When Max Bell flips, it’s not to make people’s heads nod.
One of many music journalism cliches goes thusly: “Music gave [insert artist] a voice.” For producer/instrumentalist Riley Smithson, AKA Shrimpnose, the cliche is practically literal. At the age of five, around the time he began playing drums, the Minnesota-native developed a debilitating stutter. Music became a means of articulating feelings he couldn’t verbalize when stuck on the same syllable for interminable amounts of time.
“[I]t’s always been so much easier for me to express how I’m feeling through playing rather than words. If I get stuck on a word, it’s even hard sometimes to think of the words I want to say,” Smithson explains. “It feels like a mental roadblock.”
Speaking from his home in Van Nuys—an L.A. neighborhood in the Valley with cultural attractions like the 405 freeway—Smithson struggles with a word or two every few minutes. He perseveres, however, without frustration or self-consciousness. Music has afforded him a voice and confidence. Two months shy of 26, he’s also survived one tumultuous living situation and personal tragedy after another in his 20’s. After dropping out of college (partly due to his stutter), he skipped meals for entire days to stretch the few hundred dollars he made each month selling beats to Minnesota rappers. He slept on computer chairs in a dilapidated, mice-infested warehouse, shivering during the unforgiving Midwestern winters. When he moved to L.A., an evil landlord fleeced him and a friend for a couple thousand dollars. Last year, while he was living in a home in dire need of repairs, one of his best friends back in Minnesota committed suicide.
Smithson has transmuted all of the feelings about all of the above into the music he makes as Shrimpnose. It’s understandably somber beat music. These are instrumentals influenced by Bad Vibes-era Shlohmo that you play when the worst has happened, when you’re broke or broken from a breakup, when every corner of your city feels hopeless. Distorted field recordings and filtered guitars (electric and acoustic) are the bed for organic drums, which Smithson often complements with deep bass lines and somber synth chords. In short, he scores the worst vibes.
Following May’s Before It’s Too Late (Dome of Doom), Smithson released August’s A Ghost from a Memory (Friends of Friends). A tribute to his departed friend, it’s a haunted album brimming with grief. On tracks like “PANIC!!!” field-recorded noises flit between solemn guitars and dark bass lines. This is Smithson delivering a eulogy at his friend’s funeral, the music taking the place of words he would have trouble finding, speech impediment or no.
Below is a slightly edited transcript of our hour and a half-long interview. Smithson speaks candidly about his stutter, being broke and on the verge of homelessness in Minnesota, the Minnesota beat scene, his recording equipment and process, moving to LA, and dedicating his latest album to his late friend.
I believe the first project I heard from you was Not Really, but I know you’ve been releasing music since at least 2015’s “FUCK DONALD TRUMP.” What—
Shrimpnose: [laughs] Right after that, I started to get serious about it. I was still in college at the U of M in the Twin Cities. I made that a couple of months before I dropped out. At the time, I was super into the whole academia thing and really motivated, but my speech was way worse. It made college pretty much impossible. I was in a lot of small classes because I was far along in my program. My professors would always call on me, even though I had accommodations, and it just didn’t work out. I started to get into music more. I’ve always been sort of into it. I started to play drums when I was four. When I was in college, I got a computer my first year, and I always played around on GarageBand. Then in 2016 I got Ableton. That’s when I started to get serious about it, and I left school.
What’s your earliest song or project you feel comfortable telling people about?
Shrimpnose:Not Really. I feel like everything before that was so elementary. I just don’t like it. The other day, I went on my private Soundcloud and listened to all the old stuff. It was so unbelievably bad. It was completely out of tune. There was reverb on everything and so much low end in the mix. It sounded so bad.
Do you view your early work often?
Shrimpnose: No. It had been at least a couple of years since I heard some of these songs. It was nice going back and hearing the progress [I’ve made since then], but it made me cringe knowing that that was available in the world for a couple of years.
Apart from the mixing and sound quality, were there other aspects that made you cringe?
Shrimpnose: I didn’t know anything about playing in keys or what a scale was. My ear wasn’t that good, so I would leave in wrong notes a lot. Hearing it now, it all sounds bad.
You started playing drums at four. Did you take lessons, or were you self-taught?
Shrimpnose: I took lessons from seven to 13 or something like that. [My instructor] was a jazz drummer, but I was really into metal at the time. Whenever I hear stuff I used to like I get excited, which is nice. Metal is a genre you can grow out of easily. Gojira is a band from France I like a lot that I’ve been following since I was 12 or something. Meshuggah is from Sweden, and they’re super cool. It’s sort of like djent, if you know what that is. It’s very rhythmic and detuned metal.
When you started playing drums, were you already grappling with your speech impediment? Did you perceive music as a means of communication at that time?
Shrimpnose: My impediment developed when I was like five, so it was right around the same time. Ever since then, it’s always been so much easier for me to express how I’m feeling through playing rather than words. If I get stuck on a word, it’s even hard sometimes to think of the words I want to say. It feels like a mental roadblock. It’s a lot smoother now than I was a couple years ago.
Did you spend a lot of time working on it?
Shrimpnose: It’s not even that I spent time working it actively. I just feel more comfortable with myself and the situations I put myself in. I don’t put myself in situations where there’s the whole performative speech thing, where you have to speak in front of a group of people..
Has your stutter affected your music career? Does it make collaboration difficult?
Shrimpnose: Collaboration is usually pretty easy because I work with people I know. But being on stage is hard. I rarely use the mic. I’ll say, “Hi,” at the start and, “Bye,” at the end. But I just kind of hit play for the whole hour and don’t really say much. I like the music to say words I can’t.
How does your speech translate to your music? Are you thinking linguistically when you’re composing, or are you communicating a feeling?
Shrimpnose: It’s usually more feeling oriented. When I’m thinking about how I feel, I don’t think about it in terms of words. It’s more like colors and sounds. It’s hard to explain. I can’t even put the feeling into words. If I hear a really beautiful song, my whole world turns blue or gray or something. Trying to communicate that feeling into words just feels so much cheaper. If you can’t really be there and experience it, it feels like it lessens it.
In what ways is knowing how to drum an asset when you’re programming drums?
Shrimpnose: If I didn’t know how to do that and how to read a bar of music, I wouldn’t know how to program drums at all. Some friends of mine that didn’t know had a hard time even understanding what the grid is and BPM and stuff like that. Especially in the style that I work in, groove and syncopations are very important to the drums. If you don’t know how to read a bar of that, it’s really hard to simulate that if you’re not using a sample.
Do you play the majority of your drums and sample them, or do you look for drums?
Shrimpnose: I play pretty much all of them. Once in a while, I’ll get a percussion loop and play with it and sample it—slow it down, pitch it up, or whatever I want to do with it—but for the main drums I play everything all the time.
Which came first, guitar or keyboard?
Shrimpnose: Guitar. I always had a keyboard growing up, but I never played it seriously. I started with bass in about 7th grade and got into guitar a few years after that. I didn’t start to get into piano that much until a year and a half ago. I actually play guitar upside down. I’m a lefty, and they always say that you can just string it opposite, but I learned it upside down and now I don’t know how to do it the right way.
Are there any recent tracks that you think best display your abilities as a keyboardist?
Shrimpnose: On the new album, there’s this one called “Harlequin.” There’s no drums on it. It’s all piano and guitar. It’s one of my only songs that I would feel comfortable hearing at a wedding. (laughs)
A lot of your recent work has been fairly guitar-heavy. Both in and outside of metal, who are some of your rock influences?
Shrimpnose: Tool. I guess they’re still sort of metal, but Tool is my favorite band. Metallica. I don’t really like them anymore, but growing up I worshiped them. I was in the fan club. I had the T shirt. I had Metallica drumsticks. Honestly, I get more inspiration from the guitar sounds in folk music and electronic stuff. I really love Bon Iver.
Was there anyone in the beat community using guitar that inspired you?
Shrimpnose: Shlomo, especially Bad Vibes. That was the album that got me really seriously into producing. His use of negative space was really important to have the songs hit the way they did. They’re so melodic and simple that, if he tried to play a guitar solo or play anything that was too busy, it wouldn’t translate the same way. And on his later stuff, the more screechy sound was really cool. It was the first time I’d heard guitars used that way in electronic music.
Shlohmo aside, what were some of the first records and songs that got you into beat music?
Shrimpnose: There’s definitely a handful. The self-titled XXYYXX was the first stuff I got really into. I heard it before I had a laptop, so I couldn’t be inspired by it yet. At the time, I was only into metal and rock. But I took some shrooms and I heard that [XXYYXX record] and my life was never the same. I had never heard electronic music that I could relax to. I was used to like Skrillex or dubstep in general. That album made me feel something more than being hyped up.
Was rap ever in the picture?
Shrimpnose: A little bit. Being from Minnesota, the Rhymesayers community is pretty big. I used to really like Eyedea. I don’t really like Rhymesayers anymore, but they were for sure a big influence in getting me into production.
When you’re composing a song, does the guitar come early or is it a late addition? Where do you begin most often?
Shrimpnose: Usually, I begin with guitar or keys. Drums are the very last thing. I try to build the melodic and harmonic elements first, so that I have more room with the drums. If you start with drums, it’s hard to hear the drums any other way throughout the song. If you start with a melody, it’s a lot easier to hear the changes that should be there in the drums, at least I think so.
So many of your beats have really fascinating ambient sounds and textures. There’s hiss and pop, but also strange noises that you’ve layered in. I’m thinking of songs like “PANIC!!!” from A Ghost from Memory or the title track from Before It’s Too Late. Where are you getting those sounds from? What do they add?
Shrimpnose: A lot of the time, I record the sounds with my field recorder. It’s a little Tascam. More than capturing sounds of specific things, I like capturing room sound from events or times that I really like. For example, on “bottoms up” from Before It’s Too Late, I use the sound of me and my dad walking into the grocery store laughing about something. I slowed it way down and pitched it down I think, and it gives it this really cool like bubbly effect that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t play with a texture like that. I feel like a lot of producers, myself included—I used to just throw like hiss on it and be fine with that or throw a scratchy sound on it and be fine with that. The really interesting things come out when you play with audio files.
Has COVID-19 impacted your ability to do this?
Shrimpnose: Yeah. There’s not much that we can do nowadays. I did go on a road trip like a month ago. We went from Minnesota through South Dakota and the Badlands, then to Wyoming and Bighorn and Yellowstone, then up to Glacier [National Park] in Montana, then Palouse Falls in Washington through Oregon, down to California. That was cool because it provided a lot of opportunities for nature sounds, but there’s something about the sound of being in a room with your friends and the recorder is on the opposite side of the room. It doesn’t just sound like your voices; it sounds like a whole like scene.
When did you start producing, what equipment or DAW’s did you use?
Shrimpnose: I first started with GarageBand in 2013 when I got my computer. Then I moved to Logic about a year later. I was in logic for two years or so, then I got Ableton. My setup was really simple for a long time. It helped that I had guitars at home already. I’m still actually using the same computer, today. It’s a 2012 MacBook Air. It’s really small. It has like four gigs of RAM on it. I don’t know how I’ve been able to make it work for so long, but it was that and a shitty little Snowball mic. That was about it for a long time. Then I started to share a studio with some for friends in my group CRAM, and they had some room in there. I brought my drum set in there, and I started to record that more. They had some more instruments in there. From there, I got an interface and a nicer mic.
Where is your studio? What does it look like?
Shrimpnose: I actually share my studio spot with Somni in Van Nuys… The studio is 10 x 10 feet or something. It’s like a vocal booth, a couch, and the work desk. That’s about it. A bunch of instruments, too. He’s got some cool lighting in there, too. It’s like a five minute drive from me. It’s super close. It’s really hot [in Van Nuys]. This week it was 117. It was ridiculous. There’s a lot of good food out here. I’m excited to get out, though. Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking to move by the water. It’s cooler.
What does your setup look like today?
Shrimpnose: I still don’t have too complicated of a setup. It’s a lot of me recording live sounds, which is pretty easy. I really would like to get some more hardware synths. No matter how hard you try, it’s pretty impossible to get a real warm hardware sound on a computer. It’s a lot of me recording bass and guitar. [Somni] actually has a tape machine that I’ve been using a lot. You can record into it through a microphone. Being able to play with the reel on it has been really cool, giving it a warbly, sort of glitched out effect. Usually, there’s some sort of synthesizer in every song. To be honest, my favorite one is just the regular old analog inside of Ableton. It’s a stock synth that I’ve used over the years. I really like how easy it is and the color on it and the white noise. I record a lot of percussion sounds, whether it’s keys or like a pencil on the desk. It could be anything, really. There’s a million sounds to use, but I’d say the one thing that’s consistent in every song is some degree of recorded, organic sound.
Did you have any mentors?
Shrimpnose: Not mentors. There were people I looked up to, but I learned most of what I know either alone or on YouTube. I’m actually from Buffalo, which is about an hour west of Minneapolis. I didn’t move out of there until my third year of college, so it was hard working with other people when I was probably the only one in town with a MIDI keyboard.
Is there a beat scene in MN? What is/are/was the hub or hubs?
Shrimpnose: There definitely is a scene there bubbling up. I don’t know if you know Falls. He’s from England, but he’s lived there a handful of years. Psymun and Bobby Raps are crazy producers. A couple years ago, I used to throw something called the Best Damn Beat Battle [in Minneapolis] at this bar called Honey, which is closed now due to the pandemic. I think it’s closed up and emptied out now. It’s really sad. I started in 2016 and threw them every other month until I moved out in the fall of 2018. I would get 16 producers to sign up and five judges from the scene. I had Falls a few times. I think I had Psymun once. The producers would go head-to-head, two beats per round. The judges would vote or deliberate, and then they would speak on the mic and say what they thought about each producer. The winner would get like 300 bucks or something like that. We had a lot of them. I think I threw like 10 of them. It was really cool because I found a lot of producers through that, people that I now follow and are actually really good. Slowya.roll was in the battle a couple of times. Now, he’s crazy. His drum work is better than anything I can do.
Do you ever fault a label like Rhymesayers for not releasing more instrumental records?
Shrimpnose: I do. I also fault Rhymesayers for not doing anything for the local community. They don’t really do anything for local producers. They threw Soundset every year, and at that they had a production showcase, but that’s pretty much the extent of what they’ve done for the producer community there.
Are there any aspects of your music you think are distinctly Minnesotan, things that non-Minnesotans wouldn’t pick up on?
Shrimpnose: That’s a really good question. Not so much now, but I used to do a lot of field recordings of the river while walking around the city. I did a lot of that on the record with K.Raydio from last year. We recorded all of that in Minneapolis, and then I mixed it all here in LA. A lot of the recording sounds in there are from back home.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on the day you decided to drop out of college?
Shrimpnose: Holy shit. I haven’t thought about this since it happened. This is crazy. I would ride to school on my longboard every day. I lived about a mile away from school. One day, I hit a rock and flew off the board and landed on my face. I was bleeding everywhere, and there was a rock lodged in my skin. I went to the hospital, and I had a concussion and they had to cut the rock out of my skin. After that, I went to Spanish class for a test that I couldn’t miss. I just remember feeling like, “What am I doing? I fucked up my face going to a class that I hate to take a test that I don’t want to take.” It wasn’t even so much that I disliked the content because I still like reading in Spanish, but the pressure of having to perform in front of my class made me dread every second of it.
Shrimpnose: Motivating in the sense that it made me want to work harder to make more things so that I could be more comfortable, but limiting in the sense it was rough for a while. I had to skip meals a couple days of the week. I was living on $300 a month and would eat every other day. Being where I am now, it makes me appreciate having the resources to feel comfortable and safe so that I don’t have to worry about when my next check will be. The motivation of being broke is not as powerful or not as potent of a tool to help you as feeling comfortable is. You can be comfortable living that broke life, but if you’re putting yourself through that unnecessarily because you think it’ll make you a good artist or something, I don’t think that’s accurate. If it makes sense to do that for you, you should do that. But the motivation should be to get out of that situation, not to glamorize sleeping on the floor. At the end of the day, only the results matter. If you’re comfortable doing it that way, that’s fine. But if you’re not comfortable and want to work a job and do music on the weekends, that’s fine too. The mental stress of going through that, if it’s not worth it, is going to ruin your inspiration a million percent.
Growing up, how closely did you follow the beat scene in L.A.?
Shrimpnose: This was the hub. Everybody loves FlyLo. I really loved Baths, Teebs, Mono/Poly, and Daedalus, Tokimonsta. Everyone I looked up to in that scene was pretty much here. Coming here was really cool because I’ve gotten to see a handful of those people in person. I even got to play Low End Theory. At the time, that was the pinnacle of what I wanted. Even now, being here is cool because it feels like there’s actual opportunities to move forward in terms of who I want to work with and labels and just everything. Being in Minneapolis, it’s really easy to get burnt out doing this sort of thing. Your avenues are extremely limited. There’s not really any labels there. Ren Raku is there and they’re cool, but they’re pretty much the only label that does this sort of thing that I can think of.
Was that the main motivation for moving here?
Shrimpnose: Definitely. I felt so limited in Minneapolis. At that point, I had already played all the venues and worked with pretty much the people I wanted to work with. I could see that if I stayed there, it would pretty much just be that going forward. It would be comfortable, but there wouldn’t be any opportunities to expand beyond that. Moving here was nice because I’ve had some really cool shows, and I’ve worked with Daedalus, for example. His KEXP video on YouTube was like one of the first production videos that got me really interested in MIDI pads and whatnot.
You’ve released records with LA beat scene labels Dome of Doom and Friends of Friends. What does that kind of validation from Wylie Cable (DOD) and Leeor Brown (FOF) mean to you?
Shrimpnose: It means the world. Being esteemed with all these people I look up to is a very good and validating feeling. Somebody could say it’s just a label, but it’s more than that. It’s having your music considered on the same level as the people you look up to, which I feel like is ultimately what anybody wants, right? You can get that from yourself or from other people, but the goal is to just feel like your art is valid. Seeing Leeor and Wylie like my albums and work them as hard as they do makes me feel legitimate.
Before you moved to L.A., you were living in a warehouse…
Shrimpnose: I had a studio inside of a warehouse. It was a pretty big room. There was a loft in it, there was graffiti all over the walls, holes in the walls. There were mice. Blunt ashes on every centimeter of everything. It was just a dirty old room. I actually slept in there with three of my friends, too. In Minneapolis, there’s a group called Blood $moke Body, and I shared it with them and my group, CRAM. I slept there, and they slept there. Some nights, I would have to push two computer shares up to each other and sleep in the middle, legs hanging off. It’s just what I could afford at the time. I used to steal sandwiches from the gas station next door all the time.
How did that inform your music at the time? Was it a reflection of your living and economic circumstances? I think you were working on Sullen at the time.
Shrimpnose: Yeah. If anything, it was more a reflection of my young excitement about making music. I’m still proud of that record, but it does feel very young in the sense that one song will be really sad and the next song will be really happy. It feels more naive to me, which is a nice feeling looking back.
When you did move to L.A., you were scammed out of your rental deposit. What was the space like where you moved after that?
Shrimpnose: A family friend of mine had a house in Van Nuys. It had a lot of issues with it. The people that were in there before us poured wax down the sink. There was a bunch of writing on the walls, and I think they did some voodoo and shit because there were eggshells in the fireplace. It was just a bunch of really weird stuff. They did $45,000 worth of damage to the house. We moved in there while it was still fucked up so we can live there cheaper. We didn’t have any heat or AC. The covers on all the electrical outlets were off. The walls were all fucked up. They had to paint everything. One of the bathrooms was out of order the whole time that we were there, but it was pretty cool because there was a pool in the backyard. That was really nice. We used that a lot. And it was just my first winter not being cold. It was nice having somewhere safe to stay here and not really having to worry too much about money. It was the first time I felt really good in my own headspace in a long time.
How did that impact the creation of Before It’s Too Late?
Shrimpnose: It’s the first full album I made, about an hour long. Everything else had been like 25 minutes or less. It was the first one I wanted to be really considered like a serious debut. It translated in the sense that I made a very concerted effort to make something with impact for the first time. Before, it felt like I was making the coolest thing I could, or the most impressive thing I could, and this was the first project where I wanted the music to make an emotional impact more than I wanted to impress or make somebody dance.
Personal tragedy seems to inform a lot of your recent work. The records have a somberness, a dispirited tone. Does making sad music make you feel less, well, sad?
Shrimpnose: Yeah. The new album A Ghost From Memory … A little over a year ago, June of 2019, one of the guys in my group, Ty, went to a rehab facility. He was having some hallucinations from withdrawals, and he killed himself. His mom called the center to be like, “You need to have an eye on him. He’s not normal right now.” And they didn’t watch him and that happened. That was the first suicide I’ve ever had to deal with in my immediate circle, and he was my best friend. He saved my life, literally, more than once. He jumped in front of a gun for me. And he was an amazing father. He had his issues, obviously. At the last show that we had, my group got banned from all Live Nation shows because he was throwing beer bottles around and pissing all over. (laughs) There was always that aspect, but he felt like the glue in the group. Whenever we had shows, he was the dude that would go nuts. He would bash his face with the mic until he bled or rap a verse on a fan’s shoulders. Losing somebody with so much life and energy like that, in that way, shook my world. He was the only one in the group that had similar music tastes. He was really into the beat scene, too. I wanted to make something that would be a tribute to him and something that I thought that he would like, too. I feel like I really hit that with this. I wish I could get the final approval from him.
The voice on “So Long for Now” sounds like a ghostly robot. Who is singing that?
Shrimpnose: That’s this kid I found on Instagram. His name is Cold Illumination. He puts up videos of him singing and playing a guitar or ukulele. His voice was so special. I feel like it has a Shiloh vibe. I have some other stuff with him also in the works I really like the way that it came together. It really just started with me sampling an Instagram video.
What did you do to the vocals? How did you process them?
Shrimpnose: I pitched him down for sure. I changed the time signature on it, too. I think it was a little more syncopated originally, and I made it more straightforward. There’s some reverb and compression. I think I used some tape effects on it. Pretty simple, but I feel like some simplicity is hard to achieve and make it sound full. That was one of the first songs that I felt was simple enough but also like an earworm. It’s catchy and complex in its own way, but it is still very simple.
Would you mind walking me through the creation of another song on A Ghost from Memory?
Shrimpnose: The title track, for months, was just a slow piano song. It didn’t even have drums on it. I sent it to Leeor, and he was like, “This is pretty cool, but I think it could use a little something.” I sent him the record probably 10 times and did a bunch of revisions on it. So I just went for it. I did that sort of house pattern. It’s not really house, but it’s sort of housey. It came together so smoothly after not knowing what to do with it for so long.
How has COVID impacted your creative process and/or career?
Shrimpnose: It canceled two tours I was working on. In April, I was supposed to do a run of shows with Glitch Mob. In August, me, Harris, and Somni were supposed to have a tour. Pretty much all my client work is reduced significantly. I’m not really selling beats anymore. One thing that’s nice is that people seem to be more genuinely interested in releases outside of hype. It seems like on Bandcamp I get more messages. People seem to be caring about music more for the right reason.
What are your goals going forward, either musically and professionally?
Shrimpnose: I would love to start dabbling in pop and rap production on a large scale. I feel like every ten years the sound changes from softer to harder or harder to softer. It’s been happening since big band jazz. I feel like pop music now isn’t very beautiful. I would like to make an impact or leave my footprint on popular music by giving it a little more feeling or texture.
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