Interview: Karl Olson – Ultraklystron

Today we have an exceptional guest, one of my favorite Nerdcore artists! His name is Karl Olson, also known as Ultraklystron; a musical centipede dipping his fingers into EDM, Nerdcore Hyperpop, Drum’ n Bass and many more. But before I spoil everything about him, let’s dive in! And yes, we cover gaming stuff as well!

Although we already did a small introduction, could you please introduce yourself to those who haven’t heard of you yet?

I’m Ultraklystron, aka Karl Olson, and I’ve been releasing music online since the late 90s. I started into Nerdcore specifically around late 2001 but didn’t actually release my first Nerdcore album, revision4920, until 2005. I’ve been featured in the documentaries Nerdcore For Life and Nerdcore Rising. I’ve performed at CES and San Diego Comic-Con. I’ve collaborated with MC Lars, Mega Ran, Beefy, Death*Star, Ish1da & many more. I’ve remixed various artists, including MC Frontalot, Optimus Rhyme, and Stevie Kincade. I’ve also produced tracks for various acts such as Original God, Nolely Nole, and Nursehella. By day, I also write some very dry, open-source, data-research software with a little freelance co-development of Storyboard Pro automation scripts on the side.

 

 

I discovered you through MC Lars and the other Nerdcore people – and I think Nerdcore is much more than making songs about nerdy stuff. Could you describe what Nerdcore as a concept is for you?

I think at its heart; Nerdcore isn’t that different from its parent genre/scene of HipHop. Authenticity, be that lived experience, personal favorite topics, or aspirational goals, is the most important element to both: sincerity and conviction are everything in Rap, even Nerdcore Rap. After that, there’s no real specific sound or style that would normally constitute a genre. Thematically, there are so many different areas of nerd culture, each of which can be approached in different, yet also recognizably similar ways such that at most, I would say that Nerdcore is a label you can apply to yourself and which may be applied to you should you happen upon a particular combination of elements that fits some listener’s pattern recognition for Nerdcore. It’s more of a scene, or these days, multiple scenes.

However, you could make a music video in front of a Gundam statue in Japan and play shows at Anime Expo, and you might not be Nerdcore at all. You might sample video games and lay that over 1990’s anime clips and have zero connection ever to the Nerdcore scene. I think that lack of strong definition, yet the existence of some intangible boundary to push past, keeps Nerdcore compelling for me and makes me want to continue to embrace it as a label. I have a huge amount of freedom to pull in any sonic influence and references I want, compose that with any kind of layout or structure I’d like. I can throw my work out to a scene with very few people trying to gate-keep it based on style or subject matter. Most fans only broadly care if it is nerd-adjacent and it sounds good, then nitpick afterward.

You recently released a new album called Karlland, a hyper pop Nerdcore album, with bangers like Mars, Nagatoro, and Blade Tags. The album itself already got some pretty good reviews! Could you tell us a bit more about the album and the creative process behind it?

After I went so hard in 2016 into Trap production and trying to switch my delivery up with my album Null Signifier, that experience left me more eager to push myself as a producer and try even more fresh styles. That led me to make this run of albums – Ultraklystron, Kintsugi, Variable Undefined, Just You Wait And See, Zenith, and now, Karlland – where I really shoot a lot more from the hip on trying different flows, genres, production sounds, and song structures, while still hopefully hitting a cohesive sound per-project and cross-project. As much as possible, I am not worrying about the audience while making the work. I am more self-indulgent than ever with my music, as I am lucky to not need to worry about how it’s received.

Specifically, leaning into Hyperpop as a broad aesthetic for Karlland was kind of happenstance. As a genre, it has many roots that can be traced back to works and subgenres that were already influential and dear to me, so I suspect I would’ve stumbled into it eventually. However, I’d done some mastering and post-production work for another artist who directly introduced me to that scene. I realized that it fits some of those elements I’d always had around in my music because of my Drum n’ Bass & Rave/Electronica background. I had even released a number of albums in those genres before I started making Nerdcore Hip-hop. Listening to acts like the late Sophie and 100 gecs really clicked with me because I grew up on acts like Atari Teenage Riot and Aphex Twin. That context made it feel like a natural fit to just try it and worry about the reaction later or never, despite being somewhat outside of the Traditional HipHop and Trap sounds various Nerdcore scenes and collectives often sit in. I’m actually a bit surprised that on review streams by various accomplished Nerdcore artists and producers, and that in written reviews, the response has been mostly positive. I was ready for people to tell me off.

That said, the more technical side of making it was my usual process. Write lyrics and/or instrumentals about whatever happens to be inspiring me at that moment. I’m sure if I ever had super fans, they could line up my tweets to some of my song themes; it’s so transparent on my part. Sometimes I’d write to a beat I’d already made, as do I get in a groove and hammer out a lot of draft backings in a given style occasionally. Other times, I’d just write lyrics to a tempo and melody that sprung up in my head while doing other things, then loop back and make the beat for it later, maybe having hummed something into my phone so I don’t forget it. From there, it’s the usual recording, mixing, mastering, and track sequencing that I’ve been doing on my own for decades. The big change for this particular project was in my mastering. I worked quite hard to hit some abstract and boring numbers streaming services prefer volume-wise (specifically -14 LUFS) as if nothing else; it was a new challenge and a good learning experience as a DIY artist. Now I know how to try to do this for other artists going forward should that opportunity arise.

 

 

I don’t think many artists make songs about Funimation (F&F) in that way – I know Richie Branson did a piece about his Lamborghini and some … very particular stickers. Are there any topics, by principal or conviction, you won’t rap about?

Well, “F&F” is a song I wouldn’t have made when I was younger and a lot more restrained in my content, but I’ve loosened up a bit; it only took me nearly 20 years! Even then, I still might not have gone so over the top had I not done a track called “Crunchyroll & Chill” five years earlier. So making a sequel specifically to take a shot at the pending Funimation/Crunchyroll merger via sarcastic innuendo felt fitting. I’ve always been wary of media conglomeration. Hence, the combination of personal changes and circumstances made me just comfortable enough being that aggressive yet ridiculous, if not outright obnoxious, on that specific song. Of course, you can’t really punch up more than mocking billion-dollar mergers, but I definitely would’ve taken a different angle on it in my youth that wasn’t so shock-value heavy. I was a little more measured back then.

Generally, though, I don’t want to take on topics that I don’t have some kind of solid commentary angle on or connection to more than anything. Even when I’m doing more satirical or in-character bits in my music, that still has to come from wanting to speak on the topic, be that compliment or critique. I would feel the most uncomfortable writing about some relatively mild piece of pop culture I have no connection to, like being pulled into a cypher for some series I don’t watch, then writing an homage or a diss to a more problematic and hard-to-parse work that I do actually enjoy or dislike. If I know about it to have an opinion on it, then from there, I’m at least authentic and honest, even when that’s going to be legitimately and rightfully off-putting to some. I’ll reference some deeply trashy works if I think the reference hits the right emotion, especially since the emotion of being uncomfortable is sometimes the point.

 

Next to making fantastic albums, you recently competed in a competition called the VPC (edition 7). Could you tell us more about what the VPC is and what part you played in the VPC? 

The VPC is short for the Vocalist Producer Challenge, and it’s a music competition that started a while back in the forums/Facebook Nerdcore scene wherein a vocalist and a producer team up to take on five rounds of themed challenges where both team members will likely have to stretch their talents. For example, maybe the producer must make a beat out of nature sounds while the vocalist must record everything in one take; maybe the producer can’t use drums while the vocalist must rap about a specific character from a book. It’s scored by a bunch of judges from the community, and the team with the highest combined score after 5 rounds wins. If you are curious about what the VPC brought fort, I (Nick) added some music; Nerdcore VPC Playlist

 

 

For VPC 6 and 7, I’ve been the producer for Nursehella, who handled vocals. For us, it just felt like an easy way of getting back in the habit of writing music together. I write & release music constantly because I really don’t have a lot of other hobbies. However, it’s always been a pretty solitary hobby for me since literal childhood, so even with Nursehella and I being married, I’ve never been great about building a structure for regular collaboration. It’s quite a failure and a missed opportunity on my part. However, the VPC, with its school-like assignments and hard deadlines, provides the kind of structure I couldn’t, so it is a lot easier for Hella and me to bring things together to make music via the VPC. It’s basically structured against any tendency towards overthinking things. We’re also comfortable not hyper-focusing on making something that will win the given round; we’re just using it as a guideline to get the ball rolling and have a deadline to finish by. Ultimately, a more important aspect of the VPC to us is having, if not a ready to go EP that we can then release broadly, 80-90% of an EP that only needs a bit of extra polish and maybe a couple of extra tracks or additional verses to fill it out. If a team tackles the VPC that way, they’ll always win where it counts.

You did not only participate in the VPC, but you also made some awesome beat packs as well – with a few fascinating conceptual takes on how to make beats. Could you explain your beat-making process a bit?

I’ll usually have one piece of something in my head – a drum pattern, a bassline, a lead melody, maybe even just some chords – and a broad aesthetic or genre I think I want to hit. I’ll get that basic element into Caustic or Reason (depending on if I’m on the go or at home) as a loop, then start adding layers to that loop, filling it out until I have at least the basics: drums, bass/808, lead & chords/pads. Then I’ll either add a few more things as I realize what I’m still missing for that particular work, or I’ll start laying verses and chorus sections with those parts, or for the more progressive electronic genres, I work in, start laying my builds and drop outs, figuring that what I’m going climax on is that loop. If that still feels thin, I’ll thicken it up by adding more instruments and/or playing with effect stacks on the instruments I have to provide more variation and depth. I think this process might make me pretty decent with building loop packs, but it’s something I’m just beginning to consider doing more consistently, possibly even for purchase.

Drum ‘n Bass, EDM, and techno are fan favorites with streamers during gaming sessions – have you ever produced tracks with the Twitch audience in the back of your head? Or do you prefer to produce whatever you think works?

I think the most I’ve thought specifically with that audience in mind is that I release everything I do for myself under the creative commons share-alike license, so anyone who uses my music in streams or the background of a pre-recorded video will never, ever get hit for copyright by me. I am very happy to have my instrumental work or even my vocal work featured on any stream that’d have me. I suppose I’ve tried to be a little more mindful recently with my Drum n’ Bass tracks – I try to stick to tempos that make it easier for DJs anywhere, including those on Twitch, to use that music in their sets, but even that’s not really a hard and fast rule over it feeling right to me. I hope just by having such a deep, free-to-use instrumental catalog that what I do already fits for some Twitch streamers, but maybe there’s something more specific I could consider. I do appreciate and am very thankful for every streamer who takes time to play my music, either in the background or for reaction streams, though. I know that exposure has had a considerable effect on the number of streams my songs receive online. The feedback I sometimes get from reaction streamers does help me know when I’m not communicating what I intended.

You also write about anime – what is your favorite anime and manga of all time? And why?

That’s a hard one to answer. I would probably still go with my old stand-bys: Haibane Renmei for best anime, and Clover by CLAMP for the best manga, because despite the fact there are objective issues with both of them in terms of their execution – Haibane has some rushed animation, Clover was cut short by the publisher – they helped me through some hard times. However, it’s tough for me to say definitively that they stand so far ahead of other favorites. There are many anime and manga that have been tremendously formative for me and made me a more kind and tolerant person than I was in my teens before I started knowingly getting into those mediums. So, on any other day, I might list anime works like Tenchi Universe, Cowboy Bebop, FLCL (all of it including the sequels), Land of the Lustrous and Eizouken, and also manga like Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip, Wish, Kodocha, Kare Kano, Twin Spica, and Genshiken.

 

 

Any advice you want to give to our readers? Or anyone that wants to become a Nerdcore artist?

Being a good Nerdcore artist is not so different from being a good mainstream Rapper or tackling any other genre, whether you decide to infuse it with nerdy topics or not. You still have to hustle and work to cover all of the usual bases. Further still, being good at it doesn’t mean you’re instantly successful at it. However, if what you want to do is enjoy making music, you’ll gradually practice toward and invest in getting good. If you want to pursue it as a career over a hobby, you’ll take the time to learn the ins and outs of the music business, with all of the efforts that go into building a team, curating your image, networking, parasocial marketing, promotion and so on. If what you expect is an overnight success because it’s a niche scene and you think you can just coast on fan service, memes, and nostalgia, you won’t have much fun or success.

Oh, regardless of how it works out, try your best to appreciate the journey and the friends you make along the way, and be ready to make those journeys and friends. Keep an open heart. Even that won’t always work out either, but it’s more rewarding on balance than only celebrating yourself.

Before we end the interview, let’s do some more gaming related questions:

Do you have a favorite console or handheld?

This is tricky because I didn’t grow up with any game console or handheld. I was elated to play all of the major consoles of the ’80s and ’90s when visiting my friends and cousins. Still, what little video gaming that happened at my own home was on the family computer, itself a late addition that turned up at about age 11, I think, and it was tightly monitored until I was in my teens. I played some shareware games – Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Myst, etc. On later computers we had, emulators were a boon; I finally played all of Super Mario, and I helped my younger brother beat Pokemon that way. However, I didn’t own any console until I won an Xbox from an employee contest while working at Target.

 

 

So, the original Xbox might just be my favorite. I played Halo, Halo 2, Jet Set Radio Future, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2x, and Soulcalibur IV. It was also tremendously hackable, so getting XBMC sideloaded on it to watch the latest anime that wouldn’t be out on DVD for years on a big TV was wonderful as so few computers had RCA outputs. At least, I would have a certain nostalgia for it even if it wasn’t formative in the way I hear other artists talk about being a kid and staying up late to play Final Fantasy.

If a game company would ask you to make the scores for a game – any game – which game or studio would you pick?

I think doing the music for something like Jet Set Radio would be up my alley. I adored Jet Set Radio Future despite being mediocre at it because that Grand Royal Records soundtrack was loaded with acts I already loved, and the neon, the cel-shaded visual aesthetic was right in line with all of the rave fliers on my bedroom walls and the cover art of the obscure Drum n’ Bass artists I was into. So I would do pretty well generally doing music for anything that looked and played like that. It’d hinge the least on me being confident and familiar with the nuances of scoring a more traditional game too. I suppose I could probably write music for Bemani games by that measure too, and I do really enjoy rhythm games generally.

What is your favorite game of all time? 

Hard to say, but I was pretty into arcade dance and music games when I was in my late teens and 20s, especially DanceManiax, Jubeat, ParaParaParadise, and PumpItUp. Of those, ParaParaParadise is probably my favorite game. In fact, if I could own just one arcade game, it’d be a ParaParaParadise cabinet, hands down, and I’d play it every single day. There’s even footage of me playing it at SakuraCon in the old Nerdcore For Life movie trailer!

What is your favorite game at the moment? 

I picked up the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 & 2 remaster for PS4, and I really should try to clear more of it, but it’s been hard to get back in the habit of grinding a game since I was never that practiced on in the first place. I’ll sit in front of a computer for hours hammering out beats or reading blogs and news, but doing anything more than about an hour of gaming, especially if I’m hitting a wall on a challenge, and I’m ready to pivot. I also rather enjoyed watching Nursehella play through the various Persona 5 games recently. I think that’s probably the best way for me to experience RPGs, having not properly grown up on them – watching a master play them.

Anything you want to plug before we wrap up this interview?

Stream and download Karlland, and if you’d rather listen to instrumental music, I have yet another 10-song Drum ‘n Bass album, Subcritical Darling, out on August 2nd. It’ll be on all the major services. You can even make TikToks with it! Later this year, I’ll have Nursehella, and I’s VPC7 tracks cleaned up with maybe a bonus or two or via her Bandcamp and all of the major streaming services, so watch out for that too.

We want to thank Karl Olson for his time to talk with us – be sure to check out his social media and his new album on your streaming platform of choice!

Bandcamp; Music | Ultraklystron & Music | Nursehella

Karl Olson; https://karlrolson.com/

Instagram; Karl Olson / Ultraklystron (@karlrolson)

Soundcloud; Karl Olson

Spotify; Karl Olson