By Grant Golden
February 8, 2019
With the advent of music sampling and the popularization of DAWs and MIDI devices, musical collaboration and composition have never been easier. Damn near anyone can pick up a laptop, download some software and immediately start sending their music across the globe. That’s why it feels all the more special when someone is able to craft ornate electronic soundscapes through organic instrumentation, bridging the gaps between the traditional and the contemporary means of making music. Look no further than Matthijs Rook, the Grammy-nominated producer better known as Nicolay. Nicolay’s newest project, Glaciers, released in April 2018, was a long-awaited collaboration with local jazz trio The Hot at Nights, and combined his hip-hop/R&B base with the trio’s free-form jazz romps. But, to get to the core of this Netherland-born producer’s musical growth and his tie to North Carolina, we’ve got to backtrack nearly two decades.
Nicolay is best known for his work as one-half of The Foreign Exchange, an R&B/electronica duo alongside North Carolina hip-hop legend Phonte (of Little Brother). Since the early 2000s, Nicolay has elected to eschew the route of many of his peers and craft his productions sans samples, originally doing so nearly halfway across the world from his partner. The two met via Okayplayer, an online music community founded in 1999 by Questlove of The Roots. After Phonte found Nicolay’s Prince/Parliament Funkadelic-inspired productions through the website, the two hit it off and traded tracks back and forth, eventually crafting their debut album Connected (2004). Connected proved that two wildly different artists could come together in unison through technology, and craft something beautiful and unique without ever sharing the same room.
With some coercion from their label and about six months of waiting, Nicolay found himself as the recipient of an EB-1 visa (commonly referred to as the Einstein Visa), reserved for those that are highly exceptional in their field. He begrudgingly referred to it as the ‘Melania Trump visa’ as we brushed into the nitty gritty aspects of living in a new country while relying on music as his career. Foregoing the glitz, glamour and insanely high living cost of spots like New York and Los Angeles, Nicolay settled in North Carolina. It made sense after all, he’d been collaborating with one of the hottest local emcees and there’s a hungry underground scene ready for not only more material, but live shows.
“I feel like me moving here made us a ‘for real’ group,” Nicolay said. “If I hadn’t come, chances would have been higher that we were still just always gonna be a side project. But once I moved here it became this whole different thing. And then our live act became its own thing next to our recorded music.”
But, of course, live shows come with a whole different side of the production; when you’re a bedroom producer you can easily hop on multiple instruments to craft that grandiose soundscape, you can cook up a funky bassline, build a soulful keys arrangement, then loop some dancey guitar lines and let the magic of electronics do its work. Enter The Hot at Nights.
“The connection with us and The Hot at Nights is really Chris Boerner,” Nicolay said. Boerner contributed to recordings on Foreign Exchange’s Grammy-nominated sophomore release, Leave it All Behind in 2008, alongside fellow Hot at Nights multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas (also a touring member of The Mountain Goats). From there, drummer Nick Bagglio joined the group on tour and as Nicolay put it, “something just clicked…[Chris is] like my main partner here y’know, because he records, mixes and masters. He’s like the renaissance guy and he’s just great to have in your corner. He supplements some of the stuff that I’m into super strong with the nuts and bolts of mixing. The technical stuff, you know, man. Like where to put a mic if you’re recording a guitar. I’m more just a bedroom producer, but Chris, he’s got the technical stuff. But as a partnership we really work well together.”
And it’s clear that Foreign Exchange’s work with the three members of The Hot at Nights helped to scratch an itch for Nicolay: a desire to experiment further with his sound without the structural limitations that may come with Foreign Exchange. So in 2012, Nicolay began working on music with The Hot at Nights, that is, when he wasn’t blasting through the Billboard charts with several new releases from The Foreign Exchange.
“Every time we would do something together it would always go further than where I planned it to go,” Nicolay said. “Which is the great thing about jazz in general, we just kept playing over the years until we finally just decided to put out a full length album together.”
The group kicks off an East Coast run that stops through Carrboro, DC, Richmond and NY, and it promises to be a unique and challenging experience for the multi-instrumentalist. “This project is something I’m very proud of,” he said. “It’s very different than my shows with Foreign Exchange. With Phonte, man, that dude can’t do anything wrong as a front man. But for these shows it’s kind of on me. It’s a damn near nerve wracking experience, but these guys force me to perform at my absolute best. I cannot sleep, like, a second!”
For someone who burst onto the limelight with a project founded thousands of miles away from his collaborator, it’s a new world to rely upon up close improvisational collaboration with your musical partners. It seems intimidating but eye-opening all at once.
“I know I bring SOMETHING to the table because I’m always keeping up,” Nicolay laughed. “But still I’m learning so much from these guys. Even improvisation as a jazz concept, everyone is familiar with it, but it’s incredibly difficult to learn. And these guys just don’t give a fuck man, they play whatever. I’m more of a perfectionist and want 100% control of everything, so its liberating. It’s like playing a show without a net and hoping you make it to the other end.”
As we talked about Nicolay’s musical direction and how he’s already starting work on the next Foreign Exchange album, we circle back to his work on Glacier and the forthcoming live shows. Nicolay won’t ever claim to be a jazzman; he’s not taking this work and making a jazz album with Foreign Exchange next, nor is he expecting these shows to be purely for the jazzheads. It’s clear he’s letting loose with this experiment and hopes that his fans will too.
“I think even for the audience it’s fun thing,” he said. “We’re always trying to make something interesting happen. Sometimes it works really, really well. And every now and then it doesn’t, but hey, that’s fuckin’ jazz, right man?”