Bizarre, absurd, and magical, the music of Lindsay Olsen a.k.a. Salami Rose Joe Louis is unlike anything else. Her albums are otherworldly collections of short, interweaving, keyboard-heavy tracks which pack a dizzying range of musical ideas into tight packages. Recently, she’s been using her projects to create an intricate dystopian science-fiction reality populated with colorful characters and tales of strange dimensions.
A little over a year ago, the Bay Area-based musician, composer, and producer became the newest addition to Brainfeeder’s stable of artists. Founded by 2020 Grammy-nominated producer Flying Lotus, Brainfeeder is a major tastemaking independent label representing a range of forward-thinking artists like Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Louis Cole, just to name a few. Since signing for the label, Olsen has managed to stand out as a unique personality among unique personalities with her brilliantly realized science-fiction concept albums and unrelentingly explorational compositions.
When asked how she’d describe her music, Olsen said: “I think it changes a lot and kind of genre flops, but I think the thing that ties it all together is that I record everything on [my Roland MV 8800.] It’s kind of this very particular beat machine from the 90s, and I think just recording everything on there and using that as the DAW gives it this particular sound: that kind of warbly, zany, but warm sound. But I don’t know, the genres are tricky. I think I pull a lot from a lot of different genres and was inspired a lot by jazz and hip hop and indie—lo-fi indie mostly. Stereolab forever!”
In December of 2020 (shortly before our interview), Salami Rose Joe Louis released a B-sides project for Zdenka 2080 called Chapters of Zdenka. She says, “I thought that Chapters, even though it’s a B-sides album, it was kind of like a look into the psyche of the artist, Zdenka, and the sort of depressive moments and questions in her brain. I imagine that album would be made at her art studio as she’s going through it. I think that’s where that fits in, but it’s kind of like a placeholder for the next project. But it’s still personal and I’m proud of it.”
Since the new album is a B-sides tape, a lot of our conversation revolved around her first album for Brainfeeder, Zdenka 2080, which was released in August of 2019 and takes place in the year 2080. Originally imagined as the soundtrack to a film, this album introduces the imaginative story that Salami is continuously elaborating in her new projects. In it we meet characters like Salami—(the story’s protagonist) a girl left behind by humanity’s inter-planetary exodus, Zeeanori—an interdimensional man who guides Salami on her journey, and the titular Zdenka—a character known as “The Artist” who is responsible for creating paintings that influence the thoughts of the “Earth Creature,” a sentient being made up of the planet and all the things that live on it. Olsen’s experimental and abstract style of songwriting serves as the perfect backdrop to the zany world of Zdenka 2080.
Compared to the meticulously thought-out 2080, her new album feels more like an loose anthology of moods and ideas that inhabit the world of the previous album. While there might be less structure holding the songs together, Chapters of Zdenka offers a lot in terms of exploring the atmosphere of her fictional universe and some of the more earnest emotions of the artist.
As Zdenka is a pivotal figure on Chapters, I asked Olsen what the character represents for the story of her albums. She responds: “I was hoping to express my concern with imagery: the constant flood of imagery that we receive, and being more careful about what the hell it’s doing to us, as well as what kind of imagery you’re putting out in the world. There’s so much pressure to just create so much content, and I think people are getting a little careless with it. It’s just being more intentional and not feeling like you have to keep up with the times because who’s deciding that we have to make all this content? I think that ties in with the propaganda, which is going to be the theme of the next record.”
With the importance of Zdenka and the deeply personal nature of many of the tracks on Chapters, I asked Olsen which of her characters she identifies with more: the artist Zdenka or the self-titled protagonist Salami. “Probably the Artist. Well, maybe both. The funny part is Zdenka is my mom’s name, so part of my thinking is like Zdenka might be an old Salami. You know what I mean? [It’s like she’s] trying to remind her older self to keep with the young idealism because sometimes I feel like people get older and they kind of start to close their minds a little bit.”
One of the most pressing questions I had for Salami was which songs came closest to appearing on 2080. “There were two that got like super, super close. One was “Triumphant Buttress”, and the other was “I Stay in Bed These Days Too Much” and those were on my final, final draft. And then at the last minute I cut them. You probably hear Zeeanori talked about in some [tracks] and they definitely got pretty close too. The other ones were just songs that I thought that were too personal to make it on such a conceptual album.”
Salami ultimately decided that some of Chapters’ themes were too important to leave out. “I struggled back and forth on whether or not releasing such songs into the world would be a positive thing or a negative thing, because the whole point of my last album was positive imagery is very important. And then I kind of came back to this idea that sad music has always really helped me get through things, and I was like, maybe it’s important to share these sides so that people have something to relate to. But I kept going back and forth. In the multiverse, this album is not released 50 percent of the time.”
Olsen saw her album in a new light with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Part of the reason I wanted to release it is that so many of the songs sound like they were written during the pandemic, just like staying at home and stuff like that. But none of them were written in 2020. At least none of the ones that sound like they were. I know it was supposed to be a B-sides album, but there was one song that I wrote during the pandemic: ‘We’re Dumb.’ You can probably tell that my style has changed a little bit.”
I want to take a moment to reflect on “We’re Dumb” because it certainly represents a new direction for Olsen that she says will be explored much further in her next project. The main element that distinguishes this track from her established sound is the prominence of sequencing: the rapidly moving synth sound that underscores the whole song is a technique of electronic music production that can be achieved with specialized synthesizers and digital audio workstations. I think that for now, “We’re Dumb” is our best bet at getting a taste of what the future holds for Salami’s sound.
Olsen was more than enthusiastic to describe the upcoming album she’s working on, saying, “[I released the] B-sides project while I’m working on my new project, which I’m very excited about. I feel like it’s a little more hi-fi and I’m getting other musicians to play on it. It’s going to be a sequel to Zdenka 2080 and it’s going to be called Zeeanori’s Propaganda—I think. Working title, but it’s about propaganda. I have some demos and I’m really excited to watch these ideas grow a little bit more and expand into more hi-fi realms. I’m working with the sequencer, which I had never used before this project, and that has completely impacted the way I make music. I’m really excited. It takes some turns and it’s been fun to work on.”
The imaginary world of Lindsay Olsen’s music is only a little more fantastic than the real life artistic community of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder Records. Now that she’s had time to settle in at the label, she’s become more familiar with its culture.
“The way I see it is that there’s a bunch of just really incredible musicians constantly bettering their practice and pushing each other, and it’s really inspiring to be a part of that. I still can’t believe it actually. I want to start to see if I can collab a little bit and get over my fear of not being good enough.”
After touring with Flying Lotus and Brandon Coleman in the summer of 2019, Olsen had her first chance to connect with her fellow Brainfeeder artists. “On a person to person level, they’re so sweet and really good people. Fly-Lo has such a dedicated practice to music and Brandon Coleman too, they were both practicing all the time. It’s really inspiring to be around.”
At the end of Chapters of Zdenka there’s a bonus trilogy of collaborations. The first is a Zdenka 2080 track, “Peculiar Machine,” remixed by Georgia Anne Muldrow. I asked Salami what it was like to hear Muldrow’s take on her song. “Amazing, oh my God. Georgia and Fly-Lo got me 100 percent into making beats. They flipped my whole lid in college and I’m sure they flipped so many people’s lids. But Georgia, listening to her music was so life changing and to then be able to work with her, it was so crazy. To hear her singing some of my lyrics, I couldn’t even handle it, it was just so cool to get to have that experience.”
The other two “bonus” tracks come from Dakim. “He’s such an incredible mixing engineer and producer that he can just make anything sound so good. I had always thought it would be really cool to work with him, so I reached out and I was so excited about the remixes. He really flips my lid with his production. And the music video we made was really fun too. Some of my friends are these really cool filmmakers and I was so excited about the video that they made. I think they did a really special job.”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, artists have been pursuing a variety of internet-based live performance platforms to keep concert culture alive while venues are shut down. In late November of 2020, Brainfeeder put together a livestream concert on Mixcloud headlined by Flying Lotus featuring music from Teebs, Brandon Coleman, and Salami. Olsen feels conflicted about the implications of online concerts.
“One of my favorite parts of live music is just that intangible sharing of energy and you don’t really get that as much looking at a screen. I feel like we’ve been desensitized to screens, so it’s a little harder to feed off that energy and connect,” Olsen said.
Still, she sees the opportunities in a digital medium. “The thing that I think is really special now is you can connect with audiences across the world and not have to fly out there and play that show. I’m hoping to keep doing stuff like that because it takes so much money to have a tour in another country, so if you can share your music [even] if you can’t afford it, it’s great.”
One thing you’ll notice if you see Salami perform live is that she has a very different approach compared to her records. While her albums pack a ton of short, groove-based tracks, on her live shows she focuses on only a handful of songs and expands them, opening them up for improvisation. Her set on the Mixcloud concert featured a guest trio of musicians, comprised of saxophone, bass, and drums. She explained how her sound evolves between contexts.
“I would say that it took a little while for me to figure out how I wanted to orchestrate my songs for a live band, and I think finding the players really made it. I found some incredible players to help me sort of let these things take their own life. The main thing that I try to do [for live shows] is leave room for artists to have their own creativity and approach to the songs.”
When she was converting “Octagonal Room,” a track from Zdenka 2080, to a live format, she began experimenting with the song’s instrumental elements. “There are no drums in the song, but adding the drums in the live setting made it pop in this totally different way. I was having so much fun but there are also all these melodic parts and changes that like I was like, ‘That’s sounds nothing like my music, but still like my song, which is really exciting.’ I’m thrilled to play with the band every time because it’s just so much fun.”
Olsen took a nonlinear path to the music industry. Before pursuing music full-time, she was an earth and planetary scientist specializing in ocean chemistry. Those experiences inform her approach to making music in a meaningful way.
“That feeling that I would get when deep in the throngs of a math equation or physics homework, where you’re just doing the most abstract stuff, and yet there’s like this actual tangible thing you’re going for—just the level of abstraction that science can sometimes be, I feel like really helped create how I approach music because it’s this intangible thing, but it’s [rooted in] reality.”
Now that Olsen has the support and creative atmosphere of Flying Lotus’ tastemaking label, she’s pushing her imaginative concept and not looking back.
“In organic chemistry, you learn these rules and then the rest of the year you’re just using these rules and applying them to create molecules and all these really cool things you can do with this set of rules. I feel like music is very similar. But the only difference is that in music you can get away with breaking more rules and not have an explosion.”