Cleveland native Nicholas Megalis became a huge deal on Vine, amassing millions of devoted fans on the short, looping video network. His imaginative outlook on life, transposed into song and vignette, struck a chord with our modern society. In March, he'll publish his first book, where his weirdness will grow further and inspire ever more. We talked about all sorts of artistic endeavors with Nicholas this week, and he shared his opinion on what good art should be capable of doing.
Eric Sandy: Tell me about this book. What prompted the idea to do a book in the first place?
Nicholas Megalis: The book is a surprise to me as much as it is to you or anyone else. To be honest with you, I can't even believe you're asking me to explain my book, because I sometimes forget. It's been something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid. I'm terrible at reading, because my attention span is horrible. But short stories I can tolerate; that's kinda what this book is. It's a collection of short, neurotic bits of dialog and scenery from different moments of my life. It's a collaborative effort with my dad, who is a prolific, crazy, amazing painter, sculptor, artist, animator. I wanted to make another album, but to be honest, it's not dissimilar. It's kinda the same process. I just blasted jazz music and drank too many coffees and made a book. I think people will detect the neurosis. It's palpable, that neurosis. Hopefully I don't induce anxiety attacks in people when they read it, but I think people are really gonna dig it.
ES: Seems like there's a huge element of imagination and daydreaming at play in these stories. I mean, how important is that to you in your day-to-day life?
NM: Man, you're gonna murder me, but I'm gonna try to answer this question in a coherent fashion. You know, I grew up with a dad who felt that he could channel anyone, dead or alive, just by impersonating them. My dad is a master mimic and just a — I mean, to most people on the outside my dad probably seems out of his mind, but I tell him that he's the most sane person I've ever met. My whole childhood has been spent pursuing creation: working on my patio when I was 8 years old with markers and pens and making magazines, my mom giving me a video camera and me just editing within the camera — no software at the time, not even anything on the computer, just editing on VHS tapes. You know what I'm talking about, right? My whole life I've always wanted to make interesting, weird, textural stuff that people can look at. This book is no different. That's the problem I have with a lot of printed words. People just sort of report things, and I think there's a way to be entertaining, funny, surreal — you can be Salvador Dali a bit. You don't have to just report things. I hope that answers your question? I'm sorry, man; I talk in circles and just —
ES: Right, I see what you're getting at, and I'm drawing some connection between the stuff in this book to, say, the way Hunter Thompson used to write. And he worked with this illustrator named Ralph Steadman —
ES: — who shares DNA with your dad's style, I would argue. That was all very truthful reporting at its heart, but it's super frenetic at times.
NM: That's what I'm saying. I wrote this book while listening to Ornette Coleman for the most part. And I wrote it in my apartment in my underwear, just stream-of-consciousness, bouncing around the place and throwing shit around and handwriting some of it. I was working very closely with my dad, and every 10 minutes he was calling and saying he's got this idea for an illustration that would go great right here. Even though I was in New York and he was in Cleveland at the time, we collaborated day in and day out, doing this book as if it were a conversation between us and between the two forms.
ES: That's an intriguing way to frame it.
NM: Listen, I don't want to do anything normal. I don't want to do anything expected. I don't know what the fuck "normal" means, but I don't want to make anything that just falls into a category. I don't want to make an autobiography; I'm not Justin Bieber. People don't care about my struggle and "how I made it to the top," because I haven't made it to the top. I'm fucking hauling ass in Cleveland, Ohio, right now. I'm an anxious, nervous wreck. This is just a piece of art I made so that I don't explode. Feel free to reel me in, because I'm Greek and I talk a lot. I'm sorry.
ES: Well, so books are one thing. Been around for millennia. But some of these other media you've dabbled in — VHS, Vine — well, you've mentioned why you wanted to write a book, but what drew you to those other forms, with Vine being the most visible?
NM: Vine came out of necessity. I almost paralyzed myself. In the beginning of 2013, I was skateboarding and busted my neck on my birthday. There's a story about it in the book. Look at that! There's a seamless plug for the book! There's a part in the book, and I explain it, I had too much to drink and I was skateboarding. I almost paralyzed myself — herniated the discs in my neck. I was in pain and couldn't really get off the couch. I didn't have health insurance, so I couldn't go the doctor. I was on my phone, like, 16 hours a day. When I wasn't playing guitar on my back, I was on my phone. Vine was a therapeutic release. It was another platform to make art. Even before I busted my neck, I was toying around with Vine. It came out in January 2013. I don't know, man, I fell in love with it because it was another medium to mess with and make shit on. There were like 300 people using it then. It wasn't like it is now. It wasn't accessible, and ESPN wasn't embedding Vine videos on their stories. Nobody knew what it was. It was me and a handful of other broke artists in New York and Los Angeles and Ohio and Michigan and wherever making stuff in their apartments. The aesthetic was much different than it is now. And you see people now and it's like, Jesus Christ, there are full production studios now. It's almost absurd. It defeats the purpose of it a little bit. It's Transformers and Michael Bay now. It's kinda funny to me, because it's not that.
ES: To contrast that stuff, I mean, do you even do multiple takes of your stuff or are you just firing these videos off?
NM: Oh, hell yeah, dude. That's the problem. That's why I'm losing friends faster that I can keep up with. If you know me personally, you've been involved in at least one Vine shoot. I normally — you know, me and my good friend and music collaborator will be sitting in my apartment and I'll be just finishing these papier-mâché masks for the background of some elaborate, stupid thing. It's all handmade. Of course, I'm editing and playing with things, but I like tangible, hands-on things. I'm a big fan of Michel Gondry and The Wizard of Oz. I like films that you can touch and that feel real. I think that's why Tim Burton's last nine movies were disastrous. There's something to be said about making props and actually doing things that are real and not just green-screening things. You know, sometimes it's me on the street interacting with an elderly woman and it's one take because it has to be. Sometimes it's 12 hours solid of shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting and realizing we have nothing. It just depends on what the exact project is.
ES: In these Vines, a lot of your personality comes through pretty clearly and pretty free of any context. What about that stuff do you think resonates with, you know, some guy in Utah?
NM: The reason I don't connect with major celebrities or mass media is because for the most part it doesn't cater to me. I'm a long-haired, bearded guy from Cleveland, Ohio, who has a Greek dad, and I was a babysitter in New York City, and I've made music and had fun, but I can't relate to Reese Witherspoon's vegan diet. I can't relate to George Clooney's Venice wedding. I think Vine is accessible, because anyone with a phone and an idea — and the latter obviously is more important — can make shit. It also opens up that world to people who don't have a RED camera and who don't have $12,000 in editing suites and who don't have a crew. That's what's killer about it. That's what I like. I like having no budget and I like being forced to make stuff with no money and no time. The limitations force you to be more creative.
ES: This being an excellent outlet for your music, of course. These little four-line songs are irresistible.
NM: The music aspect, well, I have a neurotic habit of singing senseless lyrics all day long. That's how I've been my whole life. Vine made sense for me because it's six seconds and it loops: That automatically lends itself to some musical thing. Anything can become a loop. I can be yelling at someone, "Hey! Get me those groceries!" And after a while it turns into a song even if you didn't want it to be. It just gets stuck in people's heads. If it's me putting gummy worms in a wallet or whatever, it's just ridiculous and I don't take myself super seriously. That's not my personality. I think all of us are in this together. The coolest stuff on Vine is from people you've never heard of, who are 19-year-old kids going to art school and making stop-motion animation in their dorm rooms. That's the coolest stuff. It's not the dude with $5 million. It's just not. You gotta dig for it, but it's the same with music. The radio's not good. You gotta listen to 91.1 or turn on something — you know what I mean? You gotta dig.
ES: In a biographical sense, could you talk about your time in Cleveland? What kinda stuff were you doing here?
NM: I'm back and forth all the time. I don't even feel like I ever moved, to be honest with you. My family's here. All of my friends are here. New York is great, but it's also Hell on Earth. It's wonderful and terrible. I don't know if you can combine — it's wonderrible. You know, Cleveland, for me, I started playing coffee shops when I was like 14. I was way too confident, thinking that I was going to conquer the city and the planet with noise music. I wasn't even writing music at the time. It was just me and some over-modulated amplifiers and, you know, loop pedals and me screaming into a bass amp. It was not really music, but it was this collage-y textural stuff that I was doing in Lakewood at the now-defunct Capsule. I would do these noise events and I would do WCSB at like 3 in the morning. I would make tape loops from exercise videos mixed in with slaughterhouse audio from the Tyson poultry slaughterhouse. That's what I was doing when I was 13, 14.
Then, accidentally, when you fall in love or when you meet people who change your life or when you feel compelled to actually say something with words, then you start to write lyrics and poetry and it turns into a song somehow. I still don't know if I properly know how to write a song. I just write it in my own way. I played in Cleveland for years and went through different bands — with different drummers, horn players, upright bass players, cellists, background vocalists. I think the peak of playing in Cleveland was 2009 or 2010, opening for Nine Inch Nails at Quicken Loans Arena, which was probably the biggest show I've done in my life and I'm glad it was in Cleveland. It felt pretty good, because I've been a fan of Trent since I was old enough to — my dad actually got me all those records way, way before I should have been listening to them. When The Downward Spiral came out, I was like 5 or 6 years old, and he's like, "You gotta check this out!"
ES: That's pretty heavy stuff.
NM: Right, I was listening to Trent Reznor when I was not old enough to be listening to Trent Reznor. But it felt good to do that show and it felt right. It clicked. This is where everything happened for me. This is where I fell in love. This is where I grew up, where I got my ass beat. This is where I made major mistakes: business, personal, emotional, everything. That's why I come back here. I can touch it, I can feel it. My heart is here. It's tough to leave and start over somewhere you can't fully connect to.
ES: Cleveland is the unknown Vine artist to New York's big-budget production studio.
NM: I moved there, and everyone was like, "You're a Yankees fan now, right?" And I'm like, "Are you fucking kidding me? No!" It's hard to root for the team that has the biggest budget. I'm not built that way. I grew up eating blue-box macaroni and cheese and making stop-motion films with my dad in a dirty studio. I'm not into, like, money-driven bullshit. I think the Yankees — God bless 'em, but it's hard to root for them and not the hometown team. I mean ... I don't know, I'm going off on a tangent here. You get what I'm saying, though. It's tough to root for the big boys all the time. I don't want to see them win anymore; I'm sick of it. Let's watch the Indians take the World Series, you know what I mean?
ES: That'd be fantastic. There's something to be said for the underdog mentality. In music and video, the sports metaphor is obvious. There are a lot of people out there, plugging away, who may go a lifetime without recognition even though their stuff may be really, really good.
NM: Yeah. Also, what's cool — just on a basic, human-living level — is I can work in a studio in Cleveland with heat and running water and a place to work that I can paint in and shoot videos in and run around in and skateboard in. The cost for me to make art, well, it just makes no sense for me. When I'm making art, of course I like working in Cleveland. Not only is my family there, but in New York I'm hunched over a table in my tiny shoebox, you know, one-bedroom apartment, wondering why I'm here. Why am I in New York? It sometimes doesn't make sense. It's a great town, and I love it, but there are things I hate about it — New York, I'm saying. It's great, but there are things that are terrible about it.
ES: I'll do five-day trips up there now and then, and, of course, it's an amazing beast, but after a while...
NM: It's tough. You know, I've been here five years, and the first five days are pretty much the same for five years. You're just like, why is everybody going into the same train? We're literally getting around this way? This is insane! It's chaotic, but I do feed off it. I recorded an album in 2009 in New York called I Find It Sexy How You Mislead Me. I released it for free. It was recorded in a walk-in closet in my uncle's apartment in Brooklyn. There's no way I could have written that album in Cleveland. It's a New York record. It had the emotion that I was feeling in the time, moving there without anybody. But then again I couldn't have done an album that I did in Cleveland in New York. Vice versa. Different places inspire different moods, and that's how it goes. I like the journey. I don't know where I'll end up, but I'll always make stuff — or try to.
ES: Couched in a lot of your esoteric, totally weird stuff on Vine is this sort of message about humanity. You're taking your platform and telling people to look around them and be critical and be good people. Could you elaborate on that? Are people receptive, overall?
NM: Let's put it this way: I couldn't do it any other way. I don't really take myself super seriously; I really don't. There's no point. I think my favorite quote of the moment — I'm sorry. I'm trying to fucking work this Keurig and I'm about to blow my brains out here.
ES: Ha, good luck with that one.
NM: You know, the water gets trapped up there. This can't be good. I don't like when the water gets stuck in the top, because it collects mildew. See, this is just the anxiety coming out. I'm sorry. All right.
Yeah, I mean, I just want to help people. Life is so tough as it is. There's no point in being a dick. There's no point in ruining someone's day. You gotta lift people up, even when you're down. What's the point of bringing someone down with you? It's actually really simple. I just want to make people happy. I really do. It's not to sound like a saint, because I'm absolutely not. And I don't want to be a role model, because I have my own problems. I just try to live life everyday, try to improve my family and friends and build them up. That's what social media is to me. There's just so much hatred and negativity and vileness that comes along with — my dad always says that back in the day, if you hated somebody, nobody would hear your wretched, horrible opinion other than the people sitting with you in your living room. But now everybody has a loudspeaker to voice this horrible sadness. Why not use the same platform to inspire people instead of bringing them down? Look at social media. I mean, I know I make goofy videos, but I'm not a goof. I want to do good things. Vine is just the beginning of something. It's just a part of it. Look at how people use social media: We watch people beating each other up on WorldStar Hiphop. That's what we use the Internet for! And puppy videos. But imagine if we tried to literally change shitty things into good ones. Look at what's happening in Paris. Look at what's happening around us. We can inspire good. We have the power to do that. Oh my god, there are millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of people and you just have to mobilize them and make them feel important and they are.
Also, kids. Kids are lost. It's irresponsible to guide children in a negative way and use children to get clicks or likes or favorites or subscriptions or whatever it is on your negative, racist, sexist whatever it is. You have to understand that there are kids there and you have a responsibility as a social media influencer to do just that — to influence positivity in young people. I couldn't sleep at night if I thought I was not doing good things for young people. I can't imagine that. It pisses me off, actually.
ES: As an observer, it's refreshing to see the funny stuff alongside the serious stuff. Anything else you want to spotlight with this book coming up?
NM: This book, honest to god, is the strongest work as a whole that I've ever done. I'm proud of it, because it's very honest. In the past — you know, I'm only 25. I'm not some 75-year-old guy looking back like I have all the answers. In the past, I've been doing what I'm doing for about 10, 11 years now — the exact same thing I've been doing on Vine, the same thing I'm doing now with you here. I was talking to Scene, you know, 10 years ago about the same stuff I am now. I'm the same guy. But I'll tell you what: I've learned to cut out a lot of the crap and get right to the point. I don't want to censor myself and I don't want to make work that is subpar or commercial for the sake of being commercial. I'm not driven by money; I'm driven by art. Always have been. This book is honest. It's called Mega Weird because I'm mega weird. And there are a bunch of weirdos out there who don't fit into a category. This book shows that it's okay. Smile. My favorite quote from Jim Morrison is, "Don't take things too seriously..." I'm gonna butcher the quote, but, you know, it's like, "Don't take things too seriously. No one gets out alive." That's the truth. Life is beautiful. Life is weird.