Asia Nichole Hodges

INTERVIEW: iLL and Mo of Nerd Revolt

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SoCalMusicToday.com writer Asia Nichole Hodges recently sat down via Skype with iLL and M0 of Nerd Revolt to discuss their new music video for “Twisted.” Below is her account of the interaction.

I spent over an hour and thirty minutes with the iLL.F.O. and m.0, the dyad of Nerd Revolt who have just released a new music video for their track Twisted, off the self- titled album which is out now.

In a way, they were everything I expected them to be: smart yet accessible, and familiar yet cutting-edge.  The synergy between them creates something so palpable that I was actually able to experience much of them through their music, before I even knew their names. This interview is proof positive that sound can convey real human elements, thought and feeling. Only the highlights follow, but if you want something you can really sink your teeth into in meatspace, demand they play a show at a venue near you!

What’s your story? Where are you guys coming from in the world? What has life been like leading up to this moment?

iLL: Well it’s been a really, really crazy journey. We met four years ago in Seattle, and everything just happened organically. We were into a lot of the same music and we’re both musicians and we just started getting to know each other. And then as time went on, we talked about our philosophies on life. It’s like we shared a lot of these same dreams… you know, these pipe dreams that we always had. We always felt like we were getting derailed or discouraged, and then all these different things would steer us off track. We really connected on that.

We were both feeling like we were loners our whole lives, pretty alienated, you know? It was just really reaffirming to meet another like-minded person, and we connected creatively, mentally and we just had this vision of being indie artists. Like, what if two people just made art together and shared this vision, just to see where that went?

m0: The bonding thing was that we both play synthesizers. I’m very obsessed with synthesizers. So meeting someone who was equally obsessed, that was the initial kernel of how we met each other, then add everything she just said…

iLL: We just wanted to express ourselves, and do it without compromise just to see where that went. First we started jamming and making music, and then we started the blog in ‘09. From there, we just started exploring all of these different art forms. We got into video, photography and I’ve been expanding on my writing so it’s been a really amazing journey.

What’s it like making music right now at this moment? I mean, at this time, in this place, because you really could be making music from anywhere. But the album was made there in San Francisco, right?

m0: Yeah, it was made in San Francisco. And the thing that really drives us about making music now is the fact that we can be anywhere and make music. The cool thing about this album, and not only making the album but getting it out, is that everything we’ve done has been all digital. It’s been completely online! It’s a very powerful time to be able to make music, especially if you’re an independent band like us. We can have the same impact now as we could have a few years ago, but with the help of labels and a crew of people.

iLL: San Francisco definitely inspired a lot of the energy and the vibe of this album. But as far as transmitting it to the world, we really could have made it from anywhere.

m0: There’s just the energy of technology here, it really motivates you and inspires you. There’s a pulse here and we definitely feed off of that. The companies here come up with the tools that we can use to broadcast everywhere, and we just feed off of that, too.

I have to talk a little bit about the counter narrative to that, because you guys are describing everything as being so open, saying that there’s so much power in the art form. So, what are some of the challenges you both face as artists?  I know the demographics on the tech industry and electronic music genre show that it’s dominated by white males. How might that translate Nerd Revolt into an intervention on what the trend has been for so long?

iLL: That’s what’s so amazing about being an independent artist now. Those power structures are becoming less valid. We have total control over our message. We have total creative control. We can broadcast our music, our videos, our art, and not have to have that middle man that we might have needed before.

m0: Yeah, before we had to go through these gatekeepers. Even though there’s a certain demographic that dominates the industry, the industry has provided tools that just makes it easy for anyone. Anyone can grab a computer and have software on it, no matter where you’re from or what your background is. You don’t have as many walls to go through to get what you want to express to the end user. But if you do have a passion, and you do have something you want to achieve, anyone can do it now. For me, that is ultimately the most powerful thing. So, ultimately I see it as a net advantage versus a net disadvantage.

iLL: Yeah, there’s definitely more advantages than disadvantages. We’re very empowered by all the tools out there.

There’s a quote on your blog where you say, “I knew that one day I’d turn these experiences into something to inspire other people, something tangible that I’d have to show for the struggle.” What is the struggle, or what has the struggle been for you?

iLL: Yeah, I had gotten really discouraged, because I grew up dreaming of being an artist, of being a performer. But there were all these different challenges throughout my life, whether it was people talking me out of it, or like you said, the lack of role models. I didn’t see Asian people in the media or entertainment growing up. So, I didn’t have that frame of reference in a role model, and you have all these voices out there discouraging you and telling you that you can’t make it. All of these alienating experiences basically made me want to give up on my dreams. The only thing keeping me going was knowing that somehow I would tell all these stories one day. What we’re doing now is something to inspire people, to let them know that you can live your dreams and you can follow your heart to make your vision a reality.

Yeah, and I definitely want to talk to you more about your vision, specifically for your self-titled album. What was the creative process leading up to the album taking shape?

m0: Because of the whole synthesizer thing, we started out as an instrumental, live PA kind of band. So, when we initially started to think about the album, we started with that approach but soon we started kicking around the idea of some song based stuff, which we hadn’t done with iLL on the mic. The seed really got planted once we did a cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Photographic’ about a year ago. That was the first time iLL was front and center. She really had a lot to bring and it was amazing.

Absolutely. There were several points on the album when I can hear the struggle you were describing just a minute ago, iLL. But there were other times when the album was powerfully triumphant. So, I just wanted you to tell me a little about some of the themes interwoven throughout.

iLL: You pretty much nailed the two sides of the emotional arc because when we started, I was writing the lyrics to Breaking Free and I was going through a lot of angst, evaluating all the oppression and degradation I had felt in my life. I was battling these demons and facing a lot of dark things from my past that had kept me from becoming liberated and living my dreams. So by the time we got to Rise Above This and Broken Free, I had really just felt like I had conquered these demons, and I had worked through them through writing this album. It definitely did feel triumphant and liberating. The album pretty much chronicles that whole journey I went through emotionally.

“Photo Test” and “Heady Beat” are 2 tracks on the album in particular where you’re actually creating spaces through soundscapes. When I listen to the album all the way through, those tracks really snuck up on me. I’d end up like woah, how did I end up here without the lyrics to kind of guide me through what was happening.

iLL: Those are some of our most abstract and psychedelic works. The instrumentals on the album feel like getting back to our roots– not in a regressive way, but getting back to the roots of when we started using synthesizers when we were jamming. But we took it a step further by making these tracks with a song structure. So, ‘Photo Test’ was a really organic jam– we had a couple jams on that.  You can actually watch a video on our YouTube channel that shows how we kind of pieced it together. It just got really psychedelic and I really love doing all the soundscapes, textures and eerie melodies.

m0: Yeah, it really does tie back because our older sound was psychedelic and we still are experimental. So, those songs are kind of transitioning from our EP, which was for the most part psychedelic and experimental. We just kind of approached it more focused. It’s a sign of how we’ve grown from what we started as, and we never want to lose sight of that.

I wanted to ask you to say more about what you mean by oppression. As a black woman, I do think about oppression in terms of the structure of institutions that position me, but I don’t know what comes to mind for you, so I wanted to ask you to say more about what you mean when you say oppression so that I know where you’re coming from.

iLL: On the bigger level, I felt the oppression from, as you said, being a woman, being Asian– I was the only Vietnamese person growing up at my school and that was really tough as far as forming my identity. I was really ashamed of who I was. I encountered a lot of racism growing up, so on the bigger level, that was there. But I also felt oppression on a personal level from people trying to keep me down, keep me from being empowered and from seeing my strength for whatever reason…

… because that is their power.

m0: Exactly.

iLL: Exactly. So, if we’re in a so-called “weaker” position, in our own minds, we’re going to submit to that. That’s really what this album is about. I realized that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to break free. It was all within myself to become empowered.

m0: Also, it’s about being who you are and not being apologetic about it. It’s like you get the pressure to conform, to fit in, and there’s always a blowback when you try to be an individual, to be comfortable with your background.

I’m assuming you’ve had similar experiences, m0?

m0: Yeah, because originally I’m from the Virgin Islands. So, culturally, it was a transition just fitting in and understanding the ways of the mainland. I was a teenager when I came here, so it was a very big culture shock. So, then you always feel slightly out of step and a lot of times you direct it towards yourself like, is there something wrong with me? Why am I not fitting in? And over time, through the album and through our friendship, we realized that it is okay to be us. Actually, the thing we learned was that when you stand up to be yourself you realize how many people around you are kind of faking it.

You know the secret! People will totally fake it.

iLL: Yeah, and then you realize how threatening that is to people, to challenge that illusion that they’re trying to create of who they are or how things are in the world. This album is not just about us breaking free and becoming empowered, but I would really hope that someone else would listen to it and realize that they can break free, too.

m0: Before the internet, if you thought you were a freak, there was no one out there to really go, “No, I’m just like you.” One of the things I like about where technology has taken us is that anyone, anywhere in the world can go, “Oh, wow, I really relate to what you’re saying. I feel the same way, too.” It works the same way for us when someone hits us up and says we’re not alone.

iLL: People have been coming to us with their music and their art, telling us that we encourage them to just do their thing and just live their dreams. I feel like we’re all creating something together that’s really special.

m0: We’re electronic but I still consider us an alternative band that happens to use synthesizers. When people think of electronic music, they see a DJ or a guy behind a laptop, and it’s just so detached. But the thing about electronic music is that you have the pallet to do anything you can do with any style of music. So, why haven’t we done that? Why aren’t we writing conscious songs? Songs!– and connect in the same way.  Being a band with songs and music, and a conscious band, doesn’t mean that it has to be separate from being an electronic band. It’s because we’re fans of electronic music. It just seemed like a cool experiment to see where we could take it.

I’m glad you brought that up, m0, because I noticed that it’s actually characteristic of a lot of electronic music to have a man sort of behind the curtain with all the buttons and levers, but it’s usually a female’s voice on the track. That’s one of the reasons why your project is like a breath of fresh air because you’re in the driver’s seat, iLL, and you’re putting yourself out there and not in the whole hypersexualized, faux-vulnerable way that we see so often; you’re nude, not naked.

iLL: Yeah.

m0: I like that.

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