For Quadeca, Home Is the Afterlife

For Quadeca, Home Is the Afterlife

CW: This interview contains discussions of suicide.

When Quadeca announced that he was sitting on "the greatest ever posthumous album," no one expected that it would be his.

But nonetheless, the musician is alive to celebrate the release of I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You. After a distributor mistakenly put the album on Apple Music early, he still managed to bask in the magic of his best album yet being received by the public.

We sit together in an empty sushi restaurant, only minutes after an intimate performance at The Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey on the same day as his album release. Inside the venue, I witness him being swarmed by adoring fans that gasp at his presence not dwarfed by his oversized knit sweater and Nintendo hat. Several fans lift up their clothes asking for him to write their next tattoo — a request that makes Quadeca cringe, not because he doesn't want to do it, but because he is surprised by the commitment.

Outside of the venue with nothing but a sushi roll and soy sauce bottle between us, we are two strangers bound by our shared experiences of grief, depression and renewed passion for life. As a rainstorm rages outside, there's comfort in the restaurant ambiance. Despite his meek demeanor, he thrives off of interacting with his community. "Fans" is a word that hesitates to leave his mouth, because it's more than a transactional relationship.

The 22-year-old musician, born Ben Lasky, first got his start on YouTube as a preteen, uploading piano covers and moving into video game commentary spurred by his love for soccer. At 14, he began rapping and eventually released his debut mixtape, Work In Progress. Nearly a decade since that project and its fitting title, Lasky still offers himself the same grace. Rapid-fire raps and video game puns aside, he always knew he wanted to do more.

Much of the press surrounding Lasky focuses on his YouTuber background, placing him amongst the countless other content creators that find another revenue stream in churning out mixtapes. It just so happened that he was one of the few to make music that was actually good. However, both the praise and criticism always pat Lasky on the back for making an effort good enough for a content creator. At what point does he become a musician?

I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You was intended to be a posthumous album. His initial hint was met with lighthearted jokes and speculation that it was Frosty’s album, not his. It was a comforting prospect. Alarm bells weren’t being set off, and, under the cover of darkness and loneliness, he could meticulously tinker as he sees fit. As the project became more fleshed-out, Lasky knew he had to see it through. Each day of revisions and brainstorming meant another day on this Earth.

He was not trying to prove anything. I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You was the closest thing to a proper send-off. Like the voyeuristic urge to listen in on the eulogies at your funeral or the morbid curiosity to know how or when you’ll die, Lasky unintentionally satiated his urge to control his own mortality.

Lasky was now faced with a seldom-asked question: How do you sit with your most vulnerable work when you didn’t intend to be alive to witness it? How do you live in a world you didn’t think you’d see?

While there's autonomy in death, that means there's autonomy in choosing to live as well. Quadeca chose the latter.I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You attempts to convey the possibilities of death and humanizes the dark, scary corners both physical and spiritual. It presents grief as a living, breathing entity that exists on all planes of existence. It breathes life and validation into the primal fear of being left behind and the comfort of letting go.

Quadeca is alive to witness the powerful reaction to such a soul-bearing work, and he's thrilled.

Below, read on for PAPER’s conversation with Quadeca about the release of I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You.

You really pivoted with your sound on I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You. What brought that on?

Thank you for acknowledging that. It's like being set free. I don't think about it. Like I used to do this. And now I'm really going to prove everybody wrong. I'm gonna change my sound. It's less of a pivot and more like an evolution for me. Even though I released a lot of music in the past, I was just a kid. I dropped my first album at 14. I made Voice Memos when I was in high school as an insecure fucking kid trying to be cool. But there’s still elements of charm in there. There are still glimpses of the stuff that I'm doing now.

Your last album had a lot of interesting electronic and folk elements that serve as a good precursor for this project.

Totally. I've always had ideas of music that I've wanted to make and I haven't always had the capabilities. All of those albums I did by myself. I've always made my albums by myself. A lot of it is just learning how to produce, growing up, becoming a little more mature, listening to more music and fucking around with my own stuff. I listened to The Microphones and was like, "Oh shit, you can do that?" For people, it seems very abrasive when I have these changes, but to me, they feel very gradual and earned.

It's definitely a risk. It feels natural and like this is my purpose maybe 70% of the time, but there's that 30% that thinks algorithmically. I've made YouTube videos. I'm a product of the internet, you know what I'm saying? There's low-key a gene in me that wants to feed the clout machine. I have had to actively detox myself from tweeting every day because "they're gonna forget about you!" Or I have to drop a video because we don't drop a video, that's my key platform and we want to make sure I'm not losing any of the fans there!

I've been releasing content and releasing albums since I was 13. There's a part of me that is just so used to that dopamine cycle in the algorithmic machine. That's been the key thing: to wane away from that and really try to block out all the things that people are expecting me to do and just make something that's really great. Having that kind of mentality has allowed me to do the pivot and it reaffirms me, even though I have my moments of fear of if this is going to alienate everybody. In the long run, it's okay if you alienate people or if you drop something that's really great. That's going to end up allowing you to continue to exist beyond anything.

Did you encounter a fair amount of people who assumed you made this album to prove to others that you are capable of making good music?

Mostly from the people who want to give me the least benefit of the doubt. A very weird criticism that I've seen is, "He's trying too hard to appeal to music lovers with this album." Some people said that! I'm just trying to make a good album. You really want to dislike it that bad? If it sounds good, you feel like it's contrived to sound good? That's something that people have said, but the response is overwhelmingly positive and a lot more people than I expected appreciate the shift.

You've been making videos for a long time and are one of the few to successfully be seen as a musician who also happens to have a YouTube career instead of the dreaded "YouTube musician" title. How did growing up in what you call the "clout machine" influence how you approach your music career?

Even though that is the common narrative, the first videos I ever uploaded were videos of me playing the keyboard and singing songs that I wrote when I was like 11. That's how I actually started, with Regina Spektor-style piano ballads. So when people are like, "Oh, he's a YouTuber who's doing the YouTube musician thing," I get it. That's somewhat true. But I've always been doing music first. I was a kid going into middle school and uploading songs and singing my heart out is very cringey. And it's scary! Middle schoolers are the meanest people on earth and any insecurity that you have, or vulnerability that you show, they'll fucking destroy you.

So I realized I like entertaining, I like creating things, and maybe I won't publicly post all my little songs where I'm singing my heart out. I'll post videos of soccer and FIFA because that's almost a more acceptable thing for a 12-year-old boy to do. And I love soccer and video games! It was just a way to be creative in a public way. I like being an entertainer and doing little bits and jokes. It's always been my plan to do music. When I was 13 and 14 doing these FIFA videos, I would do FIFA rap songs and little rap battles. I'd go, "Here's an original song! I'll do another FIFA video this week, but this is a little song. Hope you guys like it!" Then I just kept working and slowly, people responded more to the music than they did to the little commentary videos. A lot of my art has been about gaining the confidence and the skills to make what I've always wanted to do.

I know there's a stigma placed on you because you're a YouTuber, and it must be frustrating to deal with not releasing music as part of a more traditional press cycle despite having such a following.

Yeah. In a weird way, it's kind of a badge of honor to release something and have nobody cover it but it's still successful and builds a cult following. That's a weirdly validating thing. I know that there's a stigma and sometimes that's to my benefit. It makes people intrigued. With this album, and even with From Me To You, there was this thing of, “I know you may have this expectation but this song is really crazy. I've never heard anything like this.” Sometimes the stigma can be used as a point of entry. You see that with white rappers. They may make people want to dislike them more, but they also will tune in. It's kind of a double-edged sword sometimes. With From Me To You, I feel like that album was very important at opening up the fact that there could be a conversation. This album hammered a lot of it home. So far, the response is absolutely insane. You asked about the perception stuff, and just from what I can tell, I think people are already giving it a fair chance and the people who aren't that say, “I'm not listening to that! He's a YouTuber,” get 10 people responding, “I know, I get it. But listen to it.”

I'm very aware of the perception of me. I've been tapped in for a long time. It doesn't really bother me because I get it. Everybody's got a different point of entry. Somebody having that perception is not wrong. They're just making a judgment based on the content that they've seen. And I've put so much out into the ether, that any point of entry is technically a valid one.

I’ll readily admit I approached your music from a similar point of apprehension, and I was really surprised, especially when I listened to your old stuff. What were you listening to that informed this sound? You brought up The Microphones.

The Microphones, shoegaze shit like Loveless, lots of Björk, King Krule, Slauson Malone, FKA Twigs, Sevdaliza. I’m very song-oriented, so I'll just listen to a song and if there's one cool synth in it or one cool texture that they throw on it, it gets lodged into my head. I'm less inspired by the whole artist thing and more so by specific feelings and places that a song will transport me to. When I'm making an album, I'm very world-based. I remind myself to stay in the world of the album. Sometimes I will pull tonalities and textures and then I'll put that into my own world, but a lot of times people will draw comparisons between me and stuff that I've never heard. I'll give myself some agency and just feel like I'm doing something unique, because if what I'm doing sounds too much like something else, I won’t put it out or I just won't care about it.

This may sound narcissistic but a lot of good recommendations for music come from when I send a song to a friend of mine and they say it reminds them of this or that. Despite how many things people are sure that I'm like ripping off, I'm really trying to just be very in the moment when I'm creating a song.

What was it like to produce everything yourself and get into this mindset?

I think From Me To You was a very ambitious album. I had the idea of it sounding very ethereal with booming bass. I’m into weird distorted stuff. But it was maybe a little too ambitious even though there's no such thing as that. It was like my training montage album. Like putting in those hours. I had some kind of expectation for some reason that was like, “You're just gonna make this album, and it's gonna sound the way you want. And then we'll just send it to a professional to mix it and it'll come back exactly the way you want it.” And then every song I made had 400 to 1000 different tracks on it, and it was just cruel to send to any mixer to do it. I just felt like shit, and it would always come back worse.

And then I was like, “I'm gonna have to figure out how to do this to put this album out.” So that was me really putting in the hours, learning how to create space and interesting auditory hallucinations and songs and, you know, creating stuff that really made me feel like I was ascending to different planes. But it probably wasn't as tasteful. Like, that was me gaining the skill. And then I Didn’t Mean to Haunt You had a very specific concept in mind with a specific story for it. I didn't want to do too much. I didn't want to do anything to take anybody out of a song. I was really, really focused on treating every song like something very delicate, and any sound could ruin the moment for somebody. That really allowed me to keep the minimal moments minimal. If there's anything in the song that feels like magic, don't touch it.

“Fantasyworld” has a whole two- or three-minute intro which is just piano and vocals. “Picking up hands” was just me playing the guitar and singing in one take and instead of over-editing it, it felt like how I needed it to feel. I wanted people to feel the experience that I wanted the character of the album to go through. It became less superficial and more feeling-based.

Tell me more about the concept. You’re a ghost?

First of all, I just want to say thanks for acknowledging all that. The concept is that I am a ghost who is stuck in a purgatory situation — sort of a situation that defies what their expectations of the afterlife would be. Almost the idea of you being at peace and it'd be a better place. That doesn't happen. It goes to a plane of existence of watching his loved ones move on without him as he’s desperately trying to be seen and wanting to be a part of their lives again. “don't mind me” is about being a ghost and watching everybody going through your shit and putting all your stuff in boxes and looking through your life. The character is asking if they’re going to tend to this shit that's going on like canceling their Hulu subscription. It's an album about grief for a ghost. “tell me a joke” is trying to process it through humor. I was thinking about how I would rationalize this experience, and I would do it with humor.

So the ghost is trying to process this and it's trying to figure things out and becomes more and more desperate and alone. That’s the idea behind I Didn’t Mean To Haunt You: This ghost just wants everybody to know that he’s there. But everything that he does ends up scaring people or it just makes him go deeper into this void where it's worse than hell.

Was this informed by anything? I know you recently lost someone close to you.

It's a combination of a few things. I was going through some shit, probably some kind of suicidal ideation. But then I don't know what style of suicidal ideation it was, I couldn't really make sense of it. I was trying to figure it out.

I’ve dealt with that as well. My therapist is concerned that I want to do it and it’s hard to explain that it’s a weird in-between where you don’t know how you’d do it but you know you want to.

That's exactly what “fantasyworld” is about. It's about thinking of suicide or a state of not existing as a little happy place. And so the lyrics, “It’s your mom's bakery in Maine. It's that cabin in Sweden. It's the going offline. It's next year, I'll go vegan. It's not a woe is me. It's a hold the door open.” That's a fantasy world. It’s the idea of having that as an option.

I was thinking about that a lot and it was bothering me. I was writing a lot of poems about it and realizing it would almost help me to put myself through this experience and conduct the story of it. I struggle with OCD. My friend asked if in this process, did I feel like this album is me putting my own mortality and death in my control so that I can let go? And that was true. That’s low-key what it is. There's creative liberties and there's stories in it that are darker. It's not completely autobiographical by any means. It's a fictional story, but the kind of place that it draws from is dealing with those really existential thoughts. Also, I was just being drawn to sound palettes that felt very heavenly to me and that felt very disturbingly beautiful. I would listen to songs and feel like I was ascending. It was a combination of all that stuff.

Then after I’d already sort of finished the concept of the album, I had a good friend pass away and death in general was in the air. It wasn’t informed by that, but as I was making it, those were the circumstances.

There is an eerie comfort in knowing we have that agency to end it. We did not ask to exist in the first place.

That’s almost exactly what “cassini's division” is about. It’s the idea that we were here against our own will and it's kind of in our code to strive for nothing. If you look at so many religions, their idealized human form is a void of inner peace, achieving total nothingness. It’s a deeply existential human aspiration. It’s about the void, satisfaction and this idea that maybe the universe wants to be a blank canvas, and we are the beauty that exists in spite of that.

There’s a line that goes, “Think about that glowing dust that destroys the night sky's dream of just being nothing,” — there is something beautiful in that. That’s the realization that allows the character to realize that there's a different void and he can join that. There's value in that and something beautiful in that. It's probably not a common way to end an album about a ghost, but it just felt the most real to me to have an ending with static and grain. I use the album as a sonic representation of eternal light. If there's an uncomfortable thought, they will drop out and it will get all grainy. I thought that it would be really cool to end the album with static that just stacks on top of itself until it becomes a wall of white light, and when you listen to it, at least for me, it's like an auditory hallucination that feels like you're being swallowed up by that grain.

You said you wanted to get into the right headspace when making this album, what did that entail? Were you isolating yourself from your friends and family?

I'm a pretty isolated guy in general. Obviously, I'll spend time with my family and friends and stuff, but for the majority of time, I'm definitely just by myself, vibing out. It's not like I was in that state for the entirety of creating the album. For a lot of it, I was in fine-to-mid spirits. I'll say something I won't even agree with seconds after I said it. I’ll feel something so powerfully for a few hours and then move on. But in that moment, I'll harness that and live in that.

It sounds like the OCD.

Do you have it too?

I do. I suffer from intrusive thoughts about death almost constantly. I was recently diagnosed after over a decade and assumed I couldn’t have it because I’ve functioned relatively well without it, but that’s because it’s all I knew.

Your brain is the only frame of reference for what a brain is supposed to be like!

It’s part of why the album really resonated with me because it taps into that fear I have of forgetting or being forgotten. I must save every text and every birthday card and every photo in case something happens to me or them.

I feel that. For as long as I’ve made this album, I felt like I'm not gonna be alive when it comes out. I just felt like that for some reason. But hey, we made it.

I hold onto things but it’s music. Music is the worst thing for an OCD person to do, especially when it's so personal. Putting out music is the ultimate form of letting something out of your control. As long as it's not released, it's still in-progress and it's still yours. It's very big to put something out there where it lasts forever and it becomes everybody else's. Those final few weeks where I'm supposed to finish the album — you don't want to see the bounce folders for the songs. The file names for the final versions are like, “born_yesterday Copy_2_231 v.2.” It's fucked up! It comes out, and I, for some reason, enjoy it. It sucks sometimes, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm learning how to work on it better so I can let it go. A big part of this album was learning how to let things go in general. From Me To You was the worst OCD experience because it was a worse album! And I knew! This one, I'm happy with this.

The whole rollout was quick too. You announced it and gave it only weeks to come out. Was that intentional to force yourself to not sit too long with it?

My manager, bless his heart, was like, “Let’s release it next year in February! It will give us time.” I was like, “Jesse, this needs to come out in 2022.” Honestly, I’m glad that it happened. But he's right and I'll give him credit.

The concept had been fully fleshed-out and I reached out to Jesse because I love deadAir and all of the artists on there. I felt like it really aligned with what I felt my soul. I reached out to Jesse expecting him to have the sort of stigma that you were talking about earlier because this is a very highly curated label.

How did your collaboration with Danny Brown come about?

So I had written “house settling.” It's a play on words. It's about like an old house, the house is settling and the ghost is staying there and making it his own home. This is like one of the most desperate points of the album. It's after this whole arc where he's really despondent and wants to make his presence known in any way. But everything that he does gets written off as a house settling, like a door creaking. One common thing that happens when houses settle is that carbon monoxide leaks, and one thing that causes people to see ghosts a lot is when they have a carbon monoxide leak in their homes. So this ghost is so desperate — I'm not sure, it's up to interpretation, if he really does it or if it's an imagined scenario that he thinks about — he’s releasing a little bit of carbon monoxide into the home so that maybe he will be seen through the hallucinations. I was like, this needs to sound abrasive, it needs to sound airy and fucked up and hallucinatory. I had the beat. Who is going to be the carbon monoxide? It has to be Danny Brown. There's no other person who could do that verse and do it right.

So I reached out to him. He followed me on Twitter and I sent that whole long pitch of the song to see if he fucks with it. Ten minutes later he was like, “Yeah, I'm gonna kill this for you. Don't worry.” He's been very nice and supportive, which I'm kind of surprised by. He’s one of the G.O.A.T.s.

It must be surreal to have grown with your fanbase. You have kids in your comments saying they’ve been watching you since they were 12.

A kid at the show just did that! He came up to me and was like, “I'm here to see you. I’ve been watching you since you made FIFA videos eight years ago, I'm 18 and now I'm starting to do music.” It's so crazy. A lot of the fan interactions go like that. They will have some weird point of entry. It's like, “Remember that high school soccer video you did with your friend where he scored that goal?” Then they were hooked from that moment. It's really weird. That's why I don't take the stigma too hard because I don't feel like anybody's had the same arc as me anyway.

Your fans are hilarious. While browsing the Genius annotations for one of your songs, someone kept annotating it with “Quadeca wishes his penis was bigger.”

Yes! I saw that! [laughs]

You have such a big audience and they’re obviously very dedicated. It must also be overwhelming at times.

There's a Discord and a Reddit. I try to avoid it as much as possible because I don't feel like it's healthy. It's not healthy to read all your haters, but it's also not healthy to read your biggest fans.

You don’t want to be in an echo chamber.

It’s not even an echo chamber. I mean, it is. At any moment, there's going to be debates about every song I've ever done, if it's better than that one, if I looked better in this video, ugly in this music video. It's very weird and dystopian for a human being to read that. I've been used to it though because I've been making content and reading comments for so long. But I engage with them a lot and I do appreciate them. I think that they have good intentions, even if sometimes they are a little overwhelming. They're the fucking best. I've thrown them for a fucking loop over these years, a lot of them are fans from many, many years ago. Nobody could have foreseen what I was gonna end up doing. I feel really cool because they grow up with me. A lot of my fans are the same age as me and have gone through similar arcs, and I've been able to help them have better taste. As my taste grows, so does theirs. They're always ready for the next step, even when the next step is a risk and seems like a total pivot. That's what they need! If I satisfied their expectations, they’d be like, “Damn, bro. I can't believe this.” It’s a cool relationship where they both believe in me and they're kind of skeptical if I'll do it every time. And they care so much about the music and put in the extra work to break down every little crumb. That's the most validating shit because I put the fucking crumbs in there!

It's cool that I put in the effort to really make it worth doing that analysis. You're rewarded for the deed the further you look into it. It's cool to have people that are actually going to take time out of their day and go the extra mile to get deeper into the art.

I Didn't Mean To Haunt You is out now via deadAir.

Photo courtesy of Quadeca