Pierson’s rapid-fire collage techniques and roiling production style ensure that his rush of ideas also includes tenderness and humour. The album’s final track, ‘NTHNG FKS U HRDR THN TM’ — a sinuous, 11-minute synth wormhole that dissolves into a tolling bell — could be a comment on the wisdom and melancholy of growing older as a gay man.
“I took the title from a line in Game Of Thrones as filtered through millennial text-speak,” he says. “When I heard the character Ser Davos say that on the show, I was like, ‘Yes, that’s church! Amen!’ Everyone can relate to that. My 80-year-old father was the first to recognise the source.”
The flipside of the album’s physicality is a spiritual and creative restlessness, captured by its subtitle: “No artist is pleased... There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others,” a guiding quote from dance legend Martha Graham. It’s a mantra Pierson and his partner Chuck Nanney, whose painting graces the front of ‘Nerve Bumps’, often intoned during Pierson’s making of the album. It can be read as a deliciously haughty admonition to get over any drama queen moments, and just keep keeping on.
“There were a lot of times working on this album when I didn’t quite feel confident about what I was doing, or was uninspired — and I would look into my past or toward other genres for some way forward,” Pierson says. “I feel this album was produced more as an indie or hip-hop album, because I was reaching out for so many different things.
Working on electronic music can feel very solitary,” he continues, “and there’s an urge for perfection as well as connection. You’re moving around all these ideas that you have, without being able to bounce them off other people, as in a band. It can be maddening.“
Pierson’s journey to becoming an electronic musician was a long one. He first came to prominence in the early 2000s with his band Subtle, an avant-garde hip-hop sextet closely associated with the sprawling Anticon collective, which spliced together free jazz and post-rock signifiers into anxious, rap-driven soundscapes. Pierson played keyboards and harmonica, as well as singing and beatboxing; Subtle released several records and toured the United States. He was the only openly queer member of the close-knit alternative rap scene, but its embrace of outcasts and experimentalists made him feel supported.
In 2005, Subtle’s tour van hit a patch of black ice in Iowa and flipped over. Although his bandmates sustained only minor injuries, Pierson’s seat was improperly secured, and he was flung against the ceiling. The impact fractured his spine, paralysing him. It was a devastating injury, but somehow he got through it — a video taken soon afterwards of Pierson in rehab shows him mugging for the camera, and features a light-hearted, ‘Rocky’-like montage of him training with his physical therapists. Subtle released records to raise funds for his recovery, and he even appeared on the band’s final album in 2008, using Ableton for the first time.
He eventually won a lawsuit against Ford, which manufactured the van, and was awarded $18.3 million in damages. But now that he could no longer play traditional instruments, he had to reimagine his life as a musician. What followed was years of self-training on improvised equipment, experimenting with everything from custom midi controllers and personalised programs to “wrist attachments where I was trying to ‘play’ a keyboard. I tried a lot of things, and didn’t really get much outside help. I was figuring things out on my own,” he said.
A true breakthrough came with the availability of touch screens, which Pierson could more easily manipulate by dragging his hand across them. (“Nowadays, live performance is like 50% DJing”, he has said. “I’m still sliding faders up, after all.”) The second half of ‘Live in Oakland’ — recorded in 2018, four years after the first half — was the manifestation of this newfound technical freedom. “That was my first performance using only an iPad and an iPhone,” Pierson says. “I did not use Ableton, I did not use a computer. I was only using iOS equipment, which I felt really rad about.
“You know, this generation is using vintage equipment from my youth, and spending thousands of dollars on modular synthesisers,” he continues, “and here I am, like, ‘What can I do with a $300 iPad and a generation-old iPhone?’ That was my nod to the vintage craze. I respect and love the music people are making with older equipment, but you don’t need a table full of hardware. You can make music with whatever’s at hand. The iPhone is a wonderfully expressive folk instrument. Just open an app and start making noise. If you happen to be recording at the time, you can always go back and chop that shit up.”
Although he accepted that his most viable musical direction was electronic, Pierson originally had some reservations. “In a way, it’s funny that I’m doing this at all,” he says. “I had really never gone to a dance club. I have an alternative rock history. I didn’t get my first computer until a year before the accident.”