A pick-and-mix candy assortment of the most colorful and bubbly folks are assembled outside the lobby area at YouTube Space, in Los Angeles. Above the chatter and excitement, I spot someone with a tuft of neon green hair to go with their neon pants and clashing floral top. There’s a guy dressed in a fetching vinyl ensemble. A girl with flowing, picture-book bright yellow locks and another dressed as a ‘50s Sheffield mom – in a wind scarf (a throwback bonnet that keeps coiffed hair in place) and factory-blue trench. It’s days before Halloween but you know this is not fancy dress. They are all here for the visual screening of Vibe City Utah, the new album by NVDES, the laptop punk project of Josh Ocean.
The 33-year-old grew up on Fire Island, a tiny barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island, in New York. Apparently there are no cars on the 30-mile small island and residents choose to walk around barefoot, toes in the sand. Since moving to Los Angeles, Ocean’s enjoyed “surfing at the beach and making music”: his dream life.
In the small screening room, Ocean says he wants to expose people to raw, creative energy: “To experience that rush of having an idea.” He encourages everyone in the room to keep playing with their ideas. The lights then go down and eleven videos are screened, beginning with “Ou La La (All Eyes On Us)” right through to the closer “Thank You For The Experience - Live.”
Directed by photographer Parker Day—known for her saturated colors, comic-book quality style and disregard for retouches—each video introduces us to a new color-coded character in a different themed room. It’s reminiscent of the vignette-style storytelling in the 1995 film Four Rooms, which features four directors, including Quentin Tarantino. I also start to recognize the actors on screen, in the audience and in-character, clapping and whistling as their co-stars come on. There’s an exuberance and unfiltered hedonism for the onscreen characters but also an unfettered awkwardness watching it. For example, the boy in his underpants, dancing like no one’s watching in “Daddy Bubble.” Except you are watching and you can’t look away. It makes you smile.
Ocean is a great enabler; his enthusiasm and sense of wanting to nurture creativity in others is palpable. Tonight, he’s like the pied piper.
After the screening, he sits down and speaks to us about how NVDES began, why the album is called Vibe City Utah and aspiring for a sound that imagines what The Stooges would sound like if they used electronica. It doesn’t take too long before you think you can do it too—commit yourself fully to any creative endeavor you’ve ever harbored. Why not?
The visual screening was such an explosion of saturated colors, energy and styles. There was a definite punk vibe: a bit of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” flavor on “Running” and Prodigy on “Daddy Bubble” and “On My Magic.” But also Euro-meets-retro on “Ou La La La (All Eyes On Us)” and a clash of soul and dance with “Mind Body Soul Music.” Tell us about NVDES and sharing this creative energy.
The project is called NVDES because I wanted to be nude with myself as a producer and as an artist. I wanted to be able to share whatever creative inspiration I had, and it has grown into me finding my voice as a producer/artist. It is about capturing and sharing these raw, creative moments as much as possible. Pretty much all of my releases since the very beginning have all been moments that I’ve recorded and built songs around. Even going back to one of my first songs, “Unforgettable,” if you listen to it, you’ll hear a lot of that was from a voice memo, recorded on an iPhone. With this album, Vibe City Utah, there’s more focus. I wanted to capture that moment when you have that burst of inspiration. Almost all these songs are freestyles. I wanted to share what it sounds like to get an idea and just spit it out. I think that’s what most artists get hooked to, the excitement of that idea. And I think if more people are exposed to it then more people are going to play with their own ideas, their own creativity; That’s my ultimate mission.
What made you want to make this your mission rather than just write a good song or a song that hits the charts?
I had a long process of discovering myself as an artist. I came through a lot more traditional bands and working in studios; it was so exhausting. I had been through processes that really felt disconnected from the magic. I noticed that I had a natural ability to generate moments that were really fun and an inclination to keep those moments. I’m not a perfectionist; I would rather experience a lot of things and let them be rough and raw. I come from a background of loving punk bands, really thrashy, rough and raw. I don’t think there’s enough of that in music right now. I know the whole history of recorded music is available on streaming but I think there should be people adding to the consciousness of crazy shit as well as they need stuff to chill out to, and smoke weed, and have sex to. People need to hear other stuff. Vibe City Utah is that expression.
Why Vibe City Utah if you’re not from Utah?
No, I’m from New York. I started NVDES in a studio apartment, everything all in one room. I told myself that I’m just making this music for me. I was lucky enough to have some publishing deal money. Not a lot but just enough for me to do this for a couple of months; make some music with no other intention than just satisfying myself. Like any artist, you’re never really satisfied but being able to dedicate myself to just expressing myself for a couple of months was an amazing feeling. Luckily, things connected to the essence of what I was doing. Vibe City Utah was this feeling I got in that apartment.
When was NVDES born?
In 2015, when I put out one song with my friend. Then my other friend, Sean [Van Vleet], who is like my main collaborator that I jam with now—we were drinking margaritas one night in Silverlake and I showed him a picture of this ukulele and said, “We should write a song about this ukulele, and we went back to my apartment, and in 15 minutes we had the song. It went viral on Spotify, it was No. 6 on their U.S. viral chart, and No. 8 on the global viral charts. We were like “woah.”
But I didn’t want to do the same thing again and one of my mantras as an artist is, if I do something once, I don’t want to do it again. I love electronic dance songs and house music. When I made “D.Y.T.,” I said, “Wow I love this song.” I love playing it and all the cool things that happen because I did that song, but I didn’t want to do another song that sounded just like that one. I want to make something totally different. The first song that I was ready to release was “Ooh La La,” which is the first song on this album, but I felt that this was such a statement that I wanted to develop it into a full concept. I decided, instead of just doing random singles, I wanted to now create more focused statements.
The videos that go with each song are very raw, uncensored and playful. It’s like an ejaculation!
Totally. And it’s on the edge. Out of the 11 songs, 10 of them are freestyles and reflect my mantras – encouraging people to be themselves, interact with that creative energy and you have a song like “On My Magic,” which is about that stimulation: “I’m on my magic when I look at you.” You find that inspiration that makes you feel like you have magic. Or like “Daddy Bubble.” I was just walking around in Amsterdam and I wrote down a bunch of notes—because I always feel super inspired when I’m there—and then I came home and freestyled the notes.
What exactly do you mean by “freestyle”?
Normally, I program a drum beat, and Sean might play the guitar while I play the keyboard, or vice versa, and we just yell, and record. Sometimes it goes on for six minutes, other times 12, 15 minutes. (laughs) Then I’ll take it, chop it up and arrange it on my computer to make a song. None of them come out like that. Except for “They Wrong”; that was more like a traditional song.
I love that one, its message of empowerment and it just stands out sonically too.
Thank you. My really good friend who’s an artist – his name is Filous, he’s from Austria – and his girlfriend, plus my wife and Sean, the five of us were all packed in my kitchen. I was recording in my kitchen. And we spent 12 hours just working on this loop in the kitchen; it was weird, and it turned into this reggae song, then this song about female empowerment. Because I wanted this to be laptop punk album and so many of the punk albums I grew up listening to would always have a reggae song in it, I thought, I must include this on the album.
There’s a strong Euro-thrash dance vibe to the album too.
Yeah, if you got that, it’s great! I made four songs in Paris. My wife, Audrey (Vignoles), is French so we go back to Europe often. We also directed the video for “Mind Body Soul” together. It’s the only one that Parker didn’t direct. I just want to inspire to think differently and be creative. I think part of the reason why the world is so fucked up is because people don’t follow their hearts, their passions. If they did, they would be less inclined to partake in negative things. They would treat other people kinder because they’ve had an outlet to express themselves and are going to feel better about ourselves. I don’t know, maybe it’s like a Utopian aspiration but I think at this point in time, I don’t know what else we can hope for—except a massive shift in perceptions. But it is possible.
When did you first start making music?
I started making music when I was 12. I’ve only ever wrote original songs—never, never did covers. OK, I think I did one cover, one time with my old group … basically when I was 22, I made some music during the MySpace time … I think part of why I want people to embrace their creative energy is because for so long time, I convinced myself that my ideas weren’t good enough. I didn’t follow my true calling for such a long time. I don’t want people to make the same mistake. That’s why I do this. Well, one of the main reasons, I want people to know that it doesn’t matter how shitty it sounds like – this stuff sounds like shit from a technical standpoint – just do your own thing. It wasn’t until I turned off everything else and hunkered down to just do what I want in this little apartment – my friend was over playing guitar and I took a picture of him and posted it on Instagram with the caption: “Way out in Vibe City Utah.” I have no idea why I said that. Then I just started calling my apartment Vibe City Utah, and I had a cactus that I named Utah (smiles) and I miss that. I miss that time and the apartment and that’s why I wanted to call the album that.
I’m curious, what kind of music were you listening to when you first started making music?
Punk. I love NOFX. I still find them super inspiring. You want to talk about a prolific, impactful band for my age – they didn’t tour a lot, I listened to them for about seven years before I got to see them live. And it was in Hawaii of all places! They’re super political and just putting everything out there. They’ve been a band since the ‘80s because they were in high school; I respect the fact that they’ve done their own thing for forever; I respect that – people who do their own thing.
Have you seen Iggy Pop live?
Exactly. Like Iggy! Iggy Pop was a huge influence on this album, I was like, “What would The Stooges do if they had Ableton!” I wanted to really explode the laptop. (laughs) That was what my reference for this was – The Stooges, it was one of their first two albums, they recorded it so shitty. But now when you go back …
It’s a classic.
Yeah. It’s timeless. So in a way, I want to make really shitty music on the computer because everyone is making music that’s so perfect. And ultimately, I think that’s what’s going to make it timeless.