Alldayeveryday Director Adam Bhala Lough’s “Hot Sugar’s Cold World” is a cinéma vérité portrait of Nick Koenig, better known by his stage name Hot Sugar. The two artists worked collaboratively to document Nick’s singular recording process: creating forward-thinking music through the pursuit of “great sounds” from every day life. Below, read our conversation with Adam and Nick about their individual processes and watch an exclusive deleted scene from the film that launches Friday November 13th at IFC center (get your tickets here). You can also already catch it on VOD.
As a documentarian, what about the project aesthetically attracted you to his story?
Adam: Nick’s internet persona, photos, gifs I found and Tumblr account was filled with unique imagery, handmade in a digital way, connecting themes and tissues tying it all together. I immediately felt this would translate well to the big screen.
Nick’s world is naturally stylized. Was there any specific art direction on the shoot?
A: Much of the shoot was specifically art directed, not all of it but quite a bit of it, and mostly by Nick. The imagery that was not specifically art directed (for example some of the cinema verité moments that were unstaged) were art directed in post production by our colorist (Charles V Haine - and Nick himself).
Nick is almost a documentarian of sounds? How did his artwork effect your approach to the documentary?
A: His work did not affect my approach, my approach is always the same—a hybrid of Maysles verité with skate vids, rap vids and 90's American Independent cinema.
“Truth can be gleaned from the fakery.”
What about his approach were you most attracted to?
A: The search for unique sounds with a “story” behind them was immediately attractive. That gave me the hint of a narrative before I even met him. I knew we’d have a number of great sequences. The trick was to tie an overarching narrative around them without it feeling contrived. That took the better part of a year to edit and extensive screenings with my filmmaker friends like Malcolm Spellman, Cam Archer and Jay Rabinowitz who provided exceptional advice.
This is not your first time documenting an intense musical artist for a feature length film? How was this process different than your previous experiences?
A: Lee Perry was collaborative but strictly only on set. Lil’ Wayne was not collaborative at all, he just wanted me to film and become a “fly on the wall,” fade into the background (which truth be told made the film amazing). Nick and I made this film together in every sense of the word. It’s as much his film as it is mine, although ultimately I retained final cut.
The process lends itself poetically to film and photography. By documenting his work, did you feel like you were creating an illusion around him or capturing raw scenes of his life?
A: I don’t believe in objectivity when cameras are around. The only true objectivity is that captured by security cameras. Every time we turned on a camera or even an iPhone we created an illusion. Film is 24 lies per second. Montage renders non-fiction fiction. The moment you cut one image after another you’ve created an illusion.
Some scenes we captured were certainly raw and unfiltered but only real in their fakeness. That doesn’t mean truth can’t be gleaned from the fakery. That’s where storytelling comes in. Narrative films can speak truth just as well as documentaries. Although I’m not sure there are any objective truths—certainly not in our cinema at the moment. We think certain people are terrorists but to them we’re the true terrorists. Everyone’s truth is different. The only things that are objectively true are things like fire. There’s ultimate truth in fire.
“The only things that are objectively true are things like fire. There’s ultimate truth in fire.”
What’s your favorite encounter in the doc and why?
Nick: Bumping into a man sitting inside a dark cave wearing sunglasses was very unexpected. The fact that he had gone there to sing opera alone was even weirder. That definitely punctuated my week.
Do you think you can produce the song (the one you refer in the movie) that has only pavlovian elements to it? How will you make it? How will you call it?
N: Yes, thats what Associative Music is. Whether it’s successful or not is dependent on each individual listener because we all respond to sounds we're familiar with differently.
You have hours, probably days, weeks or months of field recordings, how do you manage to archive and use them?
N: The file names for the raw recordings are titled with dates and descriptions of events that took place. A file name might read “11-22-13 Goose honking chewing on candy wrapper British taxi pond splash” so if I were to remember throwing a log into a goose filled pond I just have to search keywords like “splash” or “pond” for it to pop up.
Do you think a finalized song of yours is a good reflection of the initial mood captured in the sound?
N: That’s not always my intention. With some songs I pursue a theme or mood and take advantage of sounds that might embellish it, but for other songs I use sounds that reflect the opposite. I try not to be super rigid. I’d rather explore the results of hazard and whim rather than stick to something predictable. My favorite songs are the ones that feel confused.
How does living in New York effect/limit your work?
N: New York is really loud, almost everywhere. I live in Manhattan which is probably the loudest part of New York. If I tried to fight it I’d loose. Instead I try to focus on specific sounds within the mess of noise and it usually leads to cool discoveries.
Field recording/audio collages has a pretty interesting history. What artist have inspired you to create music like you do?
N: I love John Cage, the Musique Concrète movement and the avant-garde artists that used field recordings in both sound art and cinema, but in truth my pursuits really stem from my appreciation of rap production. Hip Hop sampling represented a massive shift in the understanding and treatment of audio. It’s by far the most popular (and perhaps first major) post-modern movement in music history. Instead of treating traditional instruments as “paint for a canvas,” they used existing recordings as their paint.
Before rap, recordings represented the final stage of audio (they were for listening use only) and there was nothing that could conceptually go beyond that. A producer would record instruments or voices and the resulting track was done. Rap producers took it a step further by playing those final recordings as if they were the instruments, manipulating them in a number of ways, sometimes forcing unlikely songs on top of each other as if each recording were a different instrument in the band. I figured that if you could make a pleasant song by mixing an endless list of unrelated audio samples then you could logically make a pleasant song out of anything in the world.
“Snow melting sounds like a fire burning wood.”
“Bubble bath bubbles slowed down sound like the crackling of vinyl records.”
What is one of your most satisfying discoveries with audio?
N: I don’t have a specific favorite, I’m always just excited when I discover that one sound is similar to another. For example, bubble bath bubbles slowed down sound like the crackling of vinyl records. Snow melting sounds like a fire burning wood.
Since your process is very spontaneous—at what point do you start to formulate your vision for a track?
N: Composition and field recording are pretty separate focuses. I don’t start composing until I’ve made my instruments and before that I need to record sounds. All these different steps make it tempting to restructure the initial vision. Sometimes the song I intended to make ends up being exactly as I planned and other times it’s underwent dozens of distinct transformations.
Do you feel like mainstream artists are recently using more experimental recording and production techniques than before?
N: Yes. Over the past 5 years I've championed Associative Music to a lot of the most successful & lucrative pop producers in the world. I remember hearing songs on the radio when I was younger and being frustrated that the sounds were so plain, now those same artists invite me to their studio sessions, so I'm trying to change things little by little. In some cases I’ve just given artists associative sounds I’ve recorded and as is the nature of the collaborative-producer world, the producers pass them on to their friends. Now it’s gotten to the point where sometimes when I listen to mainstream songs I can literally hear drum or synth sounds I personally recorded.
N: Not telling. Stay tuned.