Q&A: Chong the Nomad on producing, Anthony Fantano and ghost stories

Chong the Nomad. Photo by Emile Panerio

Seattle-based multi-instrumentalist and producer Alda Agustiano, better known as Chong the Nomad, is taking the electronic dance scene by storm with her sometimes-glam, sometimes-melancholic tunes. Mixed Mantra caught up with her to discuss her origins as a producer, the bump Anthony Fantano gave her career and, of course, ghost stories.

MIXED MANTRA: Where did “Chong the Nomad” come from?

CHONG THE NOMAD: I was a big nerd growing up. I went through a phase where I was obsessed with the show “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The score from that show influenced me to write music and has a big influence on me to this day. My stage name came from a minor character in the second episode of the second season. He was this nomadic, hippie, stoner type, and his name was Chong. He carried a lute around, sang songs and annoyed the main cast. When I was trying to figure out a forum name to talk about the show, I went with that because I used to play ukulele in high school and I was a little annoying, just playing in the hallways. I thought he was very similar to me. It’s stuck with me to this day.

MM: How does the score of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” influence your music?

CTN: The score utilized a lot of — and I hate saying it like this — ethnic instruments. The kalimba used in the score really touched me. The score was written by The Track Team, mostly by Jeremy Zuckerman. I would take my keyboard from my bedroom, go downstairs and watch specific episodes I recorded on TiVo. I would replay certain scenes to learn how to play the score on piano, over and over again. I was 13 or 14. Eventually, I got into Cornish College of the Arts for film scoring. That’s what I wanted to do originally. Electronic music was my first love, but my love for the show and the score grew to the point where I decided to discover the art of film scoring.

MM: How did you get into producing?

CTN: I actually started producing music when I was 14, around the time I was doing all of that stuff with “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” I had a group of friends in middle school who got into producing house and techno music on Fruity Loops Studio. That was around the time I was introduced to deadmau5, Tiesto and Wolfgang Gartner, and I fell in love with it. I tell people house music was my first love when it came to music. I would make all of these really terrible techno tracks. I think the very first thing I made was a remix of “Crazy Train” and it was awful. I wish I still had the file on me. It sort of just grew from there. I started DJing for my break dance club when I was 16 and fell in love with that, too.

MM: I actually discovered you when Anthony Fantano reviewed one of your tracks. How did his review impact your career?

CTN: I think it’s still one of the biggest boosts to this day. I look up to that guy a lot. I’ve watched his reviews to fall asleep for the last five or six years. It’s embarrassing to say because I think there’s a little bit of a stigma behind his channel that if you get all of your music recommendations from him, you’re kind of a basic bitch, but I would say 60% of what I listen to is music he’s brought up in his reviews. But yeah, it’s definitely created one of the biggest boosts. I would say it was the best boost, with super organic fans that really, really looked into my music. Sometimes I would get a Spotify playlist landing, which would be huge. I would get an article written about me in The Seattle Times, and that would be big. But this one led to thousands of followers on everything. Funny enough, though, a lot of people thought a lot of the opportunities I got right after the Fantano review were because of the Fantano review, which is incredibly false. For example, I had the opportunity to open for Death Cab for Cutie and Odesza. I had five or six people be like, “Huh, that Fantano clout surely helped.” I was just like, “Eh, those were actually made possible through really smart connections in the industry.” Eventually, I got that Singapore Airlines gig, and a lot of people were like, “Wow, he helped a lot, didn’t he?” I was like, “No, they actually found me through a series of Google searches and my Instagram because they were looking for Seattle electronic musicians.” But in terms of gaining a really organic fan base that really believes in my music, yes, I would say it was definitely the biggest boost.

MM: What has been your most memorable set so far?

CTN: Opening for Death Cab for Cutie and Odesza is definitely top three. I would say, off the top of my head, it’d be No. 1. I only had 30 minutes, and I didn’t know I was technically “main support.” There was a bigger artist that goes by the name of Robotaki who I respect a lot. I thought he was going to be the one to perform right before Death Cab for Cutie and Odesza, and it turns out it was me. I didn’t figure out until like two days before and I was losing my head. I rehearsed it down to the very second and I remember like 10 minutes before my set, my DJ program totally glitched out on me. It’s something that’s happened before during practice, but never before a show. Oh my goodness, I almost cried. I didn’t know what to do. I had to beat match by ear. The sync button wasn’t working, and I had to adjust the beats per minute on my own for the first two songs. Eventually, I got it working, and I remember turning to my manager and mouthing, “It’s fucking working, dude!” Right after my set, both members of Death Cab for Cutie and Odesza came up to congratulate me. Ben Gibbard followed me on Instagram and we still chat to this day, so that’s been crazy. So that’s definitely the most memorable set from this last year.

MM: How have you been able to translate your bedroom-style production into a live performance?

CTN: That’s a really good question. I do this DJ hybrid type of set. I originally wanted to take the EDM route and just DJ for the rest of my life, but my manager saw a lot of potential in me to actually put a lot of live elements into my set. I run my tracks through Traktor, but do some of the tracks and trigger samples live and add in the ukulele, harmonica, beat boxing and singing. Because I can really fine-tune my sets in my bedroom, I have different edits for all of my original songs to be more festival- and EDM-ish. They’re all just totally that bedroom producer vibe. That’s where I really have a chance to get creative. I have a set coming up in Boise next month where I hope I can really take that to the next level.

MM: We’re really interested in songwriting processes. Can you walk us through how you wrote “Ghosts in the Shower”?

CTN: Hell yeah. This is kind of my favorite story to tell. I had the absolute honor of doing a couple of DJ sets at the very last Sasquatch. That was just such a turbulent experience. I had diarrhea on the very last day. I had the most intense allergies I’ve ever had on that same day, as well. It’s still one of my favorite DJ sets I’ve ever done to this day. It was an emotional roller coaster. The next day, at 10 a.m., I had to go to work immediately, like an hour after I came home. I did my shift and the next morning, I got super stoned and took a shower. I swear to you, I started humming and I heard a girl in the bathroom or the hallway somewhere. At the time, I was 100% sure my apartment was haunted. This melody started producing in my head. A duet with an apparition in your bathroom sounded like a great idea for a song. I stopped showering and wrote the entire track in two hours. There’s something that happens with a lot of producers and songwriters where sometimes a song could take months and sometimes it could take a day. That was definitely one of those times where I set out to write a specific melody and it avalanched from there into this quirky, weird song. The version I wrote that day stayed like that besides a couple of minor details and I sent it in for mastering like three days later. It was out a month after that. It was probably the fastest I’ve gotten a song out and it’s definitely a personal favorite to this day. In terms of a specific songwriting technique, I just sort of did it. I didn’t go by anything on the book. I took like three bong rips and took that shower and was still sort of out of it. I remember my roommate coming out of her room and being like, “Whoa, what is this?” I sent it to my manager and the first thing he messaged back was, “I fucking love you. What the hell is this?” The next day, we talked and he was like, “I love it. It’s so weird. Let’s release it as soon as we can.” It’s a good story.

MM: Do you have any more ghost stories?

CTN: I would say my apartment was haunted, but it was definitely the friendliest ghost. The only other supernatural thing that would happen was that I would wake up at 2 a.m. and hear knocking around in the kitchen. I swear he or she was just cooking or making a sandwich or something. Nothing else could’ve made those sounds, unless we had rats, but we did not. I would hear a spatula being dropped and cabinets being opened and shut. That was it, though. I wouldn’t wake up with scratches or an upside down cross branded onto my chest. Nothing like that. My apartment was definitely haunted and I’m glad it bled into my creative process.