Leaving Nirvana: An Interview with Thought Tempo

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Freeway traffic, synchronicity, and Pearl Jam.

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Ryan Mo | September 30, 2016

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It’s the first time in months since I’ve seen electronic producer Sean “Thought Tempo” Raji, and we were slated to meet at the Japanese American National Museum, presumably to see a free-to-the-public performance by noisepop auteur meishi smile, and to talk. But at 6:30 PM on a summer evening, two things were certain: I’m gonna be late, and Raji’s gonna be late. He was about to drive up the 405 while I crawled East through the 710, and we were both gonna be late because of traffic in the Southland. The lack of punctuality, generally a social faux pas, is acknowledged just as quickly as it is dismissed because in the urban sprawl of the Southland, everyone knows shit happens. Accidents happen. Traffic happens.

But rather than fume over cut-offs and rubber necks and trailer trucks nearly clipping your bumper, traffic also carries a silver lining. For Raji, traffic was a time to reflect. Growing up in the spread-out suburbs of Irvine and spending his college years at UCLA, Raji’s knows intimately the interstate freeway’s curves, or lack thereof. Approaching the metropolitan core, traffic was a time for my anxiety to kick in.

Raji finds me off-center to the stage, caught off-guard. A handful of photographers kneel and bend over for better angle, and the sound engineer has given up—most of the levels are maxed as meishi smile undresses to the audience’s bewilderment. Raji isn’t just a fan of meishi smile; the two have been friends for over half a decade, coming up from the digital label Zoom Lens. Our presence at the show was as much a gesture of respect as an enjoyable, even sentimental music experience. Raji and I had jointly experienced the controlled metamorphosis earlier in the year at South by Southwest, traded words that best defined the harrowing barrage of white noise and lustrous melodies.

After the performance, Raji splits to catch an Uber and field another arrangement. We’re setting up a schedule on the fly, like we’ve been doing, and guestimate to meet back in about an hour and a half. He returns fashionably late and sloped on Smirnoff (at my request). The round frames give some edge to his air of jocularity—it’s the first time I’ve seen him with glasses—and the combination of Lee Bannon long sleeve, joggers and trainers exude contemporary goth aesthetic, effortlessly makes him out as an intense and unnerving figure.

Maybe he just likes wearing black.

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Moments later, we’re outside this karaoke bar, Nirvana, and there’s an entourage surrounding us. Idling among them are label-mates meishi smile and Plaster Cast, opposite to Raji’s self-proclaimed manager, Erica. The server stood at the helm of the bar with a look of bewilderment, until I signal that we’re waiting for the man of the hour, as we’ve always been. Smokers ash out their cigarettes and file in behind us, back near the karaoke stage, where they seat large groups. Raji grins as he pulls a seat up across from me.

He asks, “Do you ever sing in sign language?”

Raji would earnestly confide in retrospect that Nirvana was a bad idea—outside a beggar had cursed at him, and some drunks were lashing out and hitting on his manager. The only reason he’d relented to come along was because we allegedly reassured him the karaoke bar was aptly named for exclusively featuring Nirvana songs. This was untrue; the only songs we heard that night were by Pearl Jam. But at this particular moment in time, radio-friendly bangers hung low in the air, the way ammonia and sulfur hangs under bathroom freshener. Some of us were kinda buzzed and Raji was feeling kinda cheeky.

“Should I ask them if they have an aux cord for me to play music to? Would it be rude for me to ask?”

This laid-back disposition is a foil to the cognitive science graduate’s aura, clashes harmoniously with his stoic presence on-stage. Raji is incredibly eloquent and lucid, and his focus would be near-intimidating if not for the creases of his Duchenne smile. As he gets settled in, Sean warned me about the interview, told me it had better not include any questions about geometry.

“As far as rates of change go, I don’t understand it. Integrals, integers, theory, math; it’s not my thing.”

But Depeche Mode?

“I love Depeche Mode.”

I had commented on his influences and misused the term “oldies”, trying to strike at both the textural quality and the samples used. With pitch-shifted and stretched invocations that allude to yesteryear’s zeitgeist—hooks by Tupac and Mark Morrison—Thought Tempo digs into Raji’s formative years to exhume aged and warped mementos. Whereas some producers favor bristling and glistening melodies, Thought Tempo finds recourse in the waxy and scratched up. Movie scores, video game dialogue, Toni Braxton—it’s all there in plain view, some in more detail than others. Depeche Mode was a special one.

“When did Violator come out? ‘90? Disintegration came out ‘89. Violator came out ‘90 or ‘91. If it’s ‘90 this is gonna go so well. Is that March 19th?”

meishi smile’s smartphone screen flashed. The noise artist and head of Zoom Lens confirmed it, and Raji’s eyes lit.

“March 19th, 1990. I was born March 20th, 1992!”

He traces synchronicity between the two dates. To Raji, the connection is significant, because Depeche Mode influences Thought Tempo quite a bit. So does The Cure. Violator was conceived out of a desire, to be different—its austere rhythms begot synth-washed subversive lyricism and its title was a joke. On the other hand, Disintegration was a retreat from The Cure’s newfound pop accessibility following Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, bathed in atmospheric textures ripe with world-worn melancholy and psychedelic influence.

The qualities of these two albums would justly outline Thought Tempo’s character: sort of serious, but also a joke—sort of relatable, but also wildly unfamiliar. Neurotransmitter hashtags and cryptic all-caps phrases supplement the gesture, make the work of Thought Tempo a context-heavy domain where listeners might feel perpetually alienated. There’s meaning in each Thought Tempo song, but Raji is coy about divulging it. He leads on that Easter eggs can be found within his and other Zoom Lens members’ work if people cared enough to parse the files.

“That’s sort of how I approach most of my music. By virtue of the fact that most of the things I make are from things I want to hear, it’s esoteric by nature. I feel like that’s at the center of what’s driving Zoom Lens and my music, is the fact that it’s personal, entails all those inside jokes and what the samples really mean.”

With Thought Tempo’s unofficial releases—i.e. most of the Soundcloud discography—more concentrated left-field connections come to mind. Boards of Canada, Lone and Actress are cited as particular influences, but one can also make educated guesses: Aphex Twin circa Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Ulrich Schnauss, Mark van Hoen via Locust, B12. One would be half-right. Over the years, Thought Tempo has seen reflexive changes to cadence while exploring tones flocculent and piquant, reflecting either a holistic approach to electronica or a no-fucks-given attitude to genre barriers altogether. It’s just as well: the catch-all term “IDM” that Amon Tobin, µ-Ziq, and Squarepusher are corralled into seems more of an arbitrary sector for purists of trance, jungle and house who didn’t know what to make of sounds deemed unfit for the dancefloor. The all-too-apparent truth is that musicians are no longer beholden to genres because musicians are no longer solely influenced by one idea.

They are people. They are mutable. They grow.

Raji was raised in a musically receptive household—his parents met at a Deep Purple concert. He got his first erection to Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth” music video, and used to rock to Manitoban chanteuse Loreena McKennitt and Greek “world music” artist Yanni. Movie score composers like Vangelis and Cliff Martinez cultivated his affinity for the cinematic, which revealed itself first in “Crockett’s Dream”, Raji’s remake of the track created by Czech musician Jan Hammer for Miami Vice. After much obsession, he endeavored to create an anachronistic pastiche that might have inspired the ‘80s hit with wobbly, downcast melodies that feel as malleable as adolescent memories.

Beginning in the avant-garde community of Orange County around 2010, Thought Tempo first shared live performances with the exquisite corpse of a noisepop band Pourn, and the atavistic harsh noise act Yuko Imada, former alias of meishi smile. Raji warmly recalls a particularly violent timestamp during a collaborative performance at the Santa Ana Noise Festival with Yuko Imada and Liquid Sunshine:

“I think at a certain point, [Yuko Imada] took a bunch of CDs of artists that we didn’t like, or VHS of movies or some shit, and he ripped it apart and he pissed on it and we shat on it, and some homeless people had sex over it or something.”

Later came a cross-blog compilation, then a release with German producer Essáy. In 2013, Raji’s single “Space Jungle” found its way into the fifth volume of a compilation by Los Angeles’ independent electronic overseers Proximal Records—a veritable nod from Sahy Uhns, née Carl Madison Burgin. Somewhere along the line, a Sailor Moon AMV was made—it’s no “Milkman”, but the raster scans and heavy artifacts defined the song’s character.

He would go on to perform a set for SPF420, the digital venue that once streamed Ryan Hemsworth’s set from his bathtub, and later at the independent game-maker collective Glitch City. 2016 saw Thought Tempo play an exclusive dublab set on the last day of SXSW. Did I mention he opened for HEALTH at SXSW? Yeah. And just last June, Thought Tempo opened for the machinedrum-Braille lovechild, Sepalcure.

“Do you have an aux cord?”

He asks the server taking our drink orders. She faces her hands to him and motions to refuse.

“We tried it before, but it doesn’t work.”

Raji’s apology drowns in the din of overlapping conversations and Top 40’s hits. It was almost 11 PM, and no one was drunk enough to take the karaoke stage.

“I would’ve played Depeche Mode,” Raji tells me as the server gingerly walks down the shallow stairs. “I would’ve played Violator.”

That joie de vivre attitude coupled with his growing success is mildly unsettling, and envious to a degree. But it’s not without merit—an internship at Ninja Tune provided Raji with the headspace to maneuver through the music industry while his gregarious nature and vested interest in the history of electronic music have earned him the respect and friendship of likeminded peers in the scene. In spite of all that, Thought Tempo is still an unknown, perhaps because his catalogue is often kept under wraps. Between sips, Raji admits that his apparent hesitation to release new music is due in part to the deeply personal value each track retains. The releases stack up, and I ask if he feels a pressure to convey some sense of linearity by staggering releases. He declines.

“I’ll just keep making stuff and it’ll sort of get pushed to the side and a lot of it just becomes irrelevant after a certain point. I feel like certain tracks, regardless of how much they represent who you are, if you keep them long enough in the closet, then after a while they might not really fit with your other shit. But at the same time I’ve never felt inclined to be releasing shit, which is something I need to work on.

“All these tracks represent a timestamp of my life, and I feel like it’s like that for other artists too (maybe). But when I listen to a track it puts me into the headspace that I made it. And I have tracks that span eight years and I remember my freshman year of college. The same goes for music by other people that I’m into. Where I was at. What month it was on. And the same goes for other people I’m into. It represents a memory. That’s why music is so meaningful to me. That’s why aside from all of the shit jokes… underneath it, it’s definitely very sentimental and meaningful to me because it represents more than tracks that I’m into or songs that I like. It represents periods of my life.”

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A while back, he sent me a private stream for a bank of unreleased, un-mastered songs. Of the several, “I Can Fila” was chosen as the next official release, bass rumbling in low filter oscillation with a steamy denouement—a sample-less version was featured on the trailer to Keon Hedayati’s short film Tyrant. Raji explains the significance that the freeway has played on his forthcoming single “I Can Fila”.

“I spent a lot of time moving back from Los Angeles to Orange County, and so I spent a lot of time on the freeway—the 405 to be specific. And I spent a lot of time listening from draft one to draft two to draft three until it was to the final mix stage, and it was all in my car. A lot of changes I’d made were decided while I was driving to Orange County. And at a certain point I reached the mental headspace and thought that once I reached Orange County I would die, and if I knew that this was to be my last drive, and no one else is on the freeway and it was during the day, what kind of shit would I listen to?”

 

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It’s a dark thought, but Raji is unaffected by the weight of the sentiment. He carries it like a Patton Oswalt or a George Carlin would.

“I’m not gonna bring up Being and Nothingness and talk about existentialism all the time. At the end of the day my music reflects who I am in my heart. I think everyone should just have a fucking laugh and take a piss. Piss yourself at the end of the day.

“I think people should just not take things seriously. That’s part of the reason why the music I make is deep and ambient and pad driven, but I also use samples to juxtapose with that. I think you should realize what’s going on around you, take the fact that you’re alive seriously, but also realize that shitting your pants isn’t a big deal.”

He folds his arms and looks at me.

“It’s totally fine if you wanna shit yourself dude. It’s okay. There’s a lot of people here who will be like, “Dude, this guy just shit himself and it sort of smells weird,” but I’ll tell you right now, I wouldn’t look at you any different. Whatever blows your hair back—if at the end of the day, you’re a more evolved person because you shit yourself, then be my guest.”

Raji starts belting “Yellow Ledbetter” into the recorder, adding to the drawls of two drunk white guys on stage. We can’t continue our conversation because they’ve started queuing a list of Pearl Jam songs. It was time to close the tab and leave Nirvana.

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