N.A.S.A. Interview

On working with Kanye, Tom Waits, M.I.A. et al on their debut LP...

Released on Monday, February 16, N.A.S.A.’s debut album ‘The Spirit Of Apollo’ is one of the most eagerly expected releases of early 2009, featuring as it does a wealth of today’s vocal talent: Kanye West, M.I.A., Santogold, the RZA, Karen O, The Cool Kids…

…The list goes on and on, and includes older hands such as David Byrne, George Clinton (!) and Tom Waits. Almost every track features artists that you’d never in your wildest dreams see playing together doing just that: playing together. And perfectly nicely as it happens, the whole project glued together skilfully by the core N.A.S.A. duo.

Who are easy to overlook given the big names on show, but certainly deserve their dues – ‘The Spirit Of Apollo’ is an album some six years in the making, and throughout that period neither Sam ‘Squeak E. Clean’ Spiegel nor Ze Gonzales, a.k.a. DJ Zegon, lost focus on their goal, to unite artists from opposite ends of the style spectrum and embrace a sweet unity absent on so many collaborative LPs.

Thus, ‘The Spirit Of Apollo’ has a party feel to it – it’s an album of celebration, which tackles its subject matters with positive outlooks and skirts around the more depressing aspects of the everyday. So, while their track ‘Money’ coincides with global economic meltdown, to listen to the song isn’t to be plunged into the depths of desolation.

And the name, it’s not as space-related as the album title may suggest, standing for North America South America – Spiegel is American, Gonzales Brazilian, you see. That said, the pair drew inspiration from watching old NASA videos, as Clash discovered when we sat with Spiegel in a London studio.

N.A.S.A. – ‘Money’ (featuring David Byrne, Chuck D, Ras Congo, Seu Jorge, & Z-Trip)

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So after such a long gestation, how great does it feel to have ‘The Spirit Of Apollo’ finished and ready for unveiling to the world?

It feels really good. Right now, I feel ten feet tall. I feel really inspired – the music I’m making, I’m really stoked on it. I completed this huge part of my life and it’s about to come out, and it’s being well received, and it’s an amazingly gratifying feeling. All these years of grinding away at it and never settling for what we weren’t satisfied with… it feels really gratifying that it’s finished. I’m really proud of it.

To take so long on a debut album is almost unprecedented, but I’m guessing that you never felt like you had to rush the process? That being the case, how did you actually know when it was finished?

We never rushed it, and I’m glad. But that moment of completion… The moment of it being finished was when we’d done the mix and the master, but with the songs, and knowing we had them all? I don’t really remember one moment when we were: “Okay, all the songs are done.” We’d mixed and finished almost the whole record but we felt we needed one more song, one that was like what we were into now because the record took so long, and that’s how ‘Gifted’ happened. Right before the deadline for the record, we turned it in. We’d been flying all over the place – we went to Sweden to work with Lykke Li, New York to work with Santogold, and Hawaii to work with Kanye West, and it all happened within a week. Before we knew it we were back in New York mixing it, and it was finished. We wanted that one song that felt like what we were doing NOW, because there’s such a range of music we’d been into over the past five and a half years. We wanted something current to us.

Do you feel that the album is rather out of step with fashions and trends, due to its lengthy period of production?

We tried to focus on having no distinct timestamp, and not being really trendy or anything. We did that with some of the lyrics – people would make time references, talking about something happening that moment, and we tried to shy away from that as much as possible, because I love records with a timeless feel. We wanted to make something that wasn’t of one moment in time. But we did see our tastes change during the making of the record, and would go back and tweak things as we went. Also, there are a lot of different ideas on the record that reflected what we were into at the time – we put a lot of thought into the record to prevent it just being a collection of songs.

That must’ve been important – to make your own presence on the record strong, so it’s not simply seen as the work of all these guests…

As we were working on the record we were adding elements to do with the ideology of what the record was about to us. For a while we were really into… Well, we’d go off on tangents, like for a while we were really into quantum physics, because we saw how it connected to the record. There’s this thing called the Heisenberg Principal, which basically says that electrons don’t actually circle the nucleus like they thought, but are actually all around the nucleus but only appear in one place when you look at them. We got really into that because the record’s about unity, and also manifesting your own reality and creating something with other people, like from a dream basically. So we went to interview this Nobel Prize winning physicist, which ultimately didn’t make the record, but then there was other stuff. Like, we watched loads of old NASA videos, footage from space, and we sampled some of that stuff. The Apollo programme in particular – it was about venturing into space as mankind, not as Russians or Americans.

But the name came before you got into these space videos?

The way that the name came about was… Well, we made this one spacey track that has samples from Sputnik on it, and the name came along after that. But then there was no concept, just a name – North America South America. The concept grew, constantly, and that was fun – we had the time to really develop this idea. The basic concept came to us after we’d done the Karen O, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Fatlip track, because it was such a crazy combination of people from different worlds. So the first idea was that every song would bring people together who you’d never expect to see together, from different worlds. But somehow it had to make sense, and out of that grew the idea of unity, and not being separated by boundaries or borders. We really got into that, the idea of unity, as we were watching more NASA videos. It was just a name, and then all these ideas let it grow. Lyrically and instrumentally, we glued the record together.

And you feel that everything came together quite naturally? Nothing sounds too… shoehorned, I guess, is the word.

It definitely happened organically. Some of the songs took years from start to finish – we’d get one person and think, “Hey, maybe this person would work well with them?” We’d get a second artist on the song… You know the song ‘Money’? That was one of the first songs we started – Ras Congo sang the verse, and a year later we got David Byrne on it, and then another year later we got Seu Jorge, and then Z-Trip did some cuts. We’d been trying to get hold of Chuck D forever, and then we realised Z-Trip is friends with Chuck, so he reached out to him. We’d not been able to get in touch with him, but Z-Trip hooked it up and Chuck came in and killed it. Right when we put it out the whole financial thing happened… There have been a lot of serendipitous events throughout the making of the record. We always had these random connections, like we’d just run into people on the street. We felt we were on the right track.

Was there much in the way of downtime during the process? What did you do to finance the record, without a label on board at the time?

There would be months of dead time. I tend to, personally, put all my happiness into my work, like it’s based on my work. I have a company that does music for commercials, which is rent-paying stuff, but working on Yeah Yeah Yeahs stuff or on the Kanye tour, I wouldn’t do those creative things if I wasn’t inspired. N.A.S.A. definitely holds a special place in my heart, because it’s my main project. There were definitely moments during the making of the record where we felt low, though – times when nothing was happening. But then things would pick up, and we’d be flying to Jamaica tomorrow and Houston two days after that, y’know. We’d record with a bunch of people over the course of a week, and I’d be flying high. Like, “Kanye says he’s gonna do the song!” And then I’m on the plane that day, going to Hawaii. “I’m In Hawaii, I wanna do this,” he says, and BOOM, I’m there. I can’t complain – I surfed every day and recorded with Kanye.

And these collaborators were informed of the project’s intentions, the concepts behind the music?

That was really important to us, so that it didn’t just sound like a compilation. I think the way we’ve done that is through the writing – we wrote a lot of the choruses – and of course the instrumentals and samples we put in. They’re really about us, and the ideas behind the record. Also, the other important thing was being there. We were there for almost every recording on the album, every guest vocal. The other reason that we were going to these places is because it was fun. I want to record with George Clinton, y’know?

It’s great that you could introduce people to a legend like George Clinton for the first time. Like, someone buys the record for the Kanye spot, and discovers all these other artists…

That is an amazing thing that could happen. I’ve been reading a few comments on blogs, and some people are saying: “I’ve never been into rap or hip-hop before, but I’m a huge David Byrne fan”. And that’s fun! For any DJ, introducing new music and artists to people is a great feeling.

Were you nervous meeting any of these people? I mean… Chuck D? David Byrne? Tom Waits? These are hugely influential musicians…

You know… I think in the beginning I felt like that, as I was about 23 doing the first few songs. I would be nervous. I was already used to working with people and working out how they tick, and how their ideas and my ideas match up, but working with some of these people was definitely intimidating. But over the course of the record we both became more comfortable – whoever was coming into the studio, be it George Clinton or one of our homeboys, we’d be pretty easy going and quick on our feet to adapt.

I guess having this vision between the two of you helped guide the guests that little bit easier. They’ll no doubt respond to you if you’ve clear ideas about what you want from them, i.e. not just a phoned-in 16 bars…

Knowing what you want helps tremendously. Another thing was seeing more and more people who we were massive fans of, seeing them just as people was a leveller. If they liked something and the idea behind it they were into it, and into collaborating. Pretty much everyone on the record was like that, and a lot of fun to work with. Working with George Clinton for instance – that guy is a legend. He’s a huge, important, iconic figure in music history, and working with that guy and seeing how much he’s still up for collaborating… We wrote the song together, and it was so cool to see that, to see someone in their late 60s who’s made so much great music still wanting to have fun. That was cool.

And the visual element of the projects is also strong. You’re making videos for all the songs, is that right?

So we shot the whole making of the record – us in Jamaica, Brazil, all the crazy shit (watch the documentary trailer HERE). But we’ve also been making animated music videos for all the songs on the album. We kind of want to extend this N.A.S.A. idea of bringing worlds together into teaming up with our favourite visual artists and animators to bring these songs to life. It was really fucking fun, working with these people. It’s almost done, a video for every song. We fuse this footage, and animate over the live stuff, and we’ve got a film that’s maybe 80 per cent finished. The worlds of live action and animation together… it’s pretty cool, and I’m very excited. I love the videos… I’ll show you another one…

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N.A.S.A. – ‘Hip Hop’ (featuring KRS-One, Fatlip & Slim Kid Tre)

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‘The Spirit Of Apollo’ is released via Anti on February 16. Find the group on MySpace HERE

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