Note: This was originally part of a magazine project I was running a few years ago, but this interview has so much gold it deserved its own rightful digital home. Below is the edited transcript of the interview that took place in the summer of 2014, 7000′ feet up, amongst the glowing aspen trees.
Kevin: How does it feel being a vessel for music that fuels such a powerful movement?
Nahko: It feels good. It definitely feels crazy sometimes. Cuz’ I never really set out to do this, necessarily. And so I sit back and reflect a lot about everything that’s happening. It’s pretty massive. It’s so crazy to look back on my life and where I come from and go how the hell did I get here? This is so crazy.
It’s inspiring for me, because when I write music it actually ends up being for me, and so when I get to see its affect on me first of all, come through me, and it’s part of me, it’s my story, and then it comes out and I’m like ‘cool it’s a song’.
And then I’ve learned to give those songs away, and allow people to transform from the words, from the ideas, from the music, and from the presence of us ruling life. So, it’s really magical, it’s definitely a trip. I’m constantly in awe of everything that’s been happening around me, but in absolute gratitude the whole time, for sure. It’s super fun, at this point in my life right now, I just turned 28, I’m fully embracing it, charging full force.
K: That’s amazing. I mean when you first started out playing music you didn’t set out to build any of this, or for anything massive to happen.
N: No, I mean I started out playing piano when I was six, but I was really good at sports. So, I was always like I’m gonna play baseball or I’m gonna play basketball, and then the piano thing started taking over and I was teaching music, teaching piano and stuff like that.
I was writing really bad love songs, and I don’t really remember when things shifted. I’ve been farming for the last six years in Hawaii, and then it wasn’t even until like the last three years I was actually focusing on the music I’m making at this point. Every summer I would just drive around the states though in my van, with my dog, and I’d just cruise and play at random places. Cuz’ I thought it was fun and I could make some money and I was burning CDs every day and demos and shit.
I never thought of at as a means to get me anywhere. I was just doing it cuz’ I was having fun, and just cruising. So, now that I’m just fully in the system and steering the ship in a really cool way it’s like WOW this is a totally different reality.
K: How do you stay grounded throughout all of it?
N: Just a lot of drugs man. Yeah. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll. No, I said that to a lady earlier, she was like, “What?!” She’ll never know. (Laughing) Just to totally freak her out. Well, the company I keep has a lot to do with what keeps me grounded, I feel like I have a really good team around me.
I feel like you have to keep all sorts of generations present in your life. You know I have some really awesome elder teachers, and really awesome youth teachers that are always schooling me in what I’m lacking in and when I’m fucking up. So, I would say that’s definitely part of what keeps me in my grounded good place, but also surfing is like my main get away. Any time I can be in the ocean I’m there. and Being with my animals.
I have this really dope farm on the big island, so whenever I get to be there I’m stoked.
K: How often are you there?
N: Not very much. I don’t really live there anymore, I live in LA now. So, whenever I get a chance to get to the Big Island I’m ready. But, yeah. Staying in your daily prayer really, giving thanks every day that you wake up and like giving yourself five minutes at least a day to do some stretching. That’s been pretty new in the last year, cuz’ living in Hawaii and even living in LA I surf like everyday. Then when I’m on the road I don’t do anything. So my body is fucked. I’m a really active person you know. So all those things, and drinking whiskey probably helps, you know, I drink a lot of Jameson.
That’s about it.
K: Forgiveness is a huge theme in a lot of your songs, really fucking powerful you know, how has learning to forgive changed your life?
N: So huge dude. It’s funny when you can look at your own life and look at the things you’ve forgiven and what you’d like to forgive and then you start uncovering other things that relate to it, and then you can see how it relates to the whole world. Like, wow, we’re a bunch of spiteful, chip on our shoulders, people. You know what I mean. Our country, our cultures, and our governments and you can kind of just grind it down and be like wow, that really is one of the biggest answers to healing things is forgiveness.
And it’s funny to for me, because I was raised really Christian, like really Christian. And I guess, I would even say that helped me too. The teachings of Christ were some of the biggest things I got out of that.
Some people just get out of Christianity or out of religion, you know the group, and go totally the opposite direction and forget about everything they learned, and I think it’s super important that you take aspects of those teachings. Because, every religion has a lot of important lessons to be learned, yeah. And when you bring them into your own spiritual practice you have a really well-rounded view of what it is to be human.
For me, my life story is full of opportunities to forgive. You know, and it definitely took me a long time to arrive at those places, and I’m still learning to do those things, and be gracious and forgiving with people and circumstances. It’s never a one time thing, and even when you say you’ve forgiven it could take the rest of your life to fully let go of it.
Cause some things can just never be the same after they’ve happened. Yeah, that’s the mantra for life, to continue walking in a compassionate and graceful manner that reflects forgiveness.
K: Are a lot of your lyrics ideal you’re striving for then, you know?
N: I would say a lot of my lyrics are actually places that I’d like to arrive at. When people call me out on shit, it’s like I said that, but I’m not there yet. I’m not saying I’m there yet, I’m saying I’d like to get there. People are so funny. People really want me to be everything that I say I am, which is a big weight to put on me. Which I think we’ve all done to people we look up to. People that we are inspired by, people that give us advice, we want them to be perfect. You know, we look to you to be perfect. It’s like dude, everyone’s a fucking human, you know that right. I fuck up all the god damn time. I curse in front of kids, shit.
That has been now of my biggest struggles is reading all the social media feedback, like oh my god how do I help them understand who I am, I can’t read that shit. I just gotta post Justin Beiber when I feel like it and be cool with it. (Laughing) It’s such an interesting time our generation really wants to be forgiven, and heal and be a part of this thing that is changing. I think we’re all just trying to figure out a place in it.
K: You think it all starts at the core, the self, as far as healing goes?
N: You know our generation it sometimes seems cliche to say that, but it’s so true. There’s no other place to start, but within. So many of us look outward to find ways of getting to that place. Not to say that you can’t either.
K: When did you start to integrate your roots in native american spirituality?
N: When I met my mom, and my grandma, in 2007. I knew that I had Native American roots here, and I also knew that my father was Filipino and Chamorro from Guam, but I didn’t know if I was puerto rican. But, when I met my mom it BOOM, cultural influence and everything, get ready. My grandmother is nuts.. My grandmother was Mescalero/Apache, and my mom’s dad was Puerto Rican. When I met my grandmother she lived for two years after I had met her and I really wish I had spent more time to get in her head about our people, but given the fact that she was nuts it was hard to get in her head about anything. And, my mom used to be a fancy dancer when she was a little girl, and none of them actually grew up on a reservation. There were pretty much in Portland and Klamath territory – Piute.
It was a part of their life, like my grandmother did beadwork and silverwork and stuff like that, and they were involved in different tribes in the northwest area, but neither of them really followed any of those spiritual practices of our tribe.
So, to me it piqued my interest and sort of became part of my life. I was just so curious about what those people did. It was so many years trying to get with indians. I’d go to reservations every summer, like a fool, I’d show up in the van like “hey, I’m indian, I got this song and I’d play them for like schools and just randomly show up in my road tripping around.” To be validated and find my identity in that community was a really tough place. Super tough. It’s really fucking tough. You’re rollin into a place that’s been ostracized and having so much taken from them. And I’m coming from an extremely privileged background and then being like “Oh, I feel you.”, you know. So, for me it’s taken a long time just to really relate and understand where indigenous people come from. And I think that in the story of it, in my rounded understanding of where native people in america come from, is helpful to relate to other indigenous tribes around the world, and helps me to identify with aboriginal people and just like any third world country or any first world place that has been effected by western colonization.
K: What shadows are you facing today, as far as when everything is growing, big fears?
N: I would say being able to be a good leader is really fucking intense. Like I was saying earlier, everyone wants you to be perfect you know. Everybody thinks that I have all the answers.
There’s these kids that live in Boulder, the Martinez brothers, little kids, like 12 and 9, Earth Guardians. They’re probably 80 year old men inside of 12 year olds bodies. They started this organization where they’re basically speaking for the youth. But they’re Mayan descendants, and damn.
The oldest is literally suing the federal government for not protecting the environment. These kids are really amazing speakers for their age, just schooling everybody. When we were at Arise festival last year, we did a press conference with them and they just schooled all of us. We were like yeah I farted, social justice.
Something I was observing about them is, these guys just have so much responsibility to their community and to all of us, but I really hope they get a chance to be kids and just fuck up. I’m 28, and I feel like I’m still big kid. In my last couple years I definitely think I’m owning up to my responsibility now. And I think one of the toughest things is to stay in check with Spirit to know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing because there’s so many different ways I could steer the ship and so it’s a constant big question mark in mind: like even a couple days ago I started thinking about this fall, and this new record I want to put out.
And I talked to a spider. I was trippin balls, and I talked to a spider. And I was like doing pushups over this little spider, “what do you think dude, one song, full record?” Cuz, it’s this huge story you know. I want to stay true to my ancestors and the music they want me to put out there. I want to make it right. I don’t want to forfeit the vision for industry standards of what the industry thinks should happen.
But, I feel really clear and in control considering in the last two years my entire world has changed, with being involved in the industry now and being fully in it. Also, being a person that loves pop music and hip-hop and loves to collaborate. You know like dreams to write a song with Alicia Keys, you know whatever, crazy dreams. So, I think that with all of those dreams that are literally manifesting. I have seen myself spiral sometimes in my younger years, before I started taking all of this seriously, into drinking a lot, doing drugs and stuff like that.
A part of me still likes having that out of control aspect, not on stage, not on tour, I’ve only started my second year touring. But, part of me really loves being fucked up, because we’re young and because we’re rebels, and we have our moments where we just want to be out of control, I just want to go hard, and I don’t want to sleep, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. But, I was never really good at that.
You know people would always say, “your people are alcoholics, your people are this and that,” but that’s them, that’s not me. And I’ve had my moments for sure of being over the top. I think my own enemy is my own ego. If anything kills me it’s going to be my own ego.
And it feels really really good to have people in my life that sort of keep me in the realm of humbleness. I also have fucking epic friends that are musicians too, that have that same responsibility, where they can be like “yeah dude, you’re fucked up, but it’s all good.”
Like, Trevor Hall, Xavier Rudd and even Franti, just like this counsel of men and women that I can look at like, cool I’m not the only one who’s this crazy. And I’m not the only one who has those fears and those challenges.
Which is awesome. If I didn’t have them I probably would be fucked up, even more.
You can quote me on that.
I think that something I really learned over the winter too, as a man being able to take on all these women, like holy shit. Being able to like think, “wow I could have any women I want right now.” And then being like, whatever, and brush it off a little bit. Certainly, be in my game too when I’m in coyote mode. I’ve definitely gotten my ass kicked this past winter by seeing my patterns and not realizing how powerful I am sometimes.
I think we all struggle with that sometimes. We don’t realize how fucking intense we can be. When you’re just playing, they’re like well you just broke my heart.
You’re like crazy, wow, I didn’t even know, you know. SO, being able to take responsibility for your power.
K: Just being mindful of that too.
N: Absolutely, and knowing that you are a mystical wizard and that your power of manifestation is more powerful than you are. You think it and it will become, so you have to be very careful about your thoughts.
K: What’s your creative process like? Is it all over the place?
N: I mean it differs all the time. Like, some days I’m poopin’ and I’m thinking of a song. Or like, recently, I’ve been writing with some other people and it’s been fun to get in other people’s heads about the writing process, and figure out how to write with them. Like with Franti, or Soja or even Xavier, like my friends from Rising Appalachia, that’s a cool band too. Just sort of getting in their head about how they want a song to happen, and not out-writing them, you know what I mean, like that was a really cool verse, and yours kinda sucked. I’m gonna change the language a little bit.
It’s so different man, every song comes differently. Like Warrior People, I started writing that…so, when you’re trimming ganja all the time they have these trim pros, which have taken lots of jobs away, but it’s a fan and you roll the weed over it and it chops it. It’s in f sharp minor, it drones at a certain key. And I was super high one day like, (singing) warrior people, and the song came. It’s always different. Just stuff like that. It always is different.
K: It just drops into your head.
N: Like I was down on this river on my farm, tripping out again. 90% of the songs I get come from lines I get during journeys. I was like so scared of 2012, and I was sitting in my fear hardcore. I was scared.
And the river was talking to me about not being afraid. I was like, well if I can place myself somewhere in the world where I can say “you know this is where I’d like to be if shit hits the fan”. Then I realized I don’t make that decision. I’m just gonna be where I am.
K: Could you unplug, knowing all this awaits, and just go back to your farm?
N: Yeah man, I did it in January for three months and that was something else the spider was telling me. We’re playing this whole fall tour, but I almost feel like I wanna cancel it. The spider was like you have to make time to make a record. And I was like I don’t have any way to pay for the record. The spider was like so what.
I have this epic producer who did all the Jack Johnson records, Manu Chao, all the Beastie Boys records, just super rad and I really wanna work with him. But, I’ve gotta make time for him. And right now I’ve got is like a day in August to record ‘Wash Away’. And it’s not enough.
I’m like alright, show me the money.
K: What’s the big vision role you see yourself and your music filling?
N: I think just social empowerment really. Just helping people find what it is that they can do to give back to our society in a healthy way and obviously get back to being a caretaker for our environment. And it’s different for everyone, it’s going to look entirely different for everybody, you know. But, because I’m such a tripper and I look out in the crowd and say, “oh okay, like I can see there tornadoes and when we put out all those words and songs and attention, it goes out and something happens everyday that’s different, and something activates in them to change something, or to continue something.”
I would just hope that we continue to sort of unite people. Like today, I was on a hike and walking with this dude. He’s a surgeon and he does surgery on women’s pelvises and he’s like, “when I’m working on these women some of them live and some of them don’t, but when we get into a really high stress situation and everyone’s freaking out and we’re not sure if she’s going to make it or not, I put your music on, in the hospital room during the surgery.”
“I was like what, that’s crazy.” And he started crying and was like, “yeah man like all of a sudden you’re the doctor.”
So, it’s that kind of stuff that’s happening and a lot of time I don’t even have to go anywhere. The music just goes there. So, I would just say I know that I’m going to continue to make music that helps people and I look forward to hearing the stories and collecting the stories and making a big ass book.
Then sell it and buy my mom a house!
Image via: Joshua Earle