Nina Las Vegas discusses her shift from Triple J host to solo artist [Interview]
With electronic music firmly established as a global phenomenon, Australia has proven to be a particularly exciting hotbed for new acts. The most notable being Flume, who also begat What So Not, and artists like Cosmo’s Midnight, Wave Racer, and RÜFÜS DU SOL, among others. In addition to their homeland, these artists have something else in common: they were all championed early on by former Triple J host Nina Las Vegas.
With the proven ability to spot the next big thing before the masses, Las Vegas has left Triple J to pursue a new career as a label head and solo artist. Her solo releases — often featuring fellow Australian and label signee Swick — have proven her a formidable producer in her own right, creating an infectious, energetic, unabashedly ebullient style equally at home in a club or festival setting. Riding the success of her latest EP Ezy or Never, she is set to embark on a brief US tour stopping in LA, Chicago, and New York before returning home to Australia. We recently sat down with Nina for an equally eloquent and biting conversation about the long, winding road her career has taken to get to this point, giving support to artists on her burgeoning label, and her response to Sydney’s controversial lockout-laws.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into music and how you actually started DJing?
Music was actually kind of a given as a kid. My parents were the classic “forced-me-to-learn-an-instrument” kind of parents. I got to choose though, so I did piano for like ten years. It was cool because I went to a kind of musical school so we did a lot of band and I was in a lot of musical theatre. Then it was all around me. You just bond with friends over things like the Cruel Intentions CD but also my dad had the best record collection ever. He was born in Egypt and he loved to dance and music in general, so I was very privileged.
I would say ‘I really like this group’ and he’d say ‘cool i’ll get it.’ He just wanted to know more and more about music. That’s how I really got into it. We were a family that drove a lot so there was always music on in the car. I listened to Triple J as a kid because any teenager who wanted to be cool did.
DJing was different. I moved to the city for university where I was studying sound design because I knew I wanted to be in music and use those skills. At the same time, we were going through the electro rave era with Cut Copy and Justice and all that. I just found myself constantly out and surrounded by these moments. I became a serious nerd about it. When you are up on Hollerboard talking production with Diplo and A-Trak and Amanda Blank…. that’s when I knew it was kind of becoming my life.
We put on parties and we toured a few of those guys and at the same time I was learning to actually DJ. I also moved from behind the scenes to on the mic at Triple J and ended up being on air for 7 years because I was essentially just representing a scene and a sound that I was living.
How did the move from sound board to hosting happen?
The presenters for House Party and Mix Up Exclusives quit, like a year apart and I was literally programming the mixes for both shows. The dance programmer who’d been there for 10 years was in her mid thirties and was just kind of over it. She was also very into supporting psy trance and techno where I was trying to play people like Mehdi. And not just French touch, but the next movements after.
Nothing was planned. At all. Still to this day, it’s kind of wild. It’s the same with Anna Lunoe and Alison Wonderland. We’ve all known each other for nearly 11 or 12 years, because we all put the work in. We all started the same time. We all had different paths and points but it’s literally just been hard work. Most of us didn’t even have management for the first 5 or 6 years. We did it all ourselves. I’m really proud of that part of me.
I think the market has been so oversaturated for so long and there are quite a few inexperienced people who’ve been thrust into the mainstream spotlight. It feels like we are entering an ebb in the scene and all those people who haven’t put in the work aren’t going to be able to respond to that change. I don’t think they’ll be able to remain relevant and will probably just fade away. The people who’ve worked hard at building a career and have that experience are the only ones who are going to be able to react to it in an authentic way.
I think so too. That’s why I set up my label. I signed people who had hype in my world, but not in the same way that the internet is used to. And it’s not because they weren’t good enough, its just because for them their music is what should speak the most. Not their co-signs or social media life. . They are all so young and careers can take 10 or 15 years to make. I’ve experienced that so I want other people who’ve experienced that too. I do really believe in what I do, and I want to be proud of my career.
Anna [Lunoe] put it so nicely when we were talking about Instagram. I used to share so much on it and have such a really nice experience with the internet and now it’s just a tool. You can’t just post fun stuff. Everyone just judges you on your likes. Anna goes: “No ones ever going to say “I really loved your Instagram post about that party.” They’ll remember that you played Coachella, but they aren’t going to remember that Instagram post you did about it ten years from now.
Let’s talk about your record label. I’d love to know when it really got off the ground and what your involvement looks like from an artists idea through the official release.
It came to me towards the end of my Triple J life. If I could I would have kept that job for the rest of my life, but I’m thirty. I thought, I’m going to just do something different. it wasn’t about not enjoying it, it’s just that like Triple J is a young persons job and radio station, so I think there are so many younger people that can do a great job. I’d also just done it for so long. One job for 11 years… No matter how great it is, it’s still a job.
Around the same time I was figuring out what I wanted to do next, a few majors had hit me up to do A&R. In Australia, we’ve been blessed with the sort of “Flume sensation” so now, every single label wants a Flume. They all want the next thing. I’ve toyed with that, but everything I’ve ever done has been group projects. I’d never just done things on my own. I toured with What So Not or Flume or Wave Racer, always playing group shows with friends.
So that’s when the label came to mind. I went about a year talking with a major about doing an imprint, but it was just taking too long and I was too impatient and mostly, that’s just not how dance music works. We can release a track once it’s ready. That’s how club music works.
If you put in so many layers of control it will just change the output. That might mean there’s more money in it, and there are definitely moments where I think “Ugh, if only we took that money,” because I could push it everywhere. I’ve always been on the other side, the broadcast side. I never saw what was involved, I just believed that good music travels. And I still believe that, so we did it independently in the end. It’s a joint venture with my management company who are amazing and they have a couple labels already but this is the first time they have done dance music.
The big question is always how many people I can sign based on how much money I can give them as advances and I really started noticing some dodgy shit going on with smaller labels. I don’t think any one is intentionally trying to do things badly, but I just started understanding that you can spend up to a year or year and a half on a track and once it’s out, those moments just go so quick.
I didn’t want that. I wanted to create a community and wanted interaction. I’ve always admired stuff like Boys Noize Records and Bromance. We didn’t have a Lucky Me sounding label in Australia and that’s how I pictured the gap I wanted to fill. Just sonically, everything started to sound the same. So many kids are making music for radio, which is great in a way because so many kids get songs on the radio. Triple J is a huge dance supporter, but you can still make a club record as a tool. That should still be a priority. Club culture and dance music can be a success if it’s just given support. That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to create and that’s why I signed those guys because a lot of them felt the same way.
Its been 6 months and we’re announcing two more people this month, but that’s it for the moment. I’ve been learning so much. You can start to see what’s going well. XL [Recordings] makes an album a quarter and you see everyone’s energy go into that one album and the album seems to live on so well. That model is amazing. I just want to make sure that as much time as an artist puts into a song, I want to give that much time back. I’m involved in the A&R but that’s not necessarily me saying ‘change this drop,’ it’s me saying “How do you want it? Where does this song sit? Is it an expression or you want it on radio?” These are really logistical goals. “Do you want a feature? Strict Face had never worked with a vocalist on a track before. So that was a huge goal of ours and I’m super proud of the result on that track. I just like everyone feeling a bit of a #FAM vibe.
It’s an artist run label. I can say what I want but ultimately I just want the act to be happy. I’ve heard too many kids saying “Oh, the label didn’t like this.” I get it, but ultimately unless you’re super lucky you just have to work really hard and put out good music. I believe that should work and eventually when one song does go massive then people will go back and see the rest.
There are just some terms that should be rid of the vocabulary people use when they are talking about things they love doing…. like when people say “It doesn’t work.” It might not have “worked” for everyone but, I guarantee someone will love it if you love it. If the artist loves it I want to support it.
That’s almost the dark side of the Flume effect. People see the end game so clearly that they just reach directly for that bright light instead of taking the path that makes the most sense for their creative development as an artist.
Exactly. It’s so scary. You could have a big song and suddenly your rates go up. Suddenly you’re playing everywhere and then…you could not have the same thing happen the next 6 months. You get lost. Think of how many times something didn’t work for Diplo or Skrillex. Diplo’s having the best year of his life right now in his late 30s. That’s not bad. That’s pretty cool. Could you imagine if one bad gig meant he stopped? He just doesn’t think like that.
That’s the thing, you just have to have those guts. A) it’s really hard and b) you can’t give up. You just have to like every moment of it. I’m lucky enough to date an artist as well and he’s so good because i’ll have the worst feeling or whatever and he’ll just say ‘ Oh come on, your life is good. You are getting paid to DJ, think about that. You get to play music you like and you make out. You are fine.”
People really respect your intuitions musically so I wanted to know who you’re listening to right now and who you think is killing it?
Obviously I feel like there’s a grime explosion right now. The thing that’s amazing about that Skepta album is that he made all of those beats. I think there are two other production credits. A lot of younger grime acts will see that and run with it. I reckon AJ Tracy and Novelist will really blow up. Obviously everyone on my label, I love. Strict Face, Swick and Lewis. The moment the hype builds with those guys… their sounds are really like no other.
People like Sophie and Flume are really pushing production. Those people that can steer away from the plugins and using Sylenth straight away and not change a thing, people will notice that.
It’s certainly a producers game right now. People like Flume or Hudson Mohawke or Cashmere Cat have people reaching out from different genres and creating these amazing new sounds.
Look at the Selena Gomez singles, they’ve been like trap songs. Seriously. It’s all the same. I love Iglooghost, signed by Brainfeeder. I just think he’s going to blow people’s minds. His XLR8R mix? There’s just not one song I knew on there and when that happens, you know this kid is fire.
I’m really excited for the Cashmere Cat record. I think he’s going to change the game a bit as it comes to production and vocalists. I think that in terms of young kids, there’s some really cool house and deeper stuff coming out of Australia like Dro Carey and Mall Grab. I know he doesn’t need any more love, but Mura Masa is definitely pretty sick. I didn’t realize how good it was until I started hearing the songs on the radio.
Lastly, you’ve been pretty outspoken about the Australian political climate and Sydney’s lockout laws. I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about how you think the scene has changed since those were instituted.
The saddest thing about it is that we’re just living in a very conservative time in Australia. Unfortunately it’s changed the whole scene. I feel sorry for the kids of this generation. I went out until 4-5 AM most weekend and it wasn’t drug taking or getting messed up, it was just meeting friends and dancing and discovering new stuff.
We put on a Diplo show in 2007 after Disco D died and he played for five hours for 300 people. without a doubt that changed my life and my path. This was a guy who I’d seen on Hollerboard talking and that’s not even possible now. You’re literally just not allowed to go out in the city.
Now ticketed events are thriving. That’s a lot of pressure on an artist. You can’t just go to a night and play records to a fun bunch of kids. You have to prove your worth or have a song on the radio. it’s such a business now because going out has become so formal. I kind of refuse to do that ticketed thing. It’s just a bit heartless. I don’t want what I do to be like that.
It’s an exchange of services for money at that point.
Yes, lets just go out. Pay a small door charge and some drink keeps, I just don’t see why I have to suddenly become an event. I just want you to experience music the same way I did. that’s why I do it.
It’s very easy to get down when you’re not clickbait, but people do fight back. I saw this Fader post about a soccer jersey Drake was wearing and these people were commenting “Um, this is just a soccer jersey, a million records have been released today. Why are we talking about this?” People do fight back.
This article features contributions from the inimitable Michel Cooper.