Sean Nelson aka Shivastep has been busy providing dance clubs with hard-hitting music that will keep club-goers dancing till dawn. With his two EPs, self-titled Shivastep and Ode to tha Grind, Nelson has been working double time to show the world what he can create.
I caught up with this Chicago-born, LA-based beat maker to know about more about Shivastep and his music.
You are classically trained in music and able to play a multitude of instruments, what got you started in music?
A lot of my earliest memories are surround by music, my dad would put on records and toss my brother and I in the air . I remember these vivid images that I’d see from hearing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Sugar Mountain” at like 5 years old. Music has always been an immense and invaluable part of my life, being medicine, expression, wonder and spirituality to just pure simple fun. My dad got us plastic toy guitars when I was eight and we learned the little riff from “Just Like Heaven” and would play it over and over and over (I still think its one of the most perfect love/pop songs ever).
I got an actual electric guitar when I was ten and that was when I was just getting into skating and punk rock and learned a ton of early Black Flag and Ramones which ended up being super helpful cause I got good technique from playing fast power chords.
My real breakthrough with music was after I got into classic rock and psychedelic music. That was when I realized how deeply I connected with music and that I could play that guitar part. I was just about to start college so I decided to study music as a minor and started playing piano and taking lessons. There was a distinct moment when the language of music clicked for me logically after learning theory and “seeing it” in the piano, since it is laid out linearly it is easy to visualize (whereas the guitar overlaps notes). After that I realized that any instrument is just a medium for this same language and it’s just technique and timbre that differentiates them. I picked up mandolin, sitar, harmonica, drums and devoured all of the “classic” styles and genres, blues, folk, jazz, classical, etc and some crazy stuff like Indian ragas and Avant Garde composition. Since then I’ve had an inexhaustible thirst for music and exploring all facets of it.
What made you steer into the direction of beat making and electronic instrumentation?
Electronic music was my final frontier; I’d always loved the sounds but had no idea how any of it was made. I started getting more into dance music and hearing the Wild Juke and footwork coming out of Chicago really pricked up my ears. I got a little Roland drum machine and started venturing more into the synth sections on my keyboard. A few incredible experiences at random raves and dance parties gave me the final push and I started putting together my first electronic tracks using a drum machine, synth and 8-track recorder. When I finally got Ableton in 2010 all the pieces were in place and I started cranking out the tracks that would eventually develop the sound of Shivastep.
Before Shivastep, you were a DJ with a different sound and style. Why did you reinvent yourself?
I see all of my electronic output as Shivastep; I just changed the name early last year when I thought of it since it fit perfectly what I was doing. All of it has been a development and I feel you can draw a clear path from the first tracks, Edge of Glory My Friend Gucci, and what I am doing now. It’s impossible for me to sit still as an artist, I’m always digesting, always experimenting, always thinking of new approaches and methods so Shivastep will always be changing, growing and evolving.
As a DJ, what is your song writing process?
I can’t call myself a DJ, haha, I am an amateur DJ at best. I guess producer is the proper term. I’ve been writing songs since I was 17 so i know well what works and what doesn’t to write something real, something pure and truly inspired. you cant force it, you only channel inspiration and you have to be in the right state to do that. It can take a small form at first, just a melody or rhythm, and then the real dirty work of an artist is cultivating that idea and choosing which ones to devote to and which to leave and move on. Finishing a whole song is a back and forth between the inspiration and ideas and the work of sculpting them. A lot of times ill get into a flow and lose myself for hours, that is when I feel the real release and expression in creating.
Who or what’s your major influence?
Oh god, there are hundreds! Everything that has ever made me feel something or impacted me has been absorbed and comes out collectively in my music to some degree. My wife is my biggest personal influence . Then there are musicians, writers and artists from all times who have left a major mark on me. Huxley, Blake, Burroughs, Neitzsche, Ram Dass, Watts, Palahniuk, Beethoven, Lennon, Ravi Shankar, Elliott Smith, Issac Brock, Yorke/Greenwood, Richard D James; more recently DJ Rashad, Nguzunguzu, Balam Acab, Girl Unit, Hemsworth, I could go on forever. That’s why I like to play around with genre and structure and form, I like to unite the common thread from completely unrelated styles and sounds to just hone in on the feeling.
Shivastep’s purpose and influence is more specifically dance music, pretty much all styles energy and rhythm driven, and using that framework to build towards the pure, primal experience you tap into when you get lost dancing and feeling it. I use the 808 for all the rhythms so obviously Chicago and footwork/juke are a major influence, southern hip hop since I like to keep it slower and dirtier, a strong melodic and harmonic focus like you hear in trance, grime’s energy and simplicity, and straight up bass to tie it all together.
I compose and play all the music but vocally I take a Dadaist approach or boroughs approach in appropriating pop culture, mangling and bastardizing it and using it to suit my purposes. You hear lots of popular songs/people but not as they were intended, both familiar and strange simultaneously. It’s a way of using the very culture I’m trying to transcend from as a tool for that transcendence. Staring deep into the abyss.
What is the ultimate goal?
Keep making affecting music, keep growing as an artist and play live as much as possible. I think that high-energy communal musical experience is one of the most important and amazing things in life; musical ecstasy is one of the oldest and most accessible forms of mystical experience and extremely liberating. Live music is my temple and the fact that there’s the situation now where people are feeling my music and I can play live and try to reach that place is incomparable.
Can you tell us about your recently released EP ‘Ode to tha Grind?’
I’m really excited to have just released Ode to tha Grind. Its raw and heavy but span a wider range of feelings and textures than the last one. Hip hop weighed in more since rap music is coming from and expressing a lot of the same feelings on a base level and I wanted to dive in and explore that. The production and mixing here is a lot better, I’m doing everything myself so you can definitely hear me learning and developing in that sense too.
I like seeing how people have been reacting because hearing it through their ears makes it new to me again. It’s got depth for the people listening for that (interesting structures, syncopations, developments, chord changes, chromatic melodies, modulations) but essentially you can just feel it and dig on it without having to know what any of that means and that is what I always do with my tracks. If it doesn’t have that thing, that feeling to it that anyone can hear and vibe with, then it’s not something I’m gonna put out.
You’re creating quite a buzz with your two EPs. What’s in store for you in the near future?
Haha, yes, I’ve been thrilled with how they have been received and have so much love for the people who have listened and helped support the music and spread the word. I make music for me first and foremost so I’m gonna continue to do that but its hugely vindicating to know that people are into it and want to hear more. Theres’ gonna be more by the end of the year in the form of my first LP on track number records. Look out for limited white label vinyl singles with a track from each EP on it in the near future as well. And shows, as many shows as I am invited to or can set up to play. Basically keeping the momentum as things continue to bloom!
Listen to Shivastep below!
Q & A by GK Limcangco