The No-Nation Orchestra: An Interview with Stephen Chai

Posted December 22, 2011 in
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Stephen Chai on vocals for the No-Nation Orchestra at Urban Lounge. Photo: Russel Daniels

A staple of the local music scene, Stephen Chai has been involved in a wide range of influential musical projects, from Laserfang to Mammoth and Night Sweats. His latest project brings together a slew of talented local musicians and a handful of upbeat genres to create The No-Nation Orchestra. The band of revolving musicians has been making noise around town with their entertaining live shows and the recently recorded More, More, More EP, released in late September. SLUG picked The No-Nation Orchestra’s EP as one of the Top 5 albums of 2011, and spoke with Chai to get some background info on the group and their record, and find out if we’ll be hearing … more.

SLUG: What’s the current lineup of The No-Nation Orchestra?
Chai: Josh Dickson (drums), Weston Wulle (bass), Mike Sasich (guitar), Patrick Mac (congas), Derek Howa (rhodes), Amber Jarvis (vocals), Angie Midgley (vocals), Dan Nelson (tenor sax), Marco Blackmore (alto sax), Jared Russell (bari sax), Josh Francis (trumpet) and Stephen Chai (vocals).

With such a big band we sometimes need subs for shows.

SLUG:
No-Nation started as Stephen Chai and the No-Nation Orchestra, why the name change?
Chai: Since the songs started off as a solo project I thought it was fitting. Now, the project is larger than that. We're got more players and writing songs differently, with more people involved. Its the opposite of a solo project now.

Plus, having my name in a band name makes me feel a little strange and boisterous. There's so much talent in the group, any one person's name wouldn't cut it.

SLUG:
Who recorded More, More, More? Why did you choose to record with them as opposed to other peeps in town?
Chai: Mike Sasich (Man vs Music Studios). After hitting a home run with the Laserfang album, I knew he was the one for this recording. He can quickly understand any type of music and wrangle tons of tracks, ideas and instrumentation into a cohesive (and damned good) recording. I think we got up into 50+ tracks on "Savory Sound" with all the different layers. I'm sure keeping track of all that is no small feat.

SLUG:
Did you write all the lyrics and music?
Chai: All the lyrics and most of the music started in my bedroom demos. The lyrics didn't change much from demo to recording. Lyrics are generally tricky for me, so I had worked and reworked them fairly extensively before even playing the demos for the group.

Music-wise, I had most of the parts written out, but Josh, Weston and Mike came in and really brought them to life. I hoped what I had would be a basis for them to take and improve on, and what came out was better than I hoped.

The demos had mostly sequenced (programmed) drums, so there was lot of room / burden for Josh to create a groove, pocket and dynamic. His drums and Weston's bass started off the studio process, creating the initial groove for everything else to build on. It was a great foundation.

From there it was just building on layers and layers. Lots of the demos were missing guitar parts. Mike wrote his stuff in the studio and it turned out amazing. He'd play along with the recording and noodle around. After a while he'd say, "What do you think of that?" I'd always respond with, "I hope you were recording just then because that was it."

SLUG: How did this project develop? How many years in the making was No-Nation?
Chai: The beginnings date back to me goofing around years and years ago with some solo stuff. Admittedly, most of it was junk. Eventually I wrote one song I was pretty keen on, "Oh Now Baby." I recorded an early version of it with John Burdick and submitted it to be part of a SLUG comp. It didn't make the cut, but it did help me prove to myself I could do this type of thing. Life got busy and I fell in and out of writing my own stuff. Even when I found the time and spark to write, I ran into the issue that my songs were all over the place. I'd write a slow and sappy song, then a crazy thumping electronic song and then a funky No-Nation-ish song. During this period I was performing solo with some of the more electronic songs, but I really missed the group dynamic of music, and it didn't last long. Eventually I buckled down and decided on a cohesive sound for a collection of songs. I worked the demos, talked amazing players into recording on it, and No-Nation was born.

Initially, I never really planned for much of a live presence. It was originally going to be more of a "musician's journal entry" that I could look back at when I was old and be proud of. I thought it would be fun to play a release show or something like that, but didn't really consider putting together a legit group. Once the recording was done, the music caught wind and the group came together naturally. Well, as naturally as any 12-piece group can.

SLUG: What were your inspirations for this EP? What sounds/genres/music projects were an influence in forming No-Nation?
Chai: The album pulls heavily from Afrobeat/highlife ideas. That kind of stuff is so infectious, but not annoying. I think its a great balance of so many genres and sounds I love: jazz, funk, horn sections, polyrhythms, that kind of stuff. But, I didn't want to do anything too throwback. I don't think I could ever improve or match the classics. A lot of other influences naturally snuck in. Things like a shared love for Latin music, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Talking Heads, soul and the like.

Motivationally, there's so many rad things going on around Salt Lake. I wanted to contribute to that. Growing up and watching what a group of friends can create was a huge influence. I was seeing successes, failures, growth and change and thought it was my turn to spearhead a risk. Music is a decision. I wanted to make up my mind.

SLUG: Local artist Sri Whipple designed the cover art. Did you give him any direction?
Chai: I tried to give Sri as little direction as possible. After listening to the songs he came back with an idea of where he wanted to go. I didn't even need to hear the idea, I knew it would be gold. He did his thing like he always does and now we're quite the happy band. He captured the music while expressing himself and helped No-Nation define itself. We just got the 12" EPs back from the press and they look amazing. I'm still floored with how good it turned out every time I look at the cover.

SLUG: Future plans for the group?
Chai: We want to keep playing out and get some new material growing. Since the initial recording we've enlisted so much amazing talent. We want to be a medium for that talent. We're working on new songs and refining the ones we have to match the group and keep it interesting. We're staying true to the recording, but letting the live songs have their own form, breath and direction. We hope to have another EP out soon. We're also working with some talented people like Dave Madden to get some remixes out there. We want to have fun with it.

SLUG: Last thoughts?
Chai: I'm excited and flattered that so many talented people are involved with this group. Building something new can be a difficult and emotionally exhausting proposition. Having a crew of talented people and getting some great feedback from our friends and community has definitely made it much easier. I doubt this could have even happened without either.

You can check out The No-Nation Orchestra on Jan. 20 at the Urban Lounge with Afro Omega. To hear More, More, More and get your own copy on transparent blue 12” vinyl with Sri Whipple’s psychedelic art, plus some more goodies, go to nonationorchestra.com.

Photos:
Stephen Chai on vocals for the No-Nation Orchestra at Urban Lounge. Photo: Russel Daniels The No-Nation Orchestra takes up the entire Urban Lounge stage. Photo: Russel Daniels