Name UL [real name Emanuel Psathas] is brimming with positive energy. He exudes enthusiasm, excitement and confidence. He actively fights the national mantra of tall poppy syndrome and attempts to prove that a small-time Wellington boy can bring his A-game and punch with the international heavyweights.
It has been almost a month since he dropped his debut album Choice(s) and held a sensational album release show with help from his friends in the band Drax Project. [Read my review of the album release show here]
I begin the interview with asking him if he if stoked on the final result of the album. He wholeheartedly agrees with the term.
Psathas: “I am stoked. I think stoked is a good way to put it. It’s definitely been a learning curve for me, putting it into a package so that it is recognisable and something that people associate with Wellington in mind when they hear it – it’s pretty awesome”
Psathas talks fast. You can almost hear his brain whirring as he speaks, trying to pump out the thoughts fast enough to keep up with his mouth. But he’s not just shooting his mouth off . I can tell that he is trying to communicate something worthwhile – which probably explains why he started rapping in the first place.
“I think that Choice(s) is a good starting point for people wanting to hear my work, because I feel that this is where I really developed my voice. It’s the first time that I feel that I’ve really put something into my thoughts and specifically divided them to put into tracks, if that makes sense? Usually, with my past tracks I’d talk about girls, issues with drinking and depression, other issues, my parents, my friends… I’d try to fit it all into one track and it wouldn’t be so cohesive – it’d be a whole bunch of different thoughts and a stream of consciousness. So I feel like Choice(s) is a good place to start because everything is kind of divided up and there’s certain feels, and it means that I was able to create … like if I’m writing about a girl I’m able to create the mood and the music around what I’m talking about in the lyrics, so yeah – definitely a good place to start.”
It’s clear that Psathas has spent a lot of time in and around recording studios. His album release was a great combination of live and pre-recorded music, and he tells me about how he tries to achieve this sound in the studio.
“I like DJ-ing and the electronic side of things because it’s really crisp and you can really get things quite precise with your performance and in the studio it’s easier to make things more calculated. But in saying that, I think a lot of the really unique flavour that gives a track its energy and its heart and, you know, everything about it is from that stuff you can’t plan for. So I think it’s really good to have a balance of the two. And that’s why I like using live artists as well –because they bring that whole dimension and things that you can’t really plan for, but are really beautiful. So definitely has that touch to it. Also, playing off things that are actually from the earth (do you know what I mean?) … like playing off drums that are made of wood from the tree, and animal skin… there’s a whole bunch of things which add to it – There’s elements to it that you wouldn’t really think about, but I reckon they do have a bit of a play into how we listen to it and how we digest it.
And Psathas doesn’t just collab with talented musos, he plays some music himself. He laughs when I ask if he played any instruments on the album.
“Just the violins”, he grins, scratching his head to think if he played anything else. “Yeah, violins. But all the atmospheric sounds we made in the studio. All interludes, all the sounds of the town. The bottles smashing, phone calls – That was all made within a room with a few people.”
And, of course, there is more than just the music when it comes to releasing an album. I ask if others from KWOE (Kids With Open Ears, his collective) have also contributed to the album, noting that photographer Jeremy Hooper shot the pic on the album cover.
“ Yeah… Hoops with the visual stuff. Ben Murdock – Heist Beats – he’s had a lot to play with it in terms of the visuals on all of our platforms across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all of that… All of the core graphics that we put out, announcements of things we put together, some cool little posters or little photos – that’s all Ben, and he’s taken it under his belt, which is awesome. And he’s also been in the studio with me for all of the final recordings. I conceptualised everything on my own, but when it came to actually piecing it together in the studio, he had a big part in helping me with that. Also David Argue did that video for “Belong” the day of the drop, and he did a lot in supporting me in the making of the album, and filming me and documenting it.”
As well as the KWOE crew, Psathas also teamed up with his father, renown composer John Psathas. He seemed to really enjoy the process.
“It was pretty awesome, but it’s weird. My dad obviously works with a lot of people, but I’m his son, first and foremost. When we make music, it’s like, with your dad – like a go to play cricket on a Sunday, or kick a ball around at the park, or we got to make a table for your mum ‘let’s sit in the workshop and work on it together’ – kind of thing. It’s not like we’re going to make this table and sell it and make lots of money off it. It like that, you just do it because that just the way that you spend quality time together, and that’s what it’s like when my dad and I make music together. We’re not expecting some kind of outcome. We just do it because it’s a way to spend time that we both enjoy. It’s nothing like working with other artists. And dad loves it. Biggest fan, biggest supporter.”
It’s nice to see that someone experience a taste of success is keen to acknowledge his team – those who inspired and influenced him and helped him bring his goals to fruition.
“My previous DJ Denny Fackney. He was the person who made me want to rap about other stuff, and not just being cool and to blow up and all that. I remember we had a very big chat about two years ago (just before I started this album) about the whole thing. I vividly remember it – it was one of the more important conversations I’ve had ever. It was about two hours and we just sat and he just schooled me on why I should rap about this stuff. He remembers that and we reference that when we talk about this album as a reflection of understanding that conversation. Make your mark, I think he was the person who really taught me how to do that and how to harness the uniqueness of where I’m from as something that could help me more than I think. He has been a very, very big, significant impact on my musical life.
“Also my manager Pritesh had a massive impact on everything that I do with my work ethic and all of that.
“But, honestly man, the biggest person is just myself. I’m always keeping myself in check with just everything. I’ll always push myself and try new things.”
And this theme of confident, but not cocky, shines through what Psathas is saying. He knows that he has the skills to carry him, and he’s not afraid to say that. He discusses the differences between working a support slot and headlining his own gig, noting that he carries the same passion for each, despite the different pressures of each scenario. I ask him how he tries to win over people who may not be interested in seeing him when he opens for big international acts.
“I don’t really but much thought into winning them over. I just have confidence in my set and I know that people like it, so that’s what I do, and I just play the best that I can, and I can’t put thought into anything else. If I started to think in those terms it would freak me out, and could affect it. They’ve obviously chosen me for a reason, so I come out here and I do what I do. I’ve been to shows, I’ve seen opening acts. I’ve seen what to do and what not to do from the crowd’s perspective. I understand that not trying to be too big out of your boots straight out of the gate, and letting your music speak for itself before you try and get the crowd to think that you’re really good. Let them decide, and just put it out there and understand that they might not like it because obviously they didn’t come to see you. But I have the confidence in our music that people really will like it and know that our sets are really, really on point. So I don’t get scared or nervous, I’m very understanding of the process from the audience’s point of view.”
“Headlining has more responsibility because people have paid money to come and see you. The ticket is not from the support act. Sometimes it is – but most of the time it’s not why people buy it. People didn’t pay to see Name UL, they came to see Action Bronson. So at the end of the day, I can be a shitty supporter, but it’s not going to leave people saying that it was a bad show – it’s only if the headliner was really bad that people would say that. It comes back to what we were talking about before in terms of confidence. Exact same show in terms of entertainment value, musical value, in terms of an overall night – we can bring all of that just as well as any other American artist you can think of. Whether that be… uh… anyone! Anyone I’ve opened for, I genuinely believe that our live set is just as good – if not better – than theirs, it’s just that we lack the money and the fanbase. But those two things will come. I feel that in terms of headlining – I have no doubts in our ability. Looking back we killed it. We did kill it, and it was great! In terms of an experience or a show, sure you could put Kendrick Lamar aside, next to me on that stage right? But if we stripped back people knowing those songs –if it was a completely fresh thing –I genuinely believe that we could perform just as good a show. I want people to see that when they come to the show. I want them to see that we have international class acts in Wellington that will perform Wellington. Just because we’re from Wellington, and we’re in Wellington doesn’t mean that people have to see anything less in terms of production value, performance value – and that’s what we’re bringing, what we’re trying to push and get people to understand.”
This ethic has opened doors for Psathas, leading him to Los Angeles to record, and undertake an internship writing for Warner Music. He explains that as incredible as traveling to America to work within the music scene sounds, he still needs to stay grounded.
“It’s pretty awesome. I think that prior to doing a lot of the work it felt like something that would be pretty surreal, but it’s interesting, because once you get onto the other side of the work and you get there, it feels like it’s pretty much what should be happening. It doesn’t feel weird, it feels like it’s part of the plan. If you work hard enough, you get to a certain place, you have a bunch of product or content or something underneath you, there’s certain things that you have to do. And when you rub shoulders with people in The States, you might think back in the day, like back when I was younger I was like ‘oh, imagine meeting up with a publicist in LA! How exciting would that be?’ But on the day you have a folder full of notes, you’ve got a plan, you’ve got everything. It’s very serious and it’s a big deal, but it feels like it’s part of the plan – it’s what is supposed to happen if you work a certain way, and you do things a certain way.
“It is weird, because there hasn’t been a rapper from Wellington who has done that yet. But I’m not trying to be someone who hits a ceiling. I don’t put a limit on what I’m gonna do, and in order to be someone like a Kendrick Lamar, or a Kanye West, or a Drake or whatever – this is what they were doing when they were 20 as well. It’s just because I’m from Wellington that it seems really obscure, because we’re not known for being in the hip-hop community overseas. It feels stranger, but it also feels good.”
I’m especially interested to hear about one figure that Psathas met overseas: eccentric
Canadian radio host Nardwuar the Human Serviette, who is famous for his quirky mannerisms and in-depth research into the backgrounds of every artists he interviews. I ask if Psathas if he had learnt any crazy facts him.
“I didn’t! I wish I’d had longer to speak to him. It was a pretty brief encounter, but he was a pretty awesome dude, and he was actually super similar to what he’s like on camera. He’s pretty much exactly the same so I respect him for that.”
One thing that I believe sets Name UL apart from many other rappers is that he touches on issues that are deeper than the stereotypical “pussy, money, weed” culture than can sometimes be prevalent in hip-hop. He’d already shared about being asked to reflect on his message by previous DJ Denny Fackney, so I asked him what key message he wants his listeners to take from his music.
“To stay inspired I just read the news every day. I wake up, and I read the news every morning. It’s important to me to know what’s happening in the world. And if other people my age don’t, then that’s fine –that’s up to them. But I always found that the way I wanted to do that I saw a friend reading the news every day, and I saw how cool it was to know about what’s happening in the world. And it didn’t take someone telling me to do that, it took me seeing another young person. Because if my dad tells me to do that than it’s like, ‘of course my dad would say that!’ If I see one of my friends doing that, who is my age and is actively aware of what is happening in the world, who can read about it and talk about what is happening with adults, then that inspires me to do it. So if I can be that to other people, than that’s great. I can be a source of inspiration.
“But people are more lenient to be like ‘I want to change the world’, than ‘I want to inspire the world’. To say ‘inspire’ sounds like you’re being cocky, but if you say “change” than it’s like you understand that you have to take something under your belt. It’s like it’s harder than it is. If you say ‘I just want to inspire people’ than it sounds like you’re putting yourself on a pedestal, but it’s real. That’s how. I want people to be like ‘yo! That dude’s reading the news, that’s what it’s about! Cool dude! I want to do that’.
“I’m trying to say that you don’t need a big-ass chain to cool in the hip-hop world, I want to show that you need a big-ass brain. ” – Name UL
And as for the future? He’s a bit coy.
“It’s always a big surprise, but we’ve got some stuff going. More content, more shows. Just more music, but I can’t get specific about the whole thing, but a lot of exciting stuff.”
I find Name UL instantly likable. A rapper that wants to inspire kids to read the news, who wants to put Wellington on the map and make fantastic music with skilled people. Maybe he will become the next Kendrick. He’s got talent, contacts and material. He’s got attitude and confidence. Something makes me think that is he keeps forging this path he’s on he may actually get there someday.