Meet NNAMDÏ, an oddball guitarist who prefers playing soft

The Chicago native talks falling in love with the six-string, his latest album BRAT, and why he prefers not dialing his amp up to 11.

NNAMDÏ (formerly known as Nnamdi Ogbonnaya) is returning with his new album BRAT, the follow-up to 2017’s DROOL. The self-taught Chicago native is known for blending genres, taking inspiration from screamo, math rock, hip-hop and the Nigerian hymns his minister father would play around the house. This playful, limitless approach to songwriting quickly made him a mainstay in the Chicago DIY scene and now, with BRAT, NNAMDÏ is continuing to secure his place as indie-rock’s favourite oddball.

DROOL featured almost no guitars at all but BRAT is full of them, and even kicks off with a frantic, finger-picked acoustic on opener Flowers To My Demons, NNAMDÏ is experimenting with the instrument more than ever before: Its presence morphs and shifts alongside his industrial, eccentric structures, in a way that turns the guitar into a soundbed that can be manipulated. Here, the multi-instrumentalist and producer discusses his “disorientating” vision for BRAT, why he likes to record effects in post and the importance of creative control.

Where did your relationship with the guitar begin?

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Both my parents are from Nigeria and so my dad was always picking up the guitar when I was little, and he would play us Nigerian hymns and church songs that he either wrote or learned when he was growing up. Also my older brother got more into guitar when he got into middle school and high school. I would just kind of take the instruments from around the house and play them more than they did so, I kind of commandeered and collected all of the instruments and they were just like, “Well, I guess they’re his now!”

What sort of stuff did you start playing?

I was always just figuring stuff out myself. I don’t think I really had any idea of what I was doing or what I wanted things to sound like. I was very much a tinkerer when I first started, just playing random little melodies that came into my head. I was never into learning other people’s songs really, I would just immediately write little funny songs for myself. Maybe the first time I played guitar, I was definitely in elementary school. The songs would always relate to food or playing outside, they were very much kid songs.

Is the guitar a gateway to exploring different genres for you?

I definitely think that’s true. I think it’s a great way for me to just get melodies down, to write. When I’m writing I don’t really consider genre, I just let the songs form and I feel like the guitar is the easiest way for me to let a song form organically.

Is that how you write all of your songs?

First off, I’ll sing a vocal melody into my phone and the instrument I pick up to try and figure something out is the guitar. Sometimes what I sing will become the guitar melody.

NNAMDÏ
Image: Tim Nagle

Do you have a favourite guitar model or make?

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I have not been picky because I have never had to buy a guitar until last year and even then, it was an emergency. Growing up, I always had access to guitars and then was gifted guitars or people left them at my house. I used to run a show space and people would just leave instruments and then never come and get them, so I have had guitars that came and went. Finally, I just bought a guitar last year on tour because the one I was using just stopped working. Right now, I have this all-black Epiphone SG and I really like it. It’s probably because it’s my first actual guitar, and I love it so much.

The guitar seems to be much more present in BRAT – was that your intention from the get-go?

Yeah, there’s no guitar on DROOL at all, there’s only one real bass. I never really had any intention when I was writing, it just happened organically. I was getting home from tours and usually I have to come up with an obsession to keep me occupied because sometimes coming home from tour can be very disorientating. Between tours, I would fiddle around on guitar a lot and began acquiring a lot of memos on my phone of me playing different guitar riffs. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had ideas that I really love and would think “wow this is going to be great” and then I would just never do anything with it. As I was doing that and also writing words about what was going on in my life, a lot of it ended up feeling good together and so I combined them to create these songs.

NNAMDÏ
Image: Maren Celest

Can you talk us through the process for Flowers To My Demons?

It’s playfully disorientating. I guess it’s similar to Perfect In My Mind – they’re both loops, they’re both very repetitive. It’s the same riff that plays throughout both songs and things come in and are taken out and then come in a lot at the end. I recorded those songs using the Line 6 loop pedal. That was another thing that came from a vocal idea to guitar. When I know I have a good loop, I’ll let it play for so long. If I don’t get bored of it and I can just let it play, that’s when I know I have something hypnotising.

What did you use to create the sonic world of BRAT?

I do all the effects in post. My roommate Steve who helped me mix everything, would help me because he is a pedal freak. For Perfect In My Mind, I used my [Fender] Twin Reverb amp and that doesn’t have distortion on it, so it was just gain-y and like, breaking up on the amp. We recorded that and then ran it through the OCD distortion pedal and then re-recorded that through a different amp. I usually record everything pretty clean and then if I want to make it really weird, I’ll change it in post. I also did a lot of stuff with the Lo Fi pedal on the record to get those warble-y, atmospheric tones.

Why do you think doing stuff in post works for you?

A few reasons. One, I don’t really like to be loud. When I’m by myself, which is how I do a lot of recording, sometimes I don’t like to be incredibly loud. Also, if I’m recording and there are other people around it feels kind of disruptive, so I usually work in secret a lot. I just don’t want anyone to know what’s going on until it’s done. It’s also how I grew up playing. I would either be playing on an acoustic or an electric guitar with no amp, so I got used to clean tones and adding effects is still experimental for me.

Did you study music at school?

No, I didn’t. I took half a year of guitar lessons when I was going to community college which was cool. I learned a few things about some jazz chords but I’m not really good at classes or any sort of instructional thing.

NNAMDÏ
Image: Maren Celest

Do you think that’s allowed you to be more playful?

I definitely play the guitar the way I play it because of that – not having an attention span to pay attention to lessons. I’m just more hands on. I’ll learn a lot of things from just watching short YouTube videos, which is more helpful to me than sitting down with someone. I feel like I’m not as comfortable around other people when I’m trying to learn things or experiment, so I think that has a lot to do with it. It allows me to maybe fuck things up in order to get to where I need to be without any judgement.

Do you look at the guitar as just another sound to be manipulated when constructing a beat or soundbed rather than the primary instrument of focus?

Oh, absolutely. A lot of my favourite guitar players will use the guitar in that way where it doesn’t even sound like the guitar anymore, which I think is really cool. There’s a lot of pedals and midi pedals where you can use your guitar notes to trigger drum sounds. You’re really open to so many options with the guitar now. One of my favourite guitar players is Nick Reinhart from this band Tera Melos, who are kind of weird and math-y. I’ve seen him doing stuff like that. He’s also very experimental and it influenced me to do whatever the heck I want with guitar.

NNAMDÏ
Image: Maren Celest

Do you have any go-to pedals?

I was a “no pedal” person for the longest time. I just kind of had the switch on my amp that turned the distortion on and that was all. I would have a relatively clean sound and then the distortion sound. I only own one pedal and it’s the OCD pedal which is also for gain and distortion and definitely sounds better than my amp’s distortion so I got that. Going on, it’s a slippery slope to go down because I live with someone who has so many pedals and just keeps buying them. I feel like I am very simple in that regard. I think I’m going to get this ZVex Lo Fi pedal, which is what I was talking about using on a lot of the album because I think that will be important for recreating what I did on the record in a live setting.

You played almost every instrument and recorded the album yourself – is it important for you to have that kind of creative control?

I played everything but the horn and strings and one little synth line. It is important to have that creative control. I am open to collaboration, I’ve been in a lot of bands and I think maybe even the next thing I do with my solo record, I might get other people to play my ideas. It’s therapeutic for me to just create and be in full control, it’s what’s in my brain, it’s like journaling for me, honestly.

NNAMDÏ
Image: Tim Nagle

Do you see yourself using even more guitar in the future?

I want to be able to shred. I don’t know how to shred, I have a lot of friends where guitar is their main instrument and I’m trying to learn how to be more confident behind it. It’s not that I’m not confident, it’s that I’m very aware of my limitations as a guitar player and it has never stopped me. I’ll try it anyway and if I crash and burn, then I’ll move on.

I grew up listening to a lot of punk music and it doesn’t really matter, as long as the emotion is there and the art is there, it’ll come out. It can’t be completely trash but the important part is the performance, not that you hit 100 per cent of the notes correctly. I’m definitely trying to do more deliberate guitar. I tend to play less guitar live personally and delegate it to my band so I can move around more but the songs I do play on I think will be more powerful and more deliberate compared to the past.

BRAT is out 3 April on SOOPER Records.

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