Musical experimentalist Michael Nhat on Woody Allen, racism, LSD (literally!) & his newest album


I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the inimitable Michael Nhat for a good four years now, and he’s certainly one of the most prolific and unique artists in Los Angeles. Once called “the Ariel Pink of Los Angeles hip hop,” Nhat’s sound has a breadth equal to its innovation. He has seven albums recorded, the first of which—a self-titled 12″ on How to Be a Microwave—came out last year.

Tonight, Nhat’s newest, Swimming to Cambodia, will be released on upstart Annie Hall records. (Pizza!, Halloween Swim Team, and Tik///tik are also on the bill. Full details at the end of this post.)

If that weren’t enough, Nhat plans on releasing his third, Just Plain Dying, by the end of the year on I Had an Accident records.

With most bands releasing an album once every two years, at his current rate, Nhat will have five times the discography of most.

“Catch me if you can…Hah,” says Nhat. That is quite a dare indeed.

Photos: April Rodriguez

If industriousness were Michael Nhat‘s only virtue, few would care. However, he has a sound that has not been classified or copied. This is no hyperbole. From the joyful lo-fi electro of “A lot of People Ask If That’s Her Real Name” to the darker beats of “When Pianos Fall from the Sky,” Nhat is on his way to making a legacy.

Right at the beginning of our interview, Nhat stated, “I am going through some temporary hallucinations and a schizophrenic-psychotic state right now because of some lysergic acid diethylamide I took a couple hours ago, for the first time in ten years.” Perhaps and thankfully because of these conditions, this interview is quite candid. Conducted over a Facebook chat and edited for clarity, here is Michael Nhat. Enjoy!

How will your new album, Swimming to Cambodia, differ from your debut?
I have seven albums completely recorded. I took a good look, listened to them and decided when to release each one. Swimming to Cambodia was not the second recording, but I decided to release it as the second one because I wanted to prevent pigeonholing myself to dorky keyboard pop stuff. I figured, if I plan to do something dark and depressing, like Swimming to Cambodia was to me, I wanted to prevent listeners from being disappointed and say, “Michael Nhat’s new stuff isn’t like his old stuff.” If I instill early on that this kind of music is a part of me, I can prevent that.

The short answer to your question is: it’s darker. Also, I just went through a break up, and although I recorded another upbeat album like the first and named it Better Savage, I was in the mood to record again and so I did— that’s how Swimming to Cambodia came into roots.

How do you expect your current fans to react?
I hope they jump off a bridge because of it. That’s my answer.

Haha. So what inspires you to be so prolific? What is the motivating force?
Death. Death is my motivating force.

Because you are going to die? Your own mortality?
I get really depressed and suicidal at random times and simultaneously remind myself how talented I am at music. I get in these periods where I’ll just record non-stop because all I want to do is die, but I can’t until I finish recording all this stuff I wrote; all these musical recordings I made that are too good to just sit on the computer.

Where do you think this depression stems from?
The plane crash I survived that my mother did not, my upbringing with foster kids, getting a little too roughed up by my stepbrother when he’s drunk, racism from the kids at school, racism from my adopted sisters and mother towards Asians, loneliness, rejection, and guilt.

How many step brothers/sisters did you have?
Three sisters and six foster brothers at different times. I used to get really attached to them, and after awhile of them coming into and leaving my life, I built a defense to not allow myself to be close, so I would not get hurt or attached to people. Early on, I taught myself everyone is going to leave.

You mention experiencing racism from your foster family. In what ways did they express racism to you?
My middle sister used to always mock and make fun of my Asian heritage, like my name Van Thong Nhat. Everyone in that family referred to Asians as Chinese and I’d correct them and they’d say, “What’s the difference?”

Wow.
The last racist thing I heard my mother say was, “It’s probably made in China—they all are” (referring to an object), and my stepdad said “Actually it was made in Taiwan.” And my mother said, “Who cares, it’s all the same.”

I would think that they would have to pass some kind of test before adopting, it seems like there should be policy to avoid putting an adoptee into a racist family.
I would think having people pass a test would be smart, for the children’s sake.

You record a lot of your stuff on 4- and 8-track. Do you prefer to do it that way?
I started off with a 4-track, and I have recorded on computer, digital 12-tracks, studios, etc. I am prone to the old way. I have recorded with different people and in many ways over the years, but the most I feel at home, is on my own with an analog 4- and 8-track. I get the most done, I like the sound, and it’s easiest. If someone wants to record a professional album for me, I’m willing to try it; I’m not against digital recording.

In Los Angeles, there doesn’t seem to be much of a music scene for what you are doing.
Thank goodness.

What do you think the future holds for hip hop that has a kinship to independent rock music (Beach House, Abe Vigoda, etc.)?
I am happy for them, but I don’t identify with it. I don’t see a kinship. I like Woody Allen films as equally as I do Fellini films, but just because I, as a consumer, enjoy them, doesn’t mean there’s a kinship.

It seems that more of that crowd embraces what you are doing as opposed to the underground hip hop scene (Project Blowed, etc).
Probably because I have the same background, or I carry myself the same way. I am open-minded, sensitive, and listen to music/films the same way as them, but I just happen to say my words differently; it almost sounds like hip hop, but in character, mood, and taste it’s entirely different. I am not a hip hop artist. I make experimental music.

Hip hop is graffiti, break dancing, battling, etc. I never incorporate those elements or even take them into consideration when I record, write, film etc. Put me in a room with some authentic hip hop artists, and I will assure you, they will tell you I am not hip hop. Every time I get asked about rap I feel like a complete foreigner, regardless of my vast knowledge of that music.

How do you feel about not being accepted into that subculture?
I love it. I used to want their acceptance when I began because, due to the technical aspects of recording and wordplay, I thought I was a rapper, but I got shunned from that scene before finishing a song. I gave up years ago trying to fit in with that scene, it’s just not me. With that came self-realization; I am not one of them. Their music doesn’t even influence me. The only thing that inspires me from that scene is its banally dressed insincere goons going big. It makes me push my music. Getting their disapproval is on par with getting the number 4 to the question what’s two plus two? I am not here to save hip hop. If I do or did to someone today or tomorrow, well, it was on accident.

Do you think there will be a growing scene for the music you are making?
I don’t know if there will be a scene, but Andrew Felix (Annie Hall label head) said to me once I should start one and have my own “Smell” scene or my own “Low End Theory” scene, and honestly I’d rather not. I don’t want to start a venue and invite a bunch of people to sound like me and years from now have a dozen watered down versions of Michael Nhat. No thanks.

I seem to remember you being a Crass fan. How do you feel about their politics/ethics?
I am a Crass fan. I definitely feel in favor of their anti-Christian/anti-conservative views. However, I don’t want to bash religion in my songs too much. People can believe in what they want. It’s their lives. Marry who you want, live how you want, eat what you want but don’t impose it onto me.

Are you an atheist?
I’m not an atheist, I am what God considers his loyal opposition, and I got that from Stardust Memories by Woody Allen.

Finally, a lot of your lyrics are candid portraits of past relationships. What are your thoughts on that?
Fuck nudists. That’s my answer.

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