Melancholic, apocalyptic and jaw-dropping. We spoke to the South London group ahead of their incoming EP ‘Disaster Pop’.
Words by Brad Harris
Nukuluk are an exciting presence. Having only recently popped up, seemingly fully formed, they are already injecting a much-needed lifeblood into “the scene”, one in which there is both a general lack of rap and black voices. The second release from their upcoming EP out November 17th via Spinny Nights, Feel So is the inverse to the apocalyptic bombast of previous single Ooh Ah. Here they offer a more melancholic perspective, buoyed by lead vocalist Syd’s emotionally distant performance that focuses on “feelings of helplessness in front of widespread social crisis: a lack of support or care being extended to those in need, an unforgiving world that wouldn’t listen to those on its fringes.”
Apparently, there is a manifesto behind their work, which is something I always respect. One line in particular asks whether you can grasp “the feeling of a song from the first sound”. With Feel So the answer is yes and no. Although there is a persistent vibe that echoes the organ sample that loops throughout the song, itself somewhat transmutative, there are unexpected lurches as the song ploughs ever-forward. When Monika takes over the reins for example, his voice drips with desperation and “frustration with the racist immigration and welfare systems which grind people down”.
It’s a heady mix, an end of history, post-genre coalescence of influences and the music video directed by Mateo Villanueva Brandt is equally impressive. A mix of live action and animation it reminds me of Brazil, Evil Dead, William Gibson, and Southland Tales all at once. I sent a few questions over to the collective to hopefully get to grips with their work a little better.
You’ve spoken about a manifesto that guides your writing. Would you care to explain more about this? How much of an influence does this have over each element of your work?
Syd: It’s something we stumbled across through conversation during the making of this EP. It was lockdown and I was writing some bullshit in a notebook about methods of production, and Louis and I, who were living together at the time, had this great chat about ‘starting with a sound’. What if the first sound you make can say as much emotionally as a melody, or a lyrical phrase? If immediately you have an element that means something to you, that you can feel, then the rest of the songwriting feels far more authentic. I think being people who love ambient music and sound design, having this intention to produce meaningful one shot sounds as well as meaningful music overall is really exciting – one drone from Tim Hecker or warped piano key from Ryuichi Sakamoto can have tremendous impact. On our last single ‘Feel So’ for example, everything started with making this digital organ through some resampling and processing; as soon as that sound existed and we played a few notes of it, we could kind of understand how we wanted to exist around it musically and narratively.
Beyond this sonic stuff, we definitely try not to fall into irony too much, which feels like it’s been the cultural norm for a lot of popular art for like 30+ years – celebrating vulnerability and sincerity through driving music and creating emotional landscapes people can see themselves in feels better than lambasting each other about drinking lattes and buying shoes.
The new track is very mercurial, can you speak to any of the influences that floated around when writing it?
Syd: Honestly, it’s hard to say on this! The main influence for me was that the lyrics came really naturally and were something I really needed to express, which resulted in me working on it pretty feverishly. This lyrical idea of being confronted by an apathetic unforgiving society in a time of need, looking at it and being left in a state of wordlessness really struck a chord with us and was crucial to articulate correctly – to the point where the vocal harmonies on the chorus were fine-tuned and tweaked for about a year and I still wish I’d done it better haha. But music influences – I just don’t know. Probably the constant blend in my head of The Specials, Andy Stott, Moor Mother, Elliot Smith, and The Bug! Particuarly Elliot Smith lyrically actually – I had a lot of profound experiences listening to the way he would articulate impotence in moments of pain which has shaped some of my writing.
Monika: I connected with the helplessness in Syd’s lyrics, delivery, and production. The sense of being lost for words, a hapless bystander in a car crash which no-one else acknowledges. I came at it from a different angle. I’m black and middle class, so my experience of racism is in part different from that of working-class black people. I don’t experience much of the immediate physical danger that poverty or lack of immigration status puts you in, especially when combined with blackness. The music really connected with me because I’m witnessing black people being killed and when we ask for help, there’s a tendency to praise blackness or black art but not change anything. In those moments I feel like a helpless bystander. So, while writing this song my biggest influence were the things Syd made me feel. I’m sure a few lyrical influences leaked in without me noticing. Looking back, I think there’s traces of the activism surrounding the death of George Floyd in there, especially in the ultimate threat of violence I make. There’s a few of Gil Scot Heron’s songs as well (No Knock, Whitey on the Moon, Enough).
On the technical side, I don’t really know any rap songs like Feel So, so I had to make my own way. I’d like to apologize to my flatmate for repeating the Feel So verse many times in the process.
There are samples and field recordings all over the song and the EP. Where do you source these and what role do they play in your music?
Syd: I’ve been gathering sounds in the world for the best part of 6 years now – making films was a great motivator to start using a sound recorder, Mateo in the band actually gave me my first one so I could record sound and he operate camera when we were making silly little projects when we were younger. This naturally led to me field recording – capturing walks from one area of the city to another, going to lakes surrounded by mountains for those heavy natural reverbs and echoes, or just having moments with friends captured in just audio. Having this library to fall back into during production is an amazing asset – I think there’s a truth to recorded moments of life that isn’t there when you’re setting yourself up to record bass guitar in a studio. So on ‘Feel So’, the voice you hear at the start is my friend Tara learning how to use my field recorder one morning when I was making breakfast. We were listening to Duval Timothy and talking about making your own hash browns and what each knob on the sound recorder did, when suddenly it ran out of battery. It was a really nice morning and for that moment’s recording to be cut short by a battery dying has its own story and its own significance – writing music around these things is great. ‘Ooh Ah’ has sounds of this weird anti-Donald Trump protest in Whitehall I recorded right after he was first elected; tens of thousands of people were there just furious – no one wanted anything in particular to happen, they just needed to express their disgust and anger; it sounded dark and amazing, people screaming NO, the sound passing over your head and travelling down the street. A great platform and environment to create troubled music from.
What is it about nonlinear, disjointed music that appeals to you?
Syd: I don’t think it’s ever been a massive goal to make alternatively structured songs, it’s just naturally happened. However, I would say that what appeals about it is if people can connect to the story you’re telling or the world you’re building despite it being challenging, that feels like a huge success. It’s easy to think that people don’t want to be challenged with music, they want a formula, that they want this 808 and that style of vocal processing – it’s important to remember that people love being tested and experiencing art that feels new. You look at the innovation going on from the likes of SOPHIE, JPEGMAFIA, Standing On The Corner etc, loads of people including myself are grateful for the risks they take with structure. Why not go down this road?
Louis: For me, it feels far more natural. All the music we make comes from this angle; it just wouldn’t sound right if we worked with a linear structure. You would be able to see right through us and know we were a bunch of phonies trying to get some attention. The music is simply a sonic imprint of the collective, it’s genuine and earnest… However, there is also the argument to be made about the screen which leftfield electronic music gives you to hide behind… because you’re so incredibly alternative, distressed, so… je ne sais quoi. Oh, you don’t like the music? Fuck you, you must be a fascist!
Olivia: I think it’s just how my brain works with stuff, like it doesn’t feel natural to keep having the same thoughts or always thinking in the same structure, sometimes things just come in from the side out of nowhere and take up your brain for a bit and then go away, so I guess that’s how I like to make and listen to music too; sitting on a sound or motif for a bit but then moving on when it’s had its turn. I find it really hard to make music with repetition to be honest, sometimes you have to force it to avoid a total clustafuck. It’s definitely nice to be in an environment where we all think in similar ways so disjointedness is really welcomed.
Monika: Songs being disjointed is also the natural result of giving each other a lot of space and trust when we write. If Syd writes a verse or a hook and I really connect with it, I want to express what I feel, even if it’s at the cost of the ABAB structure. What matters is the song and what it conveys, and it only conveys what we put in it. So, I can write 3 verses and have them all come in before Syd next sings if that’s what I need. We want that space for one another. We trust each other to make these decisions and the songs progress in interesting directions because of it.
As for your visual language, you seem to pull from a million different sources. Was it always the goal to have something visually arresting alongside the music?
Syd: This is where the fact that a good few of us have made films comes in handy. I think it’s hard not to see a project like this as an opportunity to work with loads of great artists and also a chance to try out ambitious ideas ourselves in different mediums.
Mateo: It’s difficult to imagine making music without arresting visuals today. I suppose our visual style, like the music, is drawn from a broad church and takes its cues from whatever feels relevant in the moment. Our visual eclecticism is testament to our desire to keep things fresh and evolving; It’s something we talk about a lot, and we’ve got plenty being cooked up so definitely keep your eyes peeled.
Your bio mentions that Syd and Monika ‘battle’ over your tracks. I find it interesting that you couch it in this violent language. Is this just a playful joke or an intentionally political statement or something else altogether?
Syd: haha it’s definitely been a battle many a time. We are great friends and love making music together, but we’ve definitely butted heads over creative decisions a lot. I guess there’s also this angle that my vocals are often this passive, melancholic voice observing something and being affected by it, whilst Monika comes in hard and heavy and engages the situation. There’s always a contrast there which is great for making songs multi-dimensional.
What’s your favourite emoji?