Nick Kaelar, otherwise known as Varien, has taken a moment to go over what has been going on over the past year and a half. The wildly creative producer gives us a look into his life; the ups and downs, stress, mental illness, androgyny, video games, independence, conquering Korea, and so much more.
Varien is an enigma. Creative on levels I don’t think we have yet to catch up to; Nick has been building a fan base for years. The Floridian producer effortlessly dominates any genre he touches. Varien can touch your soul with tracks like Valkyrie featuring Laura Brehm, collaborate with Razihel on a nostalgic electro swing jam like Toothless Hawkins (and his robot jazz band), or he can conjure up something that is trying to force its way into our world as he did in My Prayers Have Become Ghosts.
Take a glimpse into Varien's world and read what one of the most interesting people I have ever been in contact with have to say.
What was the deciding factor that made you choose to produce music as a career?
As far as music production goes, I was always in bands and hated how none of my own personal ideas could come to life because the bassist was too busy getting drunk, or the vocalist quit, etc. I wanted full control over every aspect of the music in order for my visions come alive – so ultimately, production allows you to do that! It's sort of like when Bob Ross is painting and says, “You can do anything on this canvas. This is your world. You have absolute power.” – that's exactly the attitude I have when I'm in the zone working in my production software or playing piano. The fact that I could do it well enough to make a living off of music for the better part of a decade is a blessing – here's to another decade too!
How many aliases do you create from?
I've had too many aliases to count. The only real, active ones right now are Varien, and any songwriting I do for K-Pop or J-Pop where it's professionally signed as Nick Kaelar.
Photo Credit: Brian James
You may be one of the most creative people I have ever seen. Where does your inspiration come from?
So many places. Inspiration is literally everywhere, in every breath. That's what the world inspiration comes from, from the Latin “inspirare” – “the drawing in of air”. I am very inspired by video games, particularly Japanese RPGS, which I could talk about for days on end. The video game influence should be obvious to anyone who has seen my arms too, haha! I also have this huge fascination with Y2K era stuff, ya know? There was a really cool anarchistic mindset back then when the internet was just getting off it's feet and the post-Cold War consumerism craze was being blown to pieces by movies like Fight Club (“you are not your job”), The Matrix (“what is real?”) and all of this cool new electronic music like early Drum n Bass, Trip Hop, etc. started happening. BBS forums for Final Fantasy, Gaia Online, DDR MAX 2, Final Fantasy XI Online (favorite game), etc. Rage Against the Machine, A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails, KoRn. My favorite era, to be honest.
My favorite filmmakers are the Wachowskis (Matrix, Animatrix, Speed Racer, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas, Sense8). Cloud Atlas is sort of my bible. It better articulates my spiritual beliefs that words ever could. Go watch it.
Beyond that specific era, I gain inspiration from looking at art too; I make mood boards on Pinterest for any project that's a big one – images and colours help me focus on keeping the aesthetic just right. I am also a spiritually minded person, so prayer and meditation helps a lot with focus and keeping that positivity up. Nature walks are essential. Books too. I pay very close attention to what's happening in the music, art, and video game world too to see what's hot and what's not.
Who does Varien listen to? What was the last song you played in the car?
I listen to so much music, holy heck. It's overwhelming sometimes. My playlists look extremely bipolar, but then again that's never changed – I was burning mixtapes for girls I liked in high schools that had Miles Davis as track 1 and Cannibal Corpse as track 2! Man, I like everything from soul to folk to pop punk, etc. I am, at heart, a huge metalhead – especially progressive metal/rock and gothic metal. I love Disney ballads and theater a lot too. The last song I played in my car was “Paper Moon” by Plini, I'm pretty sure! One of my go-tos in the car though is the Nier: Automata soundtrack.
Photo Credit: Brian Ziff
Is there a song that you have produced that is unrecognizable from the original idea?
Hmm. Most of my ideas go where they need to, I try to just focus on getting a good sound overall – if the tempo changes or genre changes, it just happens. I don't really think about it. Valkyrie III started off as some chiptune jam session I was having for fun, experimenting with implementing ASMR into music. I had been wrestling with how to end such a revered set of songs, so I just jammed for months looking for that right melody. A melody was written during this cutesy little chiptune song and I was like – “wait, this… might be… it.” 10 hours later, I had that puppy SLAMMIN'. The original project file for Valkyrie III was called “Tea Time With Red, The Bear”.
Is there a track of yours that you might not have thought was any good which ended up being successful?
I thought “Whispers in the Mist” was gonna be just sort of a “filler” track, but I loved it. One of the songs I'm most proud of. And it's done fantastic – I really enjoy taking people to that chill yet mystical place.
You have been known for being very dark, agents and managers alike are afraid of you… What is the greatest misconception about Varien?
That I'm actually a very dark, brooding, satanist kinda guy. I'm actually more like a hippie than anything else. I love my family, I preach positivity whenever I can, I've volunteered to help injured marine mammals (shoutout to Winter and Hope, the dolphins. Yes, from that movie!), my idol is Bob Ross, and my ultimate endgame is to retire in a port town in Japan and paint and be absolutely surrounded by peace. People are very surprised also that I'm not gay, bi, or anything LGBT+ due to my photoshoots, although that's a very American thing. People are also surprised that I have a spiritual practice that includes prayer. The makeup and visual kei photoshoots confuse people but it's like, “did you guys forget David Bowie? Marilyn Manson? ALL of Glam Rock? Even the Black Veil Brides for heaven's sake!” haha.
You took a break from all of social media and have since resurfaced. Can you explain the social blackout?
Just needed a break from it, man. This is an industry that really can grind you down, and I was already being ground down by so much. Luckily this year I have adopted a whole new mindset – radical positivity, radical support of my friends, and radical acceptance of what is. But as far as explaining, I made a whole video about it here!
I personally want to congratulate you on getting through your darkest time. Was there a moment that changed your outlook?
Yes. This is something I'm open about now, because it scares people to even hear that word, but yes. Last year around June-August was torture. I don't know what changed my outlook, call it God or faith or a complete rewiring of neurons in my head but I started to just get out more, go spend time with the animals at the zoo, go to therapy, set up boundaries for myself, play good video games, lots of ASMR videos (I was tired of people yelling at me, I just wanted people to whisper at one point). Overall, just take it slow and try to heal. I had been grinding NONSTOP for 7 years as Varien with only 10 days of actual vacation. Not good. Workaholic culture is worshipped in our society and it is absolutely toxic – it's okay to take time off. It's okay to be vulnerable with others. You don't need to be rich or have “influencer” friends to feel complete. You can step off the grind and kick back every once in a while. It's okay that you're not revolutionizing the world – being yourself is more than enough. Relax. Find a purpose. Go.
After a lot of solitary healing and living off royalties essentially, I just kept getting up and doing the things I needed to do. It wasn't until January of this year, at MAGFest, when I was surrounded by creatives again, and got up on stage, and said to myself “Oh yeah. This is what I'm meant to do. Let's go.” – from there, it's been a grind – it's been tough without a label like Monstercat backing me up and a nice paycheck every month but I have managed to make some serious moves all by myself so far. I don't plan on stopping.
You are taking a more independent approach to the business recently; can you touch on the departure from big labels like Monstercat?
Monstercat has changed as a label. I asked Jon (A&R), after pitching 6 months worth of tracks and a branding roadmap to him (and then being politely declined), if he would release Valkyrie, Whispers in the Mist, etc. if I pitched it to him these days – and his answer was “No.” This shows me that their direction as a label has changed, and that's fine – things evolve. I wish them the best. I'm on my own path now.
Photo Credit: Everett Lee Sung
You are a man of many styles be it Gothic/Anime/Rock, just off the top of my head. Lately, you have wandered into the Androgynous realm on your social media. Can you expand on the decision to express yourself in this way?
I love androgyny. I think for me, having the “yang” strength and focus of a male but having the “yin” grace and caring nature of a woman wrapped up in one brain is a deadly combo. Been painting my nails for so many years, I can't remember. I also, from a spiritual perspective, see these games we play as “male” and “female” in terms of gender expression. Of course biology and sexual dimorphism exist, but that's just 50% of the puzzle. Expression is a lot too. I believe the body is also a medium for art, so I really enjoy experimenting with it. Being so influenced by Japanese visual kei, I started doing “full-femme” shoots again this year. Last time I did it, during the My Prayers Have Become Ghosts era, I was rammed into the ground as being trans, gay, a f**got, etc. It scared me so I cut all my hair off and became a “normal guy”. This year, I am not only doing the visual kei look, but I am going the distance with it and making sure that I am always carrying my art with me – inner and outer.
Photo Credit: Gabriella Beck
You are currently credited as co-producer for a number 1 kpop song in Korea by the group VIXX. How did you get into making kpop?
I got into Korean music and dramas from my ex, who was a fan. We watched the MAMAs (Asian Music Awards), and seeing so much amazing yet versatile artists got me thinkin'. I got in contact with a small team in Korea, and over the course of the years, we are now very close to agencies and artists – closer than 99% of people trying to get into this market. The catalogue we have for artists to pick and choose from is VERY strong, and I predict we will sell ALL of the tracks within the next two years. Also, as of the date of this article, just sold a song to a very famous J-Pop idol. Asia loves my music, which is very very refreshing.
How does it feel to be an American with a number one song in Korea?
Distant. But I feel that way about a lot of my work – I would like to start covering my walls with my accomplishments to remind me that I have done cool things, and I'm not just a guy on a computer who makes music. I stay humble about my works, so I am always onto the next thing. I think I celebrated the VIXX placement for about a week, and then moved on. I'm learning to celebrate each success and see how I can display it as a reminder. Framing custom vinyls of my albums, buying up some of my own merch, etc. Since deleting all my social media, I do have times where I feel very irrelevant or “up and coming” – but my friends and fans are there to remind me that no one has forgotten about me and the past 7 years, they just need to come on home back to me. And that's an insane feeling that I don't quite know how to process yet!
Can you talk about Zera and the City of Endless Night?
This is a huge project. Massive. I am the Vice President of Blue Pulse Studios, and we are making a 2.5 Metroidvania game called Zera and the City of Endless Night. We are in the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of game developers who are startups, and have been blessed with insane opportunities like working with Andy Serkis' Imaginarium Studios on motion capture, as well as partnering up with people like Red Bull and Razer. Everything else is behind a fort knox of NDAs, my friend. But we are close. We plan on debuting a demo at E3 2019.
Finally, darker themed music is all the rage; Now that the world is catching up to your level of creative awareness… What can the fans of your darker stuff expect?
I'm kinda over it, to be honest. I'm in a space where, I'm comfortable taking some risks – so fans can expect a return to a more Valkyrie/Whispers approach to music – more organic and metal influenced rather than pure industrial or house. I feel the dark brands now are just Wal-Mart bargain bin attempts at channeling Gestaffelstein. Where's the edge? The grit? I'm done competing with “the world” anyways – I would rather make my own, one that is both dark and light, beautiful and heavy, intense and soft. Again, a slow path – no slipstream for me. But in no time, it'll be worth it to have an entire world built that people can explore, that is separate from any genre or trend. That's just Varien and a wholesome community of art lovers from around the world.
Photo Credit: Gabriella Beck