Beyond The Booth 022: exploring the cosmos with Robert Nickson
Beyond the Booth is a feature dedicated to the hidden side of artists that exists outside electronic music— a side rarely discussed with those outside their immediate circle. We venture “beyond the booth,” so to speak, and dive into their deepest passions that tie into their unique personalities. After some self-introspection, each participant then returns to the booth, providing an exclusive mix for the Dancing Astronaut audience.
Robert Nickson and space make a fitting pair; after all, the producer has long proven his expertise in transporting his listeners to different worlds through uplifting trance. This motif carries itself through many of his works, with titles like “Sprial,” “Tachyon,” and “Stars” implying extraterrestrial inspiration. His deepest contemplation of the cosmos, however, has only just come to surface in the form of his first-ever LP, Tellurian. In it, we’re swept into a futuristic voyage across the universe, encountering stars like M.I.K.E. Push, Vintage & Morelli, Re:Locate, and Thea Riley along the way. It’s a brilliant demonstration of his expansive sonic pallette, and the fierce emotions stirring within Nickson’s psyche that grant his music the ability to open up others around him.
For this Beyond The Booth edition, we dive deeper into Nickson’s life outside of music—and find the two worlds are more interconnected than one might think. It just so happens that Robert Nickson’s other profession lies in the sciences, and he recently found himself on contract with the European Space Agency working in the Human & Robotic Space Exploration division. It was in fact his time spent at the Agency that helped spur inspiration for Tellurian. We delve futher into Robert’s expertise in the matter on a professional capacity, chatting over the start of his journey into the subject matter to his present endeavors. Nickson also expands on how the universe allows for a greater connection overall between his right and left-brained pursuits.
What have been some of the breakthroughs or memorable moments that happened during your time at the ESA? (please lightly dumb it down for us non scientifically literate folk)
I have somewhat of a scattered time at ESA. I had a few summer jobs there when I was 16/17, followed by an internship and then a job from late 2016 to late 2018. One of the most memorable times was during my summer job (I was 17 at the time) when there was a full solar eclipse in Europe. It was amazing to see, even if it was only a partial eclipse in The Netherlands. It was one those moments where everybody was standing outside in awe, constantly waiting for a break in the clouds to see it. Perhaps it was just me seeing an eclipse for the first time, but it felt like such an appropriate setting for it.
What did your professional resumé (sans music) look like prior to you accepting the role there? What are some other interesting jobs you’ve worked outside of trance?
Before working at ESA I was at Armada Music for 9 years, which I guess still falls under trance (though not music production). After that I did web development with a friend for a few years. Technically speaking we still do that, though it is somewhat on the back burner these days. I should really stress that I’m not a (rocket) scientist or anything. All my jobs at ESA were IT related. I was just fortunate to work somewhere and be small part of an industry that really interests me.
Tell us about how your love affair with the cosmos began and steps you took to learn more about space as you grew up.
As a kid from the 80s I used to love watching a cartoon on Saturday morning called Starcom. It was about the U.S. Space Force, which had colonies throughout the solar system. I can’t remember if I thought there were actual bases on the moon at the time but I imagined there would be by the the 2000s (the 2000s seemed so futuristic back then). I imagined going to space would be the easiest job in the world by then, no different than getting on a plane except that you’d have to wear a helmet.
These were also exciting times because of the Space Shuttle. It was such a beautiful machine and it made going to space seem so effortless. I had the opportunity to see a shuttle launch in 2009 (Atlantis STS-125). We were up before dawn and waited 6 hours for the possibility of a launch (it was all dependent on weather conditions etc.) and in our case it paid off. Truly an amazing experience that still gives me goosebumps today. I know the shuttle has now been retired, but if you ever get the chance to see a launch of any rocket, do not hesitate!
When I was older I became a fan of stargazing. Looking up at the stars gives me such a profound feeling of scale. It truly shows us how small and insignificant we all are. I’ve sat out in the desert in Arizona taking photos of the Milky Way, attempting to make timelapse videos as it passes overhead. On side note, I should add that I’m really not so much of a fan of science fiction. I think I was maybe 15 before I even watched Star Wars.
Give us three random facts about the universe that are cool to know/bust out at a party
I find these facts interesting but let me be clear, they are definitely not cool at parties [laughs]!
- We are made of star stuff. Stars convert hydrogen into helium and other matter such as carbon, oxygen, etc. Once a star dies it can explode in a supernova, scattering this matter throughout the universe. This matter then lumps together to form new planets. Everything we see around us now, trees cars, buildings etc. and ourselves have come from a star that exploded. And according to Lawrence Krauss the atoms in your left hand likely come from a different star than the atoms in your right hand. Mind blown! I used a sample of Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining some of this in my track ‘RNX – Atoms.’
- The Voyager program. This was a program to send probes to the outer planets Jupiter and Saturn. Someone at NASA calculated that there was a window to launch a probe in the 1970s that could pass by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. This alignment only happens once every couple of hundred years so the timing was perfect. After passing these planets the probes would head into outer space. They included a golden record with images and sounds from earth in case an advanced alien civilisation would one day find it. As it will take thousands and thousands of years to leave our solar system, let alone reach another star, you’ve gotta love the optimism they had with the golden record. It’s absolutely pointless but really speaks to the imagination.
- The physics of Star Trek, a book by Lawrence Krauss. This book contains so many cool facts it’s easier to read instead of me picking one or two of them. This book goes into the physics of all the technologies used in Star Trek (such as warp speed and ‘beam me up’) and what it would take to achieve or what the consequences would be. You don’t need to be a fan of the show to read this (I’m definitely not a fan).
Cliché question, but curiosity for your POV has killed the cat. Are you in the camp of Elon Musk and other eccentric figures that believe the best way to ensure human survival is through space colonization? Why or why not?
I love the enthusiasm Elon Musk has to colonize space. He’s made space sexy and seeing those two SpaceX rockets land side by side is goosebump-worthy. Having said that, I think he’s a little too eccentric perhaps in thinking we’ll be living on Mars anytime soon. I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said that as Mars basically has no magnetic field there’s nothing to protect us from solar radiation, and therefore if humans were to live on Mars, they’d have to spend 99% of their time underground to not get cancer. I’ve never seen Elon address this issue other than saying they are basically the transport company and are relying on others to come up with a solution to this. But like I said, his enthusiasm and can-do-attitude is inspiring and I truly hope he succeeds. How amazing would it be to see a human on Mars in our lifetime?
The “Space Race” has played an understated, yet sizeable role in intergovernmental relations and defense strategy since it began. What are some of the ways you’ve seen modern space research affect diplomacy over the past, say, decade or so? What arenas of research have you seen certain countries, including the European Union, focus on?
I don’t really follow the politics too much to be honest. It is quite amazing to see though how the US/Europe and Russia can still work together on the ISS for example, particularly these days with so much tension. Good on those who manage to find a way to keep the project going under such pressures. When Europe was developing Galileo (Europe’s version of GPS) they wanted to use the same frequencies as the American GPS. The U.S. complained about this as they were afraid an enemy could use Galileo against them for example in guided missiles. They could not jam the signal without jamming their own GPS signals. Apparently there were even talks of the U.S. shooting down Galileo satellites in times of conflicts. In the end Europe agreed to use a different frequency. Perhaps the most bizarre occurrence I read about was when the U.S. and Russians were planning to dock in space for the first time. While I’m sure it’s just a myth as I can’t find any info in it anymore, apparently neither side wanted to develop the female part of the docking port. Neither side wanted to have the spacecraft that would be f#$%ed by the other spacecraft so they had to develop some expensive non male/female docking system. I think most space agencies focus on science projects (or at least claim to). Earth observation, planetary exploration, understanding of astrophysics, etc. Human exploration seems to becoming popular again, in particular landing on Mars. Military satellites are usually developed by other contractors outside of the space agencies, though often still launched by them.
Tell us about a project you’ve been keeping tabs on (ESA or outside) that you think will have a monumental effect on human life if there’s a breakthrough?
Finding/building a new type of propulsion for faster travel will change everything. To reach the closest star with current technology will take tens of thousands of years. If there’s a big breakthrough it may take decades instead, which makes a huge difference. I don’t know of any ESA projects working on this though. There’s a project called Breakthrough Starshot founded by people like Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg are working a proof of concept to achieve something like this. Travelling this fast will bring all kind of other interesting problems (which the Lawrence Kraus book I mentioned earlier discusses).
As someone with a [presumably] deep knowledge of the physics behind soundwaves, frequencies, and how they might affect the mind or the molecules surrounding them, do you feel you can elicit certain effects or reactions to your music as a result (if that makes sense)? Compare this to knowing music theory; does it better your songwriting as a whole, coming into the studio with a more studied/traditional knowledge of the subject beforehand?
No I don’t really think that way. I use the entire space theme more as a way to set a mood. It’s more of a “close your eyes and imagine you’re somewhere else” feeling, and space just seems to be a good setting for that. More of an effect than a cause, if that makes sense. I know there are people who prefer music at 432hz instead of the standard 440hz (short explanation: an A4 note on a piano is normally tuned to 440hz, A5 would be double that at 880hz. etc.). Some people say 432hz is more natural as they claim it’s the resonance frequency of the human body. To me it’s just an arbitrary default tuning and it honestly makes no difference one way or the other. This is the closest example I can think of to such an effect, but like I said, it doesn’t work for me. As for music theory, it does help if you can play an instrument (particularly keyboard or piano) and understand chords. I do sometimes wonder if true music theory geniuses are somewhat trapped in the terminology and stick to rules they’ve been taught that may not necessarily apply when producing dance/trance.
In general, how do you translate your ongoing explorations of space (pun intended) into your music? How have you done so in Tellurian?
I don’t really see it that way. I really just use it as a way to set an atmosphere. It really speaks to the imagination (or to mine at least). The first track from the album (Arecibo) is dark and includes samples from the golden record (as mentioned earlier). That combined sets a real mood. But it’s usually something that comes as I’m making a track though. I don’t usually set out to make a ‘space track’ from the start—it’s just how it goes. The tracks “Iridium Flare” and “Oort Cloud” I named such in part because I’m hoping people will think, “what the hell is an Oort Cloud??” Maybe they’ll Google it and find out. Let’s see if anyone does…
Dive more into the process of Tellurian; what inspired you to craft the album around the cosmos, and what makes trance a good fit to explore these themes?
Of all [electronic] music, trance and space themes seem like such a natural combination. It’s so melodic and emotional (though I dislike using that word), and you can really set the mood almost anyway you like. Add a good sample from someone like Carl Sagan talking about the Pale Blue Dot and it just instantly clicks. This just doesn’t work with house or EDM, as it sounds out of place.
Why was now the right time to create an album? What were the ‘signs’ that told you it was time to embark on a longform voyage?
Albums are great because they provide an opportunity to release different music. It’s “easy” to release another trance record, it’s not as easy to release something “album-y.” It’s just harder to market. Within an album those rules are somewhat gone. Of course you need the tracks, which everyone knows you for but it’s a great way to show another side of yourself. So why now? I’ve been working on a lot of those different tracks for some years and this year I felt it was ready. You put the tracks in a certain order and it just feels right—like a journey. I don’t know how to define when it’s right, it just kind of does, if that makes sense.
Describe a day in the studio—how does songwriting usually look for Robert Nickson? Do you like to start in a specific place? Are you more of an improviser who creates songs on the fly, or do you always start off with some sort of a base idea?
It’s different every time to be honest, though usually I start with either some chords or a melody as that’s what’s really at the heart of trance. On occasion I do start with the bassline/beats, but then I find I often get stuck on the melody. If I really like them I often keep them for when I have a melody and combine the two.
Finally, what’s next in the Robert Nickson pipeline?
At the moment we’re planning more singles to release from the album. We might do some remixes later on too. I’m working on a club of one of the more downtempo tracks at the moment, which I hope to finish soon. I also have loads of music left which didn’t make the album, so I’m looking into what to do with some of those tracks. I might do another album next year or just release them as singles, it all depends on how it comes together if that makes sense. I’ve also been playing around with synthwave music over the past few months so I might try to do something with that first. I really love making this style of music. It’s kind of my version of what I’d call a more trance take on synthwave. The styles are very similar in many ways though. And of course more T-shirts [editorial note: check out his cheeky collection here].