Photo by James BunoanIt was a chichi Latino hipster hangout in Los Angeles called the Conga Room, and like a good soldier, DJ Nobody was spinning the ethereal dance-beat sounds—Stereolab and LA avant-gardist Dntel—that his hosts wanted him to play.
Too bad no one warned the Conga Room regulars. Incensed dancers approached the DJ booth to demand a little . . . salsa. The typically gentle Nobody became feisty.
"I swear to God, I'm going to play some noise music!" he shouted to friends sitting by the DJ booth. Moments later, he blew his top. He stormed out of the club just as the turntable's needle lifted off the record. Everything went silent. It was a strange moment—and not just because of the uncharacteristic outburst.
It may have been the first time music failed for Nobody.
See, for Nobody (born Elvin Estela), making any sound—usually offbeat or experimental sounds—almost always meant success. Whether it was indie-music fans tuning into his mid-1990s shows at college radio station KXLU or major rock mags such as Spin and Alternative Press giving props to his 2000 debut album, Soulmates, this Nobody—and the pun is unavoidable—was a serious somebody in Southern California DJ circles.
"For years, I kept hearing his name," says Mark McNeill, co-founder of dublab, a Hollywood-based Internet radio station for which Nobody spins. And when Nobody joined dublab and started hosting Nobody's Home, his mystery just grew.
"I could only guess at what his top five records are," sighs McNeill, no stranger to the obscuro fringe himself. "But it's stuff I'll never hear—or that I'll get to in five years."
Nobody sounds like he dropped out of a UFO, says McNeill, building a peculiar and unique exotica on pillars of psychedelic rock, jazz and hip-hop. It's all on Soulmates, an unlikely and intimidating fusion of raw underground beats and majestic stoner psychedelia that brought his underground sound national attention. Roger Waters might have seen it as raw material for an overblown concept album; Nobody was happy to support it with a few DJ dates up and down the West Coast. And a few years after his debut, he's pushing his luck again. He's dropping the sound that made him almost famous in favor of something completely different. Soul/jazz-, underground-dance-lovin' label Ubiquity is going to be putting out Nobody's indie rock album.
Singers such as Chris Gunst (from Sub Pop darlings the Beachwood Sparks) and Kurt Heasley (the Lilys) will be just two of the voices on Nobody's forthcoming Pacific Drift, due out on Ubiquity in mid-2003. It's worlds away from indie rappers such as Aceyalone and 2 Mex, and of course Ubiquity chief Michael McFadin is, ahem, concerned.
"The fear is that he's moving far from hip-hop," McFadin says. "For the most part, hip-hop is easy to sell—introducing something new isn't." To his credit, McFadin and company are allowing Nobody to finish exactly the album he wants.
It's a musical departure echoed by some deep personal changes. First, Nobody cut off the wooly dreadlocks he wore for six years, trading them in for the longish muttonchops and unkempt bangs favored by folk-rockers circa 1967. With the dreads gone, the formerly hefty DJ shed 40 pounds—stopping at a trimmer 170—and quit smoking. Then, after a six-month separation, he got back together with longtime girlfriend Susie Villavicencio, the soulmate to whom his debut album was dedicated. He's actually giving up bachelor life to move in with her.
In an interview while on a break from his day job—clerking at Long Beach's Fingerprints CDs and LPs—he hedges and makes some non-committal noises about eating better and getting sick of looking like a live-action Pigpen. It's a circular way of admitting he's growing up.
"With a lot of my friends who make music, a lot of our early stuff is dark. That's an easy emotion to tap into when you're younger," Nobody says. "But when you make music that's pretty and happy, I think that's harder to do. The best songs are always really bright and happy with a teeny bit of sadness."
That's a good description of his latest singles: "White Folding Slowly" unfurls into a psychedelic haze, then spins into danceable Latin vibraphones (where were those when the Conga Room needed them?); "Ballorettes" marches along at an indie rock shuffle, leading an organ drone into a gently rhythmic guitar riff.
Call it a fine musical coda to a freaky adolescence. As a boy and a teenager, Nobody played the outcast at uptight Catholic schools where the popular kids regularly teased him. The adults were even worse. School administrators frequently threatened and eventually suspended him because he was messy, loud and never properly tucked in his shirts.
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"Everyone thought I was weird because I had big, poofy, messy hair, and they couldn't figure out what race I was," said Nobody. "And when you can't figure someone out, they stick out."
Oh, but if those uptight Catholic administrators could see him now—well, they probably wouldn't care, but Nobody hangs out with people who not only think highly of him, but who also happen to be some of the coolest people in LA's indie music scene. A recent day found him discussing music with his friend "Farmer" Dave Scher of Beachwood Sparks, remixing music for indie chanteuse Mia Doi Todd, and checking out the new studio of avant-electronica duo Languis.
And if that wasn't indie fabulous enough, he doesn't have to spend his creative hours alone like most artists. He spins a lot of music with his buddies in dublab.com, which serves as a collective of such souls as KPFK host Carlos Nino and Dntel. And instead of the uncharacteristic anger you might have seen at the Conga Room, Nobody seemed uncharacteristically happy.
"I bounce ideas off my friends all of the time. I'm in love with all of my friends' music," he says. "For the first time in my life, I'm around good people and good music all of the time."