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Sound nothing like before: Nikki Nair’s unpredictable music drags you through a genre wormhole

Nikki Nair turns in a 100% production mix, and talks to Aneesa Ahmed about getting grounded for going out to gigs, making "weird" music in isolation, and how a chance encounter with Mike Banks set him on the path to a music career

  • Words: Aneesa Ahmed | Photography: Ian Flannery
  • 29 September 2021

Nikki Nair's shapeshifting music constantly defies expectations. Through impressive sound design, experimental use of tempo and influence taken from across the musical spectrum, he keeps listeners on their toes, bathing you in gently off-kilter sonics one moment before dragging you through topsy-turvy bass wormholes the next.

As a self-described 'nerdy' Desi kid who would get grounded for going out to gigs while growing up, his early experiences of electronic music came through Aphex Twin, "because that was what lonely kids on the internet were often listening to". Born in Knoxville to an Indian family, Nikki had certain behaviour and academic expectations placed upon him, but a love for music always cut through. Around the age of eight he managed to convince his parents to let him take drum lessons, and in a school project the following year themed around future plans he gleefully wrote about his dreams of being a rockstar. But despite growing up in a musical, artistic household, music was always shown as a hobby rather than something that could be done full-time, and his mother implied that he should aim to be a doctor, or have another “conventional” career.

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Barriers placed upon him by his parents and isolation caused by grounding didn’t stop Nikki experimenting with making sounds as a child and teen, initially playing in rock and punk bands and getting into making weird electronic music when on his own. When he was able to go out raving, further influence came in the form of the the mid-2000s US drum 'n' bass music made by the likes of Evol Intent and Mayhem that would be played at shows in Tennessee. Later getting into techno, a chance encounter with Mike Banks in Detroit educated Nikki on the politically-charged undertones of the subculture, and affirmed his desire to properly pursue producing. All of the aforementioned influences and more are found in the makeup of his deep and complex music, mixing styles such as UK bass with acid electro, breakbeats and leftfield techno.

Now based in Atlanta since moving 18 months ago, Nikki is asserting himself as a standout artist in the southern US' vibrant dance music community. He's released through cult labels such as Banoffee Pies, Pretty Weird, Scuffed Recordings, TRAM Planet and Muy Muy Ltd, and worked with big names such as Claude VonStroke, with the 'More Is Different' EP recently coming out through Dirtybird's White Label series, which was founded to “freshen up the flavors” on the label.

The eclectic sound design and unpredictable nature of Nikki’s music makes it a highly enjoyable listening experience, as his Impact mix made up of 100% his own material, edits and collaborations attests. Check it out below, alongside an interview where Nikki talks us through his love for using retro music tech, meeting Mike Banks, why he doesn't want his music to sound the same, competitive karaoke, and more.

You’re based in Atlanta, tell us more about the music scene there?

It's a cool city, because even though it's in the South it's very diverse. There's a lot of really great music: there's great dance music, but also great hip hop and rap music here. There’s so many creative people that come with the thriving music scene.

How did you transition from wanting to be a rockstar and being in bands to getting into dance music?

Getting into dance music was kind of a slow process. I was playing drums and was in bands and stuff, and I would always get grounded. I would have to figure out how to make music on my own, and so a lot of the things I was doing was multi-tracking myself with tape recorders. I would find ways to make music with different things, and we had different instruments at home — because my parents like to listen to music they had a harmonium and stuff, so I would use them. I used to experiment with what we had at home a lot. We had a home computer so then it just turned into using that and figuring out ways to make music with it. Then through the internet, I discovered electronic music and started morphing into just making electronic music instead of trying to make, like, rock music or whatever I was doing.

You mentioned that you played around with tape recorders and gadgets during your isolation as a teen, did that push you towards electronic and dance music because of the tech and creativity involved?

Yeah I think so. I mean the music I made was weird because I didn't know what was cool or anything, and I would just like to make weird shit. I sometimes think maybe if I had gotten to be in those bands, I would not have wanted to do weird stuff; I would have been happy just making regular punk music.

You said at home that you had a harmonium and other South Asian instruments, are there any other things from your Desi upbringing, culture and lifestyle that have influenced you or your sound?

Yeah, definitely. My mom grew up being trained in singing when she was a kid and would always be playing music and singing at home. Desi people often have parties with music and karaoke so I always went to that. It was almost competitive the way they would do their karaoke, and people in the community would practice in the car. My parents were way into it, they took it seriously. My dad also brought in lots of classical Indian musicians to perform at Knoxville. They’d bring in South Indian artists who performed Carnatic music and they’d stay at my house and I’d speak to them about music. I never appreciated it enough as a kid though, because I thought that because it was what my parents liked that I wouldn't like it. But yeah, I had a cool, musical home and upbringing and my family still have a lot of the instruments now.

Read this next: What Do Your Parents Think?: 4 South Asian DJs share their family's reception to a music career

What would you say your greatest inspirations are musically?

I feel like the most fundamental one was drum 'n' bass from the mid-2000s in the US. But when I got into dance music, or electronic music, it was more Aphex Twin and that kind of stuff because that was what lonely kids on the internet were often listening to. You’d have flash videos and it would be Aphex Twin!

But the first raves I used to go to - I don’t know if you’d call them raves but the first shows - this DJ called Dieselboy would come and play, and he was one of the only widely known electronic music artists that would come and play in the Southeastern US often. People liked him and I remember going to see him and listening to his mixes and those were really important to me, and still are; I listened to them a lot. The type of music that would be on these mixes would be Evol Intent and Mayhem and that kind of aggressive neurofunk and drum 'n' bass. Those mixes and raves were probably my biggest influences. But I get influenced by whatever I’m listening to, so it changes all the time.

Are there any pivotal records, labels, figures or clubs that made you realise that you really want to be in the music industry?

Yeah, actually. I was making music for a long time, but I never liked showing it to people, even through college. I had already resigned myself to not doing that. It was like: this is not what you can do if you're like a little Indian kid; when you’re a Desi person, your parents want you to get a job. So I was in school still and I remember I went to this music festival in Detroit called Movement. It was a techno festival and I had gotten into techno in college. I ended up meeting Mike Banks at the Submerge store and he was really nice to me, it was a cool meeting. He brought up all this stuff about dance music that I didn't really know. Before this I just liked the music and I was getting into the deeper Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance but I didn’t know much about the politics side of it and what it meant until I talked to him. That was when I realised that there was something deeper and more meaningful in this. I was always obsessed with music but it made me feel more justified in being obsessed with it. I saw it as not just me being self-indulgent and that there was another reason for me to be obsessed with it. Through this realisation I met other people who seem to have been bitten by the same bug and realised that making techno and throwing dance parties in itself is a minor political thing and feeling like you could do it and you should do it that was a big deal. That made me stick with it and actually participate in it more.

Your music really varies, you transcend genres and your Mixmag mix proves this. Is there any way you would describe your own personal style?

No. I don’t know. I think of everything I do as making techno. I know when people say techno they mean something very specific but at the core of my music it’s all techno. I feel like at the core of it was going to Detroit and thinking about it all coming down to Jeff Mills or something in my head. So even if I'm making drum 'n' bass, I think of it as making techno. It's always techno in my head.

I know you use a variety of tech, instruments and gear to make your music including your Givson Jaguar Bass and your Sony MXP-290 Mixer- do you still have them and what else have you got?

Yeah it's all plugged in here and I still use all this stuff! I have collected a bunch of gear over the last few years. I had the bass and guitar and drums for a while, but I didn’t get serious about producing like this until after college. As soon as I got a job I just started buying gear.

What is your thought process behind buying new equipment and gear? Do you want to adopt others’ techniques, is it your own creativity? What goes through your mind?

It's a mix of those things. Like with the E-MU sampler, there’s a YouTube video of Dillinja in the studio and that’s what he was using, the old E-MU samplers. There's this drum 'n' bass forum called ‘dogs on acid’ where they have sub-forums where they talk about production. These threads are super old, they’re from the 2000s, but they talk about E-MU samplers and I wanted to get that sound. I like using older gear because it feels like it has some sort of vibe in it. I think it may have been made better, but that may be my distrust of modern engineers. They have dedicated computers, they have specific chips made for samplers, whereas newer technology has generic chips that are not made for samplers. For me it’s a marvel of engineering; I think it’s cool that these nerds spent a lot of time on this. I don’t use that in a derogatory way because I think I’m a nerd! But these engineers are thinking about circuits and they’re thinking about floating point style arithmetic to make this complex machine make a perfect, say, violin sound. I also think the old gear is cool because I don’t think people have techno in mind when making these products, they have medical use or symphonies or movie scoring in mind, but it wasn’t for someone to make a dance track in their house. It was made for someone to read a 300-page manual and create a soundtrack for a movie.

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That’s a really interesting point, I bet there’s a lot of creativity in using these apparatus. How do you use and test these old skool machines?

I usually just plug them in and start screwing with them. I don't like reading manuals or anything. I have a very, very short attention span. I have gotten pieces of gear and realised I actually couldn’t use them! There was this Yamaha QY700 sequencer that I heard Squarepusher uses and Robert Hood uses, and I got it but I couldn’t make it do anything! Really I just plug things in and see what happens.

I read that you like maths and physics. Does this ever come into your music or what you do?

Yeah, with how I create songs it’s probably subconscious. For my EP titles, a lot of them are physics related! I feel like there is some kind of relationship between creativity and maths and physics. I don’t think technology is something related to maths and physics, I think maths and physics is more related to the beauty of nature. I get inspired by maths and physics. I would never put a funky algorithm in my music or anything — I don’t know how to do that!

Your songs vary in tempo and style. What’s your thought process behind transcending genres in this way and is there any particular reason for the unpredictability in some of your music?

Within an individual track, I don't fully know. I feel like when I'm making a single track, I'm just trying to make it; it's not fully conscious. But when it varies between tracks, I don't want anything I've made to sound too much like something I've made before. Sometimes that feeling is stronger than usual; I don't even want it to be the same genre, especially if I've been leaning too hard on certain sounds. In the recent EP, while I was making a lot of these tracks, I was specifically frustrated that I had been relying too much on things like electro breakbeats. There are still breaks and stuff in there but I didn't want to feel like I was just doing one thing. I get bored if I repeat myself.

Read this next: Driven to create: How Bjarki became techno's most unpredictable artist

You’ve recently released ‘More Is Different’ as part of the Dirtybird Records ‘White Label’ series. What was the EP making process like? And can you describe your journey with getting involved with Dirtybird?

Most of that EP was made during the pandemic. It's kind of ‘dancefloor’, but some of it would be harder to play on a dancefloor unless it was a festival or something — like an American-style festival where you're playing face-melty tracks, instead of trying to keep people dancing. I was just trying to push myself with production and so that was the process, I was trying to learn new techniques. I wanted to make things that I could keep getting excited by and not get too comfortable.

And the journey with Dirtybird, I got an email during the pandemic — I remember I was at work and I had an email in my inbox from Claude VonStroke. Originally I thought it was spam, kind of, because I thought ‘why?’, and it was totally unexpected. I really thought it was just some sort of contest or something. I questioned ‘why would he email me?’ because I don’t know how I’d be on his radar. But he heard my track on Nala’s [TV Party] stream [on the Dirtybird Live streaming network] - Nala is another Dirtybird DJ - and he just asked if I'd send tracks and I did, and then he liked them and asked if I wanted to release them on the label. That was it, it was basically that simple. It’s been easy to work with them, they’ve been very supportive and they haven’t asked me to change how I do anything.

So you’ve just said that the pandemic has influenced the way you’ve made your songs less ‘dance-y’ and more ‘face melt-y’ — would you say that if the pandemic didn’t happen this EP could have turned out differently?

I think it could have turned out slightly more functional. I might not have actually gotten as high in tempo. Over the pandemic I made a lot of internet friends who I may not have met in real life and they play more 160 BPM music; such as Anna Morgan from Worst Behaviour Records. A lot of this is also through Addison Groove who does Twitch things too. I think meeting these people on the internet made me more excited about doing higher BPM stuff and starting to do 160 instead of everything being between 130, 140 or 150 which is where I was before.

You have a pretty international sound and have worked with London’s Rinse FM, Reprezent Radio, and other organisations in cities around the world and US — has working with artists in the UK and worldwide influenced your sound at all?

Oh, definitely! I think the first UK label I worked with was Scuffed, and before that I thought of myself as a primarily American dance musician. A lot of music and records that I have are mostly from American record labels, and I saw Detroit as the centrepoint for a lot of my style and influences. But working with Scuffed and listening to their music made me feel better about including more UK influences with what I did, and since I grew up listening to drum 'n' bass it made me realise I never tried to incorporate drum 'n' bass explicitly in my music. The people at Scuffed made me realise that. When I went to Reprezent I met all of these people, and I feel as though listening to a lot of drum 'n' bass makes your taste fundamentally British because drum 'n' bass is very British. So I guess meeting people and working with British people allowed me to incorporate another part of my musical influences into my music.

Drum 'n' bass is very British! Do you have a favourite track of your own and what is it and why?

I’d say it’s probably ‘Mariah’ on Scuffed. When I made it, it made me feel like I made something new and I was excited by it. I look back and want to recreate, not the track, but that feeling of making something new.

To finish, tell us about your Impact mix — they’re all your own tunes which is interesting. What was the thought process behind putting it together with those tracks in particular?

I was really excited that Mixmag had asked me to make a mix! So I was like ‘oh I’ve gotta make it special’. I have played with the idea of making a mix with all original tracks, but never felt ready, and when I got the impulse I realised that it might actually work. I thought ‘maybe I do have enough to do it’, so it was just an attempt at making that work. There are a couple of tracks that have DJ ADHD on there, so those two are collaborative, and I think there might be edits so that's also maybe some non-original material. The DJ ADHD tracks I’m really excited about, I like working with him, and will hopefully continue to do so.

Nikki Nair's 'More Is Different' EP is out now, get it here

Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

Tracklist:
1. nn - unreleased
2. nn - unreleased
3. nn - unreleased
4. nn - unreleased
5. nn - unreleased
6. ?? - ?? (NN remix)
7. nn - Eating Flowers [Krunk Kulture]
8. nn - unreleased
9. nn - In My Car [Dirtybird]
10. nn - Mariah [Scuffed]
11. nn - As if it were Still [Muy Muy Ltd.]
12. nn - unreleased
13. nn - unreleased edit
14. nn - Time Enough For VIP
15. nn - unreleased edit
16. nn - Super [Banoffee Pies]
17. nn - Low Dimension [Gobstopper]
18. nn - unreleased
19. nn - unreleased
20. nn - unreleased
21. nn - Power Tool [Dirtybird]
22. nn & DJ ADHD - unreleased
23. nn & DJ ADHD - unreleased
24. nn - It Goes [Dirtybird]

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