NOLIFE Is the Frank Ocean-Endorsed Producer Bridging Hardcore and Musique Concrète
We talked to New York artist Sean Engvold about how isolation and urban environments inspired his latest EP.
Photo by Richard R Ross
The cover of NOLIFE's latest EP depicts the New York state seal, but not in a configuration that's instantly recognizable. Set against a black background, the slow-scan TV image conjures up ominous vibes, not unlike in a sci-fi blockbuster when the ragtag group of human survivors sends a staticky transmission for help before being attacked by zombies. Fittingly, the five tracks that make up YOU WON'T SURVIVE THE STATE OF NEW YORK sees Schenectady, New York-bred producer Sean Engvold experimenting with familiar forms, twisting them into new and often confrontational shapes.
Coming from a background of playing in hardcore bands, the former film student incorporated the genre's more discordant elements into his musique concrète soundscapes, which typically clock in at two-and-a-half unrelenting minutes or less. While his debut EP for Young Turks was recorded in complete solitude during the dead of Brooklyn winter, Engvold has since found a likeminded DIY community of acts including underground hardcore stalwarts Show Me the Body (he produced a track on their latest mixtape Corpus I), jack-of-all-trades producer Pictureplane, hip-hop collective World's Fair, and others.
Today he's shared an exclusive 34-minute mix with THUMP, which packs in tracks by Teklife favourites (DJ Earl, DJ Paypal), Ed Banger heavy-hitters (DJ Mehdi, Mr. Oizo), and a handful of his own splintered bootleg edits and remixes (Three 6 Mafia's "Late Night Tip," HEALTH's "LA Looks"). Listen to it below while you read our recent conversation with Engvold about surviving as an artist in the face of gentrification, how he ended up on Frank Ocean's Endless, and why he compares electronic music today to a mythical Greek creature.
You're based in Brooklyn now, but you grew up in upstate New York. Can you tell me a little about how those environments influenced your music?
NOLIFE: Growing up in upstate New York, I was very much into hardcore and metal, and I think you get exposed to different types of that shit up there. People who grew up in New York will be like New York hardcore blah blah blah, but in the suburbs, you get more like, I don't know, scene-y kind of bands. I always wanted to play this grindcore weird super harsh music, but it was kind of hard to find people who wanted to do that up there. So whatever bands I did play in high school, I was always the kid that went and saved up money to go buy a mixer. I think that just naturally from about 15 progressed into just an interest in using computers, not having people to play with all the time, just at having that at my disposal.
Flash forward to college is really where I got into it more, because I lived in a DIY punk house, where that particular house had a history of hosting shows for like 10 years. I kind of used that as an opportunity to really step it up and play shows and really work on my production. At the end of college, you know, I had a body of work under this alias, at the time it was called HOLO. It was a project that I soon after abandoned with graduating college, because of trying to figure out what I'm doing with my life and I went through a long term relationship breakup at that point. Then I came to New York after getting my way into working PA jobs on film sets, the standard New York story of a PA. My first winter, it was like December, I had just put down almost three grand—that was all the money I had saved up through college and that summer, and so I had no money. I was just sitting by myself, I had no friends to go hang out with, just a computer with music. It was kind of like being 15 again, just working through my outlet. I got back into writing again, but I had a different mindset that reflected more of what I had learned in school about electronic music, going back to like musique concrète and early electronic stuff.
Those ideas were in my mind when I was making these songs and being in an urban environment. The whole idea with musique concrète, having music reflecting the sounds that we have nowadays. Classical music being something that's a bit more beautiful and soft and things like that, because of the reality of just natural sounds back then, they were pretty quiet and chill. The industrial revolution happened and all these weirdos were just like hey, we can make crazy noises that reflect the world that we inhabit now. It's still kind of the same way being here, and having that mindset, and coming from a background in hardocre.
More and more we're seeing electronic artists embrace hardcore or industrial elements in their music, why do you think we're seeing that now?
I think it's a pretty easy answer, for me at least. There's always been genre crossover that haven't really worked. There has been like rap rock. I don't fuck with POD or any of that shit, but I think that we live during one of the biggest catalysts for social evolution for us. You know what I mean? With the introduction of the internet, everyone is a neighbour now. I feel like if you fuck with electronic music, you probably fuck with a lot of other stuff too. It just seems like it's such a broad genre. It's not even a genre because there are like sub-genres, like dubstep and IDM. Electronic music is such a chimera, because it's just a different form of making music that anyone can get into it. It's all about the internet and accessibility, because growing up in the suburbs, it wasn't as intersectional in terms of people coming together.
How did you end up with a credit on the Frank Ocean album?
Caius Pawson from Young Turks was the one who put Frank on to my music while he was in New York finishing Endless. This was around the time I started signing with Young Turks. I get hit up like "Hey, Frank really needs some drums and he fucked with what you did on the track" and I'm like okay. Frank was held up in the Mercer Hotel for a minute, and that's where he had the studio, so I got to chill in the Mercer. It was really awkward for me because I'm socially awkward, and for me it was my first time doing a writing session like that, but it was really cool. I'd get the song and then fuck off in the side room for a minute, and then come back and present it. Super, super chill.
Did they tell you that you'd be on the album or was it a complete surprise?
It was all super crazy. My all-time favourite producer, bar none, is SebastiAn from Ed Banger. He also did some work on that album, and I got to meet him at the Mercer and it was crazy. Being around people like that, obviously I was like it's not going to happen, there's no fucking way, they're just going to throw out what I did. And when I didn't hear anything... You know how Frank is kind of mysterious? Like everyone for so long was like "When's the next album coming?" So I was in the dark completely and the next thing I know it's out. A Frank Ocean credit is super dope in industry terms obviously, but I have the experience and that's all that I need to take from it.
Listening to the EP, and even the title, I get this strong sense of resilience. How much of that was a byproduct of living in a wildly expensive city like New York?
I think existence in New York, everyone's kind of getting pushed out. Even now with the tone of the political sphere nowadays, I think that it's paradoxical. Everyone wants to consume more entertainment and art, but there's people who are just like well fuck it, we don't need to pump it. I think art is really, it's an important part of the conversation about humanity. Being in New York it's so frustrating to one, be a gentrifier, and two, be a gentrifier who can barely even get by being a gentrifier. Right now I live in Bed-Stuy. Since I've moved here in the same neighbourhood, within a few block radius, there are three different luxury condos or nice apartments being built over here.
At the same time, my neighbours Donald and Jeff have been here for 40 plus years. They have whole families who are trying not to be separated by economics, but it's a reality here. To be a part of that problem, and not even being able to survive in that, I feel like that all kind of seeps back into the vibe. I think the music is frustrated on a number of levels. I try not to be a person that gets frustrated easily but it happens. It's not like I was making the music to deliberately in any type of way to be punk or angsty. My approach to it is I'm fascinated by texture. I get that gritty loud shit because I work in headphones and I like the way that things tickle my ears. I like these sounds, these are sounds that I really fuck with. I'm really happy that being in New York, and being forced to be in a frustrating situation and be a bit more isolated, kind of benefitted me in breeding that triangle of sound
How have you seen your community respond to what's happening politically now in the US?
I spend a lot of time thinking about what is the value of what I'm doing with my life and giving back. Doing PA jobs for indie films, I don't think I'm doing any particular good for the world or myself. What it turned into for me is this realization the arts are one of the biggest political tools that there are to propagate change. To go back to what I was saying before, I had to learn to be the person that I am today in terms of my political views, and now I have a platform. We live in a time where kids can listen to that stuff and be influenced by it, and that didn't happen for me until college.
Especially in New York City, which is kind of in the shadow of Trump Tower, I think the arts community in New York has to be the light that shines in that shadow. Show Me the Body is super good about this too, making sure shows are all-ages or at least 16 plus, and just engaging people in different ideologies then what they're being fed through normal media or what their parents giving to them. Being an influencer to move people to be more active with activism or taking part in politics, I think that's what art is for, and become how I feel better. As long as I can create and respond to the world, that's what I need.
NOLIFE - Fire Works
Slipknot ("Eyeless") x Jammz ("Hit Then Run") (NL Bootleg)
Anika - Tel-a-car
DJ Earl feat. Moon Doctor & Oneohtrix Point Never - Smoking Reggie
NOLIFE - Long Relationships (Three 6 Mafia Bootleg)
ākāśa - club athletics
Lily - Beach Girl
Naomi Elizabeth - The Topic Is Ass
DJ Paypal - I'm Ready
PBOY - I LOVE MY BROTHER WYATT
DJ Mehdi - Signatune (Flashback Remix)
Lunarios - Stuck
Boys Noize - Transmission (Mr. Oizo Remix)
Myd - Again
Rocks FOE - Hold That (L)
HEALTH - LA Looks (NOLIFE Remix) (NOLIFE Nightcore Re-Remix)
Max Mertens is on Twitter.