“I Don’t Put Any Conditions or Restrictions on What I Make”: An Interview With NNAMDÏ

The Chicago musician's latest is the kind of left-field pop that invites you into its own bespoke world, with all sorts of recognizable idioms moved just a bit off-kilter, Michael McKinney writes.
By    November 16, 2022
Photo via Dennis Elliott

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As NNAMDÏ, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya builds musical kaleidoscopes. His music barrels between all sorts of styles: tripped-up math-rock and arena-ready pop tunes, rip-roaring drum-and-bass and Midwest-emo freakouts. Each new record is both recognizably his own and varied enough to keep any potential listeners guessing. This range belies what might be his biggest compositional strength: his understanding of how to put a hook together. The thing uniting all his work is sheer craft; in NNAMDÏ’s hands, outré rhythms and oddball tunes can be downright world-beating.

His latest record, Please Have a Seat, is his biggest swing yet, a collection of hooky and zonked-out pop music that can’t sit still. It’s the kind of left-field pop music that invites you into its own bespoke world, with all sorts of recognizable idioms moved just a bit off-kilter. Across the record, he uses his kitchen-sink approach to highly particular ends, outlining gut-churning uncertainties, frayed relationships, and quiet joys along the way. During his east coast tour in support of the record, we got a chance to catch up with the songwriter, touching on anxiety, communal joy, self-acceptance, and playing Madison Square Garden. – Michael McKinney

What was your introduction to music?

NNAMDÏ: My parents played music around the house. They’re both very musical people. So that was the beginning stages, before I was able to make my own conscious choices of what to listen to. My dad played a little guitar. My mom would sing in church. I grew up in church. I started playing piano in fifth grade. And then I got a drum set shortly after. So I was like, “fuck piano! I don’t want to do this!”

I wish I would have kept with piano, honestly. I feel like I was not very disciplined. And drums are an easy instrument to get good on without discipline. You just have the desire, you know what I mean? There’s a difference between desire and discipline. I was just playing it because I loved it so much, not because I was focused. That focus came later alongside that desire—I was like, “I really love doing this.” And then I would see things and I was like, “I want to be able to do that.” Whereas I didn’t have that with piano.

Are you thinking of anything in particular?

NNAMDÏ: It’s in the small things. I’d hear someone play a certain beat and think, “Okay, I’ve never tried that. I’m going to give it a go.” I’d hear a cool fill and want to break it down. And then I’d just take it piece by piece, taking things slow and speeding them up. You can get almost anything that way.

Does that inform your current approach to composition?

NNAMDÏ: I don’t really do that much anymore, honestly. At this point, it’s more based on intuition and what I’ve gathered over time. Less reactive and more proactive, I guess. When I’m putting a song together, I’ll typically start with a vocal melody and work the instrumentation around that, and then work on the drums and vocals. Drums are my main instrument, but I’m not going to orchestrate on them. So guitar is typically where I figure out melody and structure; after that, I start on the lyrics.

What was your headspace when putting the new record together?

NNAMDÏ: It was over a course of a couple of years. Half of the songs are, like, early quarantine. And then the other half was after things started opening up. So there’s a lot of anxiety there, from being at home to wherever we are now. There’s anxiety for everybody, in figuring out how things are going to work after that. So that creeps into the music—it was just the natural state of the world.

But you can only focus on the things that you can do. Which sometimes feel very limited. But if you can harness your community and your skills, they can actually be very powerful. And I realized there’s not much that I can do, but I can do music.

I think music is like a very powerful tool that doesn’t just inspire other musicians or other artists—it inspires people of all different walks of life. So when I start feeling that way, like nothing that I do really matters, or like I’m not contributing to the betterment of the globe, I try to remember how important music is to me. I’m like, “I can’t be the only one that feels this.” And there are people smarter than me that, hopefully, can find creative ways to come up with new technologies, or medicines, or whatever else. [laughs] It can inspire people in different ways, right? Yeah, that’s, I think that’s the power of music. I always have to remind myself about that—less and less now that I get older, though. But I used to find myself like, “What the fuck am I doing? The world is crumbling, and I’m sitting here playing these fucking shows.” And then I have to remember that this, too, is helping other people, people who are probably smarter than me and can do things to make the world better.

I’m curious about your relationship with genre. You’ve mentioned wanting to play Madison Square Garden, but you’ve also worked in math rock and all sorts of avant-garde scenes. Do you see that as a dichotomy in any way?

NNAMDÏ: Oh, man, music is music. I love it all. I just want to create stories and moments, and that are special in their own pockets. I don’t put any conditions or restrictions on what I make; that just seems very silly to me. I’ve played a lot of shows where I’m only playing for the sound person. I got lucky enough to tour with Wilco and Sleater-Kinney last year, which were the biggest shows I’ve ever played. And they were sick! But I try to bring the same energy regardless of who’s there. Because I don’t want to half-ass it, even if there’s only four people. I feel like people deserve your same energy for showing up. You know, it takes a lot to show up. And you never know, like, who’s gonna be in the audience or how you’re gonna reflect that. So I just try to blind myself to the situation and just give everything that I can give at that moment. I would love to play MSG and bigger places like that, too, but the energy I give is not going to change.

Tell me about your EP from last year, Are You Happy. How did that come about? What’s your relationship with drum-and-bass?

NNAMDÏ: That’s my homie Lynyn. We’re in a band together called Monobody, where he plays guitar. I don’t really say this often, but he’s a literal genius. The speed at which he produces that quality of music—I don’t really get jealous of people, but it’s just like, he’s just on another planet. We’ve been in a band for so long, and he’s been making electronic music since before we started the band. So we’ve been talking about, on and off, for years. During quarantine, we decided we should actually do this now that we had that time. Production-wise, four of the five songs were demos built off of what ideas he had. And then there’s a couple of times where I’d send him song ideas, or vocal melodies, and then we’d flesh them out together. He’s got such a unique brain for rhythm and texture; he can weave in and out of any texture—it’s immaculate. He’s crazy. I’d put him against literally any electronic producer.

I know you used to describe your music as “weird,” like on your early record, FECKIN WEIRDO. Where did that come from? How do you feel about that label?

NNAMDÏ: I think that I liked that idea when I made those things. I knew that I was kind of an outlier. I’d make music because it was fun to me, you know? I’d just try to make fun and silly music that made people happy. I’m still trying to do that. [laughs] Yeah, I was a weird kid. I did things that were kind of outside of the norm. FECKIN WEIRDO comes from R. Crumb, an artist and graphic designer that I really enjoyed—he had a comic series called “Weirdo.” So the cover is an homage to his artwork.

But as I got older, the less I wanted to use the term “weird” because music is supposed to be a unifying thing that brings people together. When I went back and looked at these things that I did when I was younger, I realized that none of it was weird to me, you know what I mean? I think I preemptively said it was weird because I knew it was different than what other people were doing. But it’s like, it wasn’t weird to me! It was just what I did.

So you preemptively established yourself as an outsider.

NNAMDÏ: Yeah. Because I knew people would do that once they heard the shit I like. But now I don’t really want to do that. I don’t know; it’s not weird to me. I feel like there’s so many people who make special music and feel the way I felt. It’s just special and different from person to person. And so I’m trying to stop. I’m still in the habit of saying “this is gonna be weird,” but I’m trying to get out of that. Instead, I try to present music on its own terms now, and I let people say whatever they’re going to say. It’s gonna be unique, hopefully. It’s gonna be me.

Earlier, you outlined a gradual timeline, where you moved from making music strictly for fun to going on world tours. Is there a point in your career where things clicked?

NNAMDÏ: It was actually when I was working on that album, FECKIN WEIRDO, when I thought, “You know, I can probably tour on my own music.” I’d been playing with a lot of other bands and stuff, but that was the first time where I was like, “I’ve been touring with all these other bands, and I think people would like this.” Not that I didn’t think people would like other things, but it just felt more… acceptable. I felt less like an outsider when I made that album. And I was like, “I feel like this is relatable to people like me, I feel like there’s people like me that would like to hear this, that aren’t just in my immediate area.” After that, I put out DROOL, which was the first time where I toured and got records pressed.

I feel very lucky that my life was in a position where I could make that choice. I think about that a lot. Like, even though I did work very hard—not to diminish what I put into it. But there are a lot of people who work very hard, who just don’t have the option to make the choices I made. I know that if I’m like, truly, truly fucked, I have family I can go to. I was in a very privileged position to be able to pursue music in the way I have. Even with the job I have: I got hired by a friend at a law firm who is now my manager and label co-owner. And he knew that I wanted to do music. So he hired me at the law firm, and said “Hey, we need help with all these things. But you can just do it when you have the time to do it. If you need to tour, you don’t have to be in the office as long as you get this stuff done.” That’s what made me able to put out DROOL in the first place, and it’s what allowed me to plan a tour around it. I think about that a lot: a lot of factors had to go right. And shit could change at any moment, but I’m grateful for what I have.

You mentioned Sooper, the label you’re a part of. What’s the story behind that?

NNAMDÏ: So Glenn [Curran] and I started that together. He was working on a solo project, and he asked me to help him write some lyrics and do some instrumentation, because he had never done it before. And I ended up working on him with that for a few months. We just started talking about all the other dope musicians that we know, and he was like, “seems like we should do this!” And I said, “Nope!” [laughs] But then he convinced me, and I think it was a good idea. I’d just already tried to start two other labels, so I was over it. But, after getting to know him better, I was like, “if it’s gonna work with somebody, it’s gonna be him,” because he’s way more organized than I am. And he likes emails, which I hate. So I can deal with the other stuff, the community building and such, but I need someone like that, too.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

NNAMDÏ: Just chilling, honestly. I’m excited to get back to recording, because I got a lot of ideas. It’s been so long since I really worked on music other than stuff for the new album, which has been great, but now I don’t have to do that. I’m trying to figure out ways to make it more impactful, to make sure that everyone leaves with something that feels special. I’m always trying to think about that: about giving crowds the best experience I can in the most organic and honest way possible. I just want to make people feel like they just witnessed something truly special.

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