Stephen Chai was showering when the spark for his next song struck mid-shampoo. The local graphic designer and musician quickly rinsed, toweled off and sang some bars into his iPhone, where the semi-formed tune could remain safely stored before his mind traveled to more pressing matters, like coffee.
Drip or espresso? An Americano! Two shots. Maybe some soy creamer or—
Wait, what are we talking about?
Oh, right—computers. Some argue that technological advancements have anesthetized the creative process by squashing the raw emotion of analog production, but consider how many would-be hits just up and vanish in the ether faster than you can say “short-term memory loss.” Chai offsets human error with a sweet home-recording setup largely comprised of various electronic gizmos. Below the main floor of his house, past the charming sky-blue piano, Chai has erected a shrine to musical progress with a ceiling-high stack of synthesizers (including a DX7—“The keyboard to own in the ’80s”) and an adjacent Rhodes, all of which “talk” to the Ableton Live software installed on his Mac desktop computer.
Ableton conveniently mimics the way in which Chai conceptualizes song structures—a jumble of concepts that take linear shape, layer by layer, starting with sax and piano, then bass, guitar, clarinet and, more recently, African percussion. A self-proclaimed collector—“I’ve got a problem,” he says—Chai scored a djembe and a tambura on Craigslist.org. The tambura adds a freaky psychedelic drone to the track he’s been working on in the style of Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke (rent the film Broken Flowers for a nice introduction to his smooth sound). Chai is particularly digging Astatke’s “Yegelle Tezeta.”
“It’s a major scale that sounds minor,” he says, demonstrating the effect on his Rhodes. This is the skeletal framework that, combined with his shower-inspired vocal lines, will eventually become a fully formed track for No-Nation Orchestra, itself a work in progress.
No-Nation started four or five years ago as an eponymous experiment in the Covey Annex apartment where Chai frequently apologized to his neighbors for cooing into a laptop well before sunrise. He also played and tracked guitar, bass, piano, sax, clarinets and percussion, all by his lonesome. The material spawned during those early-morning sessions didn’t jive with any of the bands that then occupied his time, including the beginnings of now-prominent local fixture Laserfang. The songs also didn’t square with the more straightforward rock that somewhat dominated Salt Lake City’s music scene. To a certain extent, Chai was just ahead of his time. So he put aside the work until words of encouragement from friends he respected gave him the extra confidence to follow through with a decidedly unsure thing.
After a brief period playing solo—“I felt like I was doing karaoke to my own music”—Chai recruited Weston Wulle (bass), Josh Dickson (drums/percussion) and Mike Sasich (guitar) to energize his demos as well as No-Nation’s visual and visceral appeal—to push the performance aspect damned near into James Brown territory. “I love computers and technology, but you need something more to make the show memorable—to highlight the emotional component,” he says, adding that his penchant for Afrobeat is rooted in its approachable execution. “Some music separates you from the audience. That music, it moves.”
Chai still appreciates the convenience that technology brings to songwriting. Electronic equipment enabled his foray into recording as a teenager, using the Windows program Fruity Loops and a stereo connected to two tape decks to lay down early mimicry of Fugazi. Elements of punk merge with jazz and Afrobeat to propel the infectious pulse of No-Nation’s debut EP, More, More, More. The title track alone is worth a trip to your neighborhood record store. Produced by Sasich, the short-and-sweet record provides a nice overview of Chai’s broad musical proclivities.
Given his eclectic musical palate, not to mention his solitary creation routine, it seems amazing he ever rallied the right collaborators to turn basement jams into stage-worthy anthems. Chai, however, had no trouble tracking down musicians to quickly learn and perform No-Nation’s brief catalog as a seamless orchestral army. He partially credits the LDS Church for easing the selection process. “Growing up Mormon, everyone plays an instrument,” he says. Though he’s since left the faith, his devotion to piano and saxophone never waned.
“I always wanted to dust off the sax and put it center stage,” he says. “It’s a very vocal instrument—a singing enhancer. You can whisper into it; scream into it.”
Five years ago, Chai’s enthusiasm for the instrument might have fallen on deaf ears. These days, the sax is making a comeback (see M83’s “Midnight City”) and hip, young things have embraced the non-ironic urge to dance. The bands, too, Chai says, seem more open to letting it all hang out. In a nutshell:
“Indie figured out it didn’t need to sound so indie.”