Interview: Letta

Julian Brimmers talks to the instrumental grime producer about his debut album

Los Angeles based producer Tony Nicoletta has been through hell and back. On Testimony, his debut album under the Letta guise, and the first full-length to be released through London’s instrumental grime experts Coyote Records, Nicoletta works through periods of his life in which he was homeless and addicted to heroin. Although geographically detached from the East London underground, Testimony is heavily influenced by the Boxed night and their deconstructionist approach to instrumental music. On the day of the release, we stream Testimony in full, and talk to the shadowy musician about stateside grime, Elliott Smith, his experimental roots and how he turned hardship into haunted beats.

Where do you live these days?

I just got a new spot. I got all my gear in here. I’m on Silver Lake, Echo Park, LA. I used to live on Skid Row in the warehouse district, but I needed a break. It’s a lot calmer over here.

I used to think Skid Row was a fixed expression for run-down areas. Like, hitting Skid Row… I didn’t know that it was a specific area in downtown LA.

Yeah. I mean, they have Skid Rows in other cities. There’s street signs that say “Skid Row that way.” L.A.’s Skid Row is probably a one mile area that’s just filled with tents. They just push all the homeless people there. It’s like a jungle right downtown. Two miles in any direction are million dollar condos surrounding it. Echo Park is cool. It’s safe. Just a bunch of fucking hipsters and expensive coffee, but it’s cool.

Testimony is an instrumental record, but it still feels very personal. How do you feel now that the record is no longer exclusively yours, but out in the world?

It’s a trip, man. It is very personal. When I really started making music, it was a therapeutic thing. It was really me trying to express feelings, even without words. I could never be a rapper or a singer. It just wasn’t my shit. I had to somehow translate those same feelings without the words. When I was a kid I used to make collages of pictures all the time. Somehow it’s easier for me to take other people’s words and turn them into my own over my music. The record being out there is fucking amazing. It means a lot to be able to do exactly what you want to do and be accepted for it, you know?

How did your musical taste develop up to the influences we hear on the record?

The first tape I ever bought was Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, that was when I was 8. My dad let me buy it, but I was only allowed to listen to it in the basement. That was the rule.

I used to be into a lot of indie and post punk shit like Joy Division, The Smiths, all that. What really got me into electronics was Human League. Besides other people doing similar left field type of grime shit, I really tried to get inspired by the records that I listened to when those actual memories had occurred. I listened to a lot of Elliot Smith and Guided by Voices when I was going through all this horrible shit ten years ago.

I was a junkie for about six years, just slamming heroin every day. Dark fucking times man.

Elliot Smith is quite important in Echo Park, right?

Absolutely, I live right down the street from where the Figure 8 cover painting is.

Yeah. That’s a pretty grim story...

Yes. When I was listening to him I was shooting a lot of heroin. I had this real connection with Elliott Smith. I felt like I understood those songs completely.

You underwent methadone treatment, right?

Yeah. I was a junkie for about six years, just slamming heroin every day. Dark fucking times man. I’ve been off it for about seven years now. It’s definitely a part of my past, I’ll never really be the same after that. I don’t want to downplay shit, but I imagine it’s almost like going to war. If you make it through, you can keep going, but you’re never really the same. There’s a lot of that in the record. I’m trying to say goodbye to certain people on some songs, getting closure in a way.

Did you ever do the 12 steps thing?

No, that shit… See, I started going to rehab when I was 13. I’d probably been to like 22 rehabs by the time I was 18. That shit never worked. Nothing could ever stop me until I was just fucking done, man. I was on methadone for about two years, which is a horrible thing. It’s even worse than heroin. It’s harder to kick than dope. It’s also a real corporate system, they make a lot of money off of you. I was trying to get off of it. All you can do is slowly taper down. It takes months, if not years.

The doctors, they don’t want you to do that. They try to encourage you to go up. There was this one guy helping me that worked at the clinic. He was actually a really religious guy, but for some reason we got along. We’re totally different, but he was helping me taper off. One day I went in there and he had died in a car wreck, and so they replaced him with some other corporate person and I was just so disgusted by the way it kept moving and nobody cared that I just said, “Fuck it.”

What did you do instead?

I went to the desert, stopped taking methadone, cold turkey and just hung out. It took about a year for me to be totally normal again. It was fucking hell, but I had to get away from everything, period. My uncle lives down there on 40 acres. You can see Mexico from his land. I just brought a load of weed, and just sat there and didn’t leave until I got better. It was a battle. It’s like, 1 out of 50 junkies actually gets off heroin. I’ve had four friends die this year, childhood friends.

There’s a lot of isolation in my music because that’s how I feel.

The desert is such an alien concept. How did you experience that?

My mom lives way out in the middle of nowhere. It’s sort of a wasteland. Everything is dead. There’s no green. All the plants are on defense. It’s a very dry, dead place. I don’t think I really liked it a lot, coming from Seattle, but now I definitely have an appreciation for it. It’s a very interesting place being surrounded by mountains and just nothing there. I appreciate it a lot more now that I’m not there.

That’s a really interesting observation. All the plants are on defense. You’re just not supposed to be there.

Exactly. Anything that lives there is tough and callous... The people, too.

One of the things that I notice about talking to producers – isolation, being by yourself, is something you have to either enjoy, or at least tolerate.

I grew up spending a lot of time by myself. I’m totally cool with that, I just work better that way. Once every month I’ll go out and get really drunk, get it out of my system. Other than that, I like being alone. There’s a lot of isolation in my music because that’s how I feel. I think it’s also important to be isolated when I’m doing it.

Did you ever put out anything under a different name, any band projects or remixes?

Yeah, if people really want to find it, there are ways to find it. I’ve done some stuff for an artist on Warp before. I’ve used a million different aliases. I started making hip hop in ’98. I’ve had a few production credits here and there with a band on the TV show Workaholics. However, I really like how this thing has kind of been built on nothing that came before. It wasn’t intentional or anything. This record was a brand new, fresh start for me. I was going through a shitty relationship when I started writing it. I ended it. A lot of it has to do with that as well. I did this by myself, for myself.

What was the first software that you learned on?

I had the very first version of Acid on PC. Then I had this program called Making Waves. It was a super basic sequencer. It was just this huge grid on your screen, and you would load samples in and drums, and you would just put a purple dot wherever you want that sound in the grid. There’s a million tracks and they’re all represented by nothing but purple dots. Eventually you have a grid with 87,000 purple dots and you can’t change shit. It was all computer-based back then, now I definitely have a few analog pieces. I try to keep it simple. I just use Logic. And I use my bass station all the time. This is my baby. I bought this shit years ago. It’s like an 808 / 909 analog bass drum clone. I got this sometime in the ’00s, because I was making Miami Bass for a while.

My whole goal over years of making music has just been to strip it down as much as possible.

What happened to those Miami Bass recordings?

You know what? I just found an old laptop my friend gave me from years ago. I’m going to buy a charger and I think I’m going to find all kinds of crazy shit off there. These recordings might be around. I was super into that shit. I don’t even know where that came from, but that was all I was doing for two years. I think it plays a huge role in everything I do now, because that’s when I really started to care about low end. I was listening to Egyptian Lover all the time and really started to understand bass. I think I had a great understanding of sub and low end way before all this trap bullshit started, and then everybody was on it. I think that definitely comes into play now, for sure.

Many of the songs on Testimony feed off that interplay of sparse melodics and effects against a heavy low end that keeps things in order.

Yeah. I think that my whole goal over years of making music has just been to strip it down as much as possible. I feel like that’s what every musician is really trying to do. I’m really into negative space. Miles Davis said something about how it’s not the notes that you play, it’s the ones that you don’t. I’m really into sound design now and just seeing how far you can spread certain things.

How much of that comes down to the arrangement of the tracks?

I look at the elements of a song more as just thoughts. For Testimony, I didn’t worry about normal song structure as much. I just want it to sort of happen organically. If a new sound is supposed to come in, it does. If it’s supposed to stay the same for two minutes, that’s how it is. Half my record, if not the whole thing, I made it on ear buds from my iPhone. All you need is a laptop to do anything. I would never ever have a big studio. It will always be in my room. It will always be right next to me. That’s part of it. I think limitations are important. I like to work within as many guidelines as I can, just because it’s harder. That’s why I try to limit myself in what sounds I use to just really get the important shit.

The whole deconstructionist approach to sound became quite popular in the UK over the last couple of years. You’ve mentioned that the whole Boxed crew, Mr. Mitch, Logos, these guys were an influence to you.

Oh definitely. I started listening to grime when I was like 19, 20 years old. All that Wiley shit that was coming out, Ruff Sqwad, I was definitely bumping all that. I was also into garage, the dark, melodic stuff, when I was a teenager. Grime, the Eski sounds, and the minimal beats, that shit had always been so different to me. XTC’s “Functions on the Low”, all those classic beats, the melodies were amazing, and they were so simple. As for Mr. Mitch, when I heard his first record, it blew me away, same with Logos, Rabit and Mumdance. It’s just this huge open space to work, where all my favorite influences were being drawn from. Mr. Mitch’s Wiley vocal mix of “Born in the Cold” is amazing compared to the original. The original I hate. I won’t listen to that shit. That Mr. Mitch version is so haunting and perfect with three sounds.

So you dig the devil mixes?

Yeah, I just caught the Wiley “Firefly” Devil mixes on white label. It’s beautiful. I’ve been doing something called grave edits, where it’s kind of the same thing, but I just strip it down and try to make it sound like it’s coming out of a mausoleum or something.

Were you like an outsider listening to that stuff in your area?

I was completely outside. It’s slowly starting in L.A., New York is kind of catching on, but it was definitely kind of an outsider thing, and it still is. If I tell an American I make grime they’re already like, “What’s that?” And then I’m like, “Well, it’s not even really grime. It’s instrumental music based on this music called grime.” They don’t quite get it here yet. Hopefully they will. When I was 17, in ‘97 or so, I was going to warehouse parties in Tucson. I remember having old speed garage cassette tapes, that was always my favorite. I definitely have a huge soft spot for all that bassline shit, too. Cheesy, but I love it.

If you could choose the perfect listening environment for people to hear your record for the first time in full...

I would say in the dark with a spliff, preferably while it’s raining outside or foggy.

Which you never have...

No, no, unfortunately not. [laughs] Yeah, a small room where it’s dark and cold, I think. It definitely could be a headphone record. Not that there’s a million things going on, but I think there is some subtlety in there somewhere.

Some of the tracks do have very strong, arcade-like lead melodies. Is video game music something that inspired you?

Yes, I used to have a project where I made sort of punk rock music with Gameboys. I really learned how to program music on Gameboys, on Nintendo chips. I used the bass station for a lot of leads, and I can really get that 8 bit square wave out of it. I don’t know. It wasn’t done intentionally. It just kind of happens.

Where does the whole tech savviness come from? Were you a geeky teenager?

Yeah, I got my first computer, like one of the first Macintosh computers ever, just a tiny black and white screen. As soon as AOL and the internet came out, I was on that. I’m kinda old, man. I’ve just been doing this shit forever. I started making music on the PC around ‘98 and then started buying gear. It’s been fucking solid 15 years I’ve been doing this.

Let’s go through some individual tracks of the album. The messed up relationship that you mentioned earlier, is that what inspired “North Face”?

No, no, that’s about someone else. Okay, so I was living in Seattle, I think I was 20 years old. I met this girl through a friend. We hung out on New Years Eve. She’s seriously the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. We had this crazy relationship, it was very intense and short, but she was just very dope. She wore Air Max’s all the time. She taught me about style. I’d never met anybody like her. We’d just listen to hip hop together. It was something I hadn’t experienced. Things just kind of fucked up, and I got fucked up, and we lost track. Now I don’t even remember her last name. I don’t know how I’d ever see her again, but it’s definitely about her. And she used to rock North Face parkas all the time. That’s where the song title came from.

“The Recluse” has a very strong, RPG-like lead melody. It feels like that could’ve been the title track for the whole album.

That’s definitely one of my favorite songs on the record. I just channeled some shit on that. I think I was frustrated because there were certain times where I wouldn’t leave my house. I was frustrated and tried to channel it into something. It’s my anthem of how hard I was working, I think. It’s definitely not sad like most of the other songs.

“Ghosts” is another standout track with the reversed opening sample and disembodied vocals.

Yeah, I think my new shit’s way crazier too. “Ghosts” is just me trying to not give a fuck about structure at all really, you know? Just go for the sonics. I think that’s another way Mumdance was really inspirational because you have no idea what’s about to happen or when something is going to come back. You don’t know when it’s going to drop or when it’s coming back on the normal bar.

What’s up next?

I’ve been doing some remixes, but I’m not really sure what we’re going to do next. I’m working on some shit. I’m about to collaborate with Spokes on something for Coyote, the homie gang. Purple Tape Pedigree, that’s my brother. We’re collaborating on a bunch of super weird shit. I think I’m going to do some stuff with E.m.m.a. as well. That’s the homegirl. I feel like she’s pretty underrated, especially since there doesn’t seem to be that many girls involved in that scene.

By Julian Brimmers on October 9, 2015

On a different note