As they gear up to release II, their first EP in seven years, Hudson Mohawke and Lunice tell us why they decided to get the band back together
It’s been seven years since TNGHT released their first – and, until now, only – EP. Listening to their new music, though, it barely feels like they’ve been away at all. It’s not that anything on Hudson Mohawke and Lunice’s latest release, II, sounds the same as what they were putting out in 2012 – there’s nothing as explosive as “Bugg’n” or as extravagant as “Higher Ground”, tracks that propelled the duo from the fringes of hip hop and electronic music into the centre of the pop, EDM, and rap mainstream – more that its seven tracks all crackle and fizz with the same gleeful, manic energy that fuelled their earliest material. “It doesn’t feel like that long for me,” says Hudson Mohawke, real name Ross Birchard, over the phone from Los Angeles. “I’m hesitant to play into this idea that this is a ‘comeback’. The whole project first happened by chance, and this time around, it came together sort of by chance as well.”
When TNGHT went on hiatus in 2013, they were at the height of their popularity. HudMo and Lunice, who hail from Glasgow and Montreal respectively, had gone to great lengths to make clear that TNGHT was two solo producers coming together for a side project, not that it would ever be their primary outlet of creative expression. Even so, they could never have predicted just how much hype they’d receive, or how quickly. Within a year of their glass-shattering live debut at SXSW in 2012, their tracks were being played by DJs across the genre spectrum, from Calvin Harris to 2manydjs to Laurel Halo to Diplo, and were performing live shows around the world, from Coachella to the Sydney Opera House. Mobb Deep joined them on-stage, as did Kanye West, who later used the duo’s mammoth, unreleased track “R U Ready?” as the backbone of his own hit “Blood on the Leaves”.
Then there was the influence they had within the EDM scene. The duo’s success helped catalyse the nascent trap subgenre, an association that never sat too comfortably with them. Hudson Mohawke and Lunice were being turned into poster boys for a scene that was getting bigger, louder, and dumber, not to mention further removed from any roots that it purported to have in rap music. Plus, as trap grew in popularity, it started to formalise its own stylistic conventions. Suddenly, TNGHT were no longer demolishing genre divides but creating new ones. They put the project on ice to focus on their own records: HudMo released his second album, Lantern, in 2015, and the soundtrack to the video game Watch Dogs 2 the following year, while Lunice dropped his debut full-length, CCCLX, in 2017. It was only when HudMo moved to Los Angeles around this time that he felt they were ready to pick things back up again. It was, recalls Lunice – real name Lunice Fermin Pierre II – exactly the right time. “All I remember was Ross saying, ‘Yo, just fly over. Don’t tell anybody,’” says Pierre. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, actually, that’s a good idea. Let me do that.’”
In Los Angeles, TNGHT began experimenting with music once again, liberated from their initial hype and free to channel whatever ideas had filtered through into their creative consciousness, no matter how bonkers. “I left London in a little bit of a rut,” says Birchard. “When I got out here, I was trying to build this lifestyle where I would be able to be creative throughout the week, whereas in London I was getting to the point where I’d go to the studio two or three times a week and just fuck around and not have anything to show for it. I really wanted to get back into the shit that I felt I’d not been paying much attention to.” With the release of II on the horizon, it’s time for everyone else to pay attention.
Do you see the new EP as doing anything differently to how you did things the first time around?
Hudson Mohawke: Something I really like in a lot of other people’s music is that you can come with something that maybe on the surface sounds a little different, but with the tone of it and the personality of it, you can still tell exactly who it is. With the new EP, I feel like it’s the same personality behind it, even though musically it’s what we’re into at this point, rather than what we were into in 2012.
What sort of stuff is that?
Hudson Mohawke: The first time around was our take on big American rap beats, with a little bit of cheekiness to it. One reason we took a break from the project is we felt like the genre that that stuff became wasn’t really in line with us as people. It got into the same scenario as dubstep, where it became very bro-ish. Our music had that, but it was just one aspect. That’s been the same approach for this record. It’s an amalgamation of a lot of different sounds, without needing to be needlessly aggressive for the sake of it.
Lunice: It almost sounds corny to say it, but our music comes from the inside. What Ross said about dubstep and trap, I see it in the bigger picture now. Everything is highly competitive and a lot of people are trying to one-up each other with a similar sound, but you can only compete by comparing yourself to others. We don’t like that process. It hinders our creativity, it slows our creative evolution.
Hudson Mohawke: This may come across as a lofty, kind of cunty thing to say, but we wanted to remove that competitive dick-measuring aspect of it. I felt like the genre was going in that direction. As Lunice said, it does hinder creativity if you’re operating within the framework, where every track needs to have these elements.
Are you at all concerned about how you might fit into the current musical landscape?
Hudson Mohawke: ‘Concerned’ is the wrong word. I think I’m curious.
Lunice: Yeah, curious.
Hudson Mohawke: I felt like the first time around, people literally just saw it as electronic music with a pop/rap influence. That meant that we would be on festival bills alongside techno DJs and bands. It wasn’t really an established ‘that fits there’ thing. When it did start to go like that, when festivals did have these stages and line-ups that were all the same sort of sound, that’s one of the points where we thought, “Ah, this is really not all that exciting anymore.”
One thing I do notice within the electronic scene, it’s veered very much towards playing 4×4. There was a point with the new record where I thought, “This is going to be so weird,” because everyone used to play all sorts of different shit, all sorts of BPMs, and now they only play 4×4 techno. Then I thought, “No, actually, that’ll probably be pretty interesting.” The only reason it’s weird is because no one’s attempting to do that. It’s very straight down the line at the moment, and it could be nice to subvert that a little.
Did you have any false starts, in terms of getting together again? Did you ever attempt anything that didn’t pan out?
Lunice: When we finished the tour in 2013ish, we stopped it altogether because of what trap was becoming. People were trying to make us the frontmen of that, which we were not about. I thought we should separate ourselves, continue our own work, but not listen to each other’s music all those years – I waited until Ross put out his album. We brought it back to how we got together the first time, where we’re just fans of each other’s stuff, we hear each other’s music eventually, but we’re not forcing it, it’s very natural. That hiatus was really to see if that would work. All those years, we haven’t attempted anything. We didn’t want to.
Hudson Mohawke: Every so often something would come from either of our managers: “What do you think about getting back together?” Generally it was like, “This doesn’t feel very natural.” We didn’t want to commit to anything that we were not fully behind.
Did you miss working with each other?
Lunice: I don’t even know! We were actively focusing on our work. I never even thought about those days, I just focused on what made me happy. Ross would probably agree with this, but when we were in the studio when we made “Serpent”, and I was yelling on the mic, I didn’t think, “This is a comeback.” All I could think was, “Man, I totally forgot how fun this is.” The project itself is a side effect of enjoying being creative.
How did you get back into the TNGHT headspace while you were recording?
Lunice: There’s no specific headspace!
Hudson Mohawke: Every time I talk about this I think it sounds like some super LA wavy bullshit, but it’s weird, because something does happen when we get together and just play around and fuck around with stuff.
Lunice: We don’t sit down and decide we’re going to make this sound today, we just react emotionally to the sounds.
Hudson Mohawke: It’s the same way we did the first record. We just bounce off each other energy-wise, and if we’re smiling at the end of it, then it’s good.
“When we were in the studio when we made ‘Serpent’, I didn’t think, ‘This is a comeback.’ All I could think was, ‘Man, I totally forgot how fun this is’” – Lunice, TNGHT
What’s one thing you like about working together, and one thing you hate?
Lunice: I’ve got a good one. It’s a love and hate, hear me out. It’s Ross’s massive ass speakers. What are those called again?
Hudson Mohawke: The Tannoy ones?
Lunice: Dude, I love them, but they scare me. It puts the fear in me whenever they’re on. I wish people could hear it, it’s a hell of a system.
Hudson Mohawke: I guess one really slightly cunty thing I could say is that the studio that I have now is enclosed, and the studio I had before that had French doors that you could open out. So now I’m having to be like, “You can’t just hotbox this entire room with insanely strong weed every fucking five minutes, you know?” That was frustrating me for a while. Like, can you at least go outside?
Lunice: (laughing) I agree, I agree!
Hudson Mohawke: As Lunice said, during that period where we were just focusing on our own stuff, we weren’t really in touch so much. So I feel like this stuff has also been a new chapter in our friendship. It sounds kind of cheesy, but we just have a lot of fun doing stuff together.
While you were away, there were a lot of TNGHT imitations. Did you find that flattering, or frustrating?
Lunice: It’s understandable. It’s like me being inspired by Ryan Leslie and trying to make Ryan Leslie type beats. I grew up on producers like 9th Wonder, so a lot of my early beats sounded like 9th Wonder, and I had a 9th Wonder type of name. It’s humbling and inspiring for me that people respond to our work like that.
Hudson Mohawke: The first couple of times that that happened it was a little like, “Hold on a minute…” There were a couple of times where even the label were like, “We should probably get a musicologist involved here, because this is a little too flagrant.” It’s not something that’s unique to us, it’s just that when anything in any field of art or business has a bit of popularity, people gravitate towards doing things that sit in that lane. Anybody can imitate a set of sounds, but you can’t really imitate the mindset or process or personality.
Lunice: You can’t imitate the individual.
Hudson Mohawke: I think probably if you’d asked me a couple of years ago about this, I’d have gone, “Yep, fuck this person, fuck that person…” (laughs)
What artists are exciting you most right now?
Lunice: You can get an idea from the Essential Mix. I put on a track from Tisakorean. He reminds me of a genuine Lil B type of artist.
Hudson Mohawke: He’s fucking hilarious. He reminds me of you a bit, Lunice. He has that weird hyper energy.
Lunice: He’s like that all the time. It’s like a performance, and he’s well aware of it, and the music he makes for it is perfect. In terms of rappers, I’ve been really hyped on him. The mix is what finally got me to sit down and organise my stuff, because generally I’m not listening to anything in particular, especially in the streaming age.
Hudson Mohawke: With rap, I feel like there’s a little movement of relatively young guys who aren’t really fitting in the mould of just churning out shitty Auto-Tuned rap, no shade against Auto-Tune. I feel like there are more young kids taking risks.
“At the point where we took a break from it, there were all sorts of things on the table – more money, more this, more that. I’m happy that we didn’t get blinded by that” – Hudson Mohawke, TNGHT
There seems to be a much weirder movement going on right now.
Lunice: Yeah. I mean, you’ve got Peggy there. That shit’s crazy.
Hudson Mohawke: I guess part of it is because people are so much more able to build a solid fanbase by themselves via Instagram or wherever. There are all these weird little facets and microgenres that I felt we were kind of lacking for a while there – you were really just getting the same flows on every song, the same type of production. And that’s not just specific to rap, I feel anything that gets to that point where it just doesn’t feel like anything new is being brought to the table is no longer really interesting.
I meant to put one of those Teejayx6 songs in the mix – just really dumb, random rap where every song is about how to scam credit cards. A whole genre about scamming credit cards, it’s fucking amazing! I love that there are all these little varied pockets of people who are not restricted, who aren’t thinking, “We have to sound like Migos.”
Are you angling to work with rappers this time around?
Hudson Mohawke: It’s not something that we’re pinning everything on. We certainly have some people in mind, and there are some people who’ve said they’d be up for something like that, but it’s very much, “If it happens, it happens.” We’re not gonna force it.
At the height of the hype you guys had the first time around, was there one moment that made you think it’d gone too far?
Hudson Mohawke: There were a couple of moments where it was like… maybe this is getting a little too debaucherous for our own good. We could’ve just gone on like that and just fucking burned ourselves out. I’m very glad that we didn’t do that.
Lunice: At the height of the moment, we either burn ourselves out by going through the machine, or we step back to preserve our creativity. We’re very lucky that we’re producers, we’re not singers, where in that position it’s very different. We could back out and do our thing, especially because of the kind of labels we’re signed to. We chose to take the opportunity that I found very valuable, rather than going through the entertainment machine that might eventually exhaust our creativity. We see a lot of that happening. So far, it’s sounding good. It’s sounding like “Serpent”.
You had a choice to take a step back or go all the way – and a lot of the artists who do go all the way don’t seem very happy.
Hudson Mohawke: At the point where we took a break from it, there were all sorts of things on the table – more money, more this, more that. I’m happy that we didn’t get blinded by that and we stuck to the original concept. This is a side project, and it’s fun, and we want to keep it fun. If it’s not all that much fun anymore, let’s just not do it for a bit. I’m terrified of that shit, I see it all the time. You back yourself into a corner by just doing the same shit for so long because that’s what people expect from you – and then you’re trapped, and you can’t do anything else.
Lunice: You can’t blame people for falling into a rut. I’ve come to understand that a lot of people may not be fully equipped to work within the lines of the entertainment industry as a whole. We had the choice to go through the mainstream machine route, but that would entail being in a very competitive environment. That’s the game, that’s how it works, and there’s big money there – but we don’t play that. A lot of it is very exterior: “What are people thinking?” “If I make this music, are the kids gonna be happy?” “Are you happy?” We didn’t want any of that. We found that it’s very important to know, are we happy with what we make?
TNGHT’s II EP is out November 12