Nicolay on the Hot at Nights, Dutch music, and new Foreign Exchange material

Nicolay on the Hot at Nights, Dutch music, and new Foreign Exchange material
Photo by Tobias Rose

Since the early aughts, Dutch producer Nicolay, a.k.a. Matthijs Rook, has been bringing his penchant for eclecticism and outside-the-box thinking to underground hip-hop. As the Foreign Exchange, Nic and North Carolina MC Phonte reached critical mass with albums like 2004's Connected and '08's Leave It All Behind, both of which showed roots in rap but also branched out with help from the smoother sides of down-tempo electronica and R&B. And, like the producing halves of some of the past decade's other great beatmaker/MC duos (Madvillain, Blackalicious), Nic brings a very certain chemistry and aesthetic that the other member of his group thrives upon.

Lately, though, Nic has also been hooked up with the Hot at Nights, the Raleigh-based jazz trio led by Foreign Exchange collaborator/guitarist Chris Boerner. Following the Nights' Nice Talk LP (which includes covers of Sufjan Stevens's "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" and Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out," among original material), the pair hooked up for the improv-based Shibuya Sesson EP. While he was near a tour stop in Detroit, Gimme Noise spoke with Nicolay about, among other things, the inception of his new project and what tonight's Honey audience should expect from its show. 
How did you hook up with the Hot at Nights in the first place?

It was basically through the leader of the Hot at Nights, Chris Boerner, because he's also the live guitar player for the Foreign Exchange. We were on tour and he played me the album he had recorded with the Hot at Nights, Nice Talk. And that's when it really kinda connected with me. I had always wanted to do a jazz project and I had never really found the right people, until now. It's a different lineup, with the eight-string guitar and saxophone and drums, so it could go a lot of different places. We decided to join forces and record an EP [Shibuya Session] last summer, which did so well that the next logical step was to take it on the road.

How has the tour been so far?

It's been awesome. We did the first run of shows, two weeks of shows, in January, and this is the second leg now. We play at jazz clubs all across the United States, which is different from what I'm used to with the Foreign Exchange. It's an hour and a half of instrumental music, but we try to keep it as exciting as we can. Every night is a blast, playing with [the Hot at Nights]. 

In terms of both playing and creating, how is working with the Hot at Nights different from working with Phonte?

The main difference, I would say, is that normally my studio process is very controlled in terms of what comes out. What we're doing with the Hot at Nights is the total opposite; it really has been something that's organic. [Creating with] the Foreign Exchange is more elaborate and a longer process.

You have a penchant for working with live instruments in your productions. What do you think is advantageous about making beats with live instruments compared to working with a computer program or, say, an MPC?

Well, I've always been a musician, first and foremost; my start in music was playing with bands. I've never been an MPC guy; I've never even touched one, to be honest with you. So for me, creating with a lot of live instruments was the logical next step. There are so many advantages to creating your own music from scratch, even from a legal sense. [Live instruments] give you a lot more freedom.

Have you found anything in working with live instruments that couldn't be pulled off with an MPC, or vice versa?

I think there are very distinct processes for MPCs that you can't do with live instruments. For instance, there are things you could do with drums on an MPC that you probably couldn't do with a real drummer. But I like a mixture of the two -- I use Pro Tools as well as live guitar and keyboards and stuff like that.

Only in preparing for this interview did I realize there really aren't many artists who have emerged and crossed over from the Netherlands in recent years. Anything you're particularly excited about right now that's coming from your home country?

The Netherlands is a really, really small country. Back in the '70s there was a band called Golden Earring that did really well [in the U.S.], but they were exceptional as opposed to the norm. Right now, especially in the house scene, the Dutch DJs are kind of ruling supreme, with guys like Afrojack and Tiësto. It's an interesting melting pot.

What kind of work are you putting in with Phonte right now? Any word on a new Foreign Exchange album?

We're working every day, pretty much, and not just musically speaking. In 2008, when we were getting ready to release Leave It All Behind, we started a company [TFE Music]. So even on the business level, Phonte and myself and definitely Aimee [Flint, Director of Operations for TFE Music] have been very hands-on with that.

As far as a new album goes, it's too soon to tell where it will go, but we have officially started working on it. It's going to be very interesting to see where we'll take it this time. It'll be different from what we've done before.

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