Last month a brand-new band released their debut album on a brand-new label. Hightek Lowlives' Humanoid Void was the first release by Cabin Games Records—a noteworthy enough distinction, one which the band elevated into auspiciousness by releasing an album of immense imagination and razor-sharp technical prowess.
With Humanoid Void, vocalist/songwriter Otieno Terry and producer/multi-instrumentalist Kjell Nelson blast bedroom R&B into a far-flung realm, incorporating electronic and hip-hop elements and wrapping the whole thing in a heady sci-fi storyline about love, artificial intelligence and the purpose of human evolution. It's both ambitious and intimate, a concept album stocked with bangers. In concept and execution, Void is the strongest debut album to come out of Seattle in a long while.
On the eve of Hightek's first big show (this Saturday night at the Vera Project), we caught up with Kjell and OT in the Beacon Hill studio where they made the record.
Tell me about the first time you guys met.
Otieno Terry It was pretty random. I was with some old schoolmates from Garfield—we made music coming out of high school—and we were looking for new people to record the music we were woring on. They were like, 'This guy just started this studio on Beacon and they're about to blow up.' So I came up to the place and saw Radiohead posters and Amy Winehouse posters and Jacob Lawrence art, sci-fi stuff. Lots of stuff I was into. And having that initial conversation with Kjell, we clicked. We saw potential in each other.
Kjell Nelson I was recording rappers to get a couple bucks for Top Ramen or whatever. And they brought OT over and said he's gonna record a hook to one of our hip-hop tracks. Our tracking room is downstairs and I'm upstairs in the studio and he started singing and I was like, 'Where did this guy come from?!' It was instant, like, we gotta do something. Totally chance, but a great chance.
When was that?
Nelson That was late 2012. We didn’t start working on the album for a minute. It took a couple months to sit down and say we should make something.
Terry We didn’t come up w the concept until January 2013. And the group name—they came hand in hand.
The name is either love it or hate it.
Terry I don’t know where it came from. I think it was just said in conversation, spouting off about weird stuff. We were cahtting on instant messenger one day and I was like Hightek Lowlives... Should we do it?
Nelson It was just one of those things that clicked.
Terry When we first started making music, we weren’t thinkgin about everything around it, we were thinking about the work. One of the other things that came out of the conversation was about robots, like let's do a robot in there somehwere. I remember we started working on this track, like maybe the third session, for the song "What It Be What It Do." Halfway thorugh the song Kjell said he wanted to make a video for it. I was hyped because it was the first time I thought about being in a video. And I thought if there's gonna be a video I wanna be a robot. I don’t know why. It just seemd like a cool thing.
Nelson Part of it is in between recording sessions we're talking about anime, cartoons, just nerding out. Whether the robot was just a random thought, it fits with our personality, the whole idea of sci-fi.
As far as the album being a concept album, I can't sepak for OT, but for me, and I don't wanna sound like a snob, but I'm a huge fan of higher art. OK Computer and Radiohead were huge to me when I was coming of age as a msuucian. The idea of doing a concept album was way more exciting for us that slapping a couple tracks together and saying we made a little R&B record. That’s never gonna be enough for us.
Terry We had a lot of conversations with Gabriel Teodros, who did some of the writing and a lot of the idea-building. It all came down to common interests and parables of love and what may happen in the fugure and what's going on now. All of us are about connecting with something higher, something greater than just the music.
OT, I'd seen you sing at some of the Love City Love open mikes. But it's a big leap from jam sessions to songwriting.
Terry Before I wrote music I wrote short stories. That’s how I started writing music in the first place, was through short stories. I wrote a short story at the Hugo House and performed it there. Love City Love has helped me become more dynamic as an artist. To have an idea and build it from nothing but also to be onstage and innovate right there with people in the moment.
Nelson This is the first real record you’ve made, right?
Terry Yeah for sure. I've written other stuff individually, this project I was working on called the Woods. I love short stories, I love storytelling and I love creating. I love making things.
And then there was Sound Off, the youth talent competition you just won at Vera Project a few weeks ago.
Terry That was crazy. We were working on the record when Redskin [co-owner of Cabin Games] sent me this link to Sound Off and said I should sign up. So I put some music from the record on there and then got in and was like, What do I do now? My drummer called me and congratulated me and I was like, I need you to be my drummer. We worked on [the live performance] together. I just had a bunch of music I wrote and a bunch of telented people I played with at Garfield. And also More Music at the Moore—I met a bunch of those guys there.
Terry It's this mentoring project where young musicians come in and play together with someone. Last year it was Meshell Ndegeocello and we all worked with her. I went back to all of them and asked them to help. Everyone helped with the arrangements and we set up rehearsals and just made it happen.
Are any of those players on the record?
Nelson None of them participated on the Hightek record and I didn’t participate in Sound Off because I'm too old. The Hightek album were mostly beats I made in the studio. Everything started off that way. OT would come over and I'd play him five or 10 beats I'd been working on and he'd write to one and the songs would take off from there. All the playing was done in my studio by me. A couple people played guitar here and there and as far as "Sometimes" goes, that was OT's song and we worked on that for a while. We had a couple arrangements on it, but that was totally his song and I took the progression and added the kicks and we wrote that one together. But the lyrics and vocals, that was all OT.
That song is powerful. It basically reveals the theme and concept all at once at the very end of the album. I feel like the concept could've overshadowed the music but you guys kept it subtle throughout until that song, which melodically might be the most accomplished.
Terry "Sometimes" was the last one we finished. We were about to track it and we were like, let's try again. We worked on it two hours and got it right.
Nelson "Sometimes" felt like it was our jumping off point for the next album. It was a perfect climax for the album. It elevalted the previous tracks to a level that the next album will surpass. With the next album we talked about bringing in a lot more live players. It's gonna be less of a home studio project and more of a collaborative effort between us and hopefully some session players.
I hope you don't change the sound too drastically because it's pretty sweet right where it is.
Nelson We don’t have any intention of fully changing the sound. We're just gonna add some shit. I don’t know yet. It's till up in the air. We got a lot of ideas.
Terry This whole project has been so much growth, and we've seen so much, not only of what we can do indivivually but what we can do together. We just wana open those doors. And step through.