Interview: No Rome on the Art of Self-Expression

Friday, October 4, 2019

London-based Filipino musician No Rome channels his creativity in an array of ways — music is his primary form of self-expression, but he's also drawn to the visual world, whether it's photography, film, or art. Today, he has shared his new single 'Talk Nice', which follows his recent run of shows in Australia, New Zealand and Asia with The 1975. Whilst he was in Melbourne, we sat down with him to talk about how he has adjusted to playing in front of bigger crowds, genre, how visuals inspire him and collaborating. 

Recently, you've had the chance to play bigger stages whilst on the road with The 1975. How has it been for you playing in front of larger crowds?

It's been quite nerve-wracking, but it's so much fun too. It's just like, these are really big shows and this is my first ever big tour. It's definitely fun, but it's also very much like, 'oh my god' existential crisis mode.

I know that sometimes it’s a bit of a clichè term, but you've gone from being a 'bedroom artist' and making songs in such intimate spaces and now you're taking them to bigger crowds. What's it been like adapting to that move?

Even if the show is bigger, I still want to keep it a bit intimate. I always still try my best to just be myself on stage. But as much as I wanted the shows to be something super special, right now, it just feels good to be on stage and just hype up, and have some fun. But it's definitely a big step from being 'a bedroom producer' to then having 15,000 to 20,000 in front of you.

Do you have much recollection of the first big show that you played?

My first big show was with The 1975. I remember it very, very well. We were backstage and at first, I was like, "This is going to be easy. I've played shows." And then I saw the crowd and I'm like, "I've played a shows but I've never done anything like this" (laughs), and I was like really, really nervous. My palms were sweating and shit. Oh my god. But it was definitely fun. I think that UK tour was actually pretty fun though. Just getting a bit wasted all the time, but I mean fuck it, it's a show.

Are you getting more confident on stage now?

I think it's been a while since then. Especially when we did the American tour. I don't know exactly, but that's when I felt like, all right, yeah, I'm getting used to this, so it's cool. I feel I can step on stage and do my thing now without having to doubt it a lot like, 'was I fucking dumb at that last performance?' I mean I'm still worried about how I play and how I perform and how I sound, but I think it's gotten a bit better since then.

Is there anything that you're looking at bringing into your own live shows that you've witnessed from touring with The 1975, or anything that you're into visually at the moment? 

Definitely. That's why I'm really looking forward to doing my own shows as much as this is super fun and also inspiring in terms of the crowds and the music and the performance, and watching The 1975. They've been doing this for years and I've been doing it for around a year. I've learnt a lot from their shows and watching them on-stage. 

I've noticed a lot more recently that there are a lot more fans online talking about how your music has connected with them. What's it like for you to see that kind of feedback when your music comes from such a personal place?

I honestly really, really love it. It inspires me to keep making more music and better art. At the same time, I also try to not really dwell on the comments a lot, just because I'm a sensitive person and if I feel like when I see something bad, I'm like 'oh fuck, I quit, I quit, I'm done' (laughs). But no, it's good to be aware. I love the fans, I still feel a bit awkward saying "Oh yeah, I got hella fans or whatever." But the support I get is just thrilling for me. I feel like, oh wow, there's actually people that really connect to it in the same way that I connect to the music. I just love writing music. Like I said, playing the show is a bonus, for me, I just love making music, I like doing all kinds of shit. That's what's important to me.

What I love about your music is that it's hard to put into a genre. I think that's it's great that you can't just label your art as one thing. Is that how you've always approached music? 

I think it's just me being a fucking weird-ass person. I pick up the guitar, and if I want to make a rock song, I make a rock song, but I want to base it off of how I would personally do it, you known, my own take of it. For years, I would always go home, write a song, or play around with instruments. It's a therapeutic thing. I'm also influenced by shoegaze music, R&B, hip-hop, rock, I'm obsessed with The National as well. I like to put together all the sounds I love into one box and all the stuff I like to hear. It's kind of 'no-genre' but there's still a style that I'm trying to make. I want to contribute something to music sonically. 

This year, 'no-genre' has made a comeback. Would you say that genre is starting to become less relevant, especially now with the rise of music streaming?

Exactly, so much of it is about mood too, like 'mood playlists'. Having a standard rock playlist is more rare now. I absolutely love it, honestly, because when I was younger, there always was a scene. If you're a rock person, you couldn't wear baggy clothes and had to stick with your people. I like that there's no more of that. It's just about making music that you feel like making and creating an art piece that's you, having your own style is what matters now. I really love that, because self-expression is so much easier now. Music is supposed to be some sort of self-expression. I feel with that, there's less pressure. Just do what you fucking want, put it out if you want. Wear whatever clothes you want, you could be rocking the most punk clothes but be making hip-hop music, that's super sick. I'm totally a fan of making whatever the fuck you want to make.

You mentioned The National already, but was there anything else that you were really into when you started experimenting with music?

Broken Social Scene. I always say it, but I love them because I feel like they shaped me when I was a kid, My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, that specific album, and the MBV album. Kevin Shields is a genius. A lot of people were against what he was doing, but he made a sound that nobody wanted to fucking do, just because they were afraid. He had 300 pedals that he wouldn't really bring to the show, but on the record, he'd use all of them. I think that has inspired me sonically so much. He wasn't afraid to experiment with effects or even songwriting, he used a whammy bar to play his guitar, so everybody's like, 'this is so much wham', but now it's shaped so many bands today. I also love Nirvana and Joy Division, but also Tupac, Biggie, there's so much. 

How about other art forms? Do you ever feel drawn to other art forms outside of music?

I think that inspires me way more than music does. One of my first heroes was Andy Warhol. I remember hearing this story about him when he died. Somebody, I think it was one of his assistants, found a box and it was filled with Polaroids. Basically, his whole life he shot it in Polaroid, just because he was so married to his art. He knew that when he was going to die, he wanted to die with style, you know what I mean? It's not like he knew 'if I die, and people look back at my memories it's all going to be in Polaroid, so everything's well shot'. When I heard about that, I was so inspired. Christopher Nolan and the Wong Kar-wai films too. I started writing when I would see my favourite movies. I would think about how would I score it. I still base everything off of films still, I'm heavily inspired by that. 

What are some of your favourite movies?

One of my favourite movies ever is The Truman Show. As well as a movie called Fallen Angels by Wong Kar-wai, It's such an amazing film. Another one would be Palo Alto by Gia Coppola. I can go on for days. Lost in Translation. It has Kevin Shields on the soundtrack, I'm like 'well how much more perfect can it get?'. Add in Jesus and Mary Chain, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, I mean come on, it's just such a good movie.

How do you think visuals can amplify the stories within your music?

You know when you watch a video, and it just works so well, you can't really imagine the song in another perspective, unless you've listened to the song first and then seen the video? That's how it's always worked for me. In a way, I've always wanted to interpret the mood and capture it visually. I still have performance videos on the internet, but in real life, I'm a shy ass person. But that's what music videos are for though. I just enjoy channelling the world visually, not just for the fans or people, but for myself as well. When I hear a song that I like, I love to experience the visuals too. I love cover art too. I have always been obsessed with album art, it's one of the things that got me into buying vinyl and CDs. Sometimes I wouldn't know the band, I just buy it just because that album art looks so sick, so I check it out and find out that I love the music too. But if it sucked, it's still nice to put in my room anyway. 

Would you say visuals give you another form of release or escape?

Definitely. I enjoy making a world that people can feel like they belong to. Something that can help channel the meaning of the song in a different way. It's a different form of peace and joy that music gives me. 

I know a lot of people probably bother you about asking when you're going to release an album, but I personally love that you've shared EPs first. It's allowed you to showcase different aspects of your art without the pressure of an album. What have you liked about working on EPs as opposed to just diving into an album?

I have always been an album guy, but the thing is, an EP is an album with no pressure because you’ve got only four, five, six songs. It's a collection of songs, or pieces of songs, that I really find interesting. I do enjoy making EPs, but I think I'm really looking forward to doing an album. I just want to start making bigger pieces of art. I'm putting out a new EP soon, which is more of a mixtape of collaborative studio sessions with people that I'm fans of. I always have the album in my pocket, literally, it's just about finding the right time or the right people to work with. Mindset is so important too, and what I want it to end up as. 

Is it something that you want to happen naturally?

For sure. EPs are so fun now with streaming, but you can't just keep putting out EPs. An album is dedication, you've got to be dedicated to doing it properly. You've got to be devoted and make sure this it's the right time, or just waiting for the right ideas.

Ever since signing with Dirty Hit, you've had the chance to collaborate with a lot more people, whereas before you were collaborating online. What's it been like collaborating more and working on more music, even if it's for someone else?

I like writing music in general. Sometimes I have ideas that don't necessarily work for me. Sometimes I have ideas that I feel like would work better if it was for another person. It's kind of cool to be writing songs for other people too. I'm still a fan of writing songs for other people. I feel in a way, it's also made me grow, knowing where to fit myself in musically and sonically. If I would make a rock song, how would a rock song be for me, or an R&B song. Hearing other people do it, hearing a person sing the song that I wrote beautifully and I'm like, 'wow, this is so good'. It's nice to be the one sitting at the back watching your art come to life. Sometimes you get stuck on your own, you start putting pressure on yourself so much, but then you step out, write a song for somebody and then it comes beautifully. I get a different kind of high from it, so it's definitely really cool.

Do you prefer working in solitude or collaborating?

Solitude, definitely. I'm such an introvert. I've started enjoying having people around the room, but if it's a new person, I'm like 'oh my god, my anxiety, fuck this person hates me'. But it usually ends up fine. I grew up writing music in my bedroom, I went to studios when I was younger too because I was in a music school so I had to go to studios to work on some music. I've always found it nice if it was just me and some people that I know, instead of having a huge party at the studio, like 'yeah invite everybody you know'. Although I love collaborating a lot. I've started to be more open. Before I used to be so self-centred and just be like, 'I'm never going to let anybody touch my art'. But it's actually nice to have another ear for it. You spend so much time looking at it and then another person comes in and actually amplifies it and makes it beautiful. I'm more comfortable with doing a solo writing session and then making it more collaborative after I've done my end of it. I'd have to finish up by myself and then hand it over to the next person. 

Are you constantly inspired and working on new music or do you have breaks?

I've been taking more breaks recently. Before I was just like 'let's do this, let's do that,' But then that's when the creative block comes in because then you force yourself to be in this zone. I think it's why I like producing and songwriting. Sometimes I'm bored, of making beats or whatever, then sometimes I'm like, all right, I really want to write a song. But definitely, wanting to make music is one thing that I can't get rid of. It could be just banging on some drum beats or something. It has to happen. I don't have to record it, I could just be playing my guitar.

And to finish up, whenever someone listens to your music, what do you hope they feel?

Depressed (laughs), no, for me, that's why I love it, I find it easier writing sad songs. I'm just being real and I feel like people connect to it. You know that thing where you can't say what you want to say, so somebody else says it for you and you feel some sort of relief? It's like that. I know my songwriting and it's personal, and I'm doing stuff that sometimes I would only know the reference and would only be aware of what I’m talking about, but I feel like people just relate to it in a way. I feel like I want them to take home some sort of relief. Music is meant for relief. Right now, that's what I feel, that's my intention. I really like the bigger picture. I want to talk about something deeper in my music. 

Written by Amy Smolcic (@amysmolcic)
Photos by Kristy Smolcic (foilo)

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