When you work with as much music as Nelson Brodhead does, some things become second nature. “As soon as I talk to somebody, I know what compressor I want to put on your voice. I know what delay setting I want to use,” he says. Over Zoom, from his home studio in Garfield Heights, Ohio, he’s sharing his screen with me–in FL Studio, he’s pulled up the project files from his new EP as (leave) nelson B, The Famished. Remixes.
Brodhead sees the project as the pinnacle of a catalog that goes back nearly a decade. His earliest Bandcamp tracks were posted in 2012, and in 2019, he became one of Lonely Ghost Records’ earliest signees. Since then, he’s been especially focused on honing his ear for instrumental hip-hop as the label’s de facto remix czar. He compiled his debut full-length, 2.0: Phantom, with samples sourced entirely from other Lonely Ghost releases–indie rock and punk acts like Funeral Homes, Arise, Sir!, and head of the label Superdestroyer. “I love the challenge of it, the alternative voice and context I can give the composition, and I just love making shit funky,” he says.
He’s equally skilled working from scratch, as on the 2020 follow-up 3.0: Saints (and the B-side companion 3.X: Sinners), which cast a wider net for sounds beyond just his labelmates. But the niche of sampling internet-driven DIY remains a mostly-untapped lane Brodhead has to himself. He came back to claim it again as soon as he heard about a more recent Lonely Ghost signee, famish, fronted by signer/songwriter Dominik Kozacek. Brodhead heard their first single “Beck,” with its lo-fi guitars, soft shakers, and heaps of ennui, and his instincts kicked right in.
“Superdestroyer was really excited about this record, and when I first heard ‘Beck,’ I was floored by it. I literally heard it twice and immediately went to work,” he says. That spawned the remix, called “Queen Sally,” that Brodhead would share as his way of introducing himself to Kozacek. Kozacek, for their part, was impressed as much by the audacious conversation starter as they were by the quality of the flip. “I was like, ‘What a power move,’” they say. “I really liked the duality of, the original is low-key this super depressing acoustic song, and then Nelson is like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna make this into a dance track and let’s get some twerking going on.’”
With Kozacek’s blessing, Nelson B would ultimately remix five tracks from the band’s debut EP, famished. He was inspired by the project’s fuzzier style of mixing–a departure from his own sound, which often favors crisper textures. “I feel like at some point, I made a choice for myself to sound really clean and make everything audible,” he explains. “famish pretty much did the opposite. The top end is rolled off and it feels like someone is speaking to you through something thick, you know? The melodic travel that the songs have and some of the more vague lyrics, it feels like somebody’s trying to tell you something that’s very clear, and you have to work to get to it.”
As a representative example, both Brodhead and Kozacek point to the song “Solanin,” track four on famished. Kozacek purposely used his first-ever guitar, which is now 15 years old and showing plenty of wear. “I’ve left it in hot cars and I’ve dropped it more times than I can count, and I haven’t changed the strings in probably two years,” says Kozacek. “But I was just like, ‘I really want that almost amateurish-sounding vibe,’ so I used some of the lower-quality gear that I had to get that sound, just more dark than usual.”
The drum sound, on the other hand, was devised by producer Nathan Clark, who took the initiative to add percussion after Kozacek had laid down the other parts. The graininess was a time and money-saving measure. “I kinda felt guilty about it, because when we agreed to record, we agreed on a certain price ’cause it would all be acoustic,” says Kozacek. “But he was like, ‘No, it was no problem. I literally used one condenser mic, like, three feet away from the drums.’ He didn’t even mic up the kit.”
Low-engineering-effort or not, the addition of those drums gave the track a dynamic lift in keeping with the story at its heart. Every track on famished. was inspired by a different manga from Kozacek’s early-pandemic reading binge; “Solanin” comes from the 2005 coming-of-age serial of the same title, and where other songs on the EP were more impressionistic or associational, Kozacek says it’s one of the few that interpolates elements of the source material’s plot. “I kind of share the theme with the manga as well, about how it’s almost like learning how to live without someone,” they say. “Like, not being dependent on someone and finding your independence.”
Brodhead picked up on the narrative progression in the song’s emotional buildup, and he found it so striking that he couldn’t help but draw “Solanin” out into one of his longest flips ever–at 3:55, the remix “Soul and Lean” is a minute and a half longer than Kozacek’s original. Even as he chopped it up into quarter beats to rearrange on his MPC Live sampler, Brodhead aimed to preserve the almost cinematic arc of the song.
“‘Solanin’ was one of the few songs that had different acts to it,” he says. “For me, the beginning of the track is like the situation, and the second act, when it gets real quiet, that’s like accepting the situation. It sucks, but it’s accepting it. Then the end of it is this triumphant moment where the drums kick in and the guitars really get overdriven, and feel like that’s what I try to tackle. I didn’t really get the quiet parts,” he adds with a laugh, “but I definitely try to give it that triumphant feel towards the latter half.”
After re-sequencing the melody, Brodhead exported it from the MPC to FL Studio for further layering. He added a drum break loop and some extra percussion elements on top (one of his signature touches is a sampled tambourine), and he even made two or three copies of the melody so he could add different effects and EQ to each one. Without access to the original stems, he couldn’t manipulate each instrument individually, but he could still single out different parts of the frequency spectrum and sculpt the sound that way.
“I think that’s probably why samples are usually processed to hell–to try to give it that space and to give certain frequencies the room to live,” he says. “’Cause if you want everything to sound like a fuckin’ rap song from 1992, sure, everything can sound like a rap song from 1992, where it’s just the sample unfiltered, uncompressed, un-EQ’ed. I think we’ve gone way too far for that. The equipment is made for sampling now, and it’s made to have those dynamics in play. You think Madlib still sounds the same as when he was in Lootpack?” he laughs. “Quasimoto’s Yessir Whatever sounds way better than The Unseen because the technology has gotten better.”
Whatever it does technically or structurally, though, Brodhead says a song has to be a home for a feeling in order to be memorable and release-worthy. “Solanin” and the rest of The Famished. Remixes hold a special significance because of where they fall in Brodhead’s development as an artist as well as a person–it’s why he says he spent more time with them in post-processing than anything he’s produced so far.
“They’re the emotions that I’m most proud of, especially after 2.0‘s exposition of raw emotion. Even though there’s no lyrics, when I listen to that record, there are some cries for help, you know? 3.0 and 3.X are more post-therapy, make sense of everything, and I think this one is more like a, ‘Is life really good?’ type of record for me. And I think it is, ’cause these songs sound the best that I’ve done.”
Since 3.0 and 3.X, he cites more confidence in using compression and drum breaks, but also in just letting the sounds play out. That’s one of the reasons “Soul and Lean” ended up being as long as it is. “It was just the sort of thing I didn’t want to be over. I didn’t want to shorten it at all. I’ve done that with songs in the past, and I’ve regretted it. I think namely some of the Funeral Homes stuff that I did, I shortened them, and I regretted it, ’cause I feel like once something hits a chord with you, you just have to keep it going and keep it changing.”
That goes for each artist’s future output too; though Kozacek is back to working a day job and short on time to read manga, famish is currently recording a second EP, this time as a full band. “It’s a complete 180,” they say. “The concept is that it sounds really deep, but it’s Dada, which, it just means that it means nothing. I like the duality of it being super pretentious and very wordsy, and then it’s just like, ‘Nah bro, I was just sittin’ in bed, and I wrote that lyric, bro.’”
Brodhead is currently in the midst of a year-long project, releasing a new single on the last Thursday of every month, and it’s taken him to unexpected places. “I’m dropping a straight rap track [in July], and that’s definitely building up to a part of my repertoire,” he says. “I’m also working on some more trance-y stuff, as it were. I did a song for the birthday of the model that I usually use for album covers, and I’m gonna release that at some point. But yeah, the future is great. I can’t wait for this new famish record to come out so I have a new record to release.”
Lonely Ghost brands itself as a post-genre label, and it’s hard to overstate the role of an artist like (leave) Nelson B in fulfilling that promise–in his ever-sharpening production instincts and his willingness to reach outside the box for his influences. To hear Kozacek talk about how it feels to be remixed by him, you get the sense that cross-pollination goes both ways. “It was like hearing yourself for the first time. You get to listen to these songs in a completely new way, even if you’re the person that wrote it. You’re like, ‘I can’t imagine myself doing it that way,’ so it’s almost inspiring a little bit.”
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