Human femurs crashing against human skulls, rat heartbeats amplified into deafening thumps and the swirling winds of Hurricane Irene – these are just a few of the weird and wonderful sounds that find their way into the work of Nick Koenig, aka Hot Sugar. Introducing the world to what he calls Associative Music, Koenig’s 2011 debut EP, Muscle Milk, showed off his remarkable production style and triggered a string of interesting hip-hop collaborations. In 2011 he produced “Sleep” on the Roots’s Undun, and earlier this year he made beats for Big Baby Gandhi’s No1 2 Look Up 2. Returning to his solo work, this month Koenig dropped a sublime second EP, Moon Money, and Prefix caught up with the producer on the day after its release to talk sample sources, influences and just why he feels he can never get married.
You describe your work as “Associative Music.” Could you explain what that means?
It’s the process of recording non-musical sounds and manipulating them into accessible compositions. It’s about disguising those recorded sounds so that you can’t identify them, but you can also kind of tell that they aren't traditional instruments.
Some of the sounds you use on your new EP, Moon Money, come from some really astonishing places. Do you have any particular favorites or any that got you into trouble?
I've been urged not to talk about this, but one time my friends threw a couch off a roof in Manhattan (into a safe, desolate, neighboring yard on a weekend when no one was there). We got it on video, but we all scattered when it hit the ground and somehow none of us know where the video/audio recording is, so I've never been able to even sample it. As far as Moon Money [goes], I put a stethoscope mic up to a pet rat's belly and recorded its heartbeat. I pitched the heartbeat down and isolated the thumps, turning them into the kick drums for "#Mindcontrol."
Are the specific times and locations when and where you record your samples important to you?
Yes, definitely. Everything about the context surrounding the recording matters to me. Each sound has its story and the location is part of that.
The effect of Associative Music depends on your sample sources staying disguised within the track. But they are so interesting, I bet people are always asking about them. Are you ever reluctant to reveal them?
No. If anything I'm flattered when people are curious enough to ask me.
You have said that Moon Money is your darkest work to date. What has changed?
I don't know. I grew tired of the pressure to follow trends or join a scene. People were like, "you're a great producer, but if you did dustup you'd be huge!" and before that it was the same thing with chillwave. This album isn't meant for huge crowds or parties, I made this for people who like being alone and want to experience something intimate with their music.
Moon Money also seems to have a much tighter narrative arc than your previous EP, Muscle Milk. How did you achieve this?
Muscle Milk was kind of like a beat tape or compilation. I was flexing and trying to showcase my versatility. Every song was a separate experiment and I wanted all of them to have a chance to be "the single." When I started Moon Money I wasn't seeking that kind of validation, I just focused on a mood.
One theme that seems quite pronounced on the new EP is childhood. Are you drawing on your own?
Kind of. I remember where I was when I first grasped the concept of death. I wasn't concerned or fearful of my own fate, but when I realized that at some point my loving parents would die and rot in the ground (presumably) I experienced my first true pangs of tragedy, hence "Everybody's Parents Will Die." "The Choking Game" is something kids did at sleepovers. You'd take turns asphyxiating each other to get high (most likely while someone's mom was baking cookies for everyone downstairs). "The Girl who stole my Tamagotchi" is based on this middle school girl who for some reason hung out at my elementary school bus stop. I was in fifth grade and had just gotten a Tamagotchi for my birthday and it was the coolest thing ever. That girl never paid attention to me before, but she came up to me and asked me if she could borrow it. She seduced me. I let her borrow it for the day, and the next day she pretended that I never gave it to her and she didn't know what I was talking about. I have trust issues because of that. I don't know if I'll ever even be able to get married.
Moon Money is released with Ninja Tune. How did that come about?
They hit me up. I guess they'd seen videos of me online and were curious. I don't really remember.
You put Muscle Milk out yourself for free, and I guess that gave you a lot of freedom to work the way you wanted. Did your approach have to change with Moon Money?
Not at all. Ninja Tune has let me do whatever I want. We're all on the same page, I mean musically. I mean, I also gave them a music video containing an old man's penis and they proudly sent it around with their name and reputation behind it (that’s how you know it’s real).
I have heard you discuss non-musical influences like physiologist Ivan Pavlov, but I am less clear about your musical influences. Who did you grow up listening to?
Birdman and Alvin Lucier.
Are there any musicians you draw inspiration from today?
I don't even know anymore. I've listened to Chief Keef a lot this week. Shout out to Young Chop.
You did some of the beats for Big Baby Gandhi’s No1 To Look Up 2. How did you guys come to work together?
He quoted an obscure Slick Rick line on twitter, and I tweeted the next line. Then I DMed him and asked him if he wanted beats. He said, sure, then a few days later he sent me "Hi It’s Me, Baby" (a song he recorded over my song “The Seagull” off Muscle Milk). I told him, that’s cool but I also wanted to do original stuff for him, so he came over and we did like five songs in two days. We keep doing stuff. It’s getting better and better.
This week we just saw you in a video for Gandhi’s “Been A Villain.” Did you have fun shooting it?
Yeah it was silly. There's a part where me and Gandhi are leaning on this old car like its ours, then the owner walks up, gets in it and drives away mid-verse. Gandhi played it off all cool, but I couldn't stop myself from laughing.
After Moon Money what else is on the horizon for Nick Koenig and Hot Sugar?
My next project will have a lot of features on it. Since Moon Money's entirely instrumental, I want to do a sort of counterpart to that, so I’m assembling a lot of different vocalist for the project. It’s going great so far.
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