Q&A: Nick Monaco
Mixmag Asia caught up with the fun-loving and full of love DJ on his first tour across Asia
Nick Monaco is breezing through life as a musician and is a shining example of how paramount it is for young artists to be disparate in their approach to music if they want to standout. There is no one else like Nick Monaco, to be sure.
At only 24-years-old, a refreshing air of innocence surrounds the young musician and his music, which moves between playful and funky house anthems to dreamy jams laced with traces of reggae, rock and hip-hop. All together it reminds you of youth and seeps positive vibes into your soul and smiles onto the dance floor. It helps too that he wears a handsome face and makes elegant music and these androgynous qualities are the pinnacle of his persona. He is also deeply personal and emotional and this has yielded in a few additional performance personas that are a direct reflection of the many moods of Nick Monaco.
This idiosyncratic nature is a product of growing up in San Francisco’s sexually charged and colorful culture that fostered within him a need to do things that challenge the proverbial status quo existing within the dance music industry. So now he wears lipstick in a campaign to banish gender binaries, with all the profits from his own lipstick line called Freak Flag presented to the Jim Collins Foundation which helps pay for gender confirmation surgeries.
Knowing what we know about Nick Monaco today, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that he grew up immersed in San Francisco’s hyphy hip-hop culture, which he says was overrun by hyper-masculine “bros”, and it was only when he discovered dirtybird that he fell for house music. But the introduction was so moving and the talent already there from almost a decade of deejaying that the marriage was organic and now he’s rolling deep with the entire Crew Love entourage who incite him to explore all the quirky ideas that keep him up at night.
His story is compelling and with his toes dipped into the Gulf of Thailand, he eloquently explained it all to Mixmag Asia. He talked about his experiences in Asia, what inspires him in the creation of his capricious soundscapes, and how he plans to top a ridiculously productive 2014.
Asia is a particular place and many indie artists come here and find it challenging. What perception did you first come here with of the industry and how did it change?
My understanding of Asia was kind of wrapped up in my idea of Tokyo and their level of fandom in how obsessed they get with subcultures and music, so I always knew that there were these little pockets of people that like this kind of music. I never imagined it would be difficult over here but when we played in Bali it was at the W so there were a lot of tourists and we didn’t really get a chance to experience what it’s like to play for locals. Wonderfruit Festival was more of a mix and while there were a few Thai people, it was still more dominated by tourists.
I never feel like I have to change my sound or anything like that and I just kind of do my thing. Managers and promoters know my sound before I get there so they’re not like what the fuck is this, this isn’t what we wanted. It’s all very new and I’m just taking it as it comes, I still have Australia and Shanghai up next and that will be interesting.
Are all your upcoming Asia shows live?
All are live and I’ll do a little bit of deejaying as well.
You effortlessly step in and out of the role of a DJ and live performer, which is more satisfying?
See they’re different.
Playing live is like a monologue because it’s all pretty much preprogrammed. There are live elements like singing, programming some of the beats live and playing keys though, and that is really gratifying because it’s the most purely artistic statement I can make because it’s all my own music and everything is homegrown. It also feels really good when its goes off. There is also more allure to a live set. I used to be in theatre when I was younger so I kind of relate it to that because it feels more like acting. I dress up a little bit more and I dance which ends up kind of personifying my music.
Whereas deejyaing I kind of relate to a more classic style because I was a hip-hop DJ for a long time. It’s also more like a dialogue in that you’re talking to the audience and creating a space rather then just giving them a spiel, which is what it feels like with the live set.
But I absolutely love both.
Do both roles come naturally or is one more difficult than the other?
They both come naturally. I’ve been deejaying since I was 12 years old so that’s just the most natural thing for me. I’ve always felt like I was like a natural born DJ and with the live thing, I’ve always felt really comfortable on stage because of acting and performing so it’s just an extension of that style of performing and being on stage.
How do your objectives on stage differ between the two in terms of reading, pleasing and keeping a crowd interested?
The live set only began last year in May and I could have taken it a lot of routes because so many different types of artists and music inspire me. But what I get booked for mostly is clubs so I wanted to keep the live set upbeat and club ready so I could keep a crowd but also have these really intimate moments within it. So last years set was very club oriented but now that I feel more confident with the live set, I’m going to slow it down and maybe introduce more live elements and more instruments.
But the objectives with deejaying are different and I’m still trying to challenge people with my music. It’s kind of our philosophy at Crew Love, we’re all playing music that challenges people but is also very accessible. Our music is very funk and disco based and we go all over the place but our intentions never go over people heads or lose them but rather exposes people to older kinds of music and styles that can feel new and contemporary by the way that we present it.
We’re all teachers and challengers that like to party at the end of the day.
Making an album is a tremendous amount of work in an industry dominated by singles. After Mating Call came out this year, do you feel it was worth it?
Career wise it really shows people that you’re not just a DJ and it gives people the perception that you’re a real artist by showing them a range of styles. Like in my album, there are some house influences but it’s also very influenced by punk, surf rock and hip-hop.
You also gain a lot of respect and notoriety for putting out an album and it gives you a platform to perform live. I feel more confident now that I have an album out to stand behind because it legitimizes you as an artist to have a big body of music with a theme behind it because EPs and singles play more into this capitalistic drive and that whole idea of music distribution and production does kind of feel inherently profit driven. But when you put out an album, there is a lot more finesse and emotional investment and that really carries across in music because people here it and they connect to it rather than it just being a fleeting experience of listening to one song or a remix.
San Francisco has a very colorful and sexually charged environment. I wonder how much of your creativity is influenced by this. Do you think creativity and musical artistry is a product of nature or nurture?
I would say nurture because being from San Francisco, there is so much going on there that I was exposed to. When I was growing up, the hip-hop scene was really strong and I was involved in that but there was also the rave scene and the LGBT culture happening too. You also had the hippies and that remnant philosophy and these sort of progressive ideas about art and drugs, so now that I look back on it I think being in that space kind of inspired me to challenge rather than conform because I think San Francisco tries to be a non-conformist kind of place. Everyone is always trying to challenge the status quo, like be black or be gay or adopt a Cambodian baby, and no one really gives a shit. So it had a big impact on my music philosophy in that I adopted this kind of competitive nonconformity.
My first exposure to house music was at the dirtybird BBQs and those happened in Golden Gate Park. They would throw these little parties and cook food and drink beer and they played this house music that was really influenced by hyphy and mixed with like minimal tech house and then those sounds also really influenced me.
It’s always interesting to look back on where you are from and try to piece this stuff together.
Using the lipstick as your tool, why did you decide to use your spotlight to shine one on another community? Whatever the tool, do you think more artists should use their celebrity status towards philanthropic endeavors?
Ideally yes but it needs to be organic because some artists do philanthropy as a press tool and there is a whole debate about whether there is any authenticity there. The whole lipstick thing happened organically because I was always a little into cross-dressing and playing with gender roles but I never really understood the origins.
I’ve also always felt very resistant towards hyper-masculinity and the bro culture and I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco where there was a lot of that. So when I started getting into house music, I met Soul Clap and they were really history oriented and concerned about respecting the roots of dance music so I started listening to older records.
Then I started thinking about what it means to be at these clubs and where does all this shitty dance music come from, so all these thoughts were floating around in my mind and so I started learning more about the history of dance music. It was all based in Chicago and New York in these very queer spaces and it was a response to the hetero world. These clubs were like pressure valves for the LGBT community.
So the lipstick happened when I connected it to this idea of challenging gender roles in club culture and I wanted to create more awareness for the trans community. I feel like lesbians and gays seem to get more press but with the trans community, there is still a lot of stigma in that world and a lot of struggle. I just read this story where this trans woman just committed suicide and she was like 17, so it think it’s definitely hard to experience life like that and I just thought if anyone should be an ally to that community, it should be the dance community because that’s where we basically adopted this music from.
It’s been going great and people have been really responding to it and I’ve been able to educate people about the roots of dance music while also raising money for the Jim Collins foundation, which helps pay for gender confirmation surgeries.
It’s important to have a philosophy or something you stand behind but it has to happen from the inside. I do feel like this world that we work in can be very aimless and not have any sort of political motivation or aim and the major music industry machine is drowning it out. So I think it’s important for there to be some sort of backbone to this subculture to give it some meaning.
When you see a Nick Monaco gig, it’s exactly that, it’s not just listening it’s seeing. Nick Monaco can look different from one day to the next but he can also sound different. Is there a relationship between the personalities and the music?
I’m a Gemini so I’m like a different person everyday. Now that I think about and I have four years of music to look back on, there are like themes that have evolved and I’ve given all the themes in my music persons or names.
In my earlier music, I was really exploring innocence and trying to restore innocence in dance music because I felt like that was lost. I was really inspired by Deee-lite so that whole era had a character and that was the butterfly, so that music is very whimsical, light and innocent.
And then there was the stalker, which was more like sex driven, hedonistic, and explored voyeurism and those themes. Then Mating Call had it’s own character that was exploring androgyny and sexuality. There have definitely been these cycles in the themes that I explore.
So many artists are known for having their particular sound and usually it’s attached to something within. You don’t have a sound, you have many sounds. How can you approach music so differently from day to day when it’s all coming from the same place?
It’s kind of like a personal challenge in that I don’t want to sound the same everyday so I like to change up the sound and be different. It kind of feels like musical schizophrenia. You sit down to make music one day and you just don’t feel like making house music so you think about ways to challenge yourself. It’s also based upon what I’m influenced by at the moment, like I have close friend in San Fransisco that I go record shopping with a lot and he’s really into punk, reggae and all these different kinds of music, so when I go record shopping with him I always get really inspired by new music. People outside of the dance world also inspire me too. I like to keep my inspirations isolated from the dance world and a lot goes into that.
I was always really insecure about putting out different styles of music because I always felt that people would get lost. When I started playing, I was associated with dirtybird because I’d put some music out with them and their sound is very specific and bass driven. But since I’ve been working with Soul Clap and Wolf+Lamb, we play everything and our influences are all over the place. It’s really allowed me to open up and not feel that pressure to only play or make just one sound.
What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows?
One time I saw a girl fall off of a refrigerator in front of the DJ booth. She was dancing on top of it and was really drunk and I was trying to signal her down but mix at the same time. But she was so confident and thought she had it and then she just fell to the ground.
Back in the day when I used to DJ all these house parties and there would always be fights because all the gangsters would come and every time a fight broke out I would put on Why Can’t We Be Friends by War. I always had little playlists for when fights broke out and it was always funny to see people’s reactions.
There is a lot of funny shit that goes on, I like watching people when I’m deejaying. There are always some funny dancers, and I like people who really get into it.
Lipstick, albums, gallivanting the world, what was the highest moment in 2014?
There are so many but I think putting out the album, performing live and having it be a successful and rewarding experience. The whole live thing came together in the two weeks before WMC and granted it took a while for me to feel really comfortable with it but opening up that avenue was really rewarding as an artist. It’s always been my lifelong goal to play a whole set of my own music and in my won way, and I was able to accomplish that last year.
What do you want to happen in 2015?
I worked so hard last year, this year I need to work even harder.
Another album, I want to expand the live show, and I want to stay hydrated. Also I want to expand the lipstick thing and try to get some notoriety and maybe collaborate with a bigger line. I’d also like to score a film or fashion show. There are a bunch of art projects I’m working on like installation work so there is a lot of stuff to do and here I am doing none of it. I’m having such a hard time being on vacation and I’ve definitely had some inspirational moments but I just want to start working.