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January 2018

~An interview with Isaiah Barr of NYXO/Onyx Collective

NYXO logo taken from nyxorecords.com

I had the pleasure of talking to Isaiah Barr, a founding member of the avant-garde music group Onyx Collective and record label NYXO. For someone so young, Isaiah has already achieved much success and acclaim, nonetheless he remains level headed and approachable.  Sometimes life gives you the opportunity to meet tremendous individuals. Isaiah is without a doubt one of these special people. Brimming with vitality, but most importantly, with vision, and the discipline to achieve it, Isaiah is fostering  a community among the like-minded, talented and inspired. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Santiago: So, you guys had an event recently, an album release by Nick Hakim and Roy Nathanson, called Small Things. Where did you guys do the event?

Isaiah Barr: We did at the old New Blues Space in the East Village. It was really, really cool. I’ve only performed at the new New Blues Space, up the block. The old one is a really legendary space within the downtown and avant-garde jazz community. A lot of great people played there back in the day  when it first opened. Now it’s renovated. To do something there is already a very cool setting. It was really intimate, a really nice local crowd. Our friend Sabio served acai bowls to people. another friend Pat, he owns a clothing company, Pat’s Pants, he was cutting coconuts for people outside. It was a really nice community event. We had the book on sale, as well as a couple of vinyl records leftover (from the album Small Things). Nick and Roy performed in the masks and moon suits we made for the video. That was kind of the highlight, seeing them, one more time in those suits, actually performing in them. I played a couple of songs with them.

S: Is this the first event for NYXO?

I: No, it’s definitely not. It might be the first event for the record label. There’s been many events that have been thrown under that name. There have been many NYXO related things.

S: Can you tell the audience about NYXO, about its roots in Onyx Collective, and the downtown avant-garde jazz scene?

I: Yeah. NYXO started in 2016 as a club. It was a vacant restaurant that we somehow got the keys to for free. In the summertime, We decided to activate the space. It was on West Broadway in Tribeca, which is an area which doesn’t have much activity for young people anymore, even though it once did. We just started hosting events and calling it NYXO. It was really not just jazz, it was open to everything. We had all styles of music and people were just able to come in and do their own thing, on this kind of a blank canvas platform. It was a really nice moment at the time, we were young, we’d just finished doing our residencies at No Wave Radio. We were stepping into our own lane of curating shows and having people meet each other through these showcases. That’s kind of how it all started.

S: Can I ask who were the people responsible for all of this?

I: They were the founding members of Onyx Collective. Mainly myself and Austin Williamson. My friend Stella Schnabel, she helped get us the space. As far as the performers, we had the John Benitez Salsa Band, we’re friends with John’s kids–that was amazing. Princess Nokia before she released her big album. A great noise and visual artist named Sadaf. Nick Hakim performed many times. A band called Jill, with a singer who performs with Onyx. Roy Nathanson performed with us, with Onyx Collective. Show Me The Body had their album released there. Okay Kaya. There was a lot. It was a big range of different styles. We would just be open for the night, and serve drinks. Since then, we’ve had some other events at some other venues. Our biggest one was in 2019. We did the East River Bandshell, which is no longer there because of construction. That was the biggest moment since: Duendita, Onyx Collective, Nick Hakim, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, the John Benitez salsa band. That was pretty incredible. Our friend Sabio, painted the whole bandshell with a graffiti mural. That was really the last big event before we started the label.

From left: Isaiah Barr, Mike Swoop and Austin Williamson of Onyx Collective. Photograph by Vincent Tullo for the New York Times.

S: So do you guys still have a fixed venue space?

I: No, that space was just one summer. So right now, after the pandemic, we’re trying to activate, and figure out where we can house these events, be creative and involve people, and have that same kind of energy that we did back then.

S: But you guys aren’t necessarily looking for a fixed venue space, right?

I: That’s a good question, I would take it if someone were to offer it. I’ve been reading Ornette Coleman’s biography. They talk about him getting a space on Prince Street, where he rehearsed. I don’t think it has to be a formal venue. I don’t think that’s in alignment with what we do. Sure, if there was an opportunity, I would take it. If there was a space, that would be a dream at this point. It could only be more refined and more structurally conducive to what we are really aiming to do now. It would be more like an artist rehearsal and happening zone, where multiple things can be workshopped. I would love that. It doesn’t have to be in New York. It could be, but it could be in another place as well.

S: What does the future hold for Onyx Collective music wise, and NYXO label wise?

I: Well, I would say that there has already been so much work that has been made over the past few years. The future consists of figuring out how to release some of that work in a tasteful way. I also think that for the record label it’s way more about trying to have events, re-establish a listening community on the radio that we’re engaging on our website, and just putting out music for core founding members of Onyx Collective. Ideally,  it’s really just to support like-minded people who are making creative music, and making things that don’t fit into the box of the corporate machine of the music business. That’s a big step right there. Continuing to make products, meaning vinyl, cassettes. Allowing it to just breathe, and exist how it exists and how it has already been, but hopefully with some form of routine, and consistency around the drops and curation. I think we’re nearing that. Last week we had two events. There is so much individual activity, a lot of things need to be released into the world for people to see and to hear. Whether it’s film, albums, or radio mixes. It’s about getting back into that consistency.

courtesy of the NYXO’s Instagram profile.

S: I feel like something tragic these days is that there are so many artists out there, but the attention is so badly distributed. A majority of people don’t even have the chance to be listened to or seen.

I: Yeah, I mean it’s tough, but I think that we just kind of have to encourage each other and focus, and get the muscle stronger at just releasing things, and not put too much thought into it. Also, it’s important to check out what other people are doing inside and outside of your sphere to remind you of the multitudes that exist, in terms of creativity. Personally, I don’t really consider myself an outlier. To me the challenge is more so finding the right people bureaucratically that can support an artistic project. It’s all about organization. Once you have a team, you can figure out ways to put out a lot of different things. That’s my vision right now.

S: Given the volume of material that’s put out these days, there has to be some kind of criteria which allows you to discern the stuff that’s worth the attention from the stuff that doesn’t. Good curatorial lines are of utmost importance these days. What do you think?

I: It’s definitely a challenge, but, I don’t know, man. I think there’s two sides to the coin. Because of the fact that everything is somewhat seen and heard once it’s posted on the internet, it means that things are over-saturated. But, that’s not gonna stop the people that are ahead from doing what they’re doing, so it shouldn’t stop the rest. No one is behind, no one is really ahead, some people have more visibility, because of various reasons that are way too complicated to dissect. I think if you want to be active, or prolific, there’s nothing there to stop you. It’s always gonna be a battle of convincing yourself that it’s the right thing to do. It’s always the right thing to do. Sharing work is important, and it allows you to make room for new work.

S: I do feel like your project does consider itself as an alternative to the mainstream to industry. Not necessarily in a “democratic” sense, but in taste and concept-wise, which I think is way more valid .

I: Of course. We spend a lot of time in a very specific manner, doing what we do. Even just the way we record, or just exist, as creatives, is not really parallel with the commercial world of music. But that’s OK, because that’s gonna change, the commercial world is gonna change, but I don’t really think the creative process changes. Everyone is different, but at least for us, there is a lot of connection between what we’re doing and what our influences, our heroes, were doing. It’s a similar road, just different difficulties based on the time we’re in. There are plenty of things that we don’t have to deal with that people who were great, that were pioneers, had to deal with back in the day. 

S: You lead me to my next question. Who exactly are your influences, which as you just mentioned, you consider to be following in similar footsteps?

I: Well, I think New York is an influence. I grew up here, a lot of my friends grew up here. The histories of the different neighborhoods, and what they embody is pretty big to me. The different energies. It’s not even an aesthetic thing, it’s really like a sensory thing. Frank Sinatra can connect with Nat King Cole, which can connect to Martin Scorsese, and that can connect to Brooklyn. It’s a sensory thing. That can connect to Italian food and a suit that you wear. A lot of these things get combined in my senses, but I definitely try to be open to learning from all the art forms. My brain works like that. I’m very influenced by creative and improvisational music from all over the world. How that came about in New York, within the social milieu, during different time periods. The loft-jazz scene, the happening scene of the 60s. All of that. It’s  kind of like crate digging to me. Endless. That’s all really influential to me just by nature of being like “oh man I wish I was there”. Then I find myself doing something remotely close to it. Let’s see how this relates or feels right now. That’s a kind of an interesting way of looking at influence in general. There is so much room for imitation. So much to learn, to assimilate. There’s so much great music, so many great theories and concepts out there. From that standpoint, it’s kind of like just using my environment around me, the people in my environment. They influence me in the present day in a positive way, which really kind of catapults the whole thing into fruition. It’s a combination of the past and the present, and what I want the future to look like for us. For me that’s where the influence is at work. 

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Music Division.

S: You’ve said some really cool things. I have to say that just from a personal perspective, I enjoy the way in which the past, the present, and the future are coherent and aligned in your vision for your life and existence. Not many people can say that.

I: It’s tough. Survival takes us to different places. Overall,  it’s just what is our dream scenario, or our best moment, our shining hour so to speak. Containing multitudes is really big to me. I really used to really be influenced by a certain kind of style of jazz, of improvisational music. Bebop, and hard bop, the era of the fifties and sixties. Finding the love again, finding where that is, and digging deeper into the philosophies and concepts of these people, not just the music, but what they went through. Ornette Coleman is an obvious influence of mine. I’ve been reading his biography. It’s really interesting to read what he went through to get to the place he’s at, to see the parallels, but also to read about what he was interested in. His philosophy of life. Whether that’s Sun Ra, watching films, figuring out how that all connects. How the filmmakers who were hanging out with these musicians were also influential, whether that’s Shirley Clark, or Jim Jaramusch. I think that just having a community is a really powerful thing, because you build a catalog with your friends, your peers. From there it’s an archive. It’s a shared work. It’s not like “this guy just did this”. No, they were there, they experienced it, and made sense of it themselves, and did something I couldn’t do, whether it’s because I physically couldn’t because I was playing, or because I don’t have a camera and that’s not my forte. But I appreciate it, and in a sense, I’m enamored by that person, by how they document it and by how they see it. It’s a really interesting thing when your friends are influencing you and you can just come back to the things you love and share those things with others. That’s inspiring too; to pass on your love of the variety of labors out there, and to make evident the trajectory that led us to where we’re at. That plays a big part when paying homage to the past and remembering your growth…

S: You talk about influence in such a way, it makes me think about painting, my own painting practice, and how I’ll ask myself “why do people paint anymore, when there are so many other things out there that you could do?”, and it’s because you yourself want to keep the medium alive. Out of pure love of the medium, there’s a total lack of self-interest, you just wanna tend to the medium, keep it alive.

I: Mhm. it’s a meditation, there’s always been great gardens, no one’s gonna stop gardening. Again, it’s a meditation. It’s how to make yourself calm that is intriguing. Even if you’re going through turmoil, upset or pain or loss or whatever, you find that space of love again where you pacify yourself and make yourself calm, with any form of art or creation. I think that is like a real antidote as well as a tool that was there forever. You just have to keep tapping in, not question where it sits within the evolution of things.

S: Yeah,  talk about “tapping in”. I feel like that’s one of the fundamental views on creativity. It’s actually that you’re tuning into this wavelength that’s being broadcasted, regardless of you. If you can just get the frequency right, you’re in the zone, you’re making great art. I feel like in the visual art world, this idea isn’t so respected, or at least that’s my perception. Music tends to be more intuitive regardless…

I: It’s interesting, because it depends on what the individual is willing or aiming to tap into. That has to do with a lot of other things, which are kind of secondary to the music making, or the art making, it’s about the person and their experience, and how their channeling. I agree with you that the flow of music is very intuitive. But it can be very mechanical or superficial or even fake for some people, because they’re not doing all that much. It should be intuitive. I should be a song from your heart. I believe that’s when we’re at our best when we’re making music, whoever it is. That’s why you can just tell when someone really has a voice. That’s the intuition. It’s definitely OK to exist, to me at least, with people who are in different zones and try to create a fusion of the two. It’s not like “oh you don’t do what I do” so we can’t play together. I never had that mentality, and would never have gotten to where I’m at with that kind of mindset.

Photograph by David Brimacombe for Artforum.

S: There’s also a place and a time for basically anything…

I: Very true. There’s a place and time to experience it. And say: “Oh wow, this is what that is…”

S: I basically can’t listen to reggaetón anymore. But I know there’s a place and time for it.

I: I know what you mean, it’s a specific voice, a space. Maybe when you’re in Miami, or something…

S: Yeah, exactly, you’re on the beach…the alcohol is flowing. Have you ever seen that meme of that guy at the club and he’s like “there is much pain in the world but not in this room. The club is bumping. The ladies look good. The alcohol is flowing.” (laughs)

I: That’s the vibe. Everyone needs some of that. You can’t just listen to classical music. I mean you could…unless you’re like ninety-five. If you only grew up with that. I’ve been around some great musicians that are no longer here, that were from the original generation of whatever kind of genre that they were in love with. It was a pleasure to get to be around them because it was super real…they lived it. I think for the people in our generation the joy and the love comes from trying to see different perspectives and trying to add to them. 

S: For sure, it’s definitely more collage than trying to do something totally new.

I: Exactly, the collage becomes something new,

S: For sure, I guess our generation isn’t gonna have the pleasure of inventing new genres, as they did in early modern times. But there is something freeing about having all these tools at your disposal.

I: Yeah I like that. All the vibes are out there. There’s more to discover though, more to invent. That sometimes means stepping into the unknown. That involves being challenged, working with materials or tools that I’ve never used. Right there and then something can be invented. It’s still gonna be collage, don’t get me wrong. Unless I exclude everything I’ve done, and  just focus on that one thing. I think that I’m actually really inspired by different modes of creation, on tablets or phones. Synthesizers are their own thing. Combining different worlds of electronic devices to make sound. I think there’s a lot of really cool stuff that can be made there. Sampling now has completely different capabilities because of what you can do to morph sound. I think in the zones of sound scaping and creating more longform pieces, in that you are already gonna find new things that were not done within that genre, because in the beginning of that pursuit they were trying to do it as organically as possible, in ambient music specifically. I think there are many different things that can and will be done electronically. If you are really patient and devoted to the process, the possibilities are endless. Same thing Miles Davis said in the eighties when asked about electronics, he was like  “electronics are fine, you have to know…have a good ear, have some discretion in what you’re doing.” You can definitely just make stuff that’s instantaneous, you basically didn’t do anything, you just clicked a button. 

S: That’s just vulgar.

I: Yeah, that’s always gonna exist. It’s not new either. There are a lot of really cool techniques. Morphing, it’s like taking an image and cutting up and putting into a new image, and doing that over and over again. You can get a cool effect. I think “effect” is a good way to put it. But at the same time it’s like a new palette, that can be used in different and new ways. 

S: I’m not always so optimistic about technological progress, but that’s a positive way of looking at things. I like that.

I: Trying to make it childlike is the key. It’s not about mastery, it’s about expressing something, about experimenting. I think an audience will feel that. It strips away the layers of “performer-audience” and makes it more of an equal experience. Technology and electronic instruments are very peculiar, and they do have a mind of their own. You have to respect them, and let them do their thing, and finding the experimental zone. Then you end up doing stuff that can be hypnotic or related to rhythm in a way that’s really, really satisfying in a creative way. I think that’s part of the future for Onyx Collective.  We come out of such an experimental-acoustic spirit where it’s about playing different rooms, naturally reacting to each other, but I think that having the chance to do that now with electronics is really fun. I want to share music like that, and counter, so to speak, some of the narratives. 

Photograph courtesy of Onyx Collective.

S: What you said about having a certain reverence or respect for the electronics, as if they were more than inanimate objects, also collaborators… I really like that. It kind of reminds me of Shinto, the Japanese religion. Even dumb manufactured plastic objects are considered to harbor a spirit, it acknowledges that everything is rich with some metaphysics basically…So electronics aren’t at odds with improvisation, right?

I: No not at all, we’ve built such a language with each other, it makes it even more respectful when we bring in the electronics. We’re tuning our ears differently, and being just as careful with these instruments, and trying to create a dialogue that is coming out of the same focus, and still trying to incorporate the acoustics into it naturally, whether it’s drums or saxophone. I think that there’s a definite connection that I’m excited to explore. It comes down to processing things. Sending things through a pedal. That’s just a cool way of treating sound. I’ve always felt that. That’s just how we grew up. We weren’t indoctrinated by any super serious mode. We experimented with what we had. If there was a mixing board available, we would change the channels, change the knobs. Not even know what we were making until the end, and say “oh wow, that sounds really cool”. It’s kind of been that vibe, now it’s just accelerated by the fact that we know what we’re doing, and just having more tools. 

S: You mentioned happenings, you mentioned the sixties. I’m wondering if you’ve read Beatnik literature, if you’re into that.

I: Yeah  of course, Ginsberg and Burroughs. I’ve read a lot of their stuff. Yoko Ono, Lennon, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. I try to educate myself more in those zones. Explore what people were thinking back then. There’s so much. La Monte Young, the guy who made all the droning installations. Yeah, I’m really influenced by that time. I love classic psychedelic rock from the early seventies and sixties. I like how they just recorded to tape, and psychedelia, and acid, and proponents of that, I think there’s a lot of really cool stuff to explore there. A lot of creativity in that space. 

S: I totally agree, the sixties and seventies were, like, the moment for art in general. Absolutely insane.

I: Even the late fifties, ’58, ’59. There were really crazy things going on. I really dig music from the forties too, 45, bebop started then…Duke Ellington. I have a lot of different zones that I really do love. I’ve definitely done my fair share of emulating certain things. Now I’m in a more balanced zone, doing what comes naturally. But, I think that anyone out there trying to do something is a bit far-fetched, because they haven’t done it before, or it has already been done so well. I think you should still try it. Like, “I’m gonna make a rock song” or whatever.  I’m not of the mindset of “no, you should just stick to whatever…” It’s fun to try to play different types of music. Usually, the coolest part is when the form, the structure of the song is made, and we’re just jamming on it. We’re all playing our instruments, and we’re away from the song. Then, something cool happens that would never have happened had that not been available, just from saying “I’m gonna just try this”. That’s not exactly experimenting, it’s more like venturing. Imitation. A really good mentor of mine said you have to imitate, assimilate, and then create. How can you, unless you’re just gifted, just make something out of nothing. It’s fair game. Coltrane listened to every saxophone player ever. I always try to be open, listen to whatever people send me, never shutting that curiosity off, embracing that more and more with an empty headspace. I feel like that’s really healthy. 

At this point the conversation went off the record, and shortly after we said our goodbyes. You can follow NYXO on Instagram at @nyxo.nyxo, and you can check out their website on nyxorecords.com where live radio is hosted 24/7. I highly recommend tuning in. Interview by Santiago Corredor-Vergara (aka Meme Admin). You can follow me on Instagram @pl0xi_the_arsonist. 

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