Karl R. Olson (Ultraklystron’s other moniker) has long since established his name among the nerdcore faithful. He is a man who both possesses such a staggering cache of geek cred and obscure knowledge as to seem the unapproachable uber-nerd, yet remains perhaps the most humble, down-to-earth artist in all of nerdcore. His strong production, well-paced flow, and intricate lyricism easily win over fans, even those who, like me, have only the most rudimentary understanding of the otaku culture which he so celebrates. Whether you spend your nights locked in the basements making your own fansubs or are aghast to discover that Robotech was, in fact, cobbled together from three entirely different Japanese series, Karl’s earworms will wriggle their way into your iPod and your subconscious.
When I approached Ultraklystron for an interview, I was greeted with the exact kind of warm enthusiasm that I expected from such a personable artist. Yet I was still surprised by Karl’s simple charm and the unflinching honesty with which he approached each question. When an artist tells you what he thinks, it is par for the course, as music (for most) is itself about the communication of personal thought and philosophy. But when an artist tells you what he feels? Well, those words are true gems.
Read on to learn more about nerdcore’s foremost otaku, what makes him tick, his feelings concerning the current musical climate, and what he truly thinks about the future of the scene.
While you MC under the name Ultraklystron, you generally refer to yourself simply as Karl. This sets you apart from many other nerdcore rappers who seem to use their stage names almost exclusively. Is Ultraklystron merely a name you've given to your "stage presence" or is he an integral part of Karl Olson?
It's basically an artist name, something to allow me to create a little distance between myself and the music I make, so I can write some songs that aren't really about me - it's not quite the level multiplicity between say "Eminem," "Slim Shady" and Marshall Mathers, but to an extent it means I can rap with a certain degree of fiction in it - I don't always have to be me, though when I'm not, I often end up delineating that I'm being facetious in song anyway. However, when it comes to online participation, to ensure that I never have to change names in the event of someone trying to claim that they have the rights to my artist name, I use my real name because no one can really take that away from me.
You see, I used to the name "The Stereo Logic" back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but then some band with the name "Stereo Logic" (which coincidentally I'm fairly sure formed after I started writing music under "The Stereo Logic") threatened legal action if I didn't change my name. Rather than fight a petty legal battle with a band on the other side of the country, I changed my artist name to "Ultraklystron," then changed all my online names to "Karl Olson" or some variation there of.
Where did the name Ultraklystron come from?
Out of that spat with that other band. I went through the dictionary looking for a cool-sounding word that began with a K, and when I found Klystron, which is a high powered electron tube used for broadcasting, I figures that was pretty good. Even though I would be the first musical artist with the name, I wanted to ensure that nobody could really say they were their first, so I added the prefix Ultra, and at the time that didn't register anything on Google, so I knew I had a genuinely original name. On the plus side, it also sounds like it could be some kind of 1970s super mecha show, so it's kind of cool to work it from that aspect too.
Indeed. I had always assumed it was a reference to some obscure mech-based cartoon as well! ;)
You've credited mc chris and MC Frontalot with peaking your interest in nerdcore at age 18; Prior to that you were involved in electronic music. Do you think that you bring a lot of your preexisting electronic sound and style to your current nerdcore endeavors?
Well, yes and no. I mean, there are certain electronic music influences that really translated really well into Nerdcore - obviously Trip Hop, Illbient, Downtempo and Drum n' Bass roll into Hip Hop and Rap very naturally, especially given how experimental the production of Hip Hop has been since producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland have stepped onto the scene. However, certain tracks are definitely geared with a purely Rap or Hip Hop sound, and a bit of a retro sound at that, so those tracks show little if any direct influence.
However, all my Nerdcore has benefited from the fact that because I've been working with electronic music since I was 13/14, I've really learned as much about production, mixing and mastering as I can. I mean, strictly speaking, I've been recording music since I was 10, as I became interested in writing grunge/alternative rock then, so I grabbed my mom's guitar and a boombox with a built-in mic and went from there. Really, I think the most important thing my prior musical experience has given me is years of working out by trial and error how to make a decent sounding song both in terms of composition and production. I've had 12, nearly 13 years of working out how to make a track, you know?
That makes sense. How goes the work on your new album, OpenSource Lyricist?
Every time I think I'm done with my work, I spot a flub I was glossing over previously and that I don't want to end up on the finalized album, so I'll end up doing retakes on it. I have few tracks that have gone through countless mixes and three different versions of the vocals. It's probably a little over-perfectionist, but when I listen to some of the work on "revision4920" it's almost embarrassing. Besides, if I'm going to charge people 8 bucks for it, it ought to be worth that money, or at least as close as I can currently make it worth that money.
Of course, getting the collaborations to come together hasn't been easy either. Nursehella is so far away and thus a little difficult to record with, while Jerry Holkins (aka Tycho) is usually quite busy, and so getting things wrapped up with him is proving to be tricky too. This has all been made worse by a pretty intense schedule for me as well: I was barely in town for most of July, and August ended up a little busier than I expected as well. I mean, both have been great sports about everything, and there has been progress - the lyrics are mostly written, and the backings are done, it's just getting everything together outside of that. I'm probably going to do some recording with Nursehella during PAX at my place so she and I can get our track done, and I'll try to see if I can get Tycho to commit to a solid time frame for our collab.*
Of course, it's made even more problematic by the fact that I have another album's worth of material written (lyrics and backings) that some part of me thinks should supplement some of the existing tracks on "Opensource." The topics are a lot more current, at least relevant to me after having lived a very busy summer.
You're also currently working with J-nerdcore hip-hopper Rai as well as the aforementioned Nursehella. Do you feel that their individual "flavors" of nerdcore mesh well with the Ultraklystron style?
I'd say so. I mean both artists have only shown a fraction of their range at the moment, and so I know they are both good if not great MCs who can work with pretty much anything they're thrown into. Honestly, when it comes to MC skills, I probably come up short compared to Rai and Nursehella, and to a lot of the Nerdcore scene in general, so I'm happy to work with them at all, regardless of contrast in styles.
I mean sure, Rai sort-of has to work with me at the moment because she doesn't have recording gear nor any software, and that also means that her style is going to end up by default somewhat more sonically congruent to mine because my production style is all over it, but Nursehella has Baddd Spellah and a home studio, and thus would not have to collaborate with me unless she wanted too. There are some lyrical inconsistencies between Nursehella and I, but for the track we're collaborating on, that's actually going to be to our advantage because my relative innocence contrasted to her more experienced viewpoint is going to make for what I think will be a very good, fun song.
I mean, there is aspect of the fact that when there are gaps, if they are in the right space, it can force me to reach and create something new, or at least highlight a contrast that's aesthetically pleasing rather than jarring. Regardless of whether a gap is bridged or highlighted, the important thing is that end result is good, and I think I can make great songs with both of those artists regardless of any gaps.
Are there any other specific artists that you'd like to work with?
Hmm, that's a tough question. I'm pretty much up for working with anyone as long as there is a good concept for the song to back it up. I mean, I'm working with Benjamin Bear and Eggskin on track for Ben's upcoming album about PokeBalls, and I'm doing it because a crunk track about PokeBalls appeals to me - it's witty in an accessible way or at least pretty smart-alecky.
To put it another way, I don't think there is anyone who I wouldn't collaborate with, as long as I could tell that the track could be good.**
With developments such as the Rhyme Torrents compilation project and the Nerdcore for Life documentary, nerdcore has never been hotter. How do you think such interest will influence the scene?
Well, it will either start getting people sales and gigs or it won't. I doubt it'd be an MTV-thing ever, but I could see it at least creating a Nerdcore circuit between areas with a good number of nerds, various anime/comic/computer/game conventions and so on. I think we could probably have a couple more mc chris-sized acts - it's not particularly unlikely. I think we might see some producers get brought into the mainstream though - Baddd Spellah is very good, and I could see him getting production work after the "Nerdcore For Life" documentary runs at SXSW.
Though still an underground movement, does the sudden growth in popularity of the genre carry with it any inherent dangers?
If the popularity growth is very uneven, there are some artists who feel that they are entitled to attention who might not get it even though they've been in scene longer, and they might get really ornery and ticked off if they don't get what they feel is owed to them. That's mostly an internal strife issue, and really, that's been a problem with Rhyme Torrents from the second the forum has been up, especially because it came together a good 3 years after their was a number of second-gen nerdcore artists coming into the fray, and especially because you have a mix of people whose online persona is their real-life persona, and people whose online persona is a front and who are not their words on the net. All more popularity would do is probably throw napalm on an already burning match. It might not cause trouble, but the scene seems to have beefs over the most inconsequential and nit-picky things, so if someone became huge there is certainly the possibility that all sorts of trouble could come out of it. It's almost depressing - I mean, you would think that of any demographic, nerds, people historically picked on and bullied, would be the last group of people to act like petty jerks to each other, because you'd think we'd unite on the basis of what we have in common and move from that point, but yet that's not always the case. So yes, there are inherent dangers, but they seem to be extensions of the existing culture more than anything else - not anything new or unique.
I mean, I don't care after a certain point - I'm probably one of the worst positioned artists to actually make a living off nerdcore regardless of how popular it becomes because my decent/good production skills are dramatically outweighed by my incredibly inaccessible lyrics and so-so delivery. Even some of my otaku friends don't understand what I'm referencing, let alone the average person, and that assumes I managed to deliver the lyrics well in the first place. As such, if nerdcore explodes and creates a lot of internal drama or something, odds are I'll have little to nothing to do with it. No one will likely be angry that I became successful ahead them, because I doubt I'll ever be successful as a Nerdcore artist. I might, maybe, end up as a successful producer, but outside of maybe the occasional anime convention or small club performance, I doubt I'll ever be much of a stage artist. I make it for me and whoever wants to listen to it, knowing full well that a lot of people could care less. As such, thought about what happens if the scene gets big doesn't effect me particularly. I just hope that it's not too damaging to scene when/if it takes off.
So what's your take on the current state of nerdcore hip-hop?
Musically, it's never been more vital - we have tons of albums being made, and a good number of them are going to be not just good, but great. Like I said, we have room for a few more mc chris-sized acts - full time musicians who nationally tour and play to sold out crowds.
Socially though, it's really uneven - they're are moments of awesomeness, and their are moments of real bitterness, and the bitterness needs to stop for the long-term health of the genre, because if it keeps up, we'll keep seeing artists trying to distance themselves from the label rather than embrace it, so what might happen is some Nerdcore artists will intentionally do everything they can to just go into traditional underground or mainstream rap because it's not as embittered.
You’ve been described as nerdcore's greatest cheerleader. Do you see yourself as an ultimate supporter of the genre – as nerdcore's Mr. Niceguy – or does that title go to someone else?
I think while I try to be nice and positive, it is something I have to make an active effort to put forth - I'm not naturally positive; I just don't want to be a jerk either, and really, I often wonder whether I'm actually getting anywhere with that. In fact, I've probably ticked off more people than I think when it comes to "Scenester Blues," and I can easily see where someone would find that to be a very insulting (if not condescending) song. I mean, the public reaction hasn't been that way, but because the perception is that I'm trying to be nice, people might not want to be so coarse as to tell me that I'm being a jerk anyway. I'd rather them be coarse though, because that'll be the only way I'll know if I messed up.
Additionally, I don't think any one person can be considered Nerdcore's greatest cheerleader, and if there were, I would not put myself in that role. I mean, you have people like High-C who took the initiative to not only put a compilation together but who worked ceaselessly promote it, something really anyone could have done but that only High-C had the vision to do; and Dan Lamoureux, who has spent a large amount of time and a considerable amount of money putting together a documentary that at the very least will be a wonderful keepsake for the people involved - a rare look at their lives from the outside looking in, and as if for only a moment, we were all famous, and worth talking about - and that at most could result in a number of nerdcore artists being offered record deals after the film is screened at SXSW. I mean, yeah, I want to see a positively minded, constructively critiquing community, but I haven’t really done much to draw attention the genre outside of introducing some folks to it at anime cons. I mean, yeah, every little bit helps, but where I figure at best I've maybe introduced 100 folks to the genre (I'm probably being waaaay generous,) people like High-C have introduced to it to millions, and Dan could stand do something similar depending on how people react to his documentary. I mean, the documentary that's being shot that is primarily MC Frontalot oriented could also do a ton for the scene as well. I may be vocal, but if someone told me that I wasn't pro-active, that'd be a very legitimate comment.
It could be argued that it’s the qualities of your realistic outlook and your drive to support the scene even through rough times that legitimize your contributions, not to mention your own impressive artistic output, but I digress.
Do you still suffer from the scenester blues?
Yeah, but for a different reason. I mean, I was hoping that after all was said and done with documentary stuff and all that, that maybe their would be some more relationships between artists, and while I feel more of a connection with some of these guys, because I've met them now, I feel that at the same time it's falling apart too. Hella, Router and Beefy left Rhyme Torrents, which sucks. They are great artists, and thus their absence isn't positive either. I mean, I don't get how we’re supposed to learn to understand each other and work together if we shut ourselves off from one another. I can see why they'd do it, but it's still somehow depressing.
Sure, on the flipside, I have a renewed and immense respect for all the artists who were in the post-PAX nerdcore live show in Kirkland and the scene in general as such. Every last MC at the nerdcore show except myself layed down a fantastic set, and in general they acted like professionals, and were very cool and nice people. I mean, watching those artists, some of whom were taking the stage for the first time ever rise to the occasion and deliver excellent sets, and to see the camaraderie between the MCs was fantastic. I mean really, after seeing just how talented those people were first hand, it really made me question whether I should be in the genre as an MC. I may be able to do solid studio work, but live, I just don't compare to these guys, at least in my opinion.
So I guess I'm kind of up and down on the scene, but I think the long term, wonderful stuff will be coming out of it - great and unexpected collaborations, nerdcore record labels - you name it, it'll probably happen at some point, because the talent is there. I'm probably more skeptical than ever about my role in nerdcore's future in some ways, but I think on the whole it's looking up.
Anime is a huge part of not only your music but of your life. When did you first become interested in Japanese animation and culture?
Well, though the first anime I saw was Galaxy Express 999 way back when I was 3, and though I watched Noozles almost religiously when I was 5-7, I really didn't get into anime as anime until I saw a promo for Tenchi Muyo on Cartoon Network. It was the minute and half version, and it just seemed so unlike anything I'd seen out of Japanese animation. I mean, I'd caught some episodes of DBZ, Sailor Moon and Gundam Wing, but they didn't really hit the right spot.
Neither did Tenchi really until the time and space adventure arc in Tenchi Universe - I watched it only occasionally until then. However, once I saw that, I was hooked hard. It was just so fresh and funny. Then later on the dramatic aspects of the series sucked me in and by the time all was said and done I really wanted to see more, and thankfully Toonami on Cartoon Network was in it's golden era – they followed Tenchi with Blue Submarine No.6, Outlaw Star and The Big O, all of which were awesome.
I might have fallen out of the anime fandom had a friend not turned me on to fansubs, but that access to content basically ensured I was always discovering something new that I knew I wanted to buy the second it came out in America. I think the first show I was really hooked on via fansubs was Earth Maiden Arjuna. That show still blows me away in ways that are almost hard for me to define. Granted, I think even if good new anime stopped coming out, and I sort of fell out of the active fandom, their are some animes that have had such a profound impact on me that I doubt I'd ever sell off all my stuff either - I will never let go of my Haibane Renmei DVDs or Confidential Confessions manga for example. Those works had too much of an emotional impact on me to want to let them go.
Anime and the otaku/conventioneer lifestyle seem to be the focus of much of your lyrical content. What other subjects and issues do you broach through verse? Are there any subjects that you'd like to touch on in song that you've yet to get around to?
Well, on the new album which was written while I was particularly focused on computer science classes and computer repair (during the course of Opensource almost everything in my computer died at some point - hard drives, motherboard/processor, ram, video card and the power supply), so there is a lot more of that kind of nerd culture on the CD. I mean, the name Opensource Lyricist alone very directly speaks to that.
I think also I’m more lyrically aware of the fact that is the second album I've written and that I did actually manage to get some attention for my first album, so the result is some lyrics that have a bit more a egotistical edge, at least in a sarcastic sense. I over-exaggerate to a silly extreme, like I'm some kind of huge and important mc, that when it works for a track, and then on the flipside I'll get really self-deprecating, claiming I can't talk to girls at all, though that's total garbage too because I'm pretty social for the most part. It's arguably a bit more hip in its attitude at points too - I mean one song has the words "Vivian Westwood" right the chorus, and that's not a nerdcore brand to reference except that I only know about the brand from a shoujo manga.
I think it's a bit more personal though - there are songs that are almost completely non-referential, and they are really more direct. There is some more storytelling in it as well which strides the line between fiction and fact, but regardless of whether it's real, the format is more intelligent and evolved regardless. The production is also glossier and eschews the samples from archive.org that were heavily used previously in my music. I guess at the very least, it's not "Revision 4920 v.2.0," for better or worse.
Do you still find yourself "working that grind of the Five to Nine?"
Now more than ever. I was out in California for most of July doing animation press stuff (Anime Expo, San Diego Comic Con, interviewing animators at Dreamworks and hanging out with an animation historian,) and August has ended up being equivalently packed (two more conventions thanks to Anime Evolution and Penny Arcade Expo, I interviewed animators at AKA Cartoon, and I'm working on a website for a friend of mine in LA.) Of course, I still have a backlog of DVDs to watch and review, a few interviews to transcribe, some con reports to write up, an album to complete, an album to produce for Rai and somewhere in here I need to transfer to a 4 year college. For someone who isn't getting a paycheck, I sure have managed to find way too many ways for me to fill my time.
How does the H.O.B.O. (Horrible Otaku Body Odor) of this year’s convention season compare to that of previous years? ;)
Actually, it's been pretty good in terms of a lack of H.O.B.O. Granted, I usually make a point to stay out of the anime con dances where it's at it's worst, but I did go to the "rave" at Anime Evolution with Nursehella - it was outdoors though, there was basically no H.O.B.O. Why, even at the DDR machines at PAX, it was fairly fresh.
Time for the completely unfair question of this particular interview: which is more important to Karl Olson, anime or nerdcore?
I'd probably be miserable without either. Anime (and manga comics and animation in general) gives me relatively passive entertainment, while Nerdcore (and music creation in general) gives me creative, active entertainment, so both are staples of my personal way of decompressing from any other responsibilities.
At the end of the day, what do fans need to know about Karl Olson?
I'm almost never really happy with my work, and the fact that some people apparently are is probably one of the few comforts afforded to me when it comes to working in music outside of the fact that it's cathartic for me, but if I ever do or say something you dislike or disagree with, tell me up front. I'd rather have honesty than artificiality. Beyond that, I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. The scale of distribution and attention will vary, but I think I've come to terms with that. I don't need to be a rap star, or even an internet celebrity. If I can make some kids (and I use kids loosely to mean anyone younger than me) happy, if I can get them into a genre of music they wouldn't otherwise try because it doesn't speak to them directly that often, I think I've done something good.
Beyond that, I just want to make a living. If that's off of music somehow, cool. If it's off a comp-sci degree or journalism, that's cool too. Otherwise, as long as I can still tap out new songs on my midi keyboard, I'm content enough that even if I'm working in a mediocre, dead-end job, I can survive. Probably (more like definitely) a bit of a melodramatic thing to say, but it's how I feel.
Lastly, Karl, what is the nature of nerd?
Anyone focusing in on something to extent of it being an obsession, while not being patently mainstream. You can and do have literary nerds, or train nerds, or interior design nerds, and all sorts of nerds. In fact, I could totally see nerdcore about subjects that a lot of people would never expect, but it'd be entirely valid because the mentality would fit. I actually hope to see that someday too.
When I began thinking about my October feature(s), the first artist that came to mind was Ultraklystron. After all, who better to celebrate the season of Halloween with than a man who’s no stranger to costume? What better man than one who’s photographed in an elaborate cosplay get-up or a J-novelty hat as often as he’s caught in his street clothes? Better yet, who better to focus on, as the scene undergoes its own unique brand of growing pains, than a man who tempers his good will with a healthy dose of pragmatism?
Karl is the kind of guy who, even when he’s frustrated, irritated, or otherwise jaded by the scene and its frequent bouts of squabbling, will not pass up an opportunity to help out a fellow nerdcore artist. Likewise, he’s the kind of fellow who, even though he’s doubtlessly burned out from a hectic convention season where he conducted innumerable interviews of his own, doesn’t hesitate to make time for a little Q&A on the other side of the table.
The scene supports Karl Olson because Karl Olson supports the scene, and fans enjoy his work because, despite the depth of his production and the lavishness of his lyrics (not to mention his own insistence to the contrary), he is a genuine talent who truly enjoys what he does. More so, he reminds us all to ask the age-old question; if we’re not having fun with our endeavors, why exactly are we performing them at all?
The one thing to which I can personally attest is that Karl’s attitude is infectious, and no matter how many hours I spent cobbling my questions and his answers into some semblance of order, it simply never felt like work.
*Post-PAX update: Well, Tycho expressed renewed interest, and though I've yet to email him about said interest, I think the fact that he brought it up first when I ran into him was a good sign. The fact that he also noted that it was odd for him to sign my badge because we're collaborators was interesting, because I guess that means he sees as more than just a fan of his comic strip who happens to rap. Either way, Jerry is an incredibly nice guy, and really responsive and welcoming to the PA fanbase in general, so I figure even if even if take a long time, it's probably not that big of a deal - it'll come together eventually.
As far as recording with Nursehella, that came apart because of all the documentary shooting and the general busy-ness of the weekend. Somewhere that'll get done, but it might not be any time soon. She's a working lady, so finding time is tricky. She's probably going to be down here for the mc chris show though, so we might be able to record then.
**Post mc chris update: I did record with Nursehella while she was out here for mc chris, and I'm working on a collab with David Abramz too.