Oui Ennui Tests the Limits

In a year peppered with a seemingly endless array of hell moments, the silver linings feel even more potent, more important. Last year as I began digging deeper into music again and taking those first steps that led to this site existing again, one of the artists whose work hit me like a brickhouse was Chicago’s Oui Ennui. His work built sonic mazes that lead listeners on a dizzying chase through instrumental hip hop, synth explorations, drones, zones, and everything in between. He’s a chameleon at times, shifting modes depending on where the muse lands, but always finding the magic touch that produces vivid images through sound.

After a near-death experience with COVID-19 in April of last year, Oui Ennui set out to release an album a month – each and every Bandcamp day from there on, new aural delights popped up creating a near-instant library of gems. He also collaborated with the incredible Angel Bat Dawid for TUSK Festival in the Fall. It’s been one hell of a run for an artist that has an endless well of talent and ideas. 

This coming May 7th – the final Bandcamp day planned – he will release Occupes toi de tes oignons, a French phrase for ‘mind your own business.’ It is the bookend to the first in this every-month run, Sirius Bismuth and reflects on the journey of these past 12 months. 


What are some of your earliest memories in relation to music? Whether it’s early experiences growing up with an instrument or even bands or songs that first really got your attention. I’m always curious to hear about where the journey started for artists…

My second memory ever is hearing “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen on the radio when I was 3. My father had this giant wood cabinet radio. For whatever reason I was crawling, even though I could walk. I was in the hallway and the radio was in his study, down said hall. It was like in cartoons, when someone is really hungry and they can smell cooking; they levitate and nose-float upon the aroma-wave until they find the source. I remember crawling down the hall and around the corner into the room on the strength of that beat and bassline. 

I wrote my first song when I was around 5. It was a rap called The Cool Cat. My rap name was Mr. Maxx. It was to the beat of “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton, although in my mind the drums from “Big Mouth” by Whodini were also playing on top. I obviously had no idea at the time, but I suppose conceptually that’s when I discovered sampling or mixing two sound sources to make a third. The Cool Cat featured such zingers as 

“I’m the Cool Cat/

and can’t you see/

y’all sucka emcees ain’t fresh as me/

I’m the Cool Cat”

So…BARS.

When I was 9, “Eric B. Is President” by Eric. B & Rakim came out. It kinda changed my life. My older brother Vic had the 12” and this all-in-one Magnavox integrated record player/cassette deck/radio. I used to lie in the fetal position in front of it for hours. When Rakim said “You scream I’m lazy/you must be crazy/Thought I was a donut/you tried to glaze me”, my whole body got cold. It was the first time I understood that a lyric could be clever. Ever seen one of those videos of puppy watching a magic trick? Same vibe. Like I experienced metaphor before I knew what it was and that realization had a physical effect upon me. 

For the longest time I had this rather morbid pseudo-fantasy that my work would be discovered posthumously. I’d die a hermit and someone would find all my hard drives…

On that note, what first pushed you or inspired you to make and play music? 

Well I was a rapper first, and that was me trying to be like my older brother. I thought rapping was dope on its own merits, but what I thought was cool, culturally anyway, was pretty much exactly based upon whatever my brother was into. Around fourth grade or so, I began taking piano lessons, but I was a terrible student. Instead of practicing, I would just make up chord progressions. To this day my mother gives me shit about the amount of money she spent just so I could learn “Ode To Joy”, which to this day is the only song that I didn’t write that I can play on piano. Actually I can play the beginning of “Lean On Me” as well; still not a great ROI for Mama-dem though. But as far back as I can remember, I was always making up little jams in my head or accompanying music I heard with additional parts. It’s like that saying “I ain’t choose the game, the game chose me.” It’s just always kinda been there to one degree or another. Also, I was a wildly unpopular child. Always ostracized and kinda pushed out of various inner (and outer for that matter) circles, so I would turn to music for solace, probably not intentionally, but nonetheless. 

What were some of your first experiences creating your own work like?

I didn’t actually have access to any proper music production tools until I was about 16, when my brother got an E-mu SP-1200 sampler. Prior to that I would make pause-mix beat tapes on cassette to rhyme to or “write” progressions and melodies on piano. I would also make my own Weird Al-esque versions of songs. (Remind me to never let you hear my version of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham.) When my brother got the SP, he didn’t want me to make beats. He told me to stick to rapping. So I had to sneak and teach myself how to use it when he wasn’t home or sleeping. That was when I began to develop my own style as it’s an incredibly inscrutable machine, and I used it “wrong” which added to my artistic idiosyncrasy I suppose. I wound up making a demo on a four track. I played it for him and he asked me who it was. I told him and he made the “not too shabby” face, which was all the validation I needed.

Let’s focus on the last year and how much you’ve put out. You talked in the liner notes for Sirius Bismuth about having COVID-19 and how harrowing the experience was. How did the experience of having COVID push you to release as much as you did in the past year?

For the longest time I had this rather morbid pseudo-fantasy that my work would be discovered posthumously. I’d die a hermit and someone would find all my hard drives and make and release a compilation on gatefold 2LP 180 gram vinyl with an Old-Style Stoughton Tip-On jacket. It wasn’t until I was on (what I thought was going to be) my deathbed that I realized both how goofy of a notion that was and the amount of agency I had in that not being the case. So as soon as I was able to get out of bed, I started working on Sirius Bismuth. It came together pretty quickly, and I knew that Bandcamp Fridays were going to continue through the rest of 2020. So I just challenged myself to release an album every month since I’m constantly writing and recording anyway. It became more real with the release of Democide which was both a real time reaction to the death of George Floyd and a recoiling to/from white america “discovering” racism due to a pandemic. I thought I was done in December, but then they brought it back through May of this year, so I upped the ante. But also, many of my heroes, Sun Ra, Prince, et al, have a gigantic bodies of work, with hundreds of albums and thousands of songs. I’ve always told myself that while I’ll never be on their level with respect to talent, I can match their work ethic. Thinking that the end was nigh just kinda forced my hand to open, and now I’ve gotten used to it.

Speaking of Sirius Bismuth was the first thing of yours I heard, and I still remember hearing the synths at the end of “Slap Happening” and I couldn’t get enough of it. I mean, I really love the whole thing, but that last minute or so, especially how it transitions out of this real kind of deep funk groove… incredible. I’m getting off track here, but that’s one thing that really draws me to your work is how different it is from moment to moment. So I wonder where that variety or scope comes from? And building on that, does your process change or vary based on whatever style or type or piece you’re working on?

Oh thank you! In terms of scope or variety in my music, I think that’s just a reflection of the different kinds of music I listen to. I really love timbre and the color of sound. Sometimes I’ll put on like a Tony Conrad record in one room and a Glenn Branca record in another and blast an Environments cassette on my Marantz, get a drone going on the Buchla, and walk back and forth through the apartment to hear the transitions from room to room. I just try and bring that sense to whatever I’m working on, even if it’s loop based and/or beat oriented. I experience associative synaesthesia, which means I don’t see a color when I hear a sound, but I sometimes associate sounds with color. So for example I might have two basslines going at once, and if the first bass sounds brown, I’ll make the other one more tan, which is a color combination that works visually as well. I’ve always wanted to have my own sound, but for that sound not to be recognizable. I like how gouache bleeds into itself. I try to make my compositions sound like Jesse Allen paintings or like you’re inside an Ernst Haeckel illustration. That’s the goal anyway, your mileage may vary.

Obviously your brother was a pretty big influence and inspiration on you getting into music and sound. Have you all ever collaborated or anything? Do you all ever talk about the work you’re doing now?

Although we lived together a few times in adulthood, and shared a studio, I can’t think of very many actual collaborations between he and I. The only one that comes to mind was made during our short lived label/production company called Carte Blanche. This was probably in ‘99? Song was called “Let Me Get A Birra”. Birra is Italian for beer. He made the beat, a rather genius flip of Yellowman’s “Duppy or Gunman”, and we both rapped. There’s overlap, but our production and rap styles were always pretty different and we had/have dissimilar goals/tastes artistically. 

Unfortunately, all we can do is talk about the work I’m currently doing. He’s been in prison for the last 18 years, so he hasn’t actually heard any of my work in that time period, besides me trying to play beats over the phone maybe 10 years ago. That being said, he is proud of what I’ve been doing, simply because I’m able to make and release the music I want on my terms, which wasn’t a really possibility, at least not in the same way, in 2003. In addition to being veteran producer and rapper (in high school he was in a group with DJ Homicide of Sugar Ray, and in his 20s, known as Vic-Hop, he produced several songs on the underground classic “All Balls Don’t Bounce” by Aceyalone of the incomparable Freestyle Fellowship as well as the final song on the legendary 1995 Good Life compilation album “Project Blowed”, about which his one time collaborator, Ava DuVernay [!], released a documentary in 2008 called “This Is The Life”, that recently hit Netflix) he’s a brilliant visual artist. So hopefully, there will be many collaborations when he is released. At the very least, I have the means to provide him with a creative outlet. 

What you were saying about this morbid-pseudo-fantasy of your work being discovered posthumously, I really relate to that. I used to have similar thoughts – especially since I stopped releasing anything for about 7 years – and though my COVID/pandemic experience wasn’t as heavy and visceral, this whole thing kind of kicked my ass into gear. But once the Bandcamp days end, do you hope to keep this momentum up or do you have other plans to change this up?

*CHANGE THIS UP* most definitely. This momentum has been harrowing, heavy, and visceral in its own way. As it turns out, validation/attention has almost no positive effect upon imposter syndrome. Self-imposed though it may be, the pressure/stress of making, and more importantly, releasing, an album every month has been non-trivial. To your point, it did kick my ass into gear, however at this point, I’m washed. I need a break. And a KitKat. One isn’t forthcoming, as I’m working on new projects still, but not aligned with the lunar cycle. 

Talking about associative synesthesia and how you sometimes associate sound with colors leads me to an idea I’ve thought a lot about in the past year and the idea of creating worlds from sound. When I listen to or play music, I often start getting images in my head where I see things and, when I’m making music, I sometimes start with some kind of imagery and try to translate it into sound. Do you ever feel like you are building worlds with your music, like a place to escape or even creating sonic spaces for reflection? I feel like that’s sort of the zone where “Character Sketches” goes. (Which, full transparency, I failed on that – the music was so good I found myself stopping what I was doing and listening intently!)

Bang on for sure. I saw The Mack when I was probably 15 or so. Pretty Tony told Goldie “You ain’t no pimp, you a rest haven for hoes”. It was meant as an insult, but I remember thinking to myself “that sounds like a nice thing to be, a rest haven for hoes…”, and that’s often what I’m trying to create: A haven for the mind to rest after being hoed by late stage capitalism. Sometimes I think of my sound as a  cavernous cotton cave. I imagine how waves would reverberate in such a chamber, and what kind of creatures would evolve in that ecosystem. Again, as a child that was an outcast, I was, and still am, very much into fantasy and science-fiction novels (I got the idea for my name from a concept I adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End) primarily for the escapism they provide(d). I’ve gotten a few messages from people telling me that my music has helped them get through the pandemic, and that’s both humbling and always the goal, to provide a temporary reprieve. I also have ridiculously vivid dreams that make no sense and a condition called parasomnia. I sometimes sleep with my eyes open and the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred. The Italians say “sogno o realtà”. I indulged in my fair share of psychedelics back in the day, so I’m always trying to translate those dream worlds into sound, then use the sounds to build worlds, even in the abstract, to share those trips with the listener. I mean that’s why they call it a trip right? Because you go someplace else? I think every album should be a concept album, and concepts are worlds. 

I only recently learned about (and have watched multiple times!) the TUSK collaboration you did with Angel Bat Dawid. I’m curious how you all came to know each other and work together? She’s been one of my absolute favorite artists these last few years. She’s such a force.

To call Angel a force is an understatement. She’s a movement. She’s a mode. Our meeting was both random and by design I suppose. In 2018 I went to an event sponsored by Red Bull Music Academy featuring live improvisations in the round with several duos who’d never played together. I believe Angel was playing with Roscoe Mitchell. (Side note, at that same show were Whitney Johnson (Matchess) upon whose recommendation I played my first live show in 15 years, Haley Fohr (Circuit Des Yeux) with whom I just collaborated, and Katinka Kleijn, who co-curated the Quarantine Concert I performed in last year along with Emma Hospelhorn, who I met at the show Matchess put me onto. Besides Whitney, who I’d met once, I knew none of them at the time, but wound up working with all in some capacity. Check all of these phenomenal women out if you’re unfamiliar…because they’re phenomenal.) I had the show program and was looking up the some of the artists when I got home. I wound up following her Instagram page. A little while after that she posted a snippet of a Henry Threadgill interview and the caption said to DM her if you were interested in the full interview. So I did and we just started chopping it up about jazz, music in general, and blackness. I sent her one of my albums and went on about my life. Months later she messaged me super excitedly to say that she’d forgotten about my album, but that it had come on randomly in a shuffle on her phone and she was blown away. We’d message each other periodically and trade YouTube videos. I went to one of her Mothership9 shows and we met afterwards, and instantly she was my little sister. So one day I made a song for her and said we should make some music together. Time passed and she wound up getting the Tusk Festival gig as a solo artist, and she asked if I wanted to perform with her. I wrote the DAOUI mythology and we threw that performance together in like a week. We been ace-boon ever since. 

You usually have extensive liner notes for your releases that add so much depth and context. Is there any particular inspiration behind that? It reminds me of old jazz records and all the notes printed on the back cover. It’s one of my favorite things about those records.

I love those notes on the backs of jazz slabs as well, though I don’t know if they’re an inspiration per se. Maybe they are indirectly though, as liner notes used just be a part of an album. I consider myself an artist and a storyteller, not “just” a musician, and so the art that I create/produce/release is a package and should tell a story. I try to put the same amount of effort into the artwork and liner notes as the music and concept. It’s all one thing. It’s the gestalt. I work with a lot of younger kids and often I’ll be playing an album, and they’ll ask “What playlist is this? It’s really good!” And I’ll curmudgeoningly explain that it’s not a playlist, it’s an “album”. To me a unified set of songs as an artistic statement requires/deserves notes/art/etc, particularly if it only exists in the digital realm. Everything is consumed and forgotten so quickly; I want to make something that’ll stick to your ribs a bit. Communication is everything. Everything is a chance to communicate. That’s why I love words and music and fashion and design and cooking and tattoos. It’s all communication. And to communicate is the beginning of understanding. 

On Virga/Recrudescence you talk about how you’ve always wanted to do an artist residency, but in the current circumstances that’s difficult to say the least. So you had a residency in your apartment. It’s an amazing concept, but I’m curious if there was more to it beyond the ‘live performances’ that make up this release? 

Haha. (Btw is there anyway to laugh via text that’s not inherently cringey? Asking for a me…) It’s probably as close as I’ve ever gotten to something like cosplay. Kind of a four dimensional selfie. I was dressing up as a professional musician with a career. I lit candles, wore different outfits, and welcomed myself to the stage. It was double goofy. Part of the residency involved a combination DJ set/symposium where I read excerpts from Frantz Fanon essays aloud over slowed down Serge Gainsbourg instrumentals as a notional  commentary on the French colonization of Martinique. Just nerd shit that I would find interesting that I doubt anyone would pay or stay to see. I believe it was Dorothy Dandridge quoting Jean Piaget over a Pete Rock beat subtweeted by Vernon Reid who said “If you have no one to feed you grapes, feed yourself some goddamned grapes.” I’m paraphrasing of course. 

And a (possibly) final question… what have you missed most in the past year?

• Le sigh…in all honesty: *cues up that part in “Need You Tonight” when the music drops out and Michael Hutchence wails “I’M LONELY…”

• The recursive subroutine of isolation has augmented the yearning for the middle section of Maslow’s Pyramid. I’ve got a moderate to severe case of what they call touch starvation, also known as the skin hunger. I have a shelved album that’ll probably remain unreleased called Skin Hunger that would’ve been the second release after Sirius Bismuth, but Democide was more pressing/necessary. It was also a bit too vulnerable, even for me. I realize this over-share cancels out the aforementioned emotional parsimony, but to quote Willam Drayton Jr., “Two tears in a bucket, mutha-mutha fuck it.” I’ve always been a loner, but as a grown-up, it’s typically been by choice. I know everyone misses going out, but I miss being alone *together*. The divine feminine is missing, and cannot be replicated, but hopefully that’ll soon pass. Is that thirsty? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I’m dehydrated. This is what happens when the Hedonic Treadmill is unplugged. But it’s like Jackson C. Frank sang, “Living is a gamble baby/loving’s much the same…”

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