Janelle Monáe, Nate Wonder, and Chuck Lightning Talk Moog and Entropic Utopias
Not content penning chart-topping pop songs, Janelle and her producers colonize intellectual myth-building. With some firsties and faves thrown in…
Whatever pre-conceptions you have of modern pop stars, jettison them out the airlock post-haste. Set your mind clock back into the distant lands of Bowie and Zappa, to a time where the straightest answer wasn’t the best answer, where intellectualism flourished, rewind to a time when dreams and ambition were celebrated instead of castigated.
In a bubble high above sea-level, that time is now, and the forum is Moogfest. Janelle Monáe and her two producer-collaborators Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder are in Asheville, North Carolina (just a skip away from their hometown of Atlanta, Georgia) to discuss The Electric Lady and their notion of "emotion pictures," a comprehensive system of album delivery.
For these three aren’t your normal chart-bothering major label artists. Bruno Mars may have the dance moves, but does he seamlessly jump from referencing Shakespeare’s hefty contribution to the English language to Ray Kurzweil’s technologiccal singularity to the basic existential dichotomy of idealism and objectivism? My data shows that he does not. Neither does Rihanna wax lyrical about Toni Morrison’s conception of the inheritance of diaspora, nor Justin Timberlake tackle the coming super intelligent android race in “Suit and Tie.”
“This notion of a new minority,” Janelle tells us. ”The android is the new black, the android is the new gay, the android is the new woman.”
Nate’s father told him that “he who controls the pen controls the situation,” and with that dictum in mind the trio set out to create an alternate reality, a splice of Afrofuturism that offers a bridge between founding myths and the near-future, in which technology either rules us or is embedded in our lives to a degree that seems unimaginably permanent. As they’ve said, “Metropolis is a city that you can only see with your eyes closed.” Well maybe in the future, we won’t even need eyes.
You can watch the whole Moogfest interview above (hosted by the polyrhythmic Claire Evans of YACHT/Omni), and after that, an interview about sci-fi and Moogs. But if you don't have 86 minutes now, read on and digest in considerably less time.
Nate Wonder, Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning. Photo by Moogfest.
Noisey: How are you doing? Sorry, I’m interrupting your vocal warmup time.
Janelle Monáe: No, I just sing, y’know, throughout the day.
You can sing your answers if you want.
Janelle: [Laughs] OK, alright. How about that. I’ll actually do that.
So, Moogfest. Have you any history with Moog synthesisers?
Janelle: Absolutely. It’s great because you’re actually here with the producers of pretty much all my albums, the music that I’ve put out thus far. Nate Rocket and Chuck Lightning.
Nate Rocket: The first thing that I knew was when I met Chuck, he was like “Oh yeah man, you can use my Moog, I got a Moog.” So we have a Moog that’s been at the center of the studio since we started writing music. The Minimoog.
Janelle: You have a Minimoog modified for MIDI, I think.
Nate: Yeah, it’s modified for MIDI, which is great because that means that you can do all kinds of crazy things with it. I have to hit it when you’re playing it.
Chuck Lightning: Works really well.
Does it need a lot of repairs?
Nate Rocket: No, we haven’t had it repaired ever, actually. It’s a workhorse.
Chuck: It is!
Just don’t tour with it.
Nate: No, we don’t do that.
Janelle: I tour with mine.
Nate: She tours with the Voyager; but we don’t move that one. That one has a special place, it just needs to be alone, still, unbothered. It’s like an elder in the studio.
Janelle: [Laughs] An elder?
Janelle at Moogfest. Photo by Moogfest.
What synth did you start out on?
Janelle: Well I wasn’t familiar with it, I knew that I was in love with the synthesiser from listening to certain records from like Prince to Stevie Wonder and I knew that I liked the warmth in the synthesiser. In the Moog and when I wanted to start working on my album, I had heard those sounds in their music, in the production. That’s what really drew us all together was our love over, like, the synthesiser, the warmth, and the experimentation.
[My phone rings, humming a polyphonic flip-phone song. Professional.] This is a bad synthesiser.
Janelle: Horrible. I will never forget this moment. So that was really our bond, we bonded over the Moog and it’s always been a part of our musical production DNA, if you will.
And you guys? What were your first synthesisers?
Nate: Well my father had an M1, a Korg M1. That’s the one that I remember the most, but I know that before that he had—it was a big deal that my grandmother bought him an Arp 2600.
Nate: Yeah. He had that, an Odyssey, a String Ensemble. Like, all those kind of things.
That is a big deal.
Natet: Yeah, it was a big deal. It was the kind where you plug it in [mimes making patch connections]. So it was really cool. But I remember really really really wanting to understand synthesisers because of Stevie Wonder’s song "Superwoman."
Janelle: Mmm-hmm. Yup.
Nate: The change that happens in the middle of that song where it goes from “Mary wants to be a superwoman” into “Where were you when I needed you last winter”—that change right there, happens really just based all around the synthesiser at that moment and it really is just one of the most amazing moments in music to me. It always made me cry when I was little.
I think it’s amazing that these strange objects from the future can have so much emotion in them. These synthesised sounds speak to us.
Nate: Well you know, the thing is, we’re much more electrical than we’re lead to believe. We tend to separate the organic from the inorganic. And the thing is, carbon is still based on electrons, so it’s not all that—we call it organic just because it’s carbon, but it means nothing. There’s no real distinction between six electrons and seve, or one. It’s still electrons. And I think that when we feel that electricity moving in a certain kind of way it’s gonna resonate.
Ok, pop-quiz, hotshots. Firstiess and faves.
Fave sci-fi movie:
Janelle: Blade Runner. It wasn’t my first. My first more than likely had to do with a television series called The Twilight Zone. That was with my grandmother, we would watch that all the time when she would babysit me. That was like my first interaction with science fiction themes and the future. Dystopian, utopian worlds. Aliens.
Fave era in time:
Janelle: [Long pause] The era that I will start a family.
Janelle: [Laughs] Ow! Sensation of laughter!
Favorite food that reminds you of home:
Nate: Talking of that, I haven’t eaten today!
Janelle: Fried fish fillets.
Nate: That’s your kinda thing, right? Fish and chips! [Your interviewer has flown in from the UK…]
Janelle: Actually, you know what? Banana pudding.
First rule you broke:
Janelle: I threw my bottle out the car window. My baby bottle. Several times!
First famous crush:
Janelle: [Squeals] Johnny Depp! Edward Scissorhands. I’m dark, basically, in a nutshell.
You’re going straight to the airport after this? No time for breakfast?
Janelle: Breakfast is air, breakfast is… a Delta app.
Nate: Breakfast is a smile.
Davo would love to be a part of their gang, but three is the magic number. Follow him on Twitter @battery_licker.