Interview: Nordra

PHOTO BY REID HAITHCOCK

Seattle’s Nordra is constantly transforming. Throbbing electronics collapse into dismally prophetic horns; into voice under digital stutter; into sludge guitar unmoored from percussive drive. These mutations are not just the product of mastery – Monika Khot has an incredible knack for extracting serenity from catastrophe, or resolution from ambiguity, or intimacy from the void – but also of urgency: there’s a sense that Nordra is forever slipping beyond the clutches of stagnation and irrelevance, adapting to fit circumstance and emotional utility, remaining viscerally engaged with the present tense at all times.

Below, Monika and I discuss the confrontation of discomfort, Wagnerian absolutism and her new album on SIGE (which you can preview over at Bandcamp).

You’re on tour with your band Zen Mother at the moment. How is that panning out? I hear that you’ve had some van trouble along the way…

This tour has been filled with some strange and amazing moments. A sound person the other night put it very well: “the void of excessive novelty”. Since we are on a budget, we have to play every night with only a few days break. About 34 shows in 36 days. So we feel a little crazy, but it’s a positive thing. The van broke down multiple times, Charles Manson look alike encounters, haunted stages, audience seizure/pass out second day of tour, sleeping next to train tracks under highway in New Orleans, but most importantly lots of kindness and discovery of great new music.

What led you to start creating music as Nordra? I see that the project has been around for at least a couple of years, and I’ve found a video of you performing live under your own name (potentially prior to that) – was there a reason for adopting a pseudonym, and for opting for Nordra in particular?

I chose a pseudonym because it allows for a layer of abstraction… If I’m going to perform live, I don’t really want to be myself on a stage. It’s possible that I’ve got some gross Wagnerian absolutism influencing this train of thought, but to put it simply I’m myself most of the time, and if I can foster differing manifestations of myself then I will. The pseudonym helps with that psychology.

In the press release for this new Nordra record, you mention that it “has a lot to do with the loss of information from analog to digital conversion”. Firstly, I’m curious to know the context in which you perceive this information loss to take place. My first thought was that you are referring to the resolution/fidelity of aural (and perhaps visual) media, but I’m wondering whether you might consider this “information loss” to have a wider breadth as well. For instance, I’ve personally become very interested in how the conversion to digital media has affected our ability to absorb information due to the very transient, distraction-prone nature of the media itself. What does this “information loss” cover for you?

Reflections on exhaustive thought is really what I meant by that.. the analog to digital conversion is a sort of symbol for that. I’m a bit of a masochist. I enjoy (appreciate?) pain and discomfort. The other day someone told me I am a perverse person. Where am I going with this.. the information loss from A2d conversion represents something I truly hate in this world. Maybe that is why there are few “light” moments in this record. The information loss represents the lack of exhaustive thought people exert most of the time. In general, pain and discomfort is a step most people want to skip. What the fuck do you think you are? You are human. Embrace that. Exhaustive thought requires mental discomfort, experimentation, and with that inner-reflection, which can be ugly. I truly detest this desire to evade discomfort (if you are in a position to reject discomfort), and I think it is the root cause of evil in this world. I’m hoping that this record conveys my hatred for it.

The horns on this record and in reality really allow me to purge some of that hatred. The long decays are soothing, but the pitch warbling gives that sense of discomfort I love. All the drones on this record serve that purpose. Relaxing, but unsettling. A pairing of two divergent emotions.

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There’s an ease and vital instinct to the way in which you interleave sounds of different textures and densities. Each time I reach the end of “Apologize To Me, Humanity”, I find myself reflecting on how elegantly the elements are reconfigured, over time, to completely transform the construct of the music. Digital beats sink beneath horizon-spanning drones, which in turn melt away to leave a slight, harmonically slanted duet between voice and fingerplucked guitar. Each section feels embedded within the last rather than a departure from it, and each track seems to develop through a process of peeling back the layers. Do you have any theories on what makes it so easy for you to amalgamate seemingly disparate musical universes like this, and why you gravitate toward doing so?

It is not easy for me. I practice a lot, merging ideas together, tearing them apar I gravitate towards creating disparate musical universes probably because I have a very short attention span. There’s an annoying voice in my head saying “hurry the fuck up and get this melody down because you’re going to lose it in 5 4 3 2…” So I just quickly vom every musical idea I have out in an unorganized fashion. Thus everything ends up sounding completely foreign to one another. Then I try really hard to fuse them together.

I’ve seen videos of you playing this material live, where you negotiate the use of guitar, electronics, voice and trumpet to perform this material. Were you conscious of how you might perform these pieces live while you were composing them, or did you have to work out a way to recreate this music in real time?

Semi-conscious. I like writing with the live set up I have, though there are some recordings not made with my live set up that I recreate live. I enjoy the former, because it allows me to re-arrange the sounds and experiment the most.

Zen Mother will soon be performing your soundtrack to Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain. How have you found the process of putting the soundtrack together? I’d imagine that the innumerable means of sonically interpreting/reframing Jodorowsky’s visuals could be either liberating or creatively paralysing. Is it difficult to embrace the chaos of the visuals while maintaining a certain discipline around the duration of each scene?

It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve watched shit turn to gold and robots jizz too many times to count now. Me and my musical partner Adam Wolcott Smith have learned so much about this film and the deep psychology of each scene through scoring it. Its interesting.. the chaos of the visuals are pretty well compartmentalized I think. We tried to match the hilarity and intensity as best we could. Letting the visuals guide and not attempting to reinvent scenes was our intention. Bringing out the emotions or lack of emotions of each scene was our goal. 

Do you have an ideal environment – in terms of time of day, place, frame of mind etc – that you use for creating/recording your music?

I like composing at night with lots of warm-colored lamps on, lots of warm bread nearby, and black tea. Frame of mind: very sober.

What other records are you listening to at the minute?

somesurprises’ Serious Dreams and The Classical’s Diptych.

What’s next for you and your music?

I want to tour Russia. but I also want to stay in my room and record forever…