Dax Pierson: Living rhythms
Photography: Lenny Gonzalez
“I’m a music fan first, and a music producer second. That’s what I like to call it.” Dax Pierson is sitting in a bright room in his house in Oakland, California, sunlight bouncing around the white, high-ceilinged interior. His kind face, with its thick-framed glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, takes up most of the screen on our Zoom call, and he speaks in a gravelly, low voice that is both commanding and a little vulnerable. Talking to him feels like having a deep conversation with an interesting stranger you met at your local dive bar – you know they have a story to tell.
The 50-year-old artist has just released his first official studio album, the genre-defying, sometimes chaotic, deeply personal Nerve Bumps: A Queer Divine Dissatisfaction, a record that belies an incredible breadth of music knowledge. Deftly hopping from house to techno to experimental electro and even darkwave and outsider pop, Nerve Bumps is clearly the product of someone who has spent countless hours pouring over stacks of vinyl.
In a way, Nerve Bumps feels more tied to its creator than just any collection of expertly-crafted electronic tracks. Pierson is Black, and queer, and disabled; a devastating van accident when on tour with his alternative hip-hop group Subtle in 2005 severely injured his upper spine, leaving him quadrapelgic. He continued to contribute to Subtle and his other project, 13 & God, for years after the injury, but Nerve Bumps itself is the product of a long birthing process, of having to come up with a new creative medium. “It took me the years that it took to learn and research what my approach was going to be making music, after not making music with sequencers for 20-plus years,” clarifies Pierson, about venturing out alone after years of success in famously collaborative projects. “It took me a little while to settle into what I thought a solo music career would look like. It just wasn’t going to be realistic to collaborate with someone at a pace that would make them happy. So I basically felt like I needed to get to know myself as this music producer who happens to be disabled now.” After his injury, Pierson’s partner, the painter Chuck Nanney (who also contributed Nerve Bumps’ album art — “Pepto Bismol pink is my favourite colour!” beams Pierson), set him up with an Ableton license, and Pierson now uses a mix of iPads and laptops to produce.
In short, Pierson’s injury was not going to stop him from pursuing his passion. His love for music began as a child, in his father’s den in the 70s, where he would scavenge his parents’ record collection for sounds he had never heard before. “My dad was a music head,” Pierson says. “Whenever he would listen to music, I would usually go in the den and read the album notes, making connections of who produced what. I knew that Cat Stevens did [Was a Dog a Doughnut] a proto-electro song in 1977, because my dad had that song. It was the first electronic track I ever heard.” Pierson was so young, that when he saw his father’s copy of Stevie Wonders’ 1972 classic Talking Book, he drew all over the braille liner notes, assuming they were a game of connect the dots.
Like any self-respecting music fanatic, Pierson spent his teenage years rotating in a motley line-up of bands from the 80s onwards, playing keyboards and singing the type of music that would define that era — and later come to define his production style. “I played in several different types of music projects and did performing arts in high school – acting, dancing, singing – but I wasn’t formally playing,” Pierson recalls. “Us kids got together and started our own little band. One of my music partners back then was my roommate, and we were making music like you would imagine two Black geek kids would be doing in the late 80s: stuff like Human by The Human League, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, L.A. & Babyface. But I was also influenced by The Cure and Depeche Mode, so I was throwing that in the mix too.”
“When I was coming up I wasn’t strictly influenced by house or techno — I mean, I was in San Diego. If there was techno in San Diego it was very strange and white-washed”
By the early 2000s, Pierson was working at the legendary California record store Amoeba Music as a buyer, when he and some like-minded musical friends such as Doseone of cloudDEAD and the rapper Jel, who co-founded the Anticon label, formed Subtle. At a time where America was arguably closing the cultural wound left by half a decade of frat boy rap-rock, Subtle were melodic, conscious and by their own estimation, genreless. “I can have a bit of a short attention span, and in Subtle, I was working with folks ten years my junior, so their attention spans were even shorter,” says Pierson, casting light on his patchwork style of production. “I think it’s a reflection of my life experience. Often the way that I work is I’ll come up with a riff, then generally move on to another thing and put that first idea on the back burner. Then I return to it as if someone else had played it. It gives the distance I need to be inspired. I think that’s what’s translating.”
A crucial part of his adjustment to this new way of working was recognising when to involve others. “People generally either have an engineer or someone around who’s still listening. I did have some of that with Nerve Bumps, but for a while I didn’t share anything with anyone because I didn’t want any critical input just yet.” To facilitate the recording process, Pierson hired two assistants, who could manipulate Ableton on days where his health was flagging or he was too tired to do it himself. Pierson’s close friend and Subtle co-founder Jordan Dalrymple co-mixed the record, but other than that, on the day-to-day, the making of Nerve Bumps was a completely private affair. “I like to improv and jam with myself. I can be someone who is inspired by specific sounds. I hear something out in the world that I want to explore, I try to replay it, relearn it and see what it’s all about. I understand that a lot of producers will sit there and do the sound design before they even start writing. That is not my experience.”
Whatever experiences Pierson has had in his life, they are splayed all over Nerve Bumps’ eight tracks, a few of which have been percolating for a while. Snap, for example, was first introduced as A Snap of the Neck on Pierson’s 2019 live album Live from Oakland. That version begins with Pierson starkly delivering the line: “You don’t take your physical abilities for granted/ For you could lose them at the snap of a neck.” The words are then twisted, distorted and filtered into an ambient paranoia. On Nerve Bumps, the track is even more disjointed and eerie. “‘Snap was an early part of my set,” Pierson explains, “it’s just a quote that came up in my head, and I wanted to use it, but I’m not as much of a singer as I used to be, so I simply recited it. It became a mantra to inform the audience that this could happen to you at the snap of a neck, too. Nobody is safe.”
“I like to improv and jam with myself. I hear something out in the world that I want to explore, I try to replay it, relearn it and see what it’s all about”
Pierson is big on mantras: another one is I Slay the Pain, a track that sounds like a darkwave band tearing up a vogue ball. “My beats can be a little more off-kilter and I just wanted to throw in that straight house beat for a little bit,” he says. “But the sound of the knock and snare throughout the track is very house, very ballroom. I’ve never really related to being this electronic musician who makes specifically dance music, and it’s really hard to explain that to people unless they hear your work. When I was coming up I wasn’t strictly influenced by house or techno — I mean, I was in San Diego. If there was techno in San Diego it was very, very strange and white-washed.”
For someone who had created a mostly instrumental album, words are a huge part of Pierson’s identity as a producer. At the core of Nerve Bumps, its subtitle, A Queer Divine Dissatisfaction, is presented as the mantra of all mantras. It’s a quote from the legendary choreographer Martha Graham, and Nanney once used it as a title for one of his gallery shows. It’s been stuck in Pierson’s mind for years, and serves as the perfect distillation of what Nerve Bumps is, and the strength it took to make it. “For me, it was reflected in the music and my creative struggles with the record,” Pierson explains. “It’s OK if you’re dissatisfied at the moment. What’s important is that you’re working. The other extension of the quote is that you are the only ‘you’ making the work that you’re making.” With that, he takes a wry pause. “And,” he adds, “I’m fucking queer.”
Nerve Bumps: A Queer Divine Dissatisfaction is out now via Dark Entries and Ratskin Records