On A Life-long Romance with Music
You pursued a music career immediately upon graduation, and were interacting with music well before. Walk me through the process of taking a leap to being a full time DJ and music producer from the beginning and how you’ve sustained in the early years.
Nick: I learned how to play and started taking guitar lessons in my freshman year of high school maybe when I was 14.. Maybe to pick up girls? I wasn’t on the football team and was in love with music and there was something about sound that really drew me.
The first records I had was when I was 7; my dad got me Play by Moby and You’ve Come A Long Way by Fatboy Slim and it was my first exposure to electronic music and I fucking loved it– would jump on the trampoline and jump around listening to the music. That’s really how my love affair with electronic music started.
Started writing my own songs (at age 15) and just started doing chords and writing on top of them and I slowly started teaching myself piano. I was probably terrible, but it was a building block for the more that is now.
I wrote into college.
My freshman year of college, I decided to marry my love for electronic music and my hobby of making music and started the long journey of teaching myself electronic music. And I was terrible, really horrible for a long time, probably for 5 years, but it was something I really wanted to work on.
I started playing shows that freshman year of college, got kicked off my first show after the first 3 songs (January 2012). Then had another performance lined up 4 days later that was the closing set of a Wednesday night party, a popping party since closed down and based in the West Village. My set would run from 3 – 4:30 AM , and I played this set for 2-3 months all the while running to my music class at NYU at 9:30AM on the Thursday. That’s how I started to practice and get better. A tip for getting field practice and getting better is to do sets late, because by that time people are so drunk and are already having fun, and so it buys you the flexibility in practice.
By March 2012, my sophomore year of NYU, I got invited to play at the Winter Music Conference in Miami , and played at a rooftop party of it with The Knocks. I played the party with them; that was my first taste of the DJ life in Miami and I went way overboard. I was 19– a completely immature kid coming out of NYU and from a conservative family in Tennessee. I drank way too much, did drugs, and blacked out half the time during the trip. It wasn’t a wake up call for me. I was a teenager then, exposed to this VIP lifestyle that I had no business being involved with. Along this time I was still producing music, getting rejected left and right for songs I wrote and it was all bad, but I kept working on it.
The summer after freshman year in college I had my first mental breakdown and was suicidal. I took a hiatus that year.
I came back to school my sophomore year and I realized my best friend from childhood, Alex, was coming to NYU and it was a huge boost for me to have a friend I’ve known for life, 26 years, be around and be a pillar of support to me. During this time, I had come to realize that despite being on this crazy rollercoaster I was still passionate about getting better as a music producer. These two moments helped kickstart the healing of wounds and experiences that were so traumatic for me the past summer.
Alex was coincidently also making music at SMU, the school he attended prior to NYU, and we decided to DJ together. We dj-ed a lot of fraternity parties around New York. It was a way to bond as friends and to continue the healing process doing something next to someone who I trusted and doing something I loved. By then I’d taken a step back from doing more prominent shows.
I think in the spring semester of my sophomore year, we contacted some more promoters and we slowly started getting involved in the more crazy shows again… and got a bit too involved with the substances again. I partied too much and I know what my limits are now and I know to balance it.
We spent most of sophomore year doing that and making trance-y progressive house music. It was fine. I was getting better at it. Taking all sorts of music theory classes that were really helpful with my composition.
The fall of junior year in college, Alex and I started studying in China (and that’s where we all met). Through meeting some local promoters, we started playing shows there too. On September 26, 2013 we got asked to play a show with Cassius (pioneers in French house) who is OG homies with Daft Punk, Justice… Cassius was playing at Arkham (a Shanghai club) and that show was the moment I really fell in love with house music. That was the first time I ever DJed authentic, real house music. I played trance music for the rest of junior year, but knew house was where I wanted to be. In 2014, my senior year, I decided to start my own project, and from fall to spring 2015, I was working independently on producing more tropical and melodic remixes.
In April 2015, I did a remix of Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson, a tropical music sound and the song went viral, getting half a million plays on Soundcloud’s promotional page. That was the moment I thought, “I could keep doing things like this.”
In June of 2015, I had graduated NYU and was living in Brazil. I had the a cappella for The Jackson 5’s ABC, and decided to make a remix of it. I didn’t have any hardware, and I made the remix with just my computer and a little Bluetooth. When I got back to the states I uploaded it and 3 weeks later I was contacted by Universal Records in the summer of 2015. They said, “you don’t have permission to do this, but we like it and we’ll sign this,” and it was released after some edits were made under the label in January, 2016.
At the end of August, I decided to drive across the country with my dad to Burning Man– I was asked play at an art car, and I had no idea what that meant then. Going to burning man was that one experience that opened my eyes and changed my life, and it was exactly where I thought I needed to be. The sets i played and put up is why I am where I am today.
How the Burning Man thing came about:
I was in LA playing a show with a friend of mine, but then I took the train up to Davis to see another friend of men that I’ve been working on music with. Then we went down to SF and went to a pool party and I tweeted that I was at this pool party. A fan of mine tweeted back saying he was at the party too; his camp had an art car and asked if I’d play. I had no idea what that meant, but I went. It was the night I was supposed to play that night.. when I drove into Burning Man; I didn’t know that Burning Man kind of works on its own schedule and that time doesn’t really exist. Maybe 2 minutes before they left with their art car, I arrived at the camp, got on the car, and DJed my first sunrise set, which was 4.5 hours. Halfway through my set my dad and my stepmom showed up and they saw part of that set live which was amazing. It was the last set they’ve seen of mine which was unfortunate of mine unfortunately. It was a spur of the moment decision to put the Sunrise Set online, and then obviously it kind of you know, shit hit the fan. All of a sudden people were discovering me and asking me to perform because of that set.
On Finding Your Own Voice
Moving to the production side of things, in 2016 I started writing my first single, and collaborated with a Korean singer named Yarros. We set about writing a song that spoke to a bunch of socio-cultural issues: domestic violence and LGBTQ– it was called Mistress. The song’s a story about a woman who runs away from her abusive husband with her mistress.
And how did that go?
It was amazing.
We finished that song in March, 2016 and we had no success, nobody wanted to sign it, and it kind of sat on the shelf into the summer, and this got me discouraged. In August, my old agent reached out to this old label called Audiophile and they immediately said “yes, we’re interested”. Eventually, they had Kyle Watson do the remix for it and 9 months after we had written it, the music went on the radio, and that gave me a boost. However the downside of the success of Mistress’ remix was that it temporarily led me to a creative path that I didn’t want. Discouraged and then having the remix of my song succeed resulted in the thought, “Oh wow, Nick, you need to make more songs like that because it did well,” which didn’t bode well for my long term happiness, thinking I had to make music I didn’t want to make in order to succeed. And I wasn’t happy, and again, doing too much drugs.
Much of the first part of 2017 was struggling with finding myself in my creativity and finding my own unique path for it.
I wanted to do house music and was conflicted with how to carve a niche with my passion for music and my identity as an artist without copying people I looked up to already.
In August 2017, I played a show in San Francisco with a friend, Victorian, who was in a set called FDVM and that show unlocked the puzzle of what I should have been doing creatively as myself, Nick. The response was so positive, and my path kind of opened up for me, it was funky, groovy, uplifting house music. The coming into myself and through the music I love continued on at Burning Man that year, and that’s how I’ve stayed with my music and my style since. It was the first time I authentically, and with full ownership told the story that I wanted to tell, and I felt. That I made an impact, a mark.
How does it feel to feeling the click, that match in feeling convicted in what you’re meant to do and having the audience/market/universe respond positively to it? Not a lot of people have that, some get that as young as their middle school years and some get that really late into their lives.
Nick: Finding the click that makes you go is great, but it’s important for me specifically to be aware that a lot of the music I love making is not necessarily going to make me successful, so the question for me is to figure out, “how do you balance that?”
What happened to Nick after is a series of up and towns, both as an artist and personally, although those two descriptors come very much intertwined when speaking to the essence of Nick. There were times he was not producing music he felt he identified with, and in tandem to that, he also wasn’t happy and doing too much drugs. He was in a relationship too and it was struggling; he wasn’t able to be a good partner and they ended up breaking up in November 2017. 2018, Nick worked hard on pursuing a lot of self-growth and identifying the things that would keep him sustainably well, both in practice and in mind and body.
2018 was filled with a lot of self-growth work. I confronted the fact that I had a lot of things I needed to work on and a lot of habits I needed to kick internally and physically.
Simultaneously, I worked on honing this new value I found and click in identity and purpose found, I now knew what kind of music I wanted to create, so I’m thinking, how do I go about creating it?
Things kept going up from there, his Burning Man set for that year was run by Billboard. While he was heartbroken and staying on a friends couch, Nick would think up the Location Remix (check it out on Soundcloud or Spotify), which went viral and was signed by Atlantic, go on to release another single in April of 2018, and release his first original track that was reflective of the funky, house music he loved in July of 2018. Burning Man, August of 2018 became what was probably Nick’s biggest set, and he’s continued to thrive as an artist since. It’s been an upward and good living for Nick with the continuous support of music, his lifestyle, and his community via BangOn NYC and Burning Man.
Why do you think you’ve been able to experience success as a performer?
Nick: I love telling stories. I love being part of the journey of others connecting with music they didn’t expect they’d connect with. I take a lot of pride and joy in that. Now I’m making funky house music. And also making pop music that might be more Spotify community friendly. It’s a work of balance, trying to create good music that marries the funky, groovy, fun music I love to create and the sounds that are relatable enough so that they welcome a larger swathe of people.