Nick Koenig, aka Hot Sugar, may be the most prolific sound thief at work in New York City today. He gleefully recalls slipping into a piano showroom to record each note on a $100,000 piano with a pocket tape recorder. But expensive pianos aren’t his only prey. He picks up all kinds of environmental noises, lures them back to his studio, and sculpts them into tunes so seamless that you forget about the origins of the sounds and simply tap along – until, that is, a perplexingly crisp rimshot reminds you that somewhere Koenig is using recordings of a human femur crashing against a human skull. But as his online manifesto explains, these half-recognitions lie at the heart of his work:
The aim of Associative Music is to sample these environmental sounds, but disguise them in melodies and rhythms (so as not to attract attention to their origins) in hopes of provoking a visceral reaction from the audience.
His 2011 debut, Muscle Milk, gave listeners a first taste of Associative Music. The EP’s energetic atmosphere and meticulous construction earning him admirers, Koenig went on to produce “Sleep” on the Roots’s Undun and four tracks from Big Baby Gandhi’s No1 2 Look Up 2. Despite his hip-hop connections, he rarely cites musical influences. Nevertheless, there are striking parallels with Amon Tobin’s approach on his 2007 record Foley Room. So when Koenig announced that Moon Money would be released by Ninja Tune, the label where Tobin had fashioned songs from field recordings of chickpeas dropping into sinks and cat eating rats, the decision made perfect sense.
Koenig hinted that Moon Money would be his darkest music to date, and this is clear from its outset. “There’s A Man Waiting At The Bottom Of The Stairs” begins with swirling winds that may or may not sample Hurricane Irene and repeatedly returns to something that sounds like a clown opening wide for a tonsil exam. The track channels a degree of creepiness that recalls Aphex Twin and initiates a narrative series – “The Kid Who Drowned At Summer Camp,” “#Mindcontrol,” “Everybody’s Parents Must Die” and “The Girl Who Stole My Tamagotchi” – whose explorations of childhood love, loss and abuse would feel at home on the English musician’s Richard D. James Album. With Moon Money, Koenig’s sugar has cooled, its glycemic index dropped.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. “#Mindcontrol,” the fulcrum of Moon Money, threatens to revive the energy of Koenig’s first EP. The track opens on an eerie Victorian fairground that slowly mutates into a ragga dance hall. But at its midpoint Koenig fires up what sounds like an engine, though it is almost certainly something far stranger, and sends the tune into a kind of meltdown. The beat that finally emerges places huge banks of static electricity on top of half-step percussion whose sampled crashes sound worryingly like breaking glass.
The spacey lunar melodies of “The Girl Who Stole My Tamagotchi” offer some of the EP’s richest moments. Then, lusting after this girl, the following tracks reawaken the energy glimpsed on “#Mindcontrol” as well as all the sexiness that had poured out of Muscle Milk’s “Not Tonight” and “Fuckable.” “0_0” oozes through a cacophony of moans, groans and sharp inhalations. Reminiscent of Air’s Moon Safari, these get the track all hot under the collar. “Coconut Powder” covers the same emotional material but with a harder-edged sound, evocative of early synthpop. The track’s bouncing, slappy bassline pushes the EP to its climax, and the two closing tracks that follow have to gently dial down the intensity to bring Moon Money back to where it started.
It’s easy enough to say that Moon Money advances over Muscle Milk: that it represents a mellowing of Koenig’s sound, that its samples feel more tightly connected, that it has a clearer narrative arc. But if Associative Music really unlocks our idiosyncratic responses to sounds, then these judgements are inadequate. Koenig has an anecdote about his physiologist-muse Ivan Pavlov that captures the reviewer’s difficulty:
When Pavlov would serve food to his dog, he'd ring a bell to get its attention. After a few times, ringing the bell would cause the dog to salivate with or without food in front of it. This bell illicited [sic.] a psychological response from the dog (expecting to find food near the bell) as well as a physical one (actually drooling).
Needless to say, I rarely found myself salivating as I listened to Moon Money. Nevertheless, Koenig’s strange and wonderful music certainly does affect the listener personally and in ways that are not always easy to describe. This might sound like a cliché, but to appreciate this music you really do have to hear it for yourself.
Video (NSFW): http://vimeo.com/39713377/
Nick Koenig’s Manifesto For Associative Music: http://associativemusic.com/