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Interview: K.Flay Takes Us To School In How To Head-Bang Like A Pro & Her Favorite Books

Interview: K.Flay Takes Us To School In How To Head-Bang Like A Pro & Her Favorite Books

Yesterday, Nerdist premiered the ghostly and striking music video for K.Flay’s “Make Me Fade”. Through a myriad of VFX, all cleverly captured with a hacked Xbox Kinect, the hypnotizing video features a dozen mercurial incarnations of the indie-pop artist. It’s a suitable visual metaphor for a musician who is constantly moving, adapting and developing. K.Flay’s relentless quest to find sounds that interest her, regardless of what anyone else is doing or saying, has made her an anomaly to record labels and a darling to critics.

We had the awesome pleasure to speak in depth with K.Flay about her journey in self-publishing, living on a tour bus almost indefinitely, and what happens when you watch The Bodyguard three times in a row.

Nerdist: Big question right off the bat: What’s the story with “A Wolf Doing Things”?

K.Flay: I think it belongs to our bus-driver? We’re not really sure of it’s origin story, but there’s this weird wolf mask that has been in the front lounge since we’ve started touring. There have been a few nights when we’ll be drinking and we’ll wear it, just being idiots. We were sitting on the bus thinking of funny things to film, because we have a guy who is documenting the whole tour and making little video things. So we have a camera and the capability to do just do these things easily. We were like, “It would be kind of funny to see a wolf doing everyday stuff.” Whats funny to me about it is that there’s no facial expression. Its this odd, non-emotive mask. We filmed the first installment in Burlington, and we filmed most of the second installment yesterday. we are building up a repertoire of Wolf Things.

A video posted by @kflay on

N: So much of the conversation has fixated on trying to describe your sound and where you exist within the nicely packaged and labeled market of popular music. How do you, personally, describe your work?

K: Well, that’s a very good question. [laughs] On some level I’ve been contending with that for some time, just internally, as I’ve started even just to learn how to make music in a more real capacity, because I think when I started I really had no intention to do anything long term or serious. It’s been a process of discovery. If there is a word, and maybe this encapsulates the weird juxtaposition of some of the musical content and my online personality and my actual personality, it’s kind of alternative. That’s the only one I can think of. It’s hard. This latest record feels like more of an alternative sounding thing, in that there is certainly less rap and electronic elements than I’ve used in the past. Sonically, I think that is that case, and in terms of -I hate using this word- but image, or branding or whatever the hell, I think it’s also kind of alternative and strange and weird.

N: The album is cohesive but has a broad spectrum to it. Its funny we are so genre-driven, trying to always fit albums within pre-determined categories. That conflict defined your time signed to RCA. We are nearing the one year anniversary of you being released from that contract and returning to your indie roots. What was that transition like?

K: Interestingly, a large part of that transition took place while I was in LA. For a while I was very much like, “I need to get out of here. This isn’t a good situation for anybody.” We were at this impasse. When I finally did get off, it was a “What now?” moment. I had been waiting for this thing to happen, and filled with anticipation for, at that time, eight months. And then I was just in a room, being like, “I- I- don’t know what to do…” [laughs]

Even if you’re embedded in an infrastructure that sucks, or that you don’t particularly enjoy, it’s still an infrastructure, and there is still an established process for how things are going to run. Being completely untethered from that was really weird. It was really the first time in two and a half years that I had this feeling of total freedom, in both good and bad ways. The first little bit was tough and I felt a little bummed out. Part of me was in these 50 or 60 songs that I had to leave behind. It felt like everything I had done was for nothing. I had some of those types of thoughts. Once I actually got to LA and was there with old friends and really focusing, and just finding a room to sit and make music in, that’s when it started to feel great, you know? I started to reconnect with a lot of the things that drove me to start making music in the first place, and a lot of the things that just compel me in general. It was nice to find that, because the process at RCA -and this is something they do with a lot of artists- you’ll get in a room with lots of producers, and they have their own style and their own ideas and their own methods. When you do a lot of that, it becomes very disorienting. There are all these people who have ideas about how things should sound or what it should be. Especially for me, because there was a lot of room to push in many directions, it was just kind of a clusterfuck. It was really helpful to get back to having one person there, myself, to help clear my mind.

N: In April, you announced Life As A Dog, successfully crowd-funded it through PledgeMusic, and released it only two months later. It debuted at No. 14 on Billboard’s rap charts and No. 2 on the Heatseekers chart. Looking back on it now, it’s an undisputed success. But in the process of making that album on your own, did it ever feel overwhelming?

K: Yeah! [laughs] Constantly. I was in a place where I felt very realistically like anything could happen, but my anythings were, at least in my own mind, leaning towards terrible, humiliating outcomes. Yeah, I was I was really unsure. I think in the process of making anything there is a sense of uncertainty and there is a sense of doubt, there is a questioning and a reckoning process that happens, which is important and hopefully makes the product better. I was kind of bouncing around and finishing this thing, working with people, and I reached a point where an engineer and a producer who was helping to do some vocal engineering on the record -and he’s awesome; he’s in New York and one of the first people I met when I signed, so he’s known me during all this- and I played him the demo, and he made a comment like, “Don’t worry. It’ll be good,” something to that effect. It was somebody who had peripherally witnessed this whole process, and when I started to get a little bit of feedback from people like that, whose opinions I really trust, I felt like it would be okay. To be perfectly honest, very few people had heard this before it came out, there wasn’t a whole lot of, “Aw, this will be fucking great and people are going to like it!” There wasn’t a chorus or even just a comment. It was definitely scary. And when people gave money, when people invested in it, it was even scarier, because I was like, “Well, shit. If people don’t like it, they’re going to be really mad!”

N: You said you left about 60 tracks with RCA. Has there been any interest in revisiting those following the success of Life As A Dog?

K: Interestingly, a lot of those, as I look back now, weren’t really the best expression of myself. I feel like its in the past. I think I’ve moved on from it. I felt quite attached to a lot of those things initially, but now that I’ve regained some my footing, the past is the past. It’s like reading old texts messages; I just don’t feel like doing it anymore. [laughs] Not that I constantly read old text messages, but you know what I mean.

N: You also started your own label for Life As A Dog. What’s the plan from here? Have you considered producing projects for other musicians?

K: I have no idea. What’s cool at the moment is that I’m really happy with what we’ve done and how we’ve done it. It’s really been on our own terms. It has been a true labor of love, and everybody involved are people I actually care about and have a personal relationship with, or used to be my roommate or something like that. I sort of have no idea what is going to happen. Whether we continue to release independently, whether we partner up with someone, whether I start working with other people, everything is, in a great way, open up right now.

I don’t really know, to be honest, but that is probably the most truthful answer I can give. But it’s very cool and very different, I will say. When I was signed, I was a difficult, developing artist; I didn’t have a record, I never made an album. Now I’m at a point where we did it, we made the record, and there is so much more knowledge and understanding of that process that I have, and there’s also more of an established sound and vision moving forward. To me, that was such a decadent life the first time, when there wasn’t anything that was established, so it was so malleable, that it ended up being like clay that, instead of being made into a shape, just got smashed in someone’s hand a bunch of times. Now it feels like people kind of “get it” more, which is cool.

N: You mentioned collaborating with more people in the future. Who makes your list of dream collaborators?

K: Have you heard the Shlohmo & Jeremih EP that came out a little bit ago? I think the production on it is really, really cool and interesting, and, in a way, it feels sort of genre-less, even though a lot of the vocals are kind of more R&B pop. Shlohmo’s awesome.

N: You’ve cited a range of influences in the past as diverse as Missy Elliott and Liz Phair. Who are you listening to now?

K: I’m listening to Royal Blood. Their record is awesome. They are a duo with a huge, awesome sound. The drums sounds great on the record. I’m also listening to the Marmozets. They’re also a UK band, and we actually toured with them this summer on Warped. Their record just came out a couple weeks ago. They’re crazy live. There are the old standbys. I still listen to that old Tame Impala record about three times a week. It lends itself to the road very well, to any stage of transience.

N: You’re featured on Mary Lambert’s new album on the track “Ribcage”. She’s another exciting musician known for subverting expectations and pop-star stereotypes.  How’d that collaboration come about?

K: That came about completely organically. Mary and I are just friends. We met probably through some vague indie-rap/Macklemore/Seattle-based connection. Two years ago when we were out there, she came up and sang with us on stage, and we got to hang out a bit more. She hit me up, and was like, “Would you be interested in doing this,” and of course I was like, “Yes.” The track immediately resonated with me. I wrote that verse in 45 minutes. I really felt the energy immediately. I happened to be in Oakland for a couple days, which is where my mom and stepdad live, and I record a lot of things in their basement (so thank you, Mom and Tom), for letting me do that constantly). I was able to lock myself in the basement and get it done. I’m really honored to be a part of it, because I think Mary’s a really special and important voice right now in music.

2 girls on a curb @marylambertsing

A photo posted by @kflay on

N: You do a lot of hair whipping and head-banging in your shows and videos; it’s kind of your trademark move. How do you manage headaches?

K: Headaches?

N: That’s not a real question. You don’t have to answer.

K: Oh, I would like to say this! The first day of tour is horrible. I can’t move my neck the next day. I try to in rehearsal kind of swing around, just so I get used to it. But after that first day of torture, my neck and head never hurt again, which is amazing. Kind of a PSA for everyone: If you’re interested in head-banging, you just need to do it one day really intensely, and suffer for, like, three days, and then you’ll be fine.

N: The more you know. Let’s go back to Life As A Dog for a moment. Where did that title come from? Any relation to the Reidar Jönsson novel or the Swedish film adaptation of the similar title?

K: No! I didn’t even know those were existing things. I can’t even feign knowledge. I was making a SoundCloud playlist of demo ideas for possibly the record, and on a complete whim called it “Life As A Dog.” Maybe I was hungover, I don’t know what was going on with me, but I felt kind of shitty and titled it that. As the songs were coming together, and I was trying to brainstorm titles, I kept coming back to that. It touched upon these dual sentiments of feeling oppressed and treated like a dog, but also being a lone wolf, doing your own thing, and saying “fuck it” to everything else.

being a dog, or being a bad person, perhaps regretting things. The third meaning that I thought about, too, is the metaphor of being a dog, being a bad person, perhaps regretting things that have transpired. For some reason, I just like it. I usually have a hard time with titles, I find them very difficult to come up with, so when I found one I liked, I said, “Eh, let’s do it.” But I should watch the movie, people keep saying I got to.

N: Though you haven’t seen that movie or read the book, you do read. You even used to review books on your YouTube channel. What are you reading now? Do you have time to read? Maybe that’s a better question.

K: I DO! I do have time. Although Ive been terrible on this run; It’s been very hectic, in a great way. I’m reading a book called Hothouse [by Boris Kachka]. It’s nonfiction, and it’s about the history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishing house. It’s really cool, it’s a book about books, which makes it even better, in my opinion. But it’s really interesting, because it takes place in this crazy time in post-war America, when publishing houses weren’t yet total conglomerates, and there was a real appreciation, at this house in particular, for high-brow, potential Nobel Prize-winning literature and poetry, and all these people had crazy, personal relationships with their authors and poets. The book chronicles that, and focuses mainly on Roger Straus as the monolithic patriarch at the head of this whole thing. He’s this revered and reviled character; he’s awesome.

N: Any favorite books of all time?

K: I’m not sure if this is a favorite of all time, but definitely a favorite of the last five years: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. I really enjoyed that. I thought it was one of the more creative narratives. It’s so well done in terms of conceptually and inventive and cool in the arch of the story. I recently read the book Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, even though it came out, like, 35 years ago. That book is amazing, it’s incredible. And my all-time recommendation is the Handmade’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. That was a very important book for me, especially in my early 20’s, when I was ending college. And Margaret Atwood is a G. She’s a fuckin’ badass. I’m serious. She writes children’s books, she writes short stories, she writes nonfiction, she writes essays. She’s written, like, 30 novels. She incredibly prolific. Like I said, she’s a G, that’s the only way to describe her.

N: What about movies or TV shows? I’m making you a fake OKCupid profile over here.

K: We went on a weird spree of watching the same movie three nights in a row. We started off with The Bodyguard. Which I had never seen before, and -we’ve been talking about this on the bus- the soundtrack is incredible, it is unparalleled. I was crying at the end, it’s kind of emotional. Then we did The Departed for the next three nights, which I had seen previously and is an awesome movie. Then we tried watching Selena the other night, but, no offense, my memories of it were much better than the reality of it.

N: Some movies don’t hold up to three back-to-back viewings

K: Most don’t. That should be the new test to determine if a movie really holds up.

N: Going back to music questions: Like most hip hop artists, you double-majored in Psychology and Sociology at Stanford. If not for your career in music, what would you be doing right now?

K: This is a question I never have an answer for, because once I commit to something mentally, I kind of exclude all other possibilities. So once I started doing this in earnest, I just shunned all other “what ifs” from my mind. But, you know, I probably would have continued on with graduate school in some capacity. But I really have no idea, and that’s sort of terrifying as I vocalize it.

N: But it must be empowering, too, since you’re never paralyzed by those “what ifs.”

K: No, and there sort of is none, and that may be its own problem that I need to sort out at some point. But for right now, I think, one of the things that this whole, weird trajectory has taught me is to live in the present. For instance, I don’t even have an apartment, and haven’t in 15 months. It creates this sort of hyper-focus in a temporal sense, a mentality where you’re like, “How am I’m going to eat today and how am I going to do these eight things?” There is obviously planning for the future, but in a certain way, there’s not. There’s a relinquishing of concern to the broader forces of fate.

N: Stanford, where you studied before, is also where your origin story occurred. The story goes you were talking trash about how formulaic rap had become and a friend challenged you to write something better. So you did, and now you’re selling out shows in Brooklyn. Will we ever hear that first rap you wrote, or is that like one of those old text messages you don’t want to revisit?

K: I actually do not have it. My friend does; she’s sort of like the unofficial archivist for the project. [laughs] Just because she’s so organized. And she just had a baby, literally the cutest baby ever! The day that this tour ends, I fly to LA for three days to help take care of her and run errands for them, and hopefully give them a break. So, yes, somebody on planet earth has a copy of the song. You know, for me it feels, yeah, like imagine applying to a writing job and submitting your junior high book report. Developmentally, its such a different place. It was the first music I had written, so it was totally outside my zone, and because it was sort of farcical in its content, it feels even more distant, just because everything now is very emotionally salient for me, and very true to my experience.

N: Let’s talk about this stellar music video for “Make Me Fade”. Nerdist is thrilled to get to premiere it with youHow’d you guys come up with this video?

K: The director of this video is the same director I worked with for “Rawks”, and he’s just become a really good friend of mine. His name is Ben Fee, he’s just an incredibly talented and overall creative person in all aspects of his life. He’s a really fun person to collaborate with because we’re both goofy and weird enough, but we also are down to work and put in the time. So when we were talking about the song, and visually what it lends itself to, we kept returning to not wanting to tell a specific narrative -like someone getting drunk and forgetting about their problems, or someone leaving their relationship- as the vehicle of the song. We were talking about this idea of connecting two different realities: the physical world and something that was manipulated, broken down and disintegrated in some capacity.

We had a ton of amazing people involved, one of whom was a genius who hacked into Xbox Kinect. He recorded all the pixelated imagery in the video on one of those, and was then able to manipulate it afterwards, to achieve all the color and shapes and all that. Its really cool, in terms of recording equipment, we are literally just talking about an Xbox Kinect and a computer. I have no idea what was going on in terms of algorithms; that’s all so beyond me.

But, yeah, we wanted to create this tension between, like I say, the real, physical world and this dissolved version of that physical one. Some of the stuff we came up with beforehand, but a lot of it came the day of the shoot from experimenting with things that felt new and interesting to us.

N: It reminds me of Lawnmower Man, as well as some of those other creepy ‘90s movies that highlighted what could be done with special effects. Johnny Mnemonic comes to mind. Did you guys have any visual influences or references going into it?

K: Not really. The main visual reference, interestingly enough, is the single-art for the song itself. Basically a photo of me in all black, ensconced in a white sheet. We really wanted to do something largely monochromatic, stark and very high contrast. I think we were definitely able to capture a lot of that in the video. In terms of special effects, a lot of it came as we were filming, and we got to see what we could capture with that Kinect, and how it would look, and what I could do to make it more interesting.

kflay make me fade

N: My favorite is the three-dimensional K.Flay made out of the pulsating, multicolored, pixelated mesh. So all that took was a Kinect.

K: And a couple of geniuses. Those are not included.

N: Who is in the static-y body suit? Is that your drummer Nich Suhr?

K: No, the static man is another friend. Ben, the director, has this awesome warehouse just outside of Oakland, and there is this constant ebb and flow of cool people, all involved in filmmaking in some capacity. So everyone in the video, all the hands you see in the sheets, are just other creative people who happened to be around, and were down. Having that DIY core to how it was made, that feels really good.

N: On the surface, “Make Me Fade”, it sounds like a begrudging love song to substance abuse. But you’ve also mentioned this album being mostly about love and lovesickness.

K: When I was writing, it probably stems more from a general concept of addiction. I’ve been very intrigued by what addiction means, and how it manifests in people, and how people become addicted to things, and how that overtakes their lives. When I was working on it, I was really just focused on this idea of so much that we seek out in life–and this could be a relationship, it could be heroin–we kind of seek out in order to distance ourselves from reality. We want to be comfortably numb in whatever circumstance allows us to be that way. When I was working on it, lyrically, a lot of it came from the perspective of somebody who was a drug addict or dealing with some sort of substance abuse issue. But then when I started getting deeper into the lyrics, I actively wanted to make it not just about that, and to be about this idea of waiting for a person. I’ve never had the experience of being addicted to anything, but I’ve certainly interacted with people and substances. I can understand how that occurs. It’s one of those topics that’s forever compelling for me.

N: You’ve been moving practically constantly since April. First with the album being recorded across three cities, then Warped Tour, then your tour, which comes to an end November 6th back in the Bay Area, where it all started for you. What is next?

K: What IS next? Nothing is either set in stone or can be announced at the moment, but basically just continuing to tour and promote the record as much as possible. For me, the live show is such an important part of it, and it’s something that I really love. I love being on the road; its an awesome feeling. Whether its a sold out show or fifty people there, it’s a great feeling to be able to play, and particularly to play this record, for people. That’s kind of going to be the focus for the next bit. I’m sure I’ll be working on music in the meantime, but the main thing is just getting out on the road, and grinding, and hopefully getting of the States and visiting some abroad places. We will see!

You can catch K.Flay on tour:
10/24 – Chapel Hill, NC – Local 506
10/25 – Atlanta, GA – Drunken Unicorn
10/26 – Nashville, TN – 12th and Porter
10/27 – Asheville, NC – The Mill Room
10/30 – Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s
10/31 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada
11/1 – Austin, TX – The Mohawk
11/6 – San Francisco, CA – Brick & Mortar

Check out K.Flay’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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