like and you try to redo it, but don't necessarily have the same skills and/or equipment, so you got to just find a way. And that goes to anything from programming, to playing, to recording, to anything. I think you always just try to approach whatever is that is your ideal, whether that's an album, track or a sound. You just try to re-channel that, but you do it with the specific tools and skills that you have. The result is normally very different, but in a good way different obviously, because you want to have own sort of spin on it. It was the same way I learned to play the guitar or learned to play the piano: just by playing along to records and just figuring out, one step at a time, what it was that made him so great until you are able to pick out every piece of the puzzle and know what it does and how it does what it does.

Jon: Yeah, I got real excited when I saw your sticker on his mixer. The geek in me got all excited, like, "Oh shit, Dilla's a fan too?! That's dope!

Nicolay: Yeah! I mean for us that was a big deal. Even though it does not necessarily mean anything, it just really shows you that your music and your product, brand, whatever you wanna call it, are able to go places that you don't even know can go. That picture was an example of us not having a clue that he was as aware of us as he was, so that was definitely a really cool find for us.

Jon: Your new album, City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, drops September 15. You did the cover art for both the album as well as the single with Carlitta Durand, "You're Your Way". How did the trip to Tokyo, specifically Shibuya, influence the album?

Nicolay: For me, it was not necessarily a direct inspiration, like "I just saw this statute and I'm gonna make a song about this statue." It was more the sense of realizing something in myself that I needed to still learn. I had been making music with some sort of "self-censoring" applied to it, to where I knew that I was really doing music while thinking of what the listener would think of it. I sort of started to cater towards what I thought my fans would like rather than to do whatever I felt like. The trip to Japan, for whatever reason, probably just because it was such a culture shock... well not necessarily a culture shock because it's still a Western country so it's not like it is really 100% different, but it's such a different culture that it kind of shakes you up a little bit. And for me, it just had the effect that I knew I would have to get rid of all these limitations, these self-imposed boxes or whatever, and just really do whatever the hell would come out. So when I came back, that was really my mindset; I was just gonna do whatever. "Daykeeper" from Leave it All Behind was a direct result of that. [It was] a track that I may not have done earlier on when I started out doing music because I wouldn't have necessarily have seen it for what it was worth, but the trip to Shibuya really did that for me. That freedom really helped me to create a lot more. It wasn't until later that I decided I could apply that trip to an album and some songs and make another City Lights.

Jon: Was that a business trip or personal trip?

Nicolay: Nah, it was a gig, I was actually DJ'ing for a friend of mine who is a German hip hop artist, and ironically he just really hit me up on some "Aye, I got a gig in Tokyo. You got something going on? I want you to DJ for me." I don't always do that unless it's a really cool artist or a really cool location or both, and in this case I didn't really have to think [twice]. I was kind of invited just to come and DJ. There was really only one show, but we were there for five days, you know, just relaxing and looking...hanging tough and being cool. *laughs*

Jon: So this was before Leave it all Behind?

Nicolay: This was like November of '06. So literally when I came back in December, we started. Actually we did have two songs before I went to Tokyo, but I want to say centerpiece of Leave it All Behind, especially the more adventurous [tracks], were stuff that I did after coming back.

Jon: What do you hope people take away from City Lights Vol. 2?

Nicolay: I want to show people what my impressions were of Tokyo and Shibuya and how much I enjoyed that experience of being a foreigner over there, just being lost in that world. Something I hope that the album gets across is that it's very interesting, very beautiful, very strange, very huge, and very modern and I hope people can relate to that whole experience by the album. I hope they take away the fact that they can listen to something else rather than something that's easy for them to digest. At the same time, I don't know, I always like for my music to be sort of life affirming to the extent that I try to put a lot into it, put a lot of layers into it, a lot of detail into it to create something that people will ultimately still like in a few months or a year. Nowadays, music is very throwaway in the eyes of people... [It lasts for] something like a week at most. I just want to push stuff that has a little more of an eternal value. I don't know if I succeeded or not, time can only tell.
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