photo: Tobias Rose
TEN QUESTIONS WITH NICOLAY
Lots of changes have occurred since Nicolay last graced textura's pages in an article form; in fact, it's been five years since his top ten selection of '70s albums appeared (read it here). But a great deal more has changed in the life of Matthijs L. Nicolay Rook, both musically and professionally. Today, he's a key player in The Foreign Exchange musical outfit as well as a central part of The Foreign Exchange organization, which has not only released material by The Foreign Exchange but also full-lengths by FE member Phonte, Median, Zo!, and Jeanne Jolly. Any listener seeking an entry point might start with +FE Music: The Reworks, the latest release from the label, which provides a tantalizing overview of the FE universe in featuring tracks by roster artists as well as remix contributions from 4hero, Tall Black Guy, Pure P, and others. To coincide with its release, Nicolay generously agreed to update us on the latest goings-on in the FE camp as well as the status of future albums and projects with which he's associated.
1. I hear a dramatic evolution in style from your solo release Here in 2006 to your recent work in The Foreign Exchange, with the more pronounced hip-hop feel of the earlier release evolving into a broader style that, while not excluding hip-hop from the mix, embraces as deeply soul, funk, and R'n'B, and jazz, too. How do you see the stylistic evolution of your music?
The fact that the first couple of projects I released (starting with Connected) were primarily hip-hop oriented was indicative of what and who I was primarily influenced by at that particular time in my life, and not necessarily indicative of the totality of my interests and abilities. During the early ‘90s I started eating, sleeping, and dreaming hip-hop as a fan, but I had always looked at myself as a musician on the one hand, playing bass and keyboards in funk and soul bands, and as a scholar on the other, studying music at the university level, and since I didn't DJ, there was no place for me in hip-hop as a contributor in my mind. That all changed when I heard J Dilla. There was a musicality in his music that was unlike anything else that I had heard and that made me believe that there was a place for me. So I totally immersed myself into the hip-hop music production esthetic, and it helped me find my own voice. The music was something that I could do on my own, without the help of others. I really got into sampling and more so even the combination of sampling with my own live instrument playing. Over time I started to depend on my own playing and composing and arranging more and more until there was a point where I felt I didn't really need the samples anymore because they were just a restriction to me; I think that you could say that hip-hop as a whole started to feel like a restriction to me. Hip-hop fans might not like reading that, but I really don't mean it in a bad way. I just wanted to start incorporating other styles and flavors that I loved equally, like jazz and R&B and dance/electronica. I was keeping a lot of that behind closed doors because it wouldn't have fit within a hip-hop context, and once I let go of that, it all just started to come together— “Daykeeper,” “House Of Cards,” “Sweeter Than You,” “Shibuya Station,” “Saturday Night,” etc., etc.
2. Though you've always embraced the idea of working with others (on Here, for example, you featured Black Spade, Darien Brockington, YahZarah, and Wiz Khalifa), there seems to have been a similar move away from you recording solo to the more communal and democratic approach exemplified by The Foreign Exchange. In what ways has this more communal approach affected your approach to music composition and production?
I can see why it would look that way from the outside looking in, but the reality is that working today in 2013 is really not that much different than it was ten years ago. First of all, in my personal experience, a true ‘democracy' in music hardly ever works out. That's not to say that there aren't good examples of groups and bands that truly are a ‘democracy,' but in my personal experience, it just doesn't work if there's not one or two people at the helm that are making the decisions and that are plotting out the course and the artistic direction. So when it comes to The Foreign Exchange, 95% of the music still comes together in the very same way as it always has: it starts with me creating the initial track or musical idea and from there on Phonte will write the song and add the vocals and any other elements that he hears. We are a ‘democracy' in the sense that we are a true 50/50 partnership and one partner would never push something through that the other wouldn't be able to live with.
3. The Foreign Exchange Music company appears to have been a wonderfully positive step and, from an outsider's perspective, a great success. How surprised are you (if at all) by how successful it has turned out to be? In what ways has going the independent route been a blessing but also a challenge?
A very positive step indeed. I'm proud of how successful it has turned out to be because the three of us (Phonte, Aimee Flint, and me) have done all of the heavy lifting ourselves over the last five years and so we experienced first-hand what was at stake and how much was involved in making it all work. And since we were working for ourselves, we were our own bosses, we really did put it all on the line, put it all on the table, and I think it showed and continues to show. I feel especially thankful and humbled that during one of the worst financial crises in history, we were actually able to start and continue to run a music enterprise? Go figure!
4. The Foreign Exchange was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009 for Leave It All Behind's “Daykeeper.” Did you take that as a validation of some kind and did that recognition have an impact upon people's awareness of the group thereafter?
For me personally, it definitely felt like the validation of years of blood, sweat, and tears, of sacrifice and not having a whole lot to show for it. I think it did have an impact on people's awareness of the group in general, but at the same time the same doors that were closed to us before the Grammy nomination are closed to us to this day. We still book our own shows and put our own money up to support those as well as our releases. But we kinda like it that way. We're used to being in total control with 100% maneuverability.
5. As I'm listening to +FE Music: The Reworks, I'm reminded at times of the lush production style of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the ‘70s Philly soul for which they became so well known. I'm wondering whether you were influenced by that style and if you could comment on any other figures who exerted a strong influence on you.
Wow, I'm what you would call a ‘sponge' when it comes to music, so there literally is no end to the list of influences. Growing up, I got exposed to a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s music from Neil Young to Stevie Wonder as well as a lot of classical music through the records that my mother would play. In my early teens it was Prince that really made me want to become a musician and a producer. Studying music at the university level really got me into composition and arranging. From there on I've listened to, studied, and been influenced by artists as varied as J. Dilla, Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, John Coltrane, The Pixies, A Tribe Called Quest, Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Kraftwerk, Parliament/Funkadelic, Jazzanova, Zapp/Roger, Miles Davis, 4hero, and many, many more. I'm going to be mad at myself for forgetting to mention those that I'm forgetting to mention right now. In terms of composers I've learned a lot from Satie, Shostakovish, Clare Fischer, Copland, and Philip Glass.
6. In addition to the presence of label associates such as Zo!, Sy Smith, YahZarah , and others, +FE Music: The Reworks also includes remix contributions from 4hero, Tall Black Guy, and ?uestlove, to name a few. Are there any artists in particular with whom you'd love to collaborate in the future?
Most definitely. I do have what you could call a ‘wish list.' I've always dreamed of working with Norah Jones, for instance. She's a fan and there's been contact with people in her camp, but it's been a matter of scheduling conflicts. Same with Imogen Heap, we reached out to her but she was focusing on her own project at the time. I would just love the opportunity of getting to work with an artist of that caliber. I would love to work with Clara Hill, I've always been a huge fan of hers. Esthero, too. I was really into Feist's latest album Metals as well as the St. Vincent album Strange Mercy (interesting how all of the artists I've listed are women; I didn't even mean to do that). Ironically I haven't had an opportunity yet to work with a lot of people in the independent R&B/Soul field, but I could envision some great sounds collaborating with cats like Eric Roberson or Miguel. Lalah Hathaway too, she and I have been in touch, and I'm looking forward to that coming together someday soon. I'm open to all of it.
7. Your musical interests are broad, obviously, and a similar far-ranging quality is evident in the personnel and releases associated with the Foreign Exchange Music label—I'm thinking specifically of the jazz fusion leanings of The Hot At Nights and Jeanne Jolly's country-flavoured Angels. Is this stylistic breadth for the label part of a master plan or is it more simply a reflection of your love of multiple musics and a desire to explore different musical directions?
To call it part of a master plan would probably be giving us a little bit too much credit, but we have definitely and deliberately pushed the boundaries of the label a little bit as of late. Both Phonte and I have very eclectic musical tastes, and so I think it was really only a matter of time before the releases on our label started to reflect and branch out into styles and genres other than the ones that people know The Foreign Exchange for. Ultimately, we want the label and the brand to be known based on its own merits and the totality of all of its releases and not just as a platform through which we happen to release our own music.
8. If I've got my facts straight, you moved from The Netherlands to Wilmington, North Carolina in the mid-2000s. I'm sure a great deal has changed for you in the years since you left Holland for the US, but I'm wondering what the greatest changes have been. Put simply, how is life different for you now than it was before that move occurred?
There have been lots of changes, big and small, but I would say that the biggest difference is that I don't get to see and be around my family other than the few times that I'm able to spend a holiday back home. And that's the part of it that can really sting. But as hard as it has been, being apart has brought us closer in certain ways. They know why I made the decision to go and they're very proud of all of my accomplishments. Best of all, they're really into the music.
9. Word has it that a brand new studio album by The Foreign Exchange is coming soon. Can you give us a bit of a preview of what we can expect to hear and how it might compare to the material the group has issued already?
Yes, it will be our fourth studio album, and it's titled Love In Flying Colors. It will be out this fall. I'm hesitant to say much about it because we're still right in the middle of the recording process and so it can still go in any number of different directions, but I will say that the word colors very much is emblematic for this project.
10. As much as we love The Foreign Exchange and look forward to its upcoming release, we'd also love to see a new Nicolay solo release on the shelves, too. Is that something that might happen anytime soon and what might it sound like?
I appreciate that very much. Currently, my main focus clearly is on Love In Flying Colors, because recording a new Foreign Exchange album is always an undertaking in itself, but behind the scenes I've also been working on some additional projects. One, I am writing and recording a new full length album of original material together with the gentlemen of The Hot At Nights. The Shibuya Session EP that we recorded and released at the end of 2011 was received so warmly that we ended up touring together across the United States and Canada, including sold out nights at the Blue Note in New York City and the Bohemian Caverns in Washington DC. And those shows in turn inspired us to keep the collaboration going. It's an ambitious project musically so I'm not putting any sort of deadlines or ETAs on it. It'll be done when it's done. Two, I've been writing and recording material for the third installment in my City Lights series. If everything keeps going well, that album will hopefully be out sometime in 2014.