Long considered one of America’s most mysterious, enigmatic and creative electronic music forces, Nick Kaelar aka Varien returns after a year away from the limelight with the title track from his brand new EP ‘Death Asked A Question’. Dark, brooding and brimming with simmering emotion, the release is a jarring piece of production from Varien, at times blissfully euphoric, then suddenly jittery, shuddering and almost uncomfortable. As he returns to the forefront of electronic music, it is his own story being told, his own emotions channelled through the production, his own journey recounted and dissected and explored. An honest reflection of Varien as an artist, ‘Death Asked A Question’ serves as both a glimpse into Varien’s own demons and a way for listeners to better understand their own. DMCWORLD gets the world exclusive…
It’s been a while since we last heard from you – what’s been happening?
Well, hello again! I have been working hard since about January, putting out 1-2 tracks a month. They have all been self releases, but still some of the strongest stuff I believe I’ve done mood/atmospheric wise – I’m especially proud of “Oh, Sparrow” and “Monarch Butterfly”. In April, a track I wrote for K-Pop sensation VIXX was released and hit #1, kind of marking my first adventure into the asian Pop market. Since then, I have been crafting and honing an aesthetic and coming up with a fresh, modern sound to accompany it. I’ve been very busy, working on music almost every single day for various purposes. But most importantly I’m taking care of myself, keeping up with a good regimen for my mind and body.
When you pressed the ‘delete’ button on your socials, what was the feeling like?
Pure ecstasy, at the time. At that time in my life, I couldn’t even begin to describe the crushing anxiety and existential dread that was filling my days up. I couldn’t really just… fucking breathe and playing the social media game was just one more task, one more place where I had to see everyone else succeeding and thriving while my whole world was on fire. So when I deleted them, it was like, the world got so quiet. That gave me a LOT more space to breathe and to start the healing and recovery process. (Little did I know the road back up was actually a shirtless crawl up a jagged mountain, and I was already exhausted and bloodied from the fall down.)
Do you regret doing it?
Yes and no. Yes, in the business/capitalist sense that in the social media game, followers are essentially currency in the eyes of the very people who could provide opportunities, and so is that verified blue checkmark that we hold so high. So, not having 27k and Verified does make people think I’m a certain way – new, or, unsuccessful. Now, I also answer ‘no’, because, I have even more engagement now than I did when I had 27k+Verified. I believe that this is because every single person who is following me is actually interested in what I’m doing. Couple that with solid aesthetic pieces, genuine positive tweets, unwavering support of my friends and other artists, and basically my Twitter and Instagram is pretty genuine in of itself. Taking even a half of a step back though, it’s still all very Black Mirror to me.
How fast are people finding you again? Are the majority of them old fans, or are you pulling in a new audience?
I believe I’m pulling in a new audience, but there are definitely some old fans in the mix too – and I wanna take a brief second to thank them for following me again. People are finding me pretty fast, by my standards, especially in the past few months. It seems exponential, and I love it. Shoutout to my Discord server too, that’s been an entirely new way for me to connect with fans, old and new. It’s a small tight knight community of about 200 people, we all know each other, and boy do we get into some degeneracy. But we are also there for each other and are surprisingly wholesome! Very active server too; This is because it’s a community that I specifically designed to keep semi-private and reflect the IRC / AIM chat experience of the early 00s. It’s not a fucking promo outlet. A lot of those people are now my friends, too!
You’re releasing a new EP end of October, ‘Death Asked A Question’ – what’s the story behind the name?
Looking at my discography will show that I’m no stranger to topics such as death, sex, existentialism, religious iconography, Jungian psychology, esotericism, etc. The story behind this name, is much like the emotions and feelings I’m trying to convey in the EP itself about how trying this year has been, and the dark places I’ve found myself in. In those places, it always seemed that death beckoned me, sort of in the distance with a dim latern and a pale gaze. I guess that’s a poetic way of saying that in the past year, when there was a lot of emotional pain and sheer panic, I did flirt with self harm. So in a sense, Death is asking if I’m ready for him to take me. I’m not. I’m firmly determined to make my dreams a reality as well as continue my health regimen. I don’t want anyone reading this to panic, but I am not going to lie either. In excruciating pain, we all have vices to self-soothe. I’m just pointing it out.
Your music is very different sound to the majority of productions out there right now – are there any current producers that you draw influences from? If not, what does influence you, and what direction are you ultimately looking to push your sound in?
I always try to be ahead of the curve, sound wise. I get bored with myself very easily so, that is a great mechanism to get me to think bigger and better consistently. There’s not too many current producers I’m drawing influence from, save for G Jones or Virtual Self. I draw most of my inspiration from the Y2K era (1998-2002ish). After the consumerist boom in the United States post-Cold War, there was a counter-culture building. As people were padding themselves and their identities with their new furniture and gated communities and so many fucking malls, you had media like Fight Club saying “you’re not your job, you’re not how much you have in your bank account, [etc.]” and it’s like, “Whoa! Yes!” Throw in Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson shocking the nation, A Perfect Circle, The Matrix, Se7en, rave culture, early Internet days, BBS forums, industrial EBM/metal, and it was all gritty, and raw, and visceral, and real. I remember actually feeling the energy of Rage Against the Machine or the darkness of KoRn, even though I was young and thinking, “They definitely don’t teach this in Catholic school”. Maybe it’s all just edgelord nonsense now, but maybe it woke up a lot of people at the time. I’d like to think the latter. So, with this EP and moving forward, I am channeling that aesthetic and vibe into my music. I hope to keep pushing it further out, bringing some notes of metal, synthwave, witch house, and trip hop in with this next body of work I’ve begun.
Let’s chat about Monstercat. You were one of their biggest artists when the label started out -what happened to the relationship?
Musically they seem to be taking a different direction these days. I wish them the best. Who knows, in the future, a collaboration of sorts might make sense!Do you think it’s easy for artists today to stay true to their creative path? Have you had to push to stick firm to your own sound and your own style? How easy was it for you to find a label that would support your vision, and what advice would you give to other producers facing similar situations?
Well, it’s tough right? Because the game changed sometime in the past 2 years and left a lot of people, including label owners and such, kind of in this place where it’s like “where’s the money?!” And with that in mind, and any transitory period of time in mind, makes some people violently succeed and others stagnate. When you have that situation, you have artists willing to make anything to put bread on the table, and labels willing to do anything to stay ‘relevant’. I do think this is leveling out and there’s some resolve coming up sooner than later. It has not been easy this year with labels and understanding what I’m trying to do, both short term and long term – but I am eternally grateful for MA Music for giving me a shot. My advice to other producers in similar situations is the classic punk adage, “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. A lot of the stuff I was doing in 2012, or 2014 is now the “mainstream” – so if you have a sound or style, keep honing it and working on it, and someone will see where it could connect with the culture and temperature of a scene. Also, there is nothing more noble than having the ability to keep you and your loved one’s bellies full, so if you need to take on a part-time to help buffer the music career, do it. We are all out here surviving.
If there was one other producer you could work with, who would it be and why?
I really wanna work with Bjork or Imogen Heap. I’d also love to work on something with Mike Shinoda, who is a great producer on top of an iconic rapper. But all my biggest collab wishes reside in the film and video game world – I’d love to write a score with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Clint Mansell (The Fountain, Black Mirror, Ghost in the Shell) , Ben Salisbury (Annihilation, Ex Machina) , and so many Japanese composers that I wouldn’t know where to begin. I do think a very, very interesting collab albeit impossible is one with Virtual Self – if I’m the dark,-gritty-Matrix-esque underbelly of the Y2K era, and Virtual Self is the Bemanistyle-Japanese-and-UK-Rave side of the Y2K era, what would that sound like together? Cool idea but VS is not a collaboration project, that would break the lore and ethos behind it.
DMCWORLD own the ‘Back To Mine’ series where producers created a playlist for an after party at their house. What would your 10 track ‘Back To Mine’ selection be…?
After-party jams? Hell yeah. If we’re chilling at my place after a show, we’re turning down the lights, getting some incense and some good kush out, and restoring and re-grounding…
I love psychedelic ambient music so much. It’s up there with metal and soundtracks as my favorite thing to listen to.
Shpongle has been my favorite artist besides Dream Theater for over a decade. They got me into a lot of very awesome subgenres of world music.
This brilliance of this song is that it actually does sound like ice forming on glass. It also reminds me of the ice levels in Donkey Kong Country for SNES, which is always good.
I’ll never forget getting into Boards of Canada. They were on constant, constant rotation when I found them almost 10 years ago. I still listen to them often!
Massive Attack – Angel
I mean, what can be said about Massive Attack? They are absolute legends? One of them might be Banksy? Most people know them from the theme to the TV show House? Either way, they’re a favorite.
This song is the epitome of chill when it comes to trip hop. So laid back.
I know Thievery Corporation is kind of Starbucks-core now, but this was such a treat when I found it in high school.
This one is just a classic. Also very sexy. Hey it’s post-party jams, things happen!
Since I’ve been into electronic music since I was really young, I always kept up with how it was evolving. There was this cool ‘dubstep’ thing starting to happen around 2006, and thankfully Mary Anne Hobbs got me into this particular fellow.
Very beautiful track. Still feels fresh for me. Such good music to close your eyes and let you take on a journey!
If you could score one computer game, which one would it be and what kind of soundtrack would you produce for it?
Oh jesus, this is a hard one. A tie between a traditional symphonic soundtrack for a developer like Square Enix, for a Japanese RPG. That’s definitely a dream. That’s sort of, end-game for me, no pun intended. A more realistic path is doing some music for CD Projekt Red’s upcoming mega-behemoth of a game, ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ – they are sort of curating the soundtrack from various artists, and given my music has always been cinematic, and that I am going to be doing a bit more synth/darkwavey stuff moving forward, it’s a very real possibility.
Varien ‘Death Asked A Question’ is available to download worldwide now via Most Addictive. ‘Death Asked A Question’ (full EP release) will be available October 26th.