“I’ll Be Making Music When I’m 80, Just On My Porch With a Banjo:” An Interview With N8NOFACE

Sam Ribakoff speaks to the Long Beach synthpunk practitioner about bands making music on Game Boy consoles and his introduction to the Los Angeles Police Department.
By    September 16, 2020

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People love the image of a working class artist. It’s a good, romantic, American story from Bill Withers working in a factory making bathrooms for 747 airplanes to poet William Carlos Williams working as a pediatric physician during the day. The image of the artist working and struggling like the rest of us — and creating transcendent art by night — is right up there with “rags to riches” stories in the national mythology. In a country that really doesn’t fuck with art, where there are very few ways for artists in any medium to survive on their art itself if they, or their parents, aren’t wealthy, most artists have to work to survive, either to accrue capital to make the leap to full time art making, or just to live pay check to pay check.

But what happens when a pandemic hits and you’re a working class artist that gets laid off from their job? What do you do then? Long Beach by way of Tucson, Arizona’s N8NOFACE is trying to double down on his art. For a decade now, N8NOFACE has made grimy, distorted, synth-punk music about stories from the underbelly of Tucson and L.A.: from narcos and drug deals and jackings going horribly wrong, to toxic relationships, to stories of police brutality and people too concerned with surviving in America to give a fuck who the president is. Since the beginning of the year, he’s released five projects on his Bandcamp page, all of which are essential time capsules of the rage and the furry of living and surviving in America. I talked to N8NOFACE over the phone from his place in Long Beach about that rage, being a working class artist, and the long history of anti-police brutality punk and rap music in Los Angeles. — Sam Ribakoff

I was surprised to learn you’re from Tucson, because your music sounds so much like L.A.

N8NOFACE: Well thanks. L.A. really did inspire me. As a kid my favorite band was Suicidal Tendencies. I didn’t really know anything, but I was like, wow, they look like us, Mexicans that are into punk. After that I got into some other Venice skate punk bands. But that’s dope. It sounds like L.A. I like that.

I was listening through the records you have up on Bandcamp, and a lot of your early stuff isn’t just synthpunk, but like kind of boogie, Low End Theory, influenced stuff. Kind of like your brother, Zackey Force Funk’s music.

N8NOFACE: Exactly. That was way back when me and him were doing stuff. A lot of my projects are compilations that are just tracks that get picked by the people at Hit + Run. A lot of that stuff was probably me and my brother doing stuff.

Were they like Myspace tracks?

N8NOFACE: Exactly. From the Myspace era. My buddy Tony and I started this band called CRIMEKILLZ that was like “Gameboy punk” music. My brother threw that on his Myspace and it got some love. That was when me, my brother, and Tony were just messing around doing weirdo stuff, not really knowing what we were doing, and a lot of that stuff is what The Dolo Tape is.

Did you grow up listening to boogie?

N8NOFACE: Not me, but my brother, yeah. On Saturdays this radio station in Tucson would play old funk and boogie and stuff and my brother would record it. This was when we were young, not even making music yet, but just like, breakdancing. Me, I always liked all styles of music, and that’s what The Dolo Tape shows. There’s stuff on there that’s electronic, me screaming, me, I guess you could call it, rapping, a couple songs with acoustic guitars. I just tried everything man. That’s me.

When, and how, did you discover synthpunk?

N8NOFACE: Me and my buddy owned a graffiti store in Tucson, and graffiti brought together all these different kinds of people. Kids who were into rap and doing graffiti, or kids into punk, or metal, so when they would come in I would be put up on a lot of stuff. I started making hip hop beats with this kid who would come in, and pretty soon we got bored and decided we should do something different, and we just started discovering all this minimal wave stuff and getting really into it, especially Stones Throws compilation of minimal wave music. So we decided to start making that kind of music, but with Game Boys, and that was CRIMEKILLZ. Like we heard Crystal Castles and we were like, let’s do something like that, but we didn’t want to sample Game Boys, we wanted to make music with the Game Boys. I think people called it glitch tune or something, that was a whole genre. I forget, but that was people playing Zelda and shit. We wanted to make punk records.

How do you make punk music on Game Boys?

N8NOFACE: I don’t know, I was just the vocalist [laughs]. You have to actually write in the notes on some programming shit. Tony [Nicoletta], my friend from Tucson did all that shit. There’s a whole genre of people that make music on Game Boys, but, and I hate to say this, I just wasn’t into a lot of that stuff. We just wanted to make punk music. A lot of our stuff is about growing up in Tucson. Border stuff. Narco stories. Our first record was called Crime Kills Kids, and Hit + Run found us and DJ Kutmah found us on Myspace, and they introduced us to L.A., and that’s what kind of brought me out to L.A. We met all these people out here, Gaslamp Killer, Gonja Sufi, we got some songs on [the TV show] Workaholics, but me and him [Tony, the other half CRIMEKILLZ] were just a mess together, so we eventually split up. The drugs just got really bad.

That’s when you became N8NOFACE?

N8NOFACE: Yeah. I was kinda always doing it. I was always posting weird music shit. I’d listen to this synthpunk music, and I love the melodies, but I kinda hated the voices, but I loved the frequencies, and I was like, maybe I can put some rap elements and tell those kinds of stories, but using this frequency. It’s like rap subjects with a punk vibe. That’s what’s giving me a lot of love, those two worlds coming together. But I love making music man. I’ll be making music when I’m 80, just on my porch with a banjo. I don’t care. So yeah, I kept making music here alone. I got a job because I wasn’t really making any money, and the place I was staying at was this gang member buddy of mine’s, and it just kept getting raided, and he got arrested. He was a friend of mine from Tucson who told me I could stay at his place rent free and make music. His place just kept getting raided and he eventually went to jail, so I got a job at Gulfstream in Long Beach making private airplanes, because I was doing that back in Tucson, and I just kept making music man and putting it on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

You know that some of the early Detroit techno guys said that they made their music sound like working in a factory? Does making airplanes influence your sound?

N8NOFACE: I hadn’t heard that. That’s dope. I don’t know man. I was just talking to a buddy about wanting to sample machinery [in the hangar]. I’ll be walking around the hangar and hear some machine and I’ll just have to stop someone in the middle of a conversation just to hear it, because you hear some wild shit. I can’t play music. I don’t play anything. I barely know any chords, but I try to make pretty melodies out of noise. I run my synths through distortion, and hit them, and do weird stuff to them.

Did moving to Long Beach change your sound?

N8NOFACE: Yeah. A buddy of mine from Tucson said Long Beach is like Tuscon by the water. As soon as I got to L.A. it was two extremes, I was living in south central, so I was dealing with a lot of gang shit, it was just insane, and then when I’d do my music, it was Hollywood shit. Then when I moved to Long Beach it was like, ‘oh, there are regular working people here.’ Nobody I work with is trying to be famous or anything. I love Long Beach man. Right now I’m laid off because of COVID, but I’d jump back into Gulfstream in a heartbeat.

A lot of your tracks are about police brutality. Have you heard any of your tracks played in the streets during the protests this summer?

N8NOFACE: Only online. I’ve seen a lot of people posting videos of what’s going on with my music in the background on Instagram of whatever, and I’m glad, because we’ve been talking about this forever. My first fucking month here in L.A., I was an intern at a music studio, I was coming home and two police in Hollywood pulled me over on Christmas eve. They handcuff me, leave my Jeep where it was, take me to my place, put me on my couch, and they ransack my place and start making calls on my phone. My nana, my grandmother, gave me a cross with holy water in a film canister, and these cops open it up and pour it out and ask me if it’s GHB. They uncuff me and say “you know where your Jeep is,” and they walk out. I mean, I’ve had friends who were done much worse, but anytime anyone says “just be respectful and follow the law, you’ll be okay,” like damn, I was a good guy and they still fucked me up. That was my introduction to LAPD. Like damn. My brother went away for four years. That cop lied and raided his place on a fucked up warrant. I just seen a lot of foul shit, and I just write about it from my own experience. It’s something I’ve seen for years. It’s just something I gotta speak on for my people. Most of my music is just stories for my friends. I’m trying to be their voice.

Do you see yourself as a part of the continuum of all those L.A. artists who have been screaming about police brutality before you?

N8NOFACE: Exactly. I mean, punk and rap, it’s like you almost need a fuck the police song. That’s what people have been trying to say for years in punk and rap. The disenfranchised, the forgotten, they’re the ones dealing with that shit the most. You never hear it in another style of music, except, I don’t know, outlaw country maybe.

Your fan base obviously goes beyond Long Beach, but the diversity of it, both ethnic and class diversity, reminds me of Long Beach.

N8NOFACE: Yeah. There’s this whole new wave of hip hop and punk kids all meshing together. There’s that whole genre of Soundcloud kids screaming over trap beats, but I think more and more hip hop kids are getting into punk and trying to make some punk shit. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up. When I was growing up if you listened to rap, that was it. In my elementary school there really was a fight between kids yelling “rap sucks,” and this other group of kids who were yelling “rock sucks.” We’re a weird town, Tucson. This new era where kids have everything on their playlists is great. It’s creating a whole new fan base. I’m grateful. But right now in Long Beach you got bands like Crimewave [5150]. I went to one of their shows and these Black kids were going crazy moshing. When I first moved here, my girl, she’s a photographer and she shoots a lot of backyard punk parties in East Los and South Central, and I’d never seen nothing like that. We didn’t have that shit in Tucson. Those backyard shows, there were probably only Mexican kids. I’d never seen nothing like it. But yeah, at my shows, it’s everybody. You’ll see some skaters, and maybe somebody that looks gangster, and everybody is having a good time. I love it.

Do you feel like you’re a part of that Long Beach music scene?

N8NOFACE: Well… I know at least the artists in the city embrace me. I always say that the world don’t know me, but everybody in the world that knows, knows who I am.

Has not being able to play shows recently hurt your bottom line?

N8NOFACE: You know what’s crazy? I feel like with COVID, it made a lot of people just sit down and chill, and I don’t know what happened, but I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of notice in these past couple of months. I hadn’t been touring that much, I wasn’t getting booked a lot, and that’s the way you find new bands, so it was hard to find new music, but I feel like recently I’ve been getting a lot of love. I’m like, how did this happen? I think it’s because everybody’s just on the net, and that’s one place I’m just running. I make a song and just put it on Instagram, and I make so much damn music, it’s insane. I was doing that when nobody was noticing, but now that everybody’s on their phone all day, they’re noticing. I can’t wait for the shows to come back, because I, hopefully, fingers crossed, will get booked more. I’ll always make music though. I’ve got friends my age who come home from work and hop on that Playstation, or put $30,000 into a lowrider. It’s never going to make them famous, they do it because they have to. They do it because they love it. I always use that lowrider analogy for my music. I’m going to put all my time and money into it and if it never makes me a dime, I don’t care. I just love doing it.

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