Nikki Nair: “A good pop edit done tastefully can be really exciting”
This is Signing Off, our year-end series with the artists who defined 2023
If 2023 had one perhaps exhausting lesson to offer artists, it was the importance of staying visible.
Building on the foundations of a series of powerful club records for diverse labels – OG-equivelant dubstep for Dirtybird, fucked up breaks for Scruffed – the Tennessee born, Atlanta-based producer and DJ Nikki Nair achieved just that, and did so with zero associated bullshit. Instead, he affirmed his adventurous versatility by establishing new friendships and collaborations, including Set the Roof, a breathless mini-album made with the invitation of his personal hero-turned-friend, Hudson Mohawke. If you missed the gloriously fizzy title track with Tayla Parx in the rave, then perhaps Nair’s tongue-in-cheek Can’t Wait for Studio Barnhus got lodged in your head – its gurgling, Auto-tuned “I cannot wait to get fucked up with you” hook primed for the wonkiest of sunsets.
Involved in DIY and punk since his teens, Nair has observed and embraced a multitude of scenes and sounds since EDM blew up in the US over a decade ago. His DJing style – bombastic and unexpected – refuses to draw boundaries, and Nair himself is as earnest in remixing fellow 2023 protagonist Caroline Polachek’s Bunny Is a Rider as he is hooking up with his teenage blog house inspiration Crookers. After all, as Nair rightly notes, “there’s always a path going from club music to pop music”.
Crack: You’ve toured more than ever in 2023 and still stayed prolific as a producer. How do you balance travel with creativity?
The main way of being able to stay prolific on tour is collaborating. When I’m on tour in Europe, my main base is usually London, where I stay with DJ ADHD and Chloé Robinson. I’ve lost count of how many tracks we’ve made together this year, but it’s a lot. The other thing I’ve started to do is to write sketches on planes, which I’ve never done in the past. But I think it’s also detrimental in the sense that, I really like working in my studio, being alone for a whole month at a time, going really deep on making weird tracks and sound design, and I can’t do that on tour.
What role does collaboration play in your music?
Actually, I was really against collaborating until I started working with DJ ADHD. It was always a hard “no” if anyone ever asked. But there was this mixer that I have, that I mixed everything on in this one weird way, and I’d use it as an excuse – that I didn’t want to work with anyone else. So he bought the mixer, and said, “Now will you work with me?”
With b2b sets, I like bouncing off people’s energy. If it’s a friend, it feels more like we’re playing music together, just two or three people showing each other tracks. It’s kind of the same with collaborating in the studio. My favorite part about it isn’t even necessarily the music that gets made, it’s the time I get to spend with someone talking about stuff that we have in common. You’re finding out that someone is like you in a lot of ways, in their taste and also in more abstract ways. I really like that.
Let’s talk about Set the Roof. How did that collaboration with HudMo come about, and did you intend to make the sort of weird pop banger that it turned out to be?
He sent me a DM saying that if I was on the west coast at any time, we should get in the studio. I immediately booked a flight to LA. I’ve been a fan since 2010 – it was crazy and very unexpected. There’s always a path going from club music to pop music, and in my adult life, I have never separated the two. I love great pop hooks, and even in clubs, a good pop edit done tastefully can be really exciting. But also, I grew a little tired of just writing rhythm-focused tracks and had an urge to work with melodies and chords, emotions I couldn’t express with just rhythms.
This summer, you became a regular face on European festival stages, playing events like Glastonbury and Bang Face. Were they as you had imagined?
Bang Face and Glastonbury are two very different festivals! Bang Face, oddly enough, was one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve ever attended; a celebration of rave as a culture and language, done in a very genuine and wholesome way, with no punches pulled or expense spared to make it feel like, well, the raviest possible rave. In the US, as a kid, when you hear what a rave is, that’s what you look for. I grew up listening to breakcore and other heavier music, and seeing that celebrated and people actually partying felt really surreal.
What was the biggest lesson 2023 taught you?
How to sleep at any time of day, in any position.
What one track impressed you most in 2023?
GRRL – Camber.
Best thing you ate in 2023?
There was this sandwich I had in Italy on the way from Milan to Rome that I keep thinking about…