It was a strange show I didn’t expect to be at in one of Detroit’s strangest venues. Within its faintly beating heart, I discovered Hiro Kone – the musical moniker of Nicky Mao – and her siren song transfixing the crowd for the first time. I was blown away by this unassuming girl at the bar one moment and her powerful alter ego picking keys on stage the next. I became an immediate fan.
Like Grimes, Hiro Kone has emerged as a powerful female electronic artist. Having been remixed by Delorean, worked sets for MOMA PS1 this year, and been featured in a ton of press for her new album, the girl is only on the up and up. Her sound would’ve worked well as a score to Jorodowsky’s version of Dune – if it had been made. Spacey and ethereal, but not too out there, Hiro Kone puts out its own vibes while remaining approachable to anyone not quite a genre diehard. I wanted to touch a bit deeper into who Nicky Mao is and how she has become the scene’s new golden girl.
“I liken everything in my life to building a pyramid, anything with a strong foundation is going to take time.”
MARY SUCAET: What instrument did you start with at how old? Can you describe that morphing into what you do now?
HIRO KONE: When I was six, I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and took some initial note lessons on the piano. When it came time to interview for further study at the Conservatory – I didn’t fall into whatever category they expected for a six-year-old aspiring violinist – and so I was advised to go take private lessons. I ended up with a great teacher and studied for seven years. When I hit the 8th grade, my brain had already been melted by Sonic Youth and Nirvana and the like. Also, the Bay Area where I’m from had a total resurgence in punk music and zine culture was abound. So I actually put the violin down and started playing guitar in a punk band around that time.
My life has always been dominated by music, and at this point, Hiro Kone is such an amalgamation of all these [experiences] but there’s definitely a classical element to Hiro Kone. You are constantly playing scales and harmonizing. Honestly, I’m relieved that I didn’t go down the path of a professional classical musician – although I enjoy a lot of classical composers, the culture surrounding it can be restricting and kill your spirit. I like discord and dissonance – I could never do anything near perfection because there’s always this deep inclination to fuck things up a little… or a lot.
How did where you grew up – Bay Area, Hong Kong, etc. – shape who you are musically? Does your environment play a part in your mood and/or sound?
I’ve been traveling abroad since I was quite young. I took my first plane to Hong Kong at five by myself to meet my family there. I spent three months of every year in Asia – this had a profound influence on me. I’ve traveled a lot, and always hit the ground running when I’m in a new place. I have a real knack for remembering places and a sort of what feels like a mystical sense of direction. That might be why I spent a lot of time focusing on different types of Gypsy music and even traveled around the south of Spain and France to record them. I’ve had good luck I guess. I almost moved to Turkey once, because I felt such a strong connection to the land and the sound there. Whenever I travel, I bring this Roland Edirol recorder with me to capture these movements. I could draw from this well for years.
When you play is it always just you? Is there more pressure when you are the only one on stage or is it easier?
Right now it is always me. Although, Tim DeWit (Dutch E Germ) who co-produced the last two records is an incredible drummer and I hope that one day we’ll get to perform together. It would probably have to be a special situation since we are both pretty busy these days. There is a pressure that I feel leading up to shows, wherein I feel the need to rehearse a lot. But usually once I’m doing my thing live, I can sort of escape and improvise. Distractions can happen with the audience or a bad monitor, but I think I’m learning how to better push those aside and focus. I think it’s becoming less of an ego thing – like, “Oh shit, everyone knows I fucked up.” These days I’m laughing at myself a lot more on stage.
Can you describe your writing process a bit? Where it begins and ends up?
I don’t write in a straightforward way at all. I tend to jump around and have to take breaks from tracks. That means I’m usually working on a few at a time. I might start with a loop that I like or jam something out on the Octatrack. I write drum parts in a pretty haphazard way – I’m not thinking, “Oh, this is my Berlin techno song.” That’s not very interesting to me. My favorite music is from the Middle East and Northern Africa. I also play guitar and violin, so occasionally that makes its way into a song. It’s fun to manipulate those things and make them sound like the things that they aren’t, such as synthetic and otherworldly. I liken everything in my life to building a pyramid, anything with a strong foundation is going to take time. Also, I should note that I save the vocal stuff for last, which is while you’ll never get a classic verse/chorus/verse out of me. It’s totally insane for me to try.
So you say punk influenced you. What do you love about punk?
I don’t play “punk” music anymore in the genre sense – but I think sometimes, especially live, there’s a natural will to hit ’em with that punk spirit. It goes back to my love of dissonance. When I was 13, I started a fanzine. I wrote down 40 indie labels I wanted to communicate with – Kill Rock Stars, K Records, Lookout! – and then I printed out letters to them all, introducing them to this zine I’d conceptualized and named “Radicals.” Well, you can imagine how surprised my mom and I were when the records started pouring in. I received records every week for three years, and for a young kid, that’s pretty insane. I’d review them and print ads in exchange. It got crazier because the record labels would call and leave messages on our machine to see if I wanted to come to shows and interview their bands. I don’t think they realized I was 13 at the time.
I like asking musicians about the other influences in their life, not in music, but in the arts and culture realm. Any stand out for you?
I’ve always had a soft spot for the drama of the macabre – I enjoy being spooked. I love Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Price, and the films Jan Švankmajer. I also read a lot and the last few books that really jumped out at me were Albert Cossery [Proud Beggars] and Juan Rulfo The Plain In Flames. The escapist in me really appreciates fiction again, after going through a period of reading a lot of philosophy. What I read and what I look at is evident in everything I create. I love having a conversation about those ideas through music. The song “Oteiza” is about Jorge Oteiza, a Basque sculptor that eventually retired from the limelight on his own accord. He was a wildly perplex man of incredible ideas.
“Honestly, I’m relieved that I didn’t go down the path of a professional classical musician – although I enjoy a lot of classical composers, the culture surrounding it can be restricting and kill your spirit. I like discord and dissonance – I could never do anything near perfection because there’s always this deep inclination to fuck things up a little… or a lot.”
You are one of only a handful of women in a pretty male predominant genre, do you think about that? I mean does it ever weigh on you?
I don’t really think of it because I’ve always had the benefit of being accepted by my peers. So though it may still be dominated by men, I feel that it’s dominated in most cases by sensitive men, who by in large aren’t sexist and psyched to have you on board. I’m always talking shop with them about gear and trading tips. I used to hang out on the blacktop during recess and trade baseball cards with the same type of guy. Also, I work with Tim DeWit, who is one of the most sensitive awesome dudes I know. His favorite band is the Cure… Sure, I think it’d be rad if more ladies were producing and teaching themselves hardware, then I think you’d see a lot less talented vocalist ladies out there needing a dude to back them up on a bunch of expensive gear, which I do honestly see a lot of. But they’ll come around.
I remember I used to talk to Laurel Halo about that a lot – there’s a stigma in being a vocalist in electronic music and sometimes the industry and public will focus too hard on that rather than say your production choices. It’ll be a cool day when I’m searching Youtube tutorials and I find one with a girl showing off her sick Octatrack-mangling techniques.
Also, this is not to say that I don’t care about where the sexes may be drastically unequal – I just believe that this genre itself is less of a concern than say straight Pop music. Also, the fight for fair and equal education around the world takes precedent over whether a girl gets to make beats on some expensive piece of equipment. It’s a choice and it’s totally out there for us. It’s not necessarily a choice for a girl in Pakistan.
I am careful about how my sex comes across. In the past, I have played in an all girl band where I think there was more of an opportunity to be marginalized and be dressed up as something I really just didn’t feel that I was. I loved playing with those girls, but I had to leave because that was becoming too much of a factor, as our audience grew. I really wanted to be taken seriously as a musician and I wasn’t ready to play festivals at the time. Five or six years later, I feel totally ready.
Who are some other women in music (not solely synth based) that you admire or recommend?
Well, I mentioned Laurel Halo, I love that girl and she continues to innovate and I always look forward to listening to her records. Katrina Ford from Celebration is another force to be reckoned with and she always gives everything she’s got to a performance or album. She is a true friend and I admire her deeply as not only a musician but a human being. I really admire Diamanda Galas for her ability to pinch nerves and say the things that need to be said. She posts on her blog from time to time and she is saying so many of the things that need to be said. People always want to be polite, but in an age of drone warfare and NSA spying, it’s not really a time for politeness in my opinion. Always on heavy rotation: Alice Coltrane, Sussan Deyhim, Cheikha Rimitti, and Nina Simone.
Do you feel any kinship with other female musicians you meet?
Sure, but no more than the kinship I feel with all the male musicians I meet.
The self-titled album is beautiful – pretty but also very heavy. Is that your natural tendency or do you have context in your life that influences and then is reflected in your work?
I think it’s a bit of both. I certainly like to address the things that I may currently be inspired by, be that something I’m reading or some piece of art that I’ve discovered. But, I’m also pretty emotionally transparent. I don’t hide how I feel very often, which can be a good and bad thing. I think the good thing is that you always get honesty from me, and the bad thing is that you might not appreciate that honesty. It makes for an interesting personal life, but for music it’s really awesome. In writing, music makes total sense and you couldn’t get a better vehicle. Who wants to listen to a bunch of shitty music written by dishonest people who want so desperately to be accepted and liked? Well, I guess a lot of people do but I don’t really care about that audience at all.
We’ll see, but I’m not sure if the heaviness will ever entirely go away – because I’m a little pre-occupied with the state of our world and music is the best way that I know how to address it. The heaviness that you feel from the music is because we are indeed accountable. People should be furious with our government right now, people should be furious that net neutrality is over, and people should be furious that the corporations that we support are responsible for people dying overseas. I know that’s a hard sell for some people, but it’s the truth and if it makes you squirm then you aren’t de-sensitized and hopefully that lights a spark.
Hiro Kone’s new album “The Unmoved Mover” is out now on Group Tightener. Photos above by Pete Pabon @thewastedtalent.