“I Don’t Want Anything”: An Interview with Ecco2k

Alexander Iadarola
The Stockholm-born artist Ecco2k (né Zak Arogundade) makes work that encompasses everything between music, filmmaking and fashion design. Along with Bladee and Thaiboy Digital, Ecco2k is one of the cofounders of Drain Gang. In recent years, they have amassed nothing short of a cult following, both for their solo releases and collaborative albums D&G and Trash Island.

Ecco2k’s solo EP PXE, released on YEAR0001 at the end of March, sounds like “throwing a car battery into a washing machine,” per his own admission. Accompanied by a full suite of visuals created by Tokyo-based artist Freddy Carrasco, PXE follows Arogundade’s remarkable 2019 debut album E. His music was always fascinating, but the momentum of his creative stride has greatly intensified in recent years.

“I discovered what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it,” said Arogundade, describing an extended period of self-discovery that informed both releases and continues to this day. “It made me re-evaluate a lot of my personality and why I am the way that I am. This change happened to come about because of a thousand different factors. It was just time for it to happen.”

Alexander Iadarola: Congratulations on the record. Where does the title come from?

Ecco2k: After E came out, Vogue asked me to describe how it sounds and I said, “it’s pixie music.” The energy that permeates these songs is this kind of wild, trickster energy. The pixie concept is not the character that I’m playing, but the mental space I’m in when doing these tracks.

It seems like your career is at an inflection point, and I’d be curious to hear about how you’re approaching it.

I’ve gotten a lot of really fun offers for crazy stuff. I am an extremely analytical person. I analyze most things – but a big chunk of what I am actually analyzing is my emotional reality. I am trying to make decisions in a way that is as emotionally intelligent as possible. In that sense, my process is cerebral, intuitive and emotional all at the same time. When you’re thinking about stuff in this way, you automatically segue into asking bigger questions to the effect of: what do I want to do, in general? Who do I want to be? If you don’t answer those questions, then you can’t really answer the smaller ones either.

We’re in a particularly challenging context to make these decisions, because the power structures of the industry are the same as ever. On a material level there’s still a solid division between mainstream and underground, but things still feel very fragmented and diffuse. I’m reminded of a discussion I had with Why Be [Tobias Lee] that feels relevant. We asked, what does “selling out” even mean?

Now that I’m doing a little press, these are questions that come up quite a lot: “Where do you see yourself in five years? What’s your goal? What do you want to do?” I feel like I don’t want anything. It’s really simple, but that’s how I feel. In a lot of ways I already have what I want. I don’t have a goal. There’s no objective, there’s no end point. I just want to explore and express myself, and that’s it. It’s kind of a freeing ideal to have, because it means that I can say no to a lot of stuff, because I don’t really care about knowing certain people or having a certain amount of commercial success. I’m pretty much doing what I want all the time.

You always have to be extremely aware of people’s expectations of you. Growing up, I had to be. In a way, it equipped me for dealing with these kinds of expectations. When you understand the expectations that people have, the only thing you can really do is start playing with them. You can do that in so many ways – it’s almost a survival thing. Sometimes it’s funny to confirm someone’s expectations but in a way that’s even worse than what they imagined. Sometimes you want to prove them completely wrong, sometimes it’s a mixture of both. Sometimes it’s something completely different. The stuff that is happening now [with my public perception] is quite similar to the way that it was walking around outside when I was like, 13.

In a lot of ways I already have what I want. I don’t have a goal. There’s no objective, there’s no end point. I just want to explore and express myself, and that’s it.”

I’m stuck on how you said you don’t want anything. I feel like if I said that to my therapist he wouldn’t be thrilled.

You’re not supposed to say that. When you’re a kid, adults ask that all the time, and you have to have a good answer. This is actually a conversation I had with Tobias a few years ago. Our parents’ generation, when they were growing up, they weren’t necessarily allowed to be whatever they wanted or do what they liked. They had to deal with really strict expectations that they couldn’t get out of easily. Then when people like us were growing up, a lot of our parents ended up having the attitude of being different from their parents and raising freer kids. Their attitude was: “You can be whatever you want, you can do whatever you want, but you have to decide what that is. We’ll support you or encourage you, but you have to make up your mind.” That is really relevant here, because you’re not supposed to say that you don’t want anything. That’s a slap in the face for everything that our parents had to overcome in their lifetime. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you’re not motivated or that you’re not passionate. My approach is not a goal-oriented way of doing something; it’s more about the love of doing the thing in the first place.

This feels connected to capitalism’s insatiable hunger for expansion.

It is similar to the way that we’re brought up: you can have whatever you want, you can choose anything, you just have to choose. That choice is not as free as it may seem. In response to that, not wanting anything is more liberating than choosing one of these things. When you don’t want anything, nobody can control you.

Reading through the lyrics on the EP, I noticed a recurring theme: the relationship between the inside and the outside. “I inhale, there’s something else out there / I want to know what it feels like,” or, “Ohh I notice butterflies, oh haven’t I? Oh how could I keep them inside?” … “I’ve got a hole in my body, leaking / like a sieve.”

I don’t really like the dichotomy of inside versus outside. A lot of the stuff that I’m exploring is about the disconnect between your inner world and the outside perspective, or the image that you might have of yourself being reflected back onto you by other people. Looking inwards isn’t even necessarily just about exploring the self, or looking for yourself, or processing things related to your own identity. In that sense, the inside and outside aren’t really different. At the end of the day, what you are looking for when you’re looking inside yourself isn’t just yourself, but it’s also everything else. In that way, the inside and the outside aren’t really that different.

Because of the way I grew up, I had to be extremely aware of the perception of who I was versus who I wanted to be, or who I am inside versus how I’m seen. I explore who I am through expressing it. When I get better at expressing it, I learn more about myself. In order to transcend the self, you need to make peace with the self first. Making peace with the self is what I’ve been doing up to this point, but that’s not the end. That’s not the only thing that you can find when you turn your attention inward. That’s where I want to go. PXE tends to be interpreted as a project about inner conflict. I don’t feel like there’s a conflict, necessarily. Personhood is just really complicated. Just because it’s not a singular, unified, streamlined reality, doesn’t mean that it’s in conflict. Sometimes it sounds like 50 people shouting at each other in my head, but it’s still a monologue. It’s still you.

I feel like everyone has this chorus going on inside of themselves.

Those things go on inside everyone. Being aware of it isn’t something that you can take for granted. Growing up, you’re taught a certain way of going about things, where you have a premeditated modus operandi. It’s like, “What do you want to express? What’s the message?” – and then you go materialize it. If you don’t have this kind of super cerebral, premeditated way of going about a creative process, then it’s not really taken seriously. The cognitive top layer of your inner life is constantly being hierarchically ranked over every other facet of the inner workings of a person. Not thinking about something doesn’t mean that you’re not aware. You don’t need to think about what you’re doing when you’re doing it. I never think about what I’m doing, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not aware while I’m doing it. For me to properly express something that is true or authentic, I can’t think while I’m doing it. I think afterwards.

If I had sat down beforehand and said, “Okay, what do I want to express today, what do I want to say, how do I want to say it?” then it wouldn’t be interesting. It wouldn’t really touch anyone because it would have been stifled by this really overrated part of the inside of a person, which is your clever thoughts. It’s really common to overestimate your idea of what you think things should be, and how smart you are, and how much you know. It’s more intelligent to acknowledge that you don’t really know. When you do things without thinking, that’s a different kind of intelligence which most of the time has more to give than your cognitive, conscious thoughts.

In my notes, I also have written down, “romanticism.” Obviously this is a loaded term, for me it brings to mind post-punk or trance or even “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The ways it has historically come to life can sometimes seem a little naive in retrospect – with hippie utopianism or whatever. I think there is definitely something romantic about what you and some of your peers do, but I wouldn’t describe it as utopic.

One thing that I have always tried to portray is this sense that there is magic in the real world. I want to express the magic or romantic reality that exists in a world that is really not a romantic one. It’s a romanticization of a really ugly world. Some kind of higher otherness is present in an imperfect world, and it doesn’t have to be utopic to be romantic.

I think this applies a lot to my visual work as well. Especially in the videos that I do, there’s always this feeling that I guess you could describe as “romantic.” I always want to convey that without trying to make the world something that it’s not. In more practical terms, I don’t like to use effects at all. I don’t like to try to make things look like something they’re not. I always have this very documentarian, naturalist style to the way things look. I’m trying to express that there is beauty and magic here, but without putting special effects on it. Without making things look pretty or beautiful. I always want to illustrate that there is more here than what you see. It’s the same with music as well. I don’t really separate them too much in my mind, either, to begin with. They’re portraying something romantic in a way that is quite brutal, dirty, or ugly. You want to make something that feels real. With the video stuff, you want it to look like something that really happened.

I never think about what I’m doing, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not aware while I’m doing it. For me to properly express something that is true or authentic, I can’t think while I’m doing it. I think afterwards.”

I feel like in recent years, the nature of the psychedelic – the transformative encounter with the outside – has changed. It used to be primarily achieved through disorientation, but now it’s more through clarity.

That’s really interesting. The inside and outside becoming one must be the most transformative encounter of all because it’s the most clear, in a way – seeing everything at once. You can see so much more than the self when looking inward.

I wanted to talk about your video for “Peroxide.” It’s really striking. Something about harvesting energy and economies of energy transfer. It is set on an offshore wind farm. The windmills are harvesting energy; you’re chugging from the gas canister. It’s very open-ended on a certain level, but there’s also this kind of occult, beautiful exchange between you and your surroundings.

There’s a lot of symbolism in that video. I think the transmission tower and the wind turbines [in the visual complement to] PXE are kind of what the windmills were to E. I think they are otherworldly, but then there’s nothing otherworldly about them at all. They’re just real world things.

Standing under these wind turbines, and the feeling when you climb up a tower like that – there’s so much power. When you stand underneath those blades, and you hear the buzzing of the cables, there’s so much there. They have a really crazy atmosphere around them, and the sound is really intense. These things are ordinary, but you’re not supposed to go near them, and you rarely do unless you go out of your way. It’s not like a god, but there is an almost mythical quality – this feeling of otherworldliness even though they are just ordinary objects. For most people, it’s just something that you see from far away, and they’re not intended for anyone to interact with or come close to. They’re supposed to be there to hold up the modern world above your head, but you’re not supposed to look at them. You’re not supposed to stand near them for too long or you’ll get sick.

It sounds like you’re describing something analogous to spirituality.

There’s nothing inherently spiritual about these things. This is something that’s really important as well: the spiritual relationship you have to your inner world. It can take so many different forms, and it’s something that you make for yourself and apply to anything external. It could be a crucifix, it could be the ocean, it could be a transmission tower – but none of that really matters, because it’s just the way you create a spiritual relationship within yourself that you can then tie to anything. This connects to still having romantic ideals in a world that is really the opposite of that. But they don’t have to be at odds at all.

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