Like Martin and Lewis or peanut butter and chocolate, some combinations just work. When musicians Sam Spiegel (aka Squeak E. Clean) and Ze Gonzales (aka DJ Zegon) met at a party in 2004, they bonded over a shared love of Brazilian funk and soul albums from the 1970s and 1980s, and got together the very next day to start playing around in the studio and recording tracks. The name for their new creation? N.A.S.A., an acronym that stands for North America South America, and is a tribute to their homelands. From this very casual beginnings came a group that’s beloved for its odd yet supremely danceable blend of electronica, pop, Latin and hip-hop rhythms, and for its inventive pairings of guest vocalists and rappers.
Each N.A.S.A. song is like a demented version of the “dream dinner party guests” game: Lykke Li mingles with Santigold, Kool Keith toasts with Tom Waits, David Byrne and Seu Jorge stand by the punch bowl, and Karen O. whispers to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The combination of these diverse talents is a kind of audio alchemy—the results are pure party-ready, head-nodding fun. Spiegel says that working with these musical legends has been eye opening: “You imagine that well-established artists would be set in their ways. But I’ve learned that true artists, no matter how prolific and amazing, are open-minded people who are always looking for inspiration. They’re always wanting to learn something from the people around them. They’re people who are always searching, learning and morphing.”
N.A.S.A. brings its music to life with flashy, riotous videos created by innovative modern artists who are known for pushing the envelope. Shepard Fairey, Marcel Dzama, Sage Vaughn and the Date Farmers have all lent their skills to the group. Spiegel’s got a pretty hefty network of creative contacts—he’s worked for years as a record producer (for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fatlip and Crystal Castles), DJ and composer. He also created the soundtrack for the skateboard cult flick Yeah Right! , directed by his brother, Spike Jonze. Spiegel made another foray into the film world this year, co-directing a documentary that chronicles the five-year process of making N.A.S.A.’s 2009 debut album, The Spirit of Apollo.
As they describe it, N.A.S.A.’s aim is to create sounds that transcend genre. But the music industry isn’t known for being tolerant of acts that aren’t easily categorized (or pigeonholed). Spiegel’s faced the occasional uphill battle in that respect. “I think categorization is an issue for us, because we’re not a typical group with our picture on the album cover. Our project is all about passion and not about marketing. That’s an issue I’ve faced, and continue to face, in my career. I just do music because I love it. The people that are in charge of selling the music are always trying to make us a strong brand, whereas I’m just trying to do something that excites me. Any modern artist who makes stuff that’s commercial—meaning it gets sold—faces that push and pull between pure artist’s vision and marketing.” Luckily for N.A.S.A. and its massive roster of collaborators, Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon have vision to spare.