It’s a musician’s worst nightmare, and last month it happened to Jason Chung.
The 30-year-old electronic producer, better known as Nosaj Thing (a play on the phrase “no such thing”), had just finished a show in Houston while on a monthlong U.S. tour, after which he and his two-man tour crew decided to hit up a 24-hour House of Pies for dinner. Rolling up to the parking lot in a rented Sprinter van, they couldn’t find any spots viewable from the restaurant, so they parked in a well-lit area in the back and headed inside.
Less than an hour later, they came out to find that their van’s passenger-side window had been smashed open and all their gear was gone.
The thief (or thieves) took four bags filled with MacBook Pros, MIDI controllers, hard drives and other items — about $20,000 worth of gear in total, Chung estimates. But really, the losses are incalculable. Among the stolen items was a backup hard drive containing two years’ worth of material: beats, remixes, music software, drum sounds, Chung’s latest live set, and the studio sessions for his new album, Fated, which he’d spent months toiling on. The theft was the equivalent of a rock band losing all its instruments and master recordings.
“All I really need is that one hard drive,” Chung says on a recent April afternoon. He’s speaking by phone while tucked away in the bunk of a tour van, heading to a show in San Francisco. “That’s what’s fucked up about it. You could have everything — just give me that hard drive. I’ll pay you five grand for it.”
Touring musicians have long been a target for opportunistic thieves, and Chung does his best to protect himself. He’s careful about where he parks, and he kept special watch over his stuff while passing through St. Louis because he’d heard stories of other thefts there.
Even so, his fail-safe mechanisms failed him. The Find My Mac feature didn’t work on the stolen MacBooks. A hard drive at home, last updated in November 2014, right after he finished Fated, ended up being corrupted. He took it to a shop in Studio City, where computer geeks worked for days to try to recover the files. But they weren’t able to salvage anything.
Now, Chung — whose meticulous, twilit beat music owes as much to the psychedelic boom-bap of Madlib as the Gymnopédies of Erik Satie — basically has to start over. But as he faces that daunting task, he’s trying to think positive. And he keeps going back to the experiences that led him to call his new album Fated in the first place.
“What does this lead to? That’s the attitude I want to have,” he says. “It’s not the end of the world.”
Fated, which came out on May 5 via local label Innovative Leisure, is Nosaj’s most laid-back effort yet. Filled with spaced-out loops and soothing bass textures, it serves as a study in simplicity, and an antidote to the anxieties of a high-tech, hyperspeed life. But on a more personal level, it offered a way for Chung to detach from the latest trap-beat trends and clear away the stress of another turbulent time in his life.
The Korean-American beatmaker was only 24 years old when he solidified his reputation as a Low End Theory luminary with his 2009 debut-full length, Drift. But by the time he hit his late twenties, he was having troubles in his personal life. A six-year relationship came to an end, he was moving from place to place, and anxiety was taking its toll on his health, even giving him hives all over his body.
He wrestled with all this on his 2013 follow-up, Home, a stunning album of melancholy synthesizers and precise rhythms. But his health problems and other struggles persisted, and he ended up canceling the tour in support of the album.
“It was really crazy, man. I was kind of losing it for a while, too, during that record. I got really sick for like a year,” Chung says. “It was my first time where I just lost ambition because I was dealing with so much.”
For this new effort, Chung decided to build himself a sonic sanctuary. While Home seems almost symphonic in its intricacy, the 15 tracks on Fated operate more as atmospheric mood pieces than full-fledged songs. “Moon” is a dubby, one-minute vignette fit for a stroll across a lunar landscape. “Realize” bubbles with electronic effects and what sound like pitch-shifted vocals. On “Cold Stares” you can barely make out details like hushed hi-hats and delicate piano plinks, while Chance the Rapper delivers what might be the calmest verse of his career.
Chung says he likes to work intuitively, keeping his setup simple in order to actuate ideas in quick spurts. He seemed to take a similarly clearminded approach to making the closing track, “2k,” which features breathy and whispered vocal parts from the L.A.-based electronic artist and sound designer Katie Gately.
“It was very unconscious and not semantic, I guess. We just wanted to make something,” Gately says of their collaboration, which went down during a relaxed recording session in a downtown loft Chung used to live in.
The title for Fated popped into Chung’s mind after he started noticing curious coincidences and déjà vu moments in his life, some revolving around his current girlfriend, whom he met in late 2013. Though Chung isn’t a huge believer in the idea that some force beyond his power might be determining the full thrust of his life, it’s helping him make sense of his current circumstances.
“I don’t take it super seriously or anything. I just like the idea of it,” he says. “I didn’t really think about it that much until this year. But I guess as I get older, maybe it’s something that will just keep you sane … ‘Oh well, maybe it’s meant to be.’ I’m just trying to roll with it.”
In recent weeks, friends and fans have come out to support the distressed beatmaker. Jamie Strong, a partner at Innovative Leisure, says a number of companies — including Guitar Center, KCRW, Red Bull and Serato — have chipped in to help Chung replace his gear. And musicians are standing up in solidarity, too.
For a show at the El Rey a week after the theft, Chung cobbled together a set with a batch of old demos that his label had sitting around in an iTunes folder. The show began with a listening session for Fated and ended with a surprise appearance from the songwriter Kelela. Chung, wearing a hoodie and a ball cap, put his hands up in prayer as he welcomed her onstage. As they performed a cosmic R&B jam they’d made earlier in the day, Kelela’s powerful yet vulnerable voice reached into her upper registers.
For Nosaj Thing, moments like this make it clear that even with this horrible setback, all is not lost.
“I feel so thankful that so many people are reaching out and supporting me. I just feel overwhelmed,” he says. “That’s actually been taking away from some of my anxiety, too. Usually I’ll play a show and just kind of disappear. But ever since that happened, people are reaching out through all channels.”