We here at Heard It Here First have been enamored with Keota ever since we discovered their project. Their album, No Hands, was a standout on our 25 Albums We Loved In 2022 list. Tracks like “Robert De-Niro Hop,” “Scobie International,” “More Of You,” and “Flatbush” become instantly recognizable for their unique vocal samples, infectious energy, and masterful production fit for sound systems everywhere.
Keota is also an outspoken labor advocate and queer rights activist, as they themselves identify as genderqueer. In this exclusive interview, we discuss why Keota takes fewer bookings than their peers, how they navigate the industry as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, navigating the industry as a recovering addict, and why labor activism is important and how it relates to the current state of the music industry.
This interview was conducted shortly after Keota’s appearance at Infrasound Music Festival, where they played a solo set and took part in the gRLL sMTH b2b set. Let’s dive into it!
HIHF: We’ll start with Infrasound. That set at the portal was ridiculous. So what was kind of your mindset? You know, as you’re walking up onto that stage to that kind of crowd?
Keota: The people at Infrasound, like the attendees, just seem ready for whatever weird stuff that I might otherwise not play. Infrasound is always really exciting. It was only my second time playing the fest. And the only other time I played was in 2019 at the Pyramid stage. But that was when I was practicing alcoholism. I was shaking in my boots a little because I was probably seasonally depressed or something. But Infrasound really came through. I was definitely nervous. I actually had so many nice interactions with people in the few hours before I played. So it really lifted my spirits. And then, before I knew it, I was up there. There was nobody really at that stage before I got on. And then it filled up really, really quickly, and by the first song, there were already a few dozen die-hard fans out there, and that really helped my confidence for sure.
HIHF: So, then you came out to gRLL sMTH too, which was a lot of fun seeing you and Jack from Ternion Sound lay down some UKG. One of my highlights of the weekend for sure. That is so fun for us as fans because it just feels like a big homie hangout. What was that like to be up there as an artist?
Keota: Oh, it was great. I mean. I’ve known kLL sMTH for years, and he’s always been really supportive of what I’m doing in a way that I really, really appreciate because I can play my part in the scene in a way that feels right and feels healthy for me and rewarding. Most of my time is spent in the studio making tunes, and I have never done a tour or anything just because I don’t know if I could handle it quite yet. I don’t know if I am in a place in my life where I could trust that I could do something like that without going cuckoo bonkers.
Chris, on the other hand, kLL sMTH, plays a lot of shows and is a really good performer, and he really brings like a certain energy that I think a lot of people really like. I’ll send him tunes. He’s one of a handful of people I send tunes to. Him and VCTRE, and Black Carl! are probably the three top people that I send tunes to. And I don’t have to worry about doing something like touring or playing a bunch of shows. It’s nice that because of people like Chris, I can sit on the sidelines or do my thing, but still be there in spirit in a lot of ways. At gRLL sMTH, it was just really great, and especially with Jack and the whole squad of everybody there, it was a lot of fun.
HIHF: I totally understand what you mean about putting more emphasis on being in the studio versus being on tour or being out playing shows. I think it’s obvious to anybody who follows you regularly that you don’t play a ton of shows. And I know you’ve been very outspoken as a recovering addict, so how does that affect how you book shows? How do you navigate this industry where the main money maker for artists is live shows and parties?
Keota: I moved to Denver in the summer of 2019, and less than a year later is when COVID happened. For the first time ever, I was only doing music as a means of income. Playing shows, doing lessons, and I was teaching at this educational program called Slam Academy in Denver a few times a week. When COVID hit, I realized I couldn’t count on shows for money. So, at the time, I put a lot more of my efforts into giving lessons, and then I got sober from alcohol and from hard drugs. I call myself California sober, and I try not to be black and white about sobriety. I just started to put more of my efforts toward education and, more recently, into Patreon in the last year and a half. Eventually, maybe other things like merch and stuff like that, but merch would probably be the missing piece. It would really put me in a comfortable place financially.
But, for the time being. I’m just trying to build something sustainable, and this is it. That was something that I talked a lot about, and once I had stopped drinking, I had a lot of thoughts flowing through my head. A lot of new thoughts and feelings that I really hadn’t felt or experienced since I was probably a teenager. I guess all that time I was spending drinking, suddenly, I had more headroom in my brain to think about other things and other possibilities. I just want this to be sustainable for me, and it’s important for artists not to burn the wick at both ends. That’s advice that I’ve heard both directly and indirectly from Tipper and his crew that we should be careful not to burn ourselves out too early. A lot of artists that blow up really fast will often fizzle out as quickly or quicker than they blew up, and a lot of times, artists are presented with opportunities at a young age before they’ve learned a lot of really important life lessons and are put in the position where they can’t really handle things and then start getting in their heads that maybe music is the problem or music is something that they don’t like or can’t do. I’ve had those thoughts too, but I know that music is not the problem, and it never was, and I never want to make that false equivalency.
HIHF: Especially since COVID, there’s been a lot more chatter about the pitfalls of relying on touring. I feel like that also sort of ties back into the Patreon stuff, and we see artists that could go on these big, long tours and choose not to, but end up doing Patreon or Bandcamp subscriptions or all these other things and ended up being sustainable for themselves. So, I think that was a really important point to harp on, and I think something that a lot of younger producers could benefit from.
Keota: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Touring is definitely not for everyone.
HIHF: For sure. And especially now that people are being more transparent about how problematic these ticketing companies are and venues taking merchandise cuts, which is just ridiculous. Does that go back to also why you self-release a lot of your music compared to a lot of younger artists who want their music to get picked up by labels?
Keota: Yeah, I’ve been making art since I was a teenager, and I had a DeviantArt account and a Newgrounds account. I uploaded music on Myspace, singer-songwriter stuff. So, I’m no stranger to being an independent artist, and I think I realized the power of being an independent artist and the potential and even the mere fact that it’s even a possibility at a very young age. I think relative to a lot of people, I really, really grew up on the computer. As I’ve grown older, I just like to try and be realistic with myself. And I think a lot of the time when it comes to doing business with other people, not only am I skeptical in a lot of ways, just in terms of whether it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement, and if I just upload music to SoundCloud or Bandcamp it’s easy on my mental health and I don’t have deadlines or anybody to disappoint.
I’m definitely very open to releasing on a label someday and taking part in something larger than myself. At this point, I’m more than down to release music on other labels or collectives as a show of support because I understand that’s how a lot of this stuff works. I think that one of the biggest factors to me having gotten where I am today is from the support of other people, but also from giving and showing support to other people as much and as often as I can and to those who I think deserve it. Part of me does sometimes feels selfish about not releasing on labels and things like that. I just never really had a moment where it felt right or a label where I felt right. I think years ago before I was skilled enough, I had that in my head to release on certain labels, but a lot of what labels symbolized to me was validation, and I think I’ve since gotten that in all the ways that really matter.
HIHF: So I know, coming up, you have the show with Cool Customer at Cervantes and then the Journey set at Submersion and the Soundzorganic show on the Frankenstein rig, one of my favorite rigs of all time. I know you’ve made it a point to only play shows where they put an emphasis on sound. Do you want to explain a little bit about why that’s such an important part of your project?
Keota: It’s less of a worry nowadays because of how many sound system crews are popping up. I make sound system music, and I make music for the brain and for the booty. That’s not my quote. I don’t know where that’s from. I’m pretty sure it’s from a book I have not read. I have a little PDF of my criteria and my values that I have my agent Keisha attached to emails when we get offers, and the first two points that are tied in importance is the sound system is on point and that the crew aren’t Holocaust deniers or like Elon Musk simps, like I make sure that the crew is comprised of good, honest people that I more or less share similar values with. Third is just my criteria are visuals and the crew. Like, what are they, who are they? Are they getting paid fairly? That’s a huge part with the crew as well. I don’t want to participate in anything that’s unsustainable. I don’t want to be playing a show if the opener is getting taken advantage of, or if the visual guy is not getting paid his fair share or anything like that. So, like all those things are super important to me. I want the events that I play to be as reflective of the type of world I’d want to live in as possible, and that’s still something I’m working on. We live in a society, so pushing for progress in those types of ways, however small, can still be met with a lot of friction. I’m in this for the long haul. Sound systems and crew come first, and then everybody’s being treated fairly, and that’s the most important thing to me really.
HIHF: And the sustainability issue, I feel like it’s such a big concern nowadays.
Keota: Yeah, I want the crews to make money too. I don’t want to be making out with the bag. I want everybody to feel good. I want the crew and the talent buyers, and everybody involved to feel like it was a good call for them. I want it to feel like it was a good decision for everybody, not just me.
HIHF: No, exactly. And that ultimately makes it a more conducive environment for you to come back and play for them in the future. We hear stories about opening artists being paid like two drink tickets and a ham sandwich or something. I think the industry pushed quantity over quality when it came to shows for so long. So, it’s really refreshing to hear it from an artist’s perspective that wanting everybody to be taken care of is a priority. Is it harder to vet crews now with the increase in extreme rhetoric, notably anti-LGBTQ+ and xenophobic rhetoric?
Keota: You know, that’s a good question. I’m only playing a small number of shows like this year anyhow, and I already know the crews. Enough to where that’s not a concern. I identify as queer, and the way that I describe is very unremarkable because, I don’t know if it’s from having abused so many psychedelics in my early 20s when my brain was still developing, or if it’s just growing up in a society where I am so hyper-stimulated from such a young age, glued to a computer, being on the spectrum. I think that it a lot of what we call “mental illnesses” are more environmental than we otherwise think so. And I bring up those things because I am queer because I don’t relate to many people’s description of a man or Western society’s definition of what a man is. But I also know that while I also relate very much so with what people describe a woman to be, I know that if I were to say transition to a woman or whatever, I would be equally dissatisfied. So, you know, I just look at it in a very arbitrary way. I was just born into this body. I didn’t choose it.
Coming out as queer, there are a number of reasons, but one is that I know that there are people like me who don’t fit the bill of what a queer person looks or sounds like to a lot of people. Maybe it’s like impostor syndrome. Just wearing that label is how I deter those types of crews or people or bookings who’d have negative opinions of queer people. I’m not really interested in really being around people that I don’t feel safe around or that make other people feel unsafe. I also understand that I look and sound like what most people would probably think of as like cis or heteronormative, and representation is really important to me. And normalizing these things is really important. A queer person doesn’t have to look or sound like anything specific, but I think a lot of like normies and boomers don’t know that. Yeah, among other things, like, those are like a few of the reasons why I came out as queer, and that’s kind of how I filter out the bad eggs in terms of like bookings and crews and the like.
HIHF: That it makes it easy if the haters take themselves out, right? I enjoy the irony that coming out actually helps filter out the people that you know you wouldn’t want to work with anyway. So with this shift from focusing more on live shows to doing more lessons and Patreon and the likes, do you find that more redeeming now that you’re teaching?
Keota: I love it because I used to have the learned cultural stigma around teaching of ‘those who can’t do, teach’. I grew older and saw people like Mr. Bill, who I think does a great job at making a stigma such as that seem silly because he’s sick, and he seems like a pretty cool guy as well. I think jokes on anyone who might think that is a stigma because I get to have my cake and eat it too. I get to do what I love. I get to sustain my living in an economic sense. And I also get to learn. With each lesson, I’m rehearsing things that I will then later do on my own time, and I’m often learning new things myself.
The types of questions that people will ask, regardless of what skill level they’re at, can be really profound, and so, I’m constantly checking myself about why I think the ways in the ways that I do, why I do certain things, and what my logic is for behind my techniques. So, I really feel like getting into education, especially in as communal of a way as possible, with as little gatekeeping as possible, is just so rewarding for so many reasons, and I’m constantly sharpening the blade and getting to feel like I help people a little bit at all. It’s like it’s really great, and I never want to feel above that sort of thing because that’s not how I feel. I’ve been doing it for so long that in addition to, I guess, the skill of making electronic music, I’ve also just been getting better at educating and communicating. Something I work on a lot is communication and bridging that gap. And I really like connecting with people, and we can connect with people in a number of ways. Music is one of them, and education is also another too. So yeah, it’s very rewarding. I get to sustain my living. I get to be in my house most of the time, I get to dial in my routines and live at peace and be with my cat and my partner Morgan, and I wouldn’t be able to live the lifestyle that I am living if I were touring or something or making my money in some other way.
HIHF: I guess that perspective makes it feel like you’re more working for yourself versus if you’re on tour forty weeks out of the year and being beholden to the higher entity of touring. We hear about all these mental health issues of touring, being away from home. It’s really refreshing to hear that artists have other outlets now because being beholden to streaming service payouts and touring revenue is incredibly unsustainable. Next question. So, who are your biggest influences?
Keota: Culprate was one of my earlier really, really big influences. And the label Inspected, it shaped my taste a lot. In the early days, they had Koan Sound, Culprate, Reso. Just to name a few. A lot of really sick artists doing the Bristol UK sound from 2010 and onwards. Slug Wife was then a huge influence as well. And then Tipper, I think that he really challenges the whole ideas of artistry and aging and stuff. And I think a lot of people, especially younger artists getting into this think that they gotta make it while they’re still hot and fuckable, find success in their early, mid 20s. Otherwise, it’s too late, and I just think that that’s so silly, and I feel like most of us, deep down, probably know that it is silly, but to actually see somebody who’s a bit older relative to the rest of the scene be pushing the envelope still on a regular basis with integrity and in a way that clearly seems sustainable where everything is calculated is very inspiring. More recently, my biggest inspirations have been my friends, people I’m so grateful to have known and to have met and have built relationships with over the years and friendships, they’ve become some of my best friends. DeeZ and Smigonaut and Mickman and Maxfield and tsimba and Jade Cicada. Jade Cicada brought many of us together. I met Jade Cicada because he came to some show that I threw, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how these things work, but I threw a tour in like 2015. There were basically maybe 5 to 10 people in attendance. And I think that he was attending Berklee College of Music. They’re all such big influences of my sound and Resonant Language as well. And I cannot forget this person, Restraint. He is an absolute madman, an absolute genius, one of the smartest, kindest, most talented people I know. And he’s big time slept on. I’m always trying to give him the juice because he is up there with some of the best sound design and gnarliest arrangements I’ve ever heard. But so much of it is unreleased, and I just want more people to hear it, and I want the best for him. But you know, these people have influenced my sound so much over the years that every other song I’m working on, I’ll think it sounds too much like one of them, but I think I came to the conclusion that I have no secrets. So like, if my stuff sounds like somebody else, I’m probably acknowledging it. I’m probably talking about it because I don’t really take any credit for anything in a lot of ways. I’m very, very thankful and very lucky to be in the position I’m in, so, maybe in the past, I would have been worried about sounding like so-and-so. Now, I’m proud, happy, and thrilled to sound like one of my friends because I’m happy to be a part of whatever sound we’re all pushing together.
HIHF: It speaks volumes how you’re all coming into your own as this style of bass music becomes more popular. And quite honestly, I don’t even know if this style has an official name yet.
Keota: That’s so funny because I tried to describe to people the sound of stuff that I listen to, and I’m like, I don’t know like I still use the term glitch hop, which is so outdated and it’s not even accurate anymore. I have a feeling that it’s kind of like the Northeast sound meeting like the Denver Sound and then the more general sort of glitch-hoppy United States Tipper-y sound. I’m from the Northeast. I spent a lot of my time developing my sound in the Northeast. Mickman and DeeZ are from the Northeast. Smigonaut is from Washington, I think, but moved to the Northeast, where he lived with Jade Cicada in Boston. Smigonaut, DeeZ, and Maxfield all lived together in Boston at one point for a number of years. The biggest missing piece there would be Resonant Language. We were all big on Kursa and Seppa and the Slug Wife crew at the time, so we were taking notes.
HIHF: That’s such awesome insight. Thank you so much, this was an absolute blast. I can’t thank you enough. It was an absolute joy.
Keota: Of course, I’m happy to do it. I’m really just excited for the future and to continue to just keep doing my thing.
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