Nina Buchanan is a Melbourne based artist via Sydney working across live production, sound and composition. Nina’s latest full length LP ‘Restless Abandon’ released by Heavy Machinery marks a significant evolution in her practice. Threading together a unique vernacular that has been nurtured over the last decade, she has made numerous solo and collaborative works including melancholic and introverted techno-oriented releases ‘Sunk’ (Nice Music, 2016) and ‘Highly Emotional’ (Nice Music, 2018), collaborative scores for ‘The Second Woman’ (2019) and ‘Mass Movement’ (2021). In this reworked interview that was originally a two hour Zoom call, we patched together some different timelines, events, themes and approaches to her sonic explorations.
Nina and I were first introduced in our early 20s on a share-house roof in Sydney. We didn’t talk much, but would eventually see each other regularly enough to form a bond over the local experimental music, queer scenes and later electronic music. In 2013 we formed the band Video Ezy. I had just purchased an Akai XR-20 drum machine and Nina had been experimenting with her Yamaha CS-5 synthesizer.
Del Lumanta: From your perspective, can you describe what Video Ezy was for you? Because we have never actually talked about it [haha].
Nina Buchanan: You know, I’ve been trying to think about how we even started. My main memory is bumping into each other on King Street (Newtown) and walking and talking about starting something.
Del Lumanta: I don’t remember how we articulated it, but there was a mutual understanding that we should try to do something together.
Nina Buchanan: There was definitely an acknowledgement that you were one of the only people that I knew who crossed the same communities in Sydney. It felt separate then, the queer community and the DIY music community.
We had this context of underground Sydney that we got to witness, bands like Naked on the Vague and Holy Balm that I saw as a teenager, making amazing weird music, that offered us a way of doing sound that was based on messing around. We didn’t really sit down and decide we wanted to be a certain kind of band. Improvisation was a huge part of it – I really learned how to improvise because of Video Ezy. We were primarily a live band, and we just had these loose ideas that we would play live and it would be short or long depending on what we felt. And that’s still how I play mostly.
Del Lumanta: Can I ask you my next question? In hindsight how do you think Video Ezy was received?
Because we were often playing on bills with a lot of different kinds of music, it was just accepted in a lot of ways I think at that time, to be sort of in between genres or playing kind of in-between music.
Del Lumanta: Just before you moved to Melbourne you started writing scores. Can you tell me about this process?
Nina Buchanan: What I really love about composing scores is it pushes me to make something I wouldn’t otherwise and discover some other way of structuring music or writing or treating it.
With composing it’s similar to performing live but instead of tuning into an audience you’re tuning into a character or a world or a mood, and often something very specific, multilayered and complex. You can make some choices in your approach, but there’s no way to logically think your way through it, you have to feel it. It also goes back to forming relationships with people. When you first start working with someone on a project, there’s a process of trying to understand each other, because language is often so inept when trying to communicate about sound. I try to read the subtext in what people are trying to describe with sound or with their project, because that’s ultimately what music does, is articulate subtext of stuff that’s happening, that we can’t articulate with words.
When you’re playing live, particularly if you’re playing or producing dance-adjacent music, there’s so many tropes that you just fall into, and there’s a reason that they’re tropes – they’re great. Even in experimental music and synth music. But composing and collaborating can be a great way of breaking out of habits and finding new approaches.
Del Lumanta: Through my reading there is this particular attention given to the techno aspect of your sound. But then those more, quiet moments… I see them as signatures of your sonic world. The combination veers away from techno that’s ‘club ready’. You really have to listen in a different way.
Nina Buchanan: Yeah definitely. I’m interested in dance music but have never felt comfortable thinking of myself as a ‘dance music producer’. I feel like there are really strict codes, you have to perform in a certain way and you have to construct your sound in a certain way, and the really functional approaches to dance music don’t interest me very much.
I’ve always been drawn to music that operates in a more in-between space, and it’s usually what I’m trying to do either consciously or unconsciously, create in the in betweens. I try to keep challenging myself and audiences, but in a generous way, not a destructive or antagonizing way.
Del Lumanta: Who are some of your music or non-music anchors when it comes to sound?
Nina Buchanan: Sci-fi writing is really influential for me. Writers like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemisin. For me they do a similar thing to music in being able to analyse the world in a way that cuts through the bullshit and hits directly at our deeper experiences. They’re often looking at how power operates in our world and what alternatives there could be, but in a stealthy way, and in a way that can’t ever really exist in journalism or politics.
I don’t really believe in art alone being able to ‘change the world’ in the way direct action does, but I believe deeply in its ability to provide these alternative ways of accessing things emotionally and collectively, tapping into actual lived experience but also to think beyond our daily existence. We are living within fictions all the time – Australia is a fiction. It’s important to engage with other narratives to make sense of the world. Creatively I think these books and ideas help me shift my thinking away from trying to make music that I feel I should make, to fit in or something, and towards thinking about what music I could make and actually want to make, so it becomes a way of embracing difference and otherness and honesty.
In terms of music, this is shifting all the time. I listen pretty widely. The anchors that stay the same, are the people around me. That’s been something tough about the pandemic and was something I realised early on, that even as a solo musician I’m still super influenced and energized by my peers. You can be influenced by plenty of internationally famous artists, but there’s nothing like knowing the people who are making music around you and being able to have conversations and understand the context from which they’re making. There’s a level of depth that goes with that, that feeds into how you make yourself. So yeah, people like you and Papaphilia and Fia Fiell and Jannah Quill and so many others keep me going.
Del Lumanta: Can you talk about the process of making ‘Restless Abandon’?
Nina Buchanan: I had pretty bad writer’s block in lockdown last year, so I left it all until it was almost too late – which I often do – deadlines and adrenaline get me through. I had seeds of ideas early in the year and then brought together most of the tracks over one or two months, getting up early to work. Whenever I got stuck I’d go walking along Kororoit Creek or go swimming to deal with all the nervous energy.
I wanted to push what I had been doing with my previous releases which was mostly material I’d written for live performance, so quite simple on the production side. Obviously live shows weren’t happening and I’d been wanting to work more on production, so it was a good time to make some more complex stuff. The album is a lot more constructed, but still almost completely based on improvisations on the synth as a starting point.
Del Lumanta: I think with ‘Restless Abandon’ and even ‘Highly Emotional’ (Nice Music, 2018) mark a particular departure from techno leanings, can you talk about this shift?
Nina Buchanan: When I started making ‘dance’ music I only knew how to make pretty basic 4/4 beats, and I was approaching it as a way of making experimental synth music more accessible. You can get away with a lot if you have a kick drum because people know immediately how to respond, but this meant it got read as techno. I’ve gotten more confident with writing percussion and letting it be more playful, and less tied to genre, just letting things follow a trajectory that feels right without any particular outcome in mind. And also to let the synths take the space they need, because that is often my focus, rather than a kick drum being at the centre of everything.
The foundation of my writing usually begins with melody and timbre. I start with a fairly simple melody, and then try to stretch it as far as I can, to get something else out of it, or find out what else it can be. There’s various techniques like reversing the melodic sequence, filters, adding an echo and listening for the harmonics or counter-melodies that come out of it, applying modulations like an LFO to hide or bring out smaller elements within the melody, shifting the feeling of it. Through this process of messing around with a tiny fragment, I’m often looking for weird unexpected bits and end up with something that I wouldn’t think of writing on my own by sitting down at a keyboard. A lot of the album was made that way, extracting everything out of the one synth line, even drum parts.
With electronic music there’s always an element of collaboration with whatever technologies you are using, a kind of feedback loop of ideas. This idea goes back to early synth music, for example Suzanne Ciani talks about her synth as being an organism that lives and breathes, that she is interacting with when she plays. Similar ideas are all through Detroit techno and the work of studio producers like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Thinking this way makes sense to me, because I’ve always approached the machines I use in a very intuitive way. I’ve never been very good at learning to use synths or other tools in a logical or instructional way, it’s always been more tactile and based on experimenting, playing and listening, finding a way to make it work by doing. Music is felt in the body before it is understood and processed in a logical way – that is its power.
Often it is a process of back and forth between myself and the machine, and inspiration or a sense of ‘flow’ comes when it feels like I’m having a conversation, understanding each other on some intuitive level. This is what excites me about electronic music, being able to make music that you couldn’t imagine alone, it’s a dynamic process that has a kind of life of its own. This speaks to my interest in world building, sci-fi, and speculative fiction, finding possibilities beyond ourselves, something bigger than our imaginations.
Nina Buchanan’s Restless Abandon is out now via Heavy Machinery Records. You can find it here.
Del Lumanta’s Sunken Places is out now via a Guide to Saints/ Room40. You can find it here.