A Man That Says No: An Interview w/ NAH (audio + transcript)

If you got to this text without listening to “magical herbalism” (linked above), scroll up and correct that mistake.

Okay. Welcome back.

NAH is the recording name of multidisciplinary artist Michael Kuhn. Mike currently splits his time between Philadelphia and Brussels and is the drummer of 1994!, the brilliant on-and-off-hiatus punk duo from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Over the last three years, Mike has released over a dozen albums under NAH, which can all be found on his Bandcamp. To get the best sampling of his work, I suggest starting with: WOE, tapefuck, CONTEMN and NURTURE. In addition to his constant musical creativity, Mike also produces his own artwork and music videos which further the NAH aesthetic and are typified by a strangely gritty poetry.

So far, Mike has kept his visibility pretty low — NAH has been one of those things that you can only hear about from a friend. It was actually Tom Kelly from Philly band Snoozer who introduced me to the music, and to see his excitement when I told him that I never heard NAH before solidified that my $5 would prove to be well spent.

When I got the tape home, I was blown away. I had truly never encountered anything exactly like NAH before. The live drums mixed with in-the-red samples never felt overbearing or needlessly assaulting — there is a sustainable listenability to NAH that you just can’t find with similarly categorized artists (like Death Grips and CLIPPING.).

After a few months of devouring what he’d posted, I reached out to see if he’d be willing to do an interview with me. Though he was wary, Mike agreed and I’m thankful he did. His insights were illuminating — he shared his experiences of being an American artist abroad, the path of most resistance which led to the development of his sound, and brought clarity to the NAH enigma.

Underneath the audio of our interview is the transcript of our full conversation.

 

***

How are you man?

I’m alright! Pretty tired…

You had those back to back shows this week [at Kung Fu Necktie], right?

Yeah, I did — on Monday and Tuesday [4/13 and 4/14].

How did it all go?

It was cool! It was weird — I got asked to play the one on Monday a while ago and then somebody else asked me to play that Tuesday show, but I didn’t realize that they were at the same place. But the second show, I didn’t do a NAH set — I had two friends come up and we improvised for like, 20 minutes.

What is a typical live NAH set like? On your records, there’s live drums, there’s electronics — it all seems pretty raucous.

Depending on the setting — lately, locally, it’s really raucous and everyone’s dancing and jumping around and having a great time. And now that there are lyrics involved, people are singing along and that’s really cool. My live setup is just drums, a MIDI controller (Alesis Performance Pad), and I have a bunch of samples (on a Roland SP-555) — all my new stuff now is samples that I program or sounds that I make or find. It ranges from very crazy to sometimes playing a weird show in England in a restaurant where nobody cares [laughs].

I’d imagine it would be hard to ignore what you do.

I’ve destroyed some first dates in England, I think.

The improvised set that you did at KFN, that was with Chris from 1994!, right?

Well, we didn’t play any 1994! songs, but it was really fun.

How did you start playing music?

I started playing guitar when I was 13, then I started playing drums when I was 15. I didn’t take anything super seriously until I went to art school for a while and there I started meeting people that played music and that’s how I ended up meeting Chris. I started art school in 2003, met Chris in 2004, then we’ve played together from 2005 until now. He was the first person I ever played music with who was pretty much on the same page as me. And then Inkblot Records found us on Myspace and they asked us to do a record, which was a catalyst for us to work harder. It was like, “oh cool, somebody’s paying attention,” so we could actually tour a little bit. It hooked us into a giant network of people doing similar stuff, so it was cool.

Looking at the artwork for your albums and your videos, you obviously have a passion for design — they all have a clear visual aesthetic.

Thank you. Yeah, my last two years of high school I went to technical school for graphic design and then I continued that into art school, at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design for Fine Arts and graphics.

How did NAH come about?

M: To be honest, I just didn’t want to be around guitar music anymore. [laughs]. I like guitars when they do certain things, but touring in a band like 1994! and playing tons and tons of shows, you’re exposed to so many of the same sounds — it was just exhausting. And I always loved weird sounds — not even listening to music sometimes, just listening to the world. I grew up with a young mom who listened to 80’s music, and growing up in the 90’s [I was] exposed to so much hip hop on the radio. That’s just a part of me and speaks to me a lot more than most punk, traditionally — as far as bass and drum sounds go. So I wanted to hear something different and just started figuring out how to do it. That’s all. Just started fucking with tape sounds and getting a sampling kit and blasting it through amps and stuff. Now I have an actual PA that I take around [laughs].

With electronic music, some folks retreat into doing laptop performance exclusively — did it make sense to keep drums the centerpiece because it was your bread and butter anyway?

It’s just the only way I’m truly comfortable playing and performing. A lot of my music now starts on a laptop and then I take it out and I very well could easily press a button and play some songs, but that wouldn’t be very fun [laughs]. I prefer to play the drums, I prefer that power.

There’s something primal about that — rhythm and the way our brains are wired. Drums have always been what we collect ourselves around.

Yeah — next to the voice, it’s the oldest instrument. As far as I know.

When I looked at the KFN lineup, the phrase “rap punk” was thrown around and so I looked into some of the bands, but it just got hairy. It all kind of sounded like an ironic reinvestment in Limp Bizkit and the rap/rock nightmare of the late 90’s/early 2000’s.

[laughs] Yeah.

But what you do stands apart. You pull from an obvious jazz aesthetic but there’s punk in there, and also hip hop and noise and soundwave manipulation which, to me, is all indicative of a little more artistry and thought — versus the tradition of Linkin Park.

I think it’s a pretty fine line between what people grab from those two keywords. People are saying “punk rapper”, “punk hip-hop”, but that really could mean a million things. There could be a dude who grew up listening to Danzig and Samhain and the Misfits. And this guy, at a certain point, he becomes interested in hip-hop and that’s a vast world, if not more vast than punk rock is. So who knows what the hell influence he grabs from that. He could like Danzig and he could like Eminem. Adding those things, to me, sounds like the worst music in the world [laughs]. But people need those dumb little things to grab onto to make sense of it. Especially in 2015.

We’re just looking for the Twitter pitch.

It’s such an important thing, as much as it is absolutely not an important thing. As far as “now” goes, we can just have thoughts about how things were and not so much about how things are going to be. As far as music goes, I do feel like we have hit a wall. Occasionally I’ll hear something that’s totally fucking crazy, but then you spend an hour with it and you’re like “Oh, alright. It’s just that. Gimme something else.”

So does NAH come from an internal need for creating something that you wanted to hear that wasn’t out there for you to hear yet?

Yeah, it’s completely selfish. I will say that I love that people are interested in it and I love sharing it with people. And the fact that I have opportunities to perform it — that’s really the only thing I want to be doing with it, is performing it. But it definitely came from a desire to hear things that I thought could exist. And then as I was working on them, I started to find out there were lots of people doing something fairly similar to what I did — but everybody has their own way of doing something, so I hope mine is its own thing.

Going through your discography on Bandcamp, half of it is in Brussels and half of it is done in Philly. So you split your time between the states and Europe a lot?

Well, in 2013, I married my wife. So I spent some time traveling back and forth, but then in 2012 I moved there to be with her, so I lived there for two years straight.

She’s is from there?

Yeah, she’s Belgian.

How did you meet?

I met her when I was touring in 2011 with 1994!.

That’s really wonderful.

Thanks man. The person who booked the tour ended up being my brother-in-law. She came to a couple of the shows, we fell in love…that’s how it goes. We kept at it and eventually I moved there for two years, got married when I was there, and I came back here in September and I’ve been going back and forth a bunch until the government lets her come here.

Any time a foreign artist visits the States, we value their view of us and their art is sort of more important. Is it the same being an American artist in a European setting?

I don’t know, man — it was really hard, actually. Getting into any sort of “world” involved a lot of actual, real-life social networking. Knowing people, communicating with the “right” people, rubbing the right elbows. Unfortunately — whatever your intentions are for that. And I don’t really play that game here [in the US]. And there, there’s also the language barrier — so, it took a long time. And even when I first started meeting people, I wasn’t taken very seriously. You could say, “Oh, I did this in America, I did that in America,” but nobody really gave a damn. I didn’t play a show probably until almost a year and half of being there.

That definitely explains your big studio output, then.

For a long time there, I didn’t have a job. And for a little bit, I had a dishwashing job and then randomly, my wife set me up on basically a blind friend date and I met this really great dude. His name was Nyko and he plays in this band called Fujako, which are a Belgian/Portuguese experimental/hip-hop/dub project. And the first time I hung out with him he took me to a really great show he was playing and he was doing modular synth stuff. He got me meeting cooler people and I got a job doing sound at an experimental music bar — that’s what I was doing in America; I was the main monitor engineer for the Chameleon Club in Lancaster — so I finally got to meet people that I could talk about things with. And I started working [at the bar], doing things I liked, playing more music. That all happened way late in the game.

Where I was, in Brussels, there was a way about it that wasn’t so clear. You wanted to meet up to jam with somebody or whatever, you had to have coffee four times and talk about it before you ever touched instruments. And that was exhausting, because I just wanna fucking go, I just wanna do stuff right away and see what you can make out of it, see what makes sense. But it was discussed more, you’d think about it more and come up with the reason why you’re doing it as opposed to just doing it.

Did that deliberate approach ever find its way into your workflow? Did you adopt that mindset at all over the years?

Not at all [laughs]. I think NAH has evolved pretty much on my own terms and nobody else’s influence. While I was there, constantly putting things out, constantly doing stuff, it was just me trying to prove to myself I still existed. If I was constantly working on one cohesive thing to put out, it was like “okay, I made this. I am real.” Because I had nothing else. Not to say that being with my wife and working on our life together isn’t anything else, but I still needed something for myself…and creativity is really what drives me. So I was doing all this stuff just to keep being me. And now, looking back, I wish I didn’t put so much of it out because I’m slightly embarrassed by some of it or feel like it could’ve been a lot better, but now I’m kind of holding back. I have just as much stuff that’s out already as stuff that’s not out. I’m kind of picking and choosing more.

Your albums are all vastly different. You can hear the artistic transitions — how you refine the sample loops and the drums getting really jazzy around Difficult and Contemn. As a listener, I love those two records.

Thanks, man.

Well, I grew up listening to Mingus and Max Roach was just one of those dudes whose drums were so expressive. And as I was joining bands, there was always something that felt analogous about that crew and the energy around punk.

Well that’s what I love about the true, old jazz and the true beginnings of punk and the true beginnings of hip-hop — they all had the same exact spirit. They were just pissed off and they wanted to say “no”, to do something different. And that’s what “nah” means, it’s slang for “no”. I’m just trying to say “no” to everything, basically — as far as music goes. I really called it NAH to start with because I was just really fucking done with the things that 1994! was associated with — not done with 1994!, but I was absolutely just saying “no” to the way things generally are. And that’s what I appreciate in all those forms of music and I have my things that I like about those that come through into my music. It’s all [been] in there. And now I’ve kind of gotten it out and I don’t know what’s in there now, but it’s definitely something.

Well, like Woe and Nobody Cares… and your newest, Nurture — they’re much more patient. They all sound more deliberate. There are builds and these layers of production that I was really struck by after I listened to the GIVV tape. Like, that Prince Asshole song [“they out” on WOE], which is so good.

You like Prince Asshole?

Oh my god, yeah.

[laughs] That’s cool.

Who is he? There’s nothing about him online. You guys just exist off the grid and it’s fucking maddening to find stuff out about you all.

Well, Prince Asshole and GIVV are two different dudes that I know that just don’t care. They’re just artist weirdo guys and we hang out and I said, “Do you wanna try and do something on this?” So Prince Asshole got on one song and I hang out with GIVV more and he likes to write a lot of stuff. He’s just an artist that doesn’t share anything with anybody — you have to be friends with him that he’s a great artist. He paints stuff, takes photos, does whatever, works a job — he really just does not give a damn.

That’s excellent. There are people who are geared toward the prize versus the process, but that just takes away from you investing outside of your ego. It’s nice to know that those guys don’t consider themselves “rappers”.

I mean, I truly don’t consider myself a guy who does any of the things that I’m doing, besides playing drums. Now that I’m introducing vocals and stuff, people will say “Oh, you’re rapping!” And it makes me feel so uncomfortable [laughs].

Yeah, I was wondering about that. It’s so brutal, right out the gate; especially on Nurture. What was the impetus? Just to add another level?

Yeah, I was just writing snippets of things down and piecing them together and then I could use them as lyrics. It was kind of an experiment, just to see what would happen if I did that and how people would receive it — and if they would receive it more. And the second I started having guests on stuff, I could just see that people were relating to those songs more. And I was like “Fuck it, I’ll just try it.” Then I did, and I was getting more opportunities that I was comfortable with as a result of adding my voice to it.

It’s cool, because it’s another level of taking it out of the computer, or out of that frame of reference. It adds another layer of your input. Also, the arrangements on Nobody Cares… are excellent. “A Man That Says No” always struck me, because there’s more patience in there.

It breathes a bit more, yeah.

And knowing now that NAH comes from just you saying “no” adds another layer to that song.

That’s cool — yeah, I was reading a lot of Camus at that point. I was starting on “The Rebel” and dealing with a bit of existential problems [laughs].

What else have you read by him?

Definitely “The Stranger”, that’s just the best one. I’ve been on “The Plague” right now. That’s pretty fantastic. I don’t read a whole lot, I spend a lot of time working — but I read when I can. I end up just reading a lot of science fiction books.

I feel like science fiction also reflects what you like about NAH, too.

Yeah, it does. Audio-wise, the early-on stuff was just me geeking out on the sci-fi and horror stuff that I’d been obsessed with my whole life. That’s naturally been toned down and I’m focusing on my idea of the actual world I live in.

Speaking of, you’re doing a European tour soon?

I wouldn’t even consider what I’m doing over there a “tour”. It’s just scattered shows and spending time with my wife. I was there in February for an actual tour and that was cool. Back in November, I was contacted by a booking agent out there. It’s funny — I don’t have any agent in North America, but internationally I have an agent [laughs]. So I’m playing crazy shows over there, but just doing DIY stuff over here. Which is a cool balance.

How do you mean “crazy”? Production value wise?

Production value, other artists I get to play with, having a guaranteed set amount of money I’m getting paid so I can budget out the tour and getting around. That’s nice — it’s nice to balance the two.

Absolutely. I feel like both sides would feed you. Because Philly has a historically incredible DIY scene that taps into music in a different way. It must be cool to have that gritty bootstraps feel, but know that if you go on a European tour you’ll actually be able to sustain yourself.

Yeah, and I come from that whole DIY grind. So, it is nice to dip my toes into both. [In the US,] I’m getting so many stupid emails from people asking me to play Coors Light corporate events and I have to say “definitely no”. Or people asking to do PR for me. That stuff’s a bit ridiculous. I’m comfortable working with somebody who has my best interests and just wants to get me cool shows. But as far as all the other shit that would be completely not associated with the DIY mentality — I try and stay away from that.

What’s been your favorite thing about the crowds when you’re over in Europe?

Honestly, how shocked they are at the volume.

[laughs] That’s so good.

Yeah! And how shocked they are by how short of a set I have.

What’s a typical length?

I’ll probably play for 25 minutes if I’m feeling saucy. Almost every single person in France or Germany or wherever will come up as soon as I’m done playing and they’ll say, “Oh man! You were so loud! Would you ever consider playing a longer set? Like an hour?” [laughs] They just don’t get where I come from and what I’m holding onto — they think instead of me starting and being fucking loud and playing for 25 minutes with it being loud the whole time, they would rather me start and build and toward the latter of the hour be loud and have built something. But…that’s not what I’m trying to say [laughs]. So, I would say my favorite part of the audience over there is that I absolutely get to scare them or confuse them a fair amount.

There’s something very typically American about you coming in and their saying “God, he was so loud!”

[Southern accent] You’re damn fuckin’ right I’m loud, man.

[same] Freedom isn’t quiet!

[both laugh]

Changing gears — how did you connect with Ryan Schwabe, the guy who masters your stuff?

This is pretty cool — this is really cool. It’s all related to the same tour that I met my wife on in 2011. That summer, 1994! did a huge tour with Algernon Cadwallader. They’re really good friends [of ours] and we basically toured for three months straight in 2011. Part of it was in Europe and Joe Reinhart (who plays guitar in Algernon Cadwallader) is also a great engineer and he interned for Ryan Schwabe at Drexel University. Ryan manages the recording studios and he teaches several classes over at Drexel — after interning, Joe and him became really great buddies. Ryan had the summer off and he met us on that tour and toured with us for two and a half weeks of the European tour and it was a crash course in friendship, so we became buddies pretty quick. And he’s a hip-hop head and an electronic music head and is incredibly talented with mixing, mastering and composing. So when I first started doing NAH, he helped me hash out some of my first demo ideas. There’s a five song demo that he helped me work on a lot and ever since then, I’ll just send him stuff and say “Is this sounding right? What could I do to fix this?” Mostly sonic questions or engineering questions, not as far as my actual music is concerned. He has pretty much done all of my mastering, except for a handful where he was too busy or I was just trying to learn to master it myself. I’ve actually done some artwork for him and some videos for some of his solo stuff, little projects that he has.

I love that co-op feel — that you’re involved just as much in his shit as he is in yours.

Yeah. Well, that’s how I work [laughs].

And you’re connected with Ranch Records?

Yeah, very connected. Ranch started with Sam — it’s his baby. He’s always just picked out music that he likes and pretty much all of his friend’s bands was shit that he liked. As soon as I started doing NAH, all my friends in Philly knew about it and he was onto it early on and was pretty much my main supporter right out the gate. The first tape I ever did was on Ranch. And now, pretty much whenever I do something it basically belongs to Ranch and me. I’m helping to curate Ranch a bit more, to help make some decisions as far as artwork and bands to put out. Mostly managing NAH under the Ranch name. It’s just my main man Sam and we just try and do cool stuff. And his brother Phil helps manage stuff, too. He’s a great dude, he plays in this band called The Beds who’s also on Ranch. I just did a music video for them with Phil dancing in it — it’s a pretty silly video [laughs].

I love that you’re able to do that multidisciplinary work, while continuing with NAH. It’s easy to get caught in one thing and then you don’t give yourself the leeway to expand because you feel like you need to be dedicated to the one thing that you’re doing.

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is this amazing musician out there in Chicago who’s doing like his own videos that are completely, completely insane — and his own lyrics and he’s an incredible drummer. He’s much better than me.

Oh! He’s the dude who’s on “Tech Support”!

Yeah, he raps on “Tech Support”, but he’s from Chicago. He plays in this hardcore band called Ittō, he’s been in like 8 million bands, he makes his own music that’s completely insane. You have to check it out.

Right in my backyard. Thanks, dude.

No problem.

Switching gears, on the production side for you — you said you’ve been moving away from pulling samples and you’re manipulating your own sounds. What’s the hardware and software you use the most?

To start, I was putting everything on my sampler first and then playing it directly on my sampler and recording it. But now I’m much more comfortable and I use Logic Pro. It’s great because there’s so many sounds in it already, but also it has some great features. It’s completely crazy, I’ve been actively using it almost every day — in November it’ll be 3 years since I’ve been using it — and I’m still constantly finding new things to do in it. That’s helped my evolution so immensely — just learning that program and spending so much time with it. It really pushed me away from using traditional sampling techniques and also I didn’t ever want to come into a situation where I could potentially get sued. So I’m stopping all sampling of other people’s music. That was all just exercises and I got it out of my system and now I’m confident that I can make certain sounds on my own.

Are you going to be doing anything with Chris in continuing 1994! projects?

That’s kind of what Tuesday night was a little bit about — just jamming. We’re best friends, so any way for us to hang out is cool. We don’t really know. We’re not too concerned — he’s got tons of music stuff going on. He plays in this band called QUIT that has members of Spirit of the Beehive in it and members of MARGE. And he just joined a band called Thin Lips, which rose out of the ashes of Dangerous Ponies. They’re about to go on tour with Hop Along this month. And I’m just hyper focused on NAH. I don’t know, we did so much stuff in such a short amount of time that we just like to have fun and jam now. But we’ll get around to something.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.