Devata Daun talks about her new EP, co-running a record label, spiritual awakening, and environmentalism

Devata Daun
Devata Daun (Photo: Nylo G.)

Devata Daun released the EP Pye Luis on August 24. The EP is the result of a collaboration between a number of Minnesota-based artists, including Devata Daun (Nikki Pfeifer), c.Kostra (Ryan Olcott), and Pye Luis (Efren Maldonado). The record’s five tracks showcase Pye Luis’ knack for writing sultry R&B instrumentals, c.Kostra’s signature tape modulation and Devata Daun’s hypnotic vocal hooks.

Nikki Pfeifer started releasing music under the name Devata Daun in 2016, with the debut album L o o k. When she’s not making music as Devata Daun, Pfeifer co-runs Pytch Records, produces techno and industrial music, and advocates for zero waste in her day-job in recycling and environmentalism.

I met up with Pfeifer at a Minneapolis coffee shop to learn more about her new EP, involvement in the Twin Cities music scene, and current inspirations.

 

Colleen Cowie: The EP is called Pye Luis, and he is someone who you’ve worked with before, right?

Nikki Pfeifer: Yeah.

CC: What was his involvement with this project, and how did you ask him to be a part of this EP?

NP: Pye Luis is Efren Maldonado. He’s been in the scene for a good number of years, probably 15 years, and is really good at writing R&B and Soul. He just started writing a bunch of instrumental tracks and sending them to me. I’m used to writing my own stuff, so I was like, “Oh, this is fun, I’ll get a chance to flex my R&B and Soul skills.” When I write by myself I don’t normally have the total R&B and soul flavors. I have elements of it, but it’s more darkwave. So I really gravitated towards it because he has a really good sensibility. He grew up listening to Prince and all of the iconic writers and performers in that genre.

Efren also wanted to get in on Pytch Records, the label that Ryan Olcott and I run. He loves our sound, so he wanted to find a way to integrate his tracks that he had been creating, and wanted to put a Pytch flavor on it, so he asked, “Do you want to put lyrics, melodies over it?” It was really super easy. He would send me a track, and it would be like, “Yes, this is amazing.” It would take me like a half-hour to scribble something over it. Then we would pass it over to Ryan [Olcott], who also goes by c.Kostra, that’s his solo project, and then Ryan puts the finishing touches on everything. He does this tape modulation to it and mixes and masters everything. Efren would write the instrumentals, and then I went to lay my vocals and lyrics over it, and Ryan would do the finishing touches. It was pretty effortless for me. I almost feel guilty doing that, because I’m so used to taking over all of the writing, so it was really fun to do.

Working up to the release, it almost didn’t seem real to me. It’s been done for a couple years, so we just made the decision, “Let’s just release this as an EP, because these are a set of great tracks.” I just didn’t have that emotional attachment to it, to put that commitment to releasing it, because they weren’t totally mine. It was a really fun way to collaborate with people. That’s why we named it Pye Luis, to give homage to what Efren did.

CC: So when did most of the writing and recording and all of that happen for this project?

NP: A couple years ago. We originally were going to release it as Plastic Boxes, and then it just didn’t happen. We released a music video called “Weakening.” Adam Dunn did a really cool job on it where he took my face and put it on old black and white films. Then we just sat on that for a year or two and were like, “Let’s release this!” We weren’t really sure what to do with it, and it just kind of happened.

CC: Yeah I wanted to ask you about music videos, because you put out a number of them, and one of the ones that came out for this EP, “It’s So Sad” was the 360/VR video. Whose idea was that, how did that come together?

NP: Adam Dunn. He has worked on all the Pye Luis music videos. Adam Dunn and Efren both like to work on video. Whenever people work with me, I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do whatever!” I feel very lucky that people feel comfortable coming to me and knowing that I’m very open-minded and am like, “Yeah, let’s experiment. You can flex your creative style.”

Adam Dunn works with Hollywood movies, actually. He worked on “Transformers,” I think the first one, and did special effects. So he works remotely and works with a lot of talent in Hollywood. But like any creative person, it’s hard to keep up on making a living and means, even when you land really cool gigs like that. He’s been trying to do side-jobs and work with musicians in Minneapolis and St. Paul and will cut them a really good deal and will do videos for 200 to 400 dollars, which with the skill sets that he has, he could easily charge a couple thousand.

With the 360 thing, I had no creative input on that. I just showed up, he shoots super fast, he shoots in like an hour. He and Efren take the reins on the creative direction for videos, which is a relief off of my shoulders, because I trust their taste and I am also so busy with having a full-time job and running our label.

CC: So what was the process of recording that 360 video? Had you done anything like that before— was it all green screens?

NP: Yep, just green screen. We just played the song on loop like five times, and Adam was like, “Okay, just make weird moves, maybe hold some poses for a little bit.” I just danced to the song and it really only took like an hour max. The 360 stuff is brand new to me. I have a friend who does visual arts, and she did a 360 thing a couple months ago, so that was the first time I ever heard of it happening— you can do this, you can take your device and see all around. And I know that you can do that on live footage and stuff like that. It’s kind of crazy, the power we hold in our handheld devices.

CC: Yeah, that’s crazy too, the way that things are changing so rapidly. 20 years ago, who would think that music videos would be incorporating virtual reality?

NP: I know. 20 years ago it’s like, “What? We have this tiny computer in our hand that we get angry at when it doesn’t load fast enough?”

CC: It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for all of this, if people are going to put on goggles and enter the music video.

NP: I have a couple friends who have virtual reality headgear and when I sent them the video link, they were like, “Oh, I’m going to watch this on my virtual reality headgear!” I was like, “Oh! I didn’t know that was already a thing.”

It’s crazy because I feel like our technological advances— humans are able to produce these advances, but I don’t think we’re emotionally able to be on the same pace. That’s why it’s like, “aahh!” — so much stimulation, and we feel like we have to keep up with it. I know this won’t happen, but I’m hoping humanity will want to slow down. That’s the frame of mind that I’m in right now; slowing down and not feeling like you have to work at the pace that advances are going at.

And that’s the beauty, I think, of our label. We’re using cassette tapes to make sound, and I know that’s a format that’s kind of circling back. I heard in Europe it’s not a thing, maybe it’s just in America, but I really treasure analog machines and analog formats, because you almost lose the value of how these formats came to be and their history. Especially instruments; I think that using Ableton is a beautiful thing, it allows people to be able to compose music at a very quick rate of learning, but also you lose the value of, “Where did these instruments come from?” and their innovators and the genres that created their homage.

CC: Yeah it’s been really exciting for me to see this whole resurgence of analog, and cassettes, which was something that surprised me, at least. I grew up really without cassettes— I listened to a couple, but I was born in the late ‘90s, so it wasn’t totally part of my generation, and now to see labels that produce exclusively cassettes kind of blows my mind. But it’s also really cool because it seems a lot more accessible than maybe vinyl, where you would be charging 20, 25 bucks for a release, whereas you can come out with a tape and just charge 5 bucks for one, and it’s a lot easier.

NP: Yeah vinyl is so expensive to make. I’m an environmentalist, that’s what I do full-time, so it’s hard to apply that to the formats we’re selling, tapes and CDs, which are essentially trash. It’s a big internal conflict for me to also be like, “Here’s plastic that was cheaply made, and who knows if it was ethically derived and made.” I’m also hoping that these are formats that are not just a one-time use. I think it’s hard to sell digital downloads, because people, they’re still very materialistic. They see a cassette or a CD, and then a paper card that has a digital download; people still want to buy physical formats. That’s reassuring.

CC: What kind of formats does Pytch Records put out?

NP: Just tapes and CDs. And digital downloads. We tried doing USB drives. I saw a friend do that and was like, “That’s brilliant!” — using this really valuable USB drive that can be reused and we’re only charging 5 or 10 bucks, depending on whether it’s an EP or album. They didn’t sell as great as we thought, so those haven’t caught on. It seemed like a really ideal format, because it’s tiny, people probably see value in it, because there’s a lot of memory you can hold on them. That was one format that we were hoping would catch on.

 

CC: Could you talk a little bit more about Pytch Records and how that got started? And that’s something that you do with Ryan Olcott as well?

NP: I approached Ryan with my first record. I had just started making electronic music, I bought this Prophet ’08, it’s a Dave Smith synth. I still don’t really know all that it’s capable of; it’s pretty powerful. I was asking around Minneapolis, “Who do I go to to work on electronic music?” I wanted to be super progressive and good, and they were like, “Ryan Olcott;” everybody said that. So he worked on my record. He was working with another friend and applying the same tape effect to his project, as well as Ryan’s project. They were both like, “Hey, do you want to this with your project as well?” And I was like, “Yeah, that sounds amazing!” So we were like, “Well, we have to make a platform for this, because it’s a pretty specific sound.” Garrison Grouse was the other artist, and he coined Pytch Records; Pytch, because it’s pitch-effected music. “Pitch,” with the regular spelling was already taken, so we had to make it our own and put a “y” in there. It gets butchered all the time.

CC: Yeah that’s maybe fitting, because it’s warping the pitch, and it’s not spelled as it usually is.

NP: Yep, and then you have c.Kostra, which is Ryan’s project, that’s spelled weird. And you have Devata Daun, and that’s a weird one too.

CC: Where does the name Devata Daun come from?

NP: That was generated by an old band member of mine, when I started abandoning my old sound. I started making baroque-pop piano music when I started writing, and decided it wasn’t my thing any more, and electronic music sounded cool. So I wanted to change the name of my pseudonym. An old band member came up with it. It’s from an old divine language, I don’t even know which one, but it means “fallen god” or “fallen goddess.” So it’s got that doom and gloom, but feminine aspect to it. And it’s non-gendered; it’s god or goddess.

CC: Could you talk about your musical background, and going from baroque-pop to electronic and incorporating R&B— what has your trajectory been, and when did you first get involved in playing music? Was that something that you grew up with, or fell into later in life?

NP: I started playing piano when I was two. My mom was a piano teacher. I grew up singing in church, kind of the typical rural Minnesota upbringing. I played various instruments: violin, trumpet, French horn. I was classically trained until I was about 16, and then kind of didn’t ever think to do anything further with that, it was just part of growing up.

My older brother, when I was actually married at the time, was like, “I have a friend who is opening up a studio. You have a great voice, you play a lot of instruments, have you thought of writing songs?” I was like, “No,” totally shrugged it off many times. He was really adamant about it. He was like, “You have a lot of skill, you should do something cool with it.”

So I finally started writing when I was 23. I was living with my parents, getting ready to get married, and moved up to the Cities. It was a whole change in my life; I moved from rural Minnesota to Minneapolis, and was really starting to come into myself. That’s how I found my first band members.

When I was 28 I was already over my marriage; I’m still really good friends with my ex. And fell in love with Ryan, and now Ryan and I run our label and do electronic music. Then I really wanted to start getting into the deep electronic scene in the Cities. I’m really trying to learn, “Where do these genres come from?” and “Where do these scenes generate this energy?” So I started hanging out with the underground techno scene and just started doing live hardware sets. I started teaching myself how to use sequencers. I have a lot of fun doing my techno project, making live techno.

I’m actually, today, I was like, “You know what? I want to start making industrial music.” So I’m going to start doing that; I want to make some industrial music tonight. I’m a part of the Dark Energy Collective, and I DJ those events. My friends just threw their first festival called NOVO Industrial Festival. They brought international guests on and I was really inspired by that, so I want to start expanding my edgier side. Because with R&B stuff, I need to have my harsher outlet too.

CC: Do you have any current musical inspirations?

NP: Just my friends. I don’t know if this is more common among writers, but I don’t listen to music in my off time. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too busy, or I’m just enjoying the silence. The only time I listen to music is if I go see a show, and most of the time they’re my friends. A lot of my friends I’m hanging out with are in the noise and goth and industrial scene, and I’m really inspired by their techniques on no formats, because my music that Ryan and I make is very pop formatted, and so it’s really nice to pull away from that and just not be so regimented. So that’s what I’m looking forward to and what I’m being exposed to with the noise and industrial scene right now.

CC: Do you have any other inspirations besides music, just things that are inspiring you in the moment generally in life, whether it’s a book or a movie or a food, or anything that’s exciting you at the moment?

NP: My spiritual awakening experience is the only thing that I spend my free time on, which is very rare. I have been into some weird stuff lately. I’ve been on a sober journey, and through that it’s really shed a bunch of veils, and I’m experiencing some really cool things and exploring theories on contact with extraterrestrials— it gets weird. I get really weird in my off-time, but I love reading books on past lives, where our souls actually come from, reincarnation.

I’m really fascinated with the Pleiades, it’s a star system that we can actually see from here. I just realized that I had been noticing this star system throughout my whole life, and didn’t realize why, but I think I’m attracted to it for a very specific reason, and I’m really trying to explore my past soul and my past lives, connected to that.

I feel like we all have intuitive psychic abilities that we can all tap into that once we lift veils of conditioning, we can all deal with that too. I’m really working on trying to clean out my system and learn, “How you raise your vibrations to perceive certain things?” So things are going to get weird.

CC: You work in environmentalism and recycling as well?

NP: I do, yeah— Eureka Recyling. Our message is, recycling is not the solution; waste is not inevitable. We get 330,000 tons of recycling per week, around the surrounding Cities, and so we really try to advocate for zero waste in general. Let’s pay attention to our consumption, our output, trying to speak to Senate and fight bills. We want manufacturers to start being responsible for the output and the packaging that they’re putting their stuff in.

I’ve been getting more involved with the zero waste team there and helping out with events, like at block parties. Our team will divert up to 98% of the waste that would go to a landfill. We all have to pitch in and try to make that happen. It’s hard when the education is not engrained in us, because it just isn’t taught to us as something important to live by. We’re not just here to help recycle, we’re here to teach zero waste lifestyle changes.

This winter I want to start doing zero waste workshops and apply the knowledge that I’ve learned at my organization and help people know that this is an approachable thing. It doesn’t mean zero waste totally; nobody’s perfect, and it’s all about making the small changes, like not using plastic bags, and using reusable dishes.


Devata Daun is celebrating the release of Pye Luis on Wednesday, August 29 at the Red Room. You can listen to Pye Luis, and the rest of Devata Daun’s music on Bandcamp.

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