interview by rob whitfield
A great cover design is sometimes all an album needs to draw you in. Green Twins, the debut album from Nick Hakim is adorned in a striking, surrealist illustration by Keith Rankin that depicts a solitary green eye staring at itself in a mirror. It’s a design that perfectly encapsulates the introspection of Hakim’s debut, whilst also harking back to the wildly creative sleeve designs of old jazz, funk and soul LPs. Most importantly, it is – like the album itself – like nothing else you’ll find today. On Green Twins, Hakim draws as much from the golden age of soul as he does from modern beat-making and hardcore punk to create an album fraught with raw emotive power.
Your new record, Green Twins, is a departure from the sound of the two EPs you’ve released to date. How did you come to develop this sound?
It had a lot to do with experimenting with my style of writing and using different [tools]. I was recording in my room and trying to embody a bedroom production kind of sound. The demos were then fleshed out by myself and my good friend and co-producer Andrew [didn’t catch the surname] as he had access to some studios. We would just take my recordings to different spaces and overdub on top.
And specifically I was using a lot of drum machines, as well as outboard effects pedals and outboard processing. In comparison to the EPs, which used live musicians catching a take of a song, this was just me playing all the instruments.
Was there a reason why you wanted to approach this album in a more experimental way?
I think I went through a phase of feeling like I needed to reinvent myself creatively. I also wanted to learn and grow as a writer, an engineer and as an instrumentalist. It helped me a lot – helped me to realise a lot of things, like my strengths and weaknesses. I was able to be more aware of what I’m capable of on my own and what I’m capable of with musical ideas I have.
You know, as a musician I’ve always felt competitive, but I’ve always felt behind in a lot of ways. In comparison to other people, some of my peers, I started to take music seriously quite late – I was 17 or 18. I come from no real musical training. I mean I went to music school for a while, but before that I had no formal training as an instrumentalist.
What was it that got you into music?
I had a hard time in high school and I didn’t get very good grades, I wasn’t very focused. I’d always been interested in digital art, I took that pretty seriously, and physical sports, like soccer and basketball, but I never got good grades.
I had to stay back on year in high school, and that year I tried to teach myself piano. I had some teachers that were really supportive and encouraged me to keep going. That’s kind of how it started. Then I just never went to class after that. Seriously. It was three years of me staying in the music room and skipping school.
It sounds like once you discovered music as a pursuit, it just consumed all of your time.
Yeah it did. I mean I wasn’t good at piano, I was learning things by ear, but I had some mentorship from a couple of different musicians in DC. We also had one of those cheap Yamaha pianos in my house and I would just play that all day, or I would find pianos [to play elsewhere].
I had a good friend, Layla, and her family would let me come over to play piano and teach myself stuff. Her family is Ethiopian and so one of the first things I learned was the pentatonic scale because Ethiopian music uses it a lot. It was a real time of discovery.
Were there particular moments that inspired the songs on the album?
Absolutely. A lot of dreams and feelings around love, guilt, lust, pure fucking sex, paranoia and sadness. I mean everything is in there. I go through phases where I feel like the biggest piece of shit. Not because of guilt. But because I’m not always a confident person and I have a hard time articulating myself sometimes. I see my music and these songs as intangible things that I can create to represent me.
It also comes from me trying to survive in New York and be creative whilst also being broke. And I know a lot of people have it harder than me. I’ve been very lucky to be able to put out music at this level. But I’ve felt crazy a lot, living in New York, and it sucked.
It’s interesting that rather than talking about specific events, you’re more focused on the moods and emotions that informed the album. Do you think this is why you wanted to go with a more experimental approach?
I’m gonna be completely honest with you, the reason I wanted to do [the album] this way was because I wanted to remove myself from the EPs. Even before I put the EPs out I felt so disconnected from what I felt when I wrote them. I’m glad they’re out there, because they took a long time – that shit took three years to create – but I kind of felt that I needed to validate myself through creating something that was the complete opposite of that.
I realised the thing about David Bowie was that he literally tried to reinvent himself as a personality through all his records. And that stuck with me. I felt like pushing myself in a way that I’m not comfortable with, or good at. Like there’s a naivety to my production and sometimes I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, but I’m learning. I know a lot more than I did four years ago when I started recording.
It sounds as though you look back at the EPs more as a learning experience than anything else. Would that be fair to say?
The EPs were done at a phase where I was in college and something [I did] outside of my studies. I didn’t even think when I started that project that it would be released. It was a learning experience by default, but it was also a process that had a lot to do with healing and expressing some shit. I was very sensitive to something I went through regarding another person and [the EPs] were just a reflection of that.
So how do you approach writing a song when you’re trying to deal with intangible ideas?
Honestly? Sometimes I just go on a little transfer, think about what’s going on, and then I’ll be able to to actually pinpoint something. Then I’ll just write down whatever words come into my head and puzzle it all together into lyrics. I’ll sometimes read things, like proverbs – I have a couple of books about English proverbs that help me think about different ways of writing. It’s a basic ass process. There’s no volcano erupting. I’m not looking to the heavens.
There are some moments [where that’s not the case]. I wrote ‘Green Twins’ in thirty minutes. It was literally pouring out of me. It was like a fucking release. I’d had this dream and it reflected an actual experience that I went through with my partner. That experience is somewhat private, but it’s also something I chose to share with people and call my record because it reflects a feeling of [my] reality. It’s an ode to something that – I know what it is, but I’m trying to not [discuss] the specific thing because I don’t want anybody to feel pity [for me], or to feel mad at me or at anybody. I want people to take the song for what it is.
I listened to the record for the first time in a really long time earlier today and sometimes I think, “oh I could have sang that differently,” but fuck that. It is what it is. I did that shit in a specific time and a specific moment, and I let myself be that. I really like the idea of sharing raw ideas. That’s something that other artists do really well, in a very genuine manner.
Were there particular artists that you were trying to draw from?
Absolutely. Cody ChestnuTT’s The Headphone Masterpiece is like a golden record in my collection. He did like one or two takes and that record sounds raw as fuck. I try to embody a lot of that, and not just from R’n’B, soul, or funk acts, but from a lot of different angles. Like H.R. from Bad Brains – his vocals are so fucking crazy and cool. There’s this album called Black Dots where they recorded in Dan Zientara’s basement, and H.R. would record his vocals outside to have separation from the band. There’s a song called ‘Why’d you have to go?’ where his vocals give me chills.
It’s not even that I’m trying to imitate it. When I’m writing I think about how [the artists I admire] would approach things. H.R. had a nickname – he was the “demented James Brown”. I think there was a personality there. So I’m trying to think, what would a demented Marvin Gaye sound like? I just use that as a muse. It’s all about personality for me – who are you embodying?
Green Twins is out now, via ATO Records
Order it here