While group mate Phonte has been pushing his solo album, Charity Starts at Home, Nicolay, the producer of acclaimed duo The Foreign Exchange, has been busy touring a stellar EP. The Dutch musician teamed up with North Carolina jazz trio, The Hot At Nights, to record The Shibuya Session EP in 2011. Led by 8-string guitar virtuoso Chris Boerner, as well as Matt Douglas on saxophone/woodwinds, and Nick Baglio on drums, The Hot At Nights is a mostly improvisational group who joined Nicolay in the studio to rework eight songs from Nicolay’s 2009 release: City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya.
Boerner and Nicolay are no strangers to each other musically: the guitarist has been featured on two Foreign Exchange albums, and has also hit the road with FE as part of their official live band. Now, in an intimate live set, Nicolay and The Hot At Nights are blessing stages all over North America, playing cuts from the Shibuya Session, as well as Nicolay’s solo work and Foreign Exchange classics. Toronto fans will have their chance to check out Nicolay and The Hot At Nights at Trane Studio on July 5th, where they will be performing not once, but twice. Recently, I had a chance to pick Nicolay’s brain about the Shibuya Session EP and live tour. Check out the interview below:
Describe the hip hop scene like in the Netherlands.
N: It’s very diverse. There’s definitely a melting pot, you know? It’s definitely a wide variety of people from different cultures and ethnicities — very much like Toronto in a lot of ways. Very vibrant music scene in general and definitely a strong hip hop scene.
Did you get a lot of your inspiration from the sounds at home, then?
N: I’d say I got more from North American hip hop, just because at that point, that was really what my focus was. I was really into early 90’s hip hop. I wasn’t necessarily looking at the local hip hop scene per se. If anything, I feel that I took a lot of local influences when it comes to electronic music and house music…stuff like that. When it comes to [electronic music], I feel like I’ve definitely been very much influenced and inspired by where I’m from.
Because you had a lot of North American influence, would you say it was easy to foster that chemistry with Phonte when you two met online and recorded Foreign Exchange’s first album?
N: Yeah, I think so! I think that even though obviously, we were coming from two completely different backgrounds, I think I had the references [and] most of the framework in order to understand where he was coming from. I would say that we never really experienced any of the difference in a negative way. There was never really a point where he couldn’t understand where I was coming from, or I couldn’t understand where he was coming from. That definitely kind of helped [in] finding that common ground.
Right. Music is that kind of like a common denominator for everyone.
N: Yeah! It’s an easy language. Honestly, it sounds so cliché, but it’s true that [music] really enables you to speak fluently with people that are from very different parts of the world. And that in itself is amazing!
Talk a little bit about The Foreign Exchange Music [label]. How did you end up starting with [you and Phonte] and growing the label into what it is now?
N: It all goes back to the live show. When The Foreign Exchange performs live, even though “The Foreign Exchange” is myself and Phonte, on stage, we’re eight people strong. We’ve always felt that the people that are joining us on the road, and on stage [should] benefit from that as much as possible. In a lot of ways, that included releasing their music. We believe that even though The Foreign Exchange is the flagship of our operation, ultimately our success is not only gonna come from [Nicolay and Phonte’s] success, but also the success of the people that surround us. The basic philosophy behind it is the saying that “you can be a candle and burn out after so many hours, or you can use that candle to light a hundred more candles!”. That’s really what we’re trying to do with the label and the organization behind it — shine through others and enable other to shine through us.
What is musicianship’s place in today’s music market?
N: Well, I mean…it is tough out there right now; I think for a number of reasons. When I grew up listening to music and appreciating music I really had a great education. I had a lot of people around me that were able to point me to the right directions and put me on to stuff that really appealed to me. But a lot of the kids growing up nowadays don’t have any of that! They’re not necessarily taught to look beyond the flavour of the moment. And that’s something we all should be concerned about! Music education; music appreciation…the whole tradition of music is really on the line! Unless people really are aware of the problem and willing to step up and keep that alive! I’m specifically talking about artists, music educators, people in schools…it’s definitely a trying time when it comes to [musicianship].
Talk about recording the Shibuya Session EP. From the digital booklet, it looks like you had fun!
N: It was a lot of fun! It was very…different for me. Normally, I’m used to tweaking music for a certain period of time. [I] really go back and fix everything that I want to have fixed. [But], this was a situation where it was essentially just four guys in a room from early morning to late night, and that was that! We didn’t depend on computers, or sequencing, or programming, or fixing anything. It was really just the four of us performing that material pretty much as you hear it. It’s kind of like a tightrope walker I guess, in the musical sense — it really is performing without a net. And that’s really cool because it takes you out of your comfort zone and as a result it brings the best out of you. Sometimes the worst too! But you’ve got to embrace that as well; it’s all part of it. It’s all one big perfect imperfection.
I learned a lot from playing with [The Hot At Nights] because they’re incredible in their own right. They’re incredible musicians and masters of their respective instruments. From [recording] and from playing night after night with those guys, I have learned a LOT of invaluable stuff!
Having said that, what can Toronto expect from your upcoming shows at Trane Studio?
N: Well, [the tour] has been incredible! It’s been a lot of fun. It’s an instrumental night…a listening experience. This is not about pyrotechnics, or costumes or anything like that! This is about the music. We really describe it as a listening experience; one that you can disappear in for an hour or two. It’s the four of us, playing a lot of the material from the EP. We’re also performing some music from the Foreign Exchange catalogue in a new and re-imagined way; and some other stuff from my personal catalogue. We’re really challenging and inviting people to come, sit and listen; and get taken away for a little bit [with] no other distractions.
The shows that we’ve done this year have been amazing. Some of them have been quite extraordinary! So we’re looking forward to coming to Toronto. We’re lucky because Toronto is the only city where we get to do it twice! We’re playing two shows. That’s exciting for us, because that means we get to switch it up even more! We really can’t wait!
Those who have listened to the Shibuya Session EP know that Toronto should definitely look forward to checking out Nicolay and The Hot At Nights on July 5th.
Also, good news for fans of The Foreign Exchange: Nicolay confirmed that a new album is in the works and that recording may commence as early as Q4 of this year. On the upcoming project, an excited Nicolay shared:
“I can’t wait to start on the new album! It will be album number 4, which is special in itself. Musically, even I don’t know what we’ll come up with next”.
While it is too early to announce an album title or official release date, Nicolay seemed confident that an FE album could be complete by fall of 2013. Keep your ears peeled for that project and the meantime, check out The Shibuya Session EP to hold you over.