Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is trying to turn on the lights. There are lots of them — standing lamps, bare bulbs, string lights dangling overhead — but none respond to the switches he’s able to find nestled among the studio equipment and instruments. We’re in the soundproofed Portage Park, Chicago, basement that his math-rock band Monobody uses as a practice space, in the house his bandmates share.
One of them comes downstairs nursing a red popsicle, sees us scrambling in darkness, and flips a switch on what looks like an amplifier head. The place lights up. Ogbonnaya steals a lick of his bandmate’s popsicle before he goes back upstairs.
Since moving to Chicago for school at the start of the decade, Ogbonnaya, 26, has played in more than half a dozen bands — drums in Monobody, bass in the punk band Nervous Passenger and the art-rock group Teen Cult. He’s also put out countless homespun releases on Bandcamp, first as Nnamdi’s Sooper-Dooper Secret Side Project, now just under his full name. His Bandcamp page crackles with indelible album covers and titles, from the relatively straightforward BUGS ARE GROSS AND WEIRD to the far more enigmatic FECKIN WEIRDO: Nnamdi's spectral adventures through a pubulous conundrum, canceling out the burrowing burden and ambiguity of his pre-zuberant tooth shine.
The music behind the playful display is no easier to pin down. Sometimes it’s post-hardcore about depression and violence, like on the 2013 EP Despondent. Sometimes, as on 2013's “Art School Crush,” Ogbonnaya sounds like early Grizzly Bear. Mostly he careens between genres, chasing whims eagerly, mumbling and shouting and rapping and breaking into falsetto as each song unwraps itself in turn.
Between band practices, Ogbonnaya would camp out in Monobody’s basement to hammer out sessions for Drool, his first album released in conjunction with a label other than his own imprint Sooper Records. Most of those sessions he scrapped, waking up the morning after a long night in the basement to find he didn’t like what he’d churned out. The bulk of the album was assembled quietly on a computer in his room in Humboldt Park. But its second track, “nO drOOl,” includes guitar and bass tracks that he played down here. They’re the only analog instruments on the whole LP, and they’re processed to the point of fitting in indistinguishably with the rest of his synthesized patchwork.
Born in California, Ogbonnaya lived in Ohio for a while before coming to Chicago. He started playing drums in fifth grade, and credits his family for planting the musical bug that grew into a compulsion. "My dad played guitar, my mom sang too. Everyone in my house [was] pretty musical,” he says. "I'm just the one that it became an obsession for. I'd borrow everyone's instruments and never give them back, and they'd be like, 'Oh, I guess that's his now.'"
In the city he found an abundance of musicians for whom music wasn’t just an activity but a way of measuring time, metering out the days by verses and songs. "Everyone I know pretty much just has ideas flowing constantly," he says of his peers and collaborators. "I don't know what the fuck I'd be doing if I couldn't play music with all these people, if they didn't support me all the time to make my own music."
Until Drool, Ogbonnaya had taken advantage of the light-speed music releasing made possible by the internet, uploading bundles of tracks to Bandcamp as soon as he’d finished recording them, with quickly photoshopped JPEGs for covers. But he waited with this album, which he first started writing about two and a half years ago. He took his time tweaking it, and it paid off.
Last year, the New York band PWR BTTM tweeted about a song Ogbonnaya had written about a college friend who passed away. When he got in touch with the duo, they asked if he had any unreleased music. He told them about Drool, and they connected him with Jessi Frick of San Francisco's Father/Daughter Records, which had coreleased PWR BTTM's 2015 debut. Frick scooped up Drool for a digital and CD release, and PWR BTTM went on to book Ogbonnaya as the opener for their summer 2017 tour.
It’s easier to hear Drool as hip-hop than most of Ogbonnaya’s other releases. It has beats, for one, and he raps between bursts of melody. Tracks like the single “let gO Of my egO,” a catchy romp about a fling gone wrong, alternate straightforward narrative storytelling with delirious free-associative wordplay. "This is the first album I wrote where I was strictly doing beats first and [then] trying to figure out everything else. A lot of this came from simple melody ideas,” he says. "I love rap, but that was never a set thing in my mind, like, I'm going to make rap. It just kind of happened."
But more than anything, the album sounds like other artists who have oozed out of their genre containments. Mike Patton’s ’90s project Mr. Bungle comes to mind — Ogbonnaya has a similar elasticity and impulsivity as a vocalist — as does the mid-aughts indie-rap band Subtle. Ask Ogbonnaya about his formative musical influences, though, and he’ll tell you about Looney Tunes and Disney movies.
"Subconsciously, that stuff stuck with me. Just being able to animate life and movement, to be the soundtrack to people's life,” he says. "When you watch a Looney Tunes cartoon, it's so dense, musically. You don't really think about it when you're little. You're just like, Oh, funny sounds are happening and the mouse got hurt. But now, going back and listening to that stuff, I'm like, holy shit, I watched these so much, and it's definitely messed up my brain a little bit. In a positive way, where it's very organized but still super chaotic at the same time.”
He took a lot from musicals, too (his favorite is Mary Poppins), and he’s even written a couple of his own. One, which he’s hoping to stage in Chicago, tells the story of a kid who suddenly gets superpowers and ends up killing his parents. The other is a take on Peter and the Wolf reinterpreted at a Looney Tunes clip. Neither, he says, sounds anything like Drool.
At the Hideout, a divey venue tucked into an industrial corridor just outside Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Ogbonnaya translates Drool into a rock album. He’s headlining the night, backed by the three roommates who share his Humboldt Park apartment, standing at the mic with a guitar slung over his shoulders. Behind him, his friends play drums, keys, bass, and guitar, swapping instruments around as the music demands. On record, these songs are interwebbing textures and dense, shifting fields of sound. Live, it’s clear that the thrust of the music lies in Ogbonnaya's voice, which is just as nimble on the stage as it is in the studio.
The darkness in the songs becomes clearer when you can see his face while he’s singing them. “Me 4 Me,” a love song to no one, ends with Ogbonnaya repeating “I just wanna be loved” like a mantra. Over the shuffling backbeat of "sHOULD hAvE kNOwN,” he tries opening up to an uncaring audience and gets numbed in return. “See the problem with the pain is / They won’t ever look at you the same way.” Then there’s “iVyTRA,” the album’s anxious closing track, which nods to the stress of living amid Chicago’s brutal police presence.
"This is definitely my first 'I live in Chicago' album," Ogbonnaya tells me. "There's a couple songs about gun violence in Chicago and just feeling drained living here. I met a lot of people while I was writing this album that were like, 'I love Chicago, this is my city.' I just don't feel that way. I don't think I feel that way about any place particularly. It's just the people I've met make it worth staying here. There's definitely vibes of that, of not feeling at home most places but still making it work.”
Drool doesn’t sound like a Chicago album. It sounds like an album dropped out of the sky encased in jagged spikes of hard candy that melt over time into rivers of neon slime, eventually exposing the dark core inside. Ogbonnaya has made a bright, sticky monument to those who feel frantically placeless wherever they go. He’s made it work.