Meet Your Maker: Chong the Nomad’s dance music is rooted in Seattle

The electronic music maker has even made beats on a plane.

a woman looks up at the sky

In this in-camera double exposure image, local musician Alda Agustiano (who goes by Chong the Nomad) is set against a photo of the music software FL Studio on her Macbook Pro. (Shaminder Dulai/Crosscut)

On one side of Alda Agustiano’s home studio, keyboards sit on top of each other in a short stack. On the other, a banjo and guitar lean up against a wall. But these aren’t her instruments of choice.

“I don't touch [those] at all when I'm on stage,” she says. “I can't — performing gives me anxiety.”

Instead, Agustiano, whose stage name is Chong the Nomad, feels most comfortable playing the Macbook Pro she’s had for eight years. Using the computer and FL Studio software, she produces “beats,” mixing percussion elements with electronic chords to create an instant atmosphere.

By way of example, Agustiano opens up the program and creates a beat with just a few clicks. A note oscillates between a higher and lower pitch at a fast tempo, like music you might hear in a sci-fi movie soundtrack or at a rave. She adds rhythm with a techno-snare and, voila, she’s made a soundscape you can — and want to — dance to.

The Central District-based beat maker and music producer considers herself a “suburb kid.” She grew up in Kent and has been creating beats on a computer since she was 14 years old. In 2017, she graduated from Cornish College of the Arts with a bachelor of arts in music composition.

Though she claims stage anxiety, Agustiano is a raucous performer. She dances as she DJs, sings, beatboxes and occasionally plays her harmonica and ukulele. Her shows have kept audiences moving at Capitol Hill Block Party and Double Major.

Last year, Agustiano achieved one of her most creative beats when Singapore Airlines invited her to create a song using only an Airbus A350 as an instrument. She recorded herself beating on the wheels, slamming a tray table shut, fastening the belt buckle and using the flight attendant’s boarding script.

On her arm is a tattoo reading “I came to win” in Indonesian. Those are the first words Agustiano’s mother, a chef who runs the Indonesian street food truck Bumbu, said on the cooking competition television show Chopped (which her mother won in 2015). As ambitious as her mom, the rising star wants to put Seattle on the electronic dance music map.

“There's such a huge wave of electronic musicians that are so unsung in Seattle,” she says. “My main goal is to advance the electronic scene in Seattle.”

This interview has been edited for length.

How do you begin making a new song or beat?

It usually just comes into my head. I sing, hum or beatbox into my phone and then get it on the computer.  What I [and] a lot of producers love to do is just take a sample and make it completely unrecognizable, make it [our] own instrument. I take a whistle noise and I can turn that into a high hat. You could do anything with any sample on a DAW [digital audio workstation]. That's the appeal of electronic music; ideas can be anything and everything.

You went to Cornish College for music composition. How did it help you become a beat maker?

Liberal arts school isn't what I'd recommend to a lot of people — [because of] the costs and what you get out of it — but it did make me the composer I am today, [in terms of] looking outside of the box. I do not want my music to sound like anyone else's; that came from Cornish. [Growing up] I would try to replicate electronic music. It wasn't until a year and a half ago where the light bulb hit me and I was like, “If I keep doing this, if I keep trying to emulate my inspirations, I'm not gonna get anywhere.” Cornish had a big hand in that.

When did you realize you might be able to do this for a living?

Last August [2019]. I was making a decent amount of money from gigs and other opportunities. The Singapore Airlines thing was the thing that made me go, “I'm not going to the day job [at Nana’s Green Tea in South Lake Union] anymore. Focus on this entirely. This can be my full-time thing now.”

You're a woman of color in a male-dominated industry. How do you navigate that dynamic?

I am in a fortunate position where I'm a little bit more masculine. When I'm with colleagues, I don't feel I'm getting taken advantage of, or people are awkwardly flirting with me. I’ve seen a lot of my singer-songwriter colleagues get taken advantage of, and they feel like they get talked down to. I just keep my head down and keep writing.

What are your other creative outlets?

I golf. Since I was 5. I can hold my own. And I love cooking. I want to try Indonesian cooking more. But for now it's just learning how to make a really good pan sauce.

Is Chong the Nomad a different person than Alda?

There's not much of a difference, except how I present myself online, how I present myself on stage. This is a weird example, but I hated the movie Bohemian Rhapsody because Freddie Mercury is kind of a hero for me. When you read about Freddie Mercury, he's not how Rami Malek portrayed him. He wasn't a diva off stage. He was very quiet and he loved his cat. That's Alda. [But Chong the Nomad] is such a persona, especially with social media. I'm trying to put on a front, I'm trying to move forward with my career. Chong the Nomad is an exaggerated version of me, me at 10,000%. I'm proud of that. But I’m not always like that. I'm so reserved.

Besides Freddie Mercury, who do you listen to to get inspired?

I've been listening to a lot of [pop singer] Raveena lately, and [electronic dance musician] Channel Tres. I'm very vocal about the lack of Black queer people in the dance music scene because Black queer people created house music. So seeing Channel Tres revive the late ’80s movement that started it all — the music that made me fall in love with electronic music making — is so exciting.

What should the Seattle music scene be doing better?

We need more resources for young girls to start making their own [electronic] music. Every time I see a friend of mine teach a class in middle school or high school, [students are] 80% to 90% guys. Why is that? Why aren't we encouraging little girls to produce [electronic] music? We should do more of that. Also, build more spaces for people to share music.

Are there any other local beat makers or musicians you think deserve a shoutout?

A close friend of mine is Slow Shudder. She makes the craziest music. There’s Talaya, an excellent R&B engineer and talented producer.

What is the hardest part about being an electronic music producer in Seattle?

I praise the Seattle scene for the fact that you can do whatever. If you have a niche, if you have your own thing, you can really succeed in your own corner. If you play your cards right, make great connections, play the right shows, you can grow your career. You don't feel like a needle in a haystack. But I feel like I don't really fit in anywhere. Especially with producing and doing everything by yourself. It's a very lonely process.

You travel between Los Angeles and Seattle a lot. What keeps you here?

I was told that if I move to LA, my career would skyrocket. But what's kept me here is the community. It's like no other and there's just so many artists that inspire me daily. It’s intoxicating; the energy here is contagious and it keeps me going. I won't get another radio station like KEXP anywhere else. If I moved to LA, I think my personal project will become less and less and less. Here I can grow. This city fits me the best.

A previous version of this story said Chong the Nomad has performed at Bumbershoot. She has not.

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