Nick Jenkins lives in an introvert's palace. Down a hallway at the back of a sizeable downtown house he shares with five others, his spartan home studio is lined with the things that keep him going: vintage cameras, outsider art prints pinned directly to the wall, bookshelves full of CDs from indie acts, Wes Anderson DVDs. Artistically, he requires a lot of input.
In the middle of it all, a battered white MacBook whirs mightily to keep pace with Jenkins' torrential creative output. He has released four albums this year under his solo moniker, Mr. Jenkins, and the songs have largely been arranged and recorded on the laptop, using the built-in microphone to capture found-sound samples, vocals, and outside-the-box percussion.
"I'm really into writing my dreams down lately," Jenkins says, seated at his desk with the program VirtualDJ open on the laptop. "Most of the time in dreams, I don't recall anything that is musical, but I feel like in dream states, your mind is behaving in this way that is sort of on this weird loop, like a weird, glitchy loop. And this is sort of what I'm exploring with this software."
To demonstrate, he pulls up the track "Happy Cop" from one of his 2013 albums, Ginkgo. The song is a meandering piano improvisation with a few jazzy motifs that he recorded at a friend's house, but now he isolates a three-note trill and plays it in a loop. Fiddling with the trackpad, he drops the pitch and speed until the trill becomes a groan, like an old elevator struggling to lift.
Jenkins' solo work can broadly be described as electronic with its layered MIDI keyboards and digital soundscapes. But it's a far cry from dance music. Taking a page from the Boards of Canada playbook, Jenkins often incorporates real-world samples of things like TV commercials, clarinets, and flicking lighters. When he sings, it's hushed and deep, sometimes distorted.
The result is a textural melange of cold electronic instrumentals, warm home recordings, and twitchy, inventive drum beats. He has never invested in a professional-grade microphone, using his laptop's built-in mic, a cheap handheld voice recorder, and sometimes even his cell phone to capture sounds. "I am always trying to do things on the cheap," Jenkins says. "So naturally, by practice, lo-fi has always been my approach."
Growing up in rural Walterboro, Jenkins received formal training on the drums as a member of the high school marching and concert bands. Later, he joined the jazz program at the College of Charleston and then played the bass drum for a stint with the arty New York City street band Asphalt Orchestra. He traces his experimental music roots back to Sessions at West 54th, a late-night program he used to watch on SCETV as a child. The show, at one point hosted by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, featured cutting-edge performances by pop acts, and Jenkins remembers taping it obsessively during middle school. "It was nothing like what was in my life," Jenkins says. "It just seemed like a portal or something."
Today, Jenkins talks about his work in a way that's either self-deprecating or highfalutin, depending on whether you buy into Sigmund Freud's idea that art can be a product of a sublimated anal drive.
"I make music for a really selfish reason, like I need it to feel a certain way. It's sort of like going to the bathroom," Jenkins says. "You need to take a poop, you need to take a leak and keep the chemicals moving, the nutrients moving in the body. So I feel like creative outlets are just ways to keep ideas moving. Sometimes ideas are childish and dark. Sometimes they're light. Sometimes they're heavy."
Jenkins seems ill at ease welcoming strangers into his cloister. "Do you want some water, something to drink?" he asks after an hour of conversation in the studio. Wearing a black button-up shirt, black trousers, and black suspenders, he gives off the air of a priest or a dapper goth. A speaker on a bookshelf by his desk pulses with the experimental music that inspires him: Young Marble Giants, Sun Kil Moon, a cavalcade of increasingly obscure and groundbreaking artists. Now settled in for an interview, he sits ramrod straight on a low ottoman, sinewy hands clasped on his knees, brow furrowed in concentration as he weighs each word.
This is the carefully curated world of a man who makes thoughtful music for headphones.
Despite his monkish tendencies and the fiercely independent nature of his solo work, Jenkins is also a wide-ranging musical collaborator. Since graduating from the College of Charleston's jazz program in 2005, he has made himself a fixture in the Holy City's avant-garde and indie music scenes, recording as a drummer, bass guitarist, and vocalist with artists including alt-country songwriter Lindsey Holler, folk-rocker Bill Carson, jazz singer Leah Suarez, and experimental folkie Joel Hamilton, among many others. His musical career has also taken him on international jaunts with the cutting-edge theater company of New York playwright Young Jean Lee.
Jenkins' longest-running collaboration to date is with Run Dan Run, a local indie-rock band for which he has contributed to seven recordings and drawn some album cover art. Frontman Dan McCurry also signed Jenkins to his indie record label, Hearts and Plugs, and although the label has not yet put out any Mr. Jenkins recordings, Jenkins has appeared on albums with label mates the Lovely Few and Ashley Hopkins.
No chatterbox himself, McCurry says Jenkins has always been the quieter of the two since they met in college. "He's my Zen friend," McCurry says. Indeed, Jenkins' voice rarely rises above a soothing monotone in conversation, as if he's giving instructions for meditation. "In a situation where we're hanging out, he's likely to not say much, or if we exchange e-mails, his e-mails don't say much. He's a very positive character, too. He just always seems in tune with himself, at least."
Mr. Jenkins' 36 solo albums and EPs, released from November 2006 to date, form a stream of consciousness that is breathtaking in scope. "Nick is probably one of the most prolific, 'art for the sake of art' artists I've ever met," McCurry says. (Upon hearing the compliment, Jenkins is deapdan but grateful. "That's sweet," he says.)
Jenkins has also collaborated a few times with the pioneering Charleston quirk-pop band Slow Runner. Frontman Michael Flynn is a fan. "He's really difficult to categorize," Flynn says of Jenkins. "You'd have to compare it to other mediums. He's sort of like, if he was a painter, he'd dabble with abstract fingerpaint, and then he does papier mâché collages, and then he does really detailed watercolor. He just does so many different things, and yet it all kind of sounds like him."
At Mr. Jenkins' Bandcamp.com storefront, a listener with a lot of free time could potentially stream or download the entire catalog. Among the selections:
• Beets (March 2013), a 16-track collection of percussion-based songs including a furious 9-second drum-machine run ("Guy Remains Persistent") and a multipart arrangement reminiscent of In Rainbows-era Radiohead ("For the Righteous Babe Working at the Ice Cream Stand").
• Seven volumes in the Samples series (March 2012), including the sounds of keys jingling, wine glasses clinking, and a cellphone emitting garbled tones from A to G#.
• Salt (May 2012), a collection of four songs written at 110 beats per minute. You'll hear sultry R&B lyrics over a chopped-up remix of an '80s horror-movie soundtrack. On the track "To the Max," over a pulsing drum machine and droning keyboards, Jenkins whispers, "Sweat, sweat, sweat/ Don't play hard to get/ Open up the door/ Let the future in."
• If/Then (November 2011), a long-distance collaboration with then-Indiana-based electronic artist Glassboy. The opening track, "Coffee with Mr. Jenkins," sounds like it's sampling both the sound of a ping-pong game and the bleeps from a home-computer version of Pong.
• Two volumes of Commercials (October 2008-April 2009), in which Jenkins assembles surprisingly cohesive ambient songs from samples of television shows, radio broadcasts, YouTube videos, and a choir of frogs living under his house, among other disparate source material.
Suffice to say he makes a lot of forays into obtuse musical territory, and every once in a while, he strikes gold. "Yeah, there's some stuff on my Bandcamp that I feel like is just passable, because it's just sort of there to document," Jenkins says. "But I also enjoy the internet for that reason."
It's a Monday night at Tin Roof, and a gaggle of gorgeously disheveled scenesters gathers around Jenkins and the two other members of Jean Jacket, one of the umpteen side projects in which he participates. Jenkins, on bass guitar, is seated on a chair on the West Ashley venue's floor, and he stares out stoically from inside a cardboard television set that he wears on his head. Bandmate Jack Hackenberg is playing the banjo while wearing a stuffed bass fish on her headband; Jeanette Louise dramatically strums an autoharp. No word of explanation is offered for the costumes as they launch into a warbling narrative song about a Japanese sun goddess who exposes her genitals to the world.
Jenkins' fans are no strangers to such willful acts of bohemianism. Once, when he was slated to perform at the Berkshire Fringe festival in Massachusetts, he arrived early and took a walk in the woods. He found a semi-hollow tree, used his laptop to record himself drumming on it, and incorporated the improvised percussion sample into his live set later that day. The field recording appears as a track on Ginkgo.
Michael Hanf, a New York musician with Charleston roots, says he appreciates the subtleties of Jenkins' recordings and the intricacies of his drum technique. "It's hard to not push headphones closer to your ears or lean closer to the speaker to get every nuance out of it," says Hanf, who once played with Jenkins in Lindsay Holler's backing band the Dirty Kids. "It speaks to me in a lot more of a personal talking-to-a-friend sort of way than a lot of other records that are put out that are super-polished. There always seems to be a plexiglass window between you and the artist. With Mr. Jenkins, you don't ever get that. It's like you're staring right into his face."
It was Hanf who got Jenkins the touring gig with Young Jean Lee. In 2011, shortly after Jenkins decided to try his fortunes in the Big Apple, the performance artist was looking for an indie-rock accompanying band to play between monologues at her show, We're Gonna Die. The production, which a New York Times critic described as a "freaky existential cabaret," turned out to be a perfect fit for Jenkins, who played bass guitar and later drums in the band. "Every time I work with Nick, it's kind of mind-blowing the out-of-left-field stuff he comes up with," Hanf says.
Still, even with the Lee gig and the Asphalt Orchestra gig, Jenkins struggled to make rent in New York. He took a few non-musical jobs, as he does in Charleston, where he washes dishes at Fast and French. "Even though I've been pursuing this path over a decade, I'm still very new to it, and I'm still learning how to make a living every day," Jenkins says.
Back in Charleston, Jenkins still wades headlong into his art, performing in numerous projects and churning out new releases. He is even curating a TED talk, TEDxCalhounStreet, scheduled for Sept. 20 at the Charleston County Public Library main branch. Jenkins has wrangled an arts-heavy lineup of speakers for the event, including McCurry, Redux director Stacey Huggins, and musician Sarah Bandy.
Recently, Jenkins invited his friend and fellow percussionist Kyle Polk into the studio to drum on whatever noise-producing objects they could find: wood blocks, the floor, drinking glasses, anything but drums. This produced a lengthy recording that he describes as "two men in a room hitting things." He plays a sample on the laptop, and when I ask if the sounds ever coalesce into a beat, he pauses to think. "Mmm, it's pretty nebulous," he says. I ask if he has plans to release it, and he dryly replies, "No, I think I might have to edit it down first." The recording is an hour long.
McCurry says he saw a change in Jenkins when he returned from New York. "I've noticed that he knows what he doesn't want to do, and I've seen that he hasn't really taken some of those things that might pay him money and those gigs that he knows he's just not musically interested in at this time," McCurry says. "So he's very focused on the types of art and music he wants to do, and he stays true to that."
As Mr. Jenkins, Nick Jenkins follows the muse down whatever rabbit hole she leads. The result is frustrating to listen to at times, exhilarating at others, but it's never dull. Like a mischievous sensei, he'll put you in a trance and then slap you upside the head.
"I'm really into meditative practices, meditative thoughts, but then the sudden juxtaposition of other pervasive thoughts — shifting gears suddenly," Jenkins says. "Maybe I have a fear of boring myself or boring the world. I don't know. But yeah, that's where I am, exploring that, whatever that is."
Mr. Jenkins' next solo show is scheduled for Sept. 28 at the Tattooed Moose with Mechanical River, Sans Jose, Can't Kids, Sarah Bandy, Boring Portals, the Itchy Hearts, Gold Light, and Punks & Snakes.