Interview: Enter Kainalu’s psychedelic realm
In a way, Kainalu (Trent Prall)’s music sounds timeless. Even back when he released his first Bloom Lagoon EP (2017) and its pulsing retro-psychedelic debut album Lotus Gate (2019), Kainalu’s music already established itself as a modern approach to glitzy 70s psych and funk, always inspiring its listeners to move. Or at the very least, head-bob. It’s an era whose abundance of throbbing basslines and grooves have only since skyrocketed in popularity – with acts like Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Ginger Root heavily borrowing from it as well.
A few years after the release of those projects, Kainalu is now prepping the release of his sophomore album, Ginseng Hourglass. Now a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying genetics, Kainalu continues to produce dripping, nostalgic tunes, all from his foam-covered apartment studio. His most recent single, the funky “Revelator,” brings us back to the dancefloor in style, while his first-ever collaboration, “You Never Let Go,” finds him collaborating with Montreal singer MUNYA to create an effervescent state of bliss.
I managed to catch Kainalu at East Austin’s Easy Tiger during this year’s SXSW, where we discussed his latest musical inspirations, the Japanese pop and funk revival, and what the best album of all time is. Read on!
How are you enjoying SXSW so far?
It’s anarchy. It’s been a lot of fun, but I feel like, yeah, there’s constantly like five things you wanna be doing at once. We’re only really starting to play today, but I’ve been able to attend some events and it’s been really awesome. Very, very sprawling. Cool experience, though.
Any highlights so far from the fest?
So we haven’t gone to many shows yet… there was like this crazy 3D meditation ball or something. I went inside there just randomly and it was pretty sweet. It was out of control.
We stopped by the Doc Martens showcase area, that place is super cool.
How has your musicianship changed over the past few years?
It’s difficult, because I’ve been doing that better recording thing where I have an apartment in Madison, and I’ve absolutely destroyed it. Like, it’s just covered in foam, and it’s not really a livable environment, but it’s a space. I’ve been working pretty tirelessly on a record, so the single I released last week is the first one for the record coming out in June or July. In terms of how my musicianship changed, my influences changed a lot, I think. I’ve gotten much more into Radiohead, of all things, and I used to pile a lot of sounds and layers on top of each other. Now I’m trying to be more intentful with choosing the sound and shaping the tone. Because streaming has begun to provide a small income, I was able to upgrade my gear pretty substantially, which I don’t want to say makes a huge difference, cause you can make a great record with cheap gear. Like, I’ve made all my music so far with like, pretty low-ball gear, but now I have some pretty legitimate stuff, and it’s been a blast playing with that.
To me, it feels like the next step in what I’ve been trying to do so far, and I’m excited to let it be heard, finally.
What inspired this next record?
I’m a big UMO guy. Multi-Love is one of my favorite albums… honestly all of them. Definitely UMO inspired. Love me some Toro, he’s one of my biggest influences. But then recently, I was, like, in Radiohead’s top 0.001% of listeners last year unintentionally. Radiohead just grabs you and sucks you into a hole and you’re just like, “Aw, man. This is the only band that matters.”
What phase of Radiohead?
I dig all of them. But I really dialed in on In Rainbows. I want to go on the record saying In Rainbows is the best record ever made, which is a hot take.
I don’t think [my] music is similar to Radiohead at all, but just the way I imagine them composing that record, I think, really influenced how I approach writing new songs.
Also, Masayoshi Takanaka. He’s, like, a Japanese guitar player and, oh my god, I’ve been loving his stuff. He’s actually my phone background.
Your most recent single, “Revelator,” came out a few weeks ago, which is the first song you’ve released in a while. There’s a sort of focus on time throughout it – especially in lyrics like “When you’ve got time to give / Time doesn’t ever give back to you, face it.” Could you tell me about the song’s theme, and where it came from?
It’s a bit sad, but my mother passed away. She’s been battling cancer for the last six years, so during the writing of this record, I kind of took a break from writing music to help my family go through that. I would have a lot of talks with her about mortality and life. As sad as it was, she was so brave in that moment. So I think a lot of the record I wrote was dealing with this struggle with understanding and accepting your own mortality.
I wanted to try to write a record that — and this kind of extends over the whole thing — just sort of like, it’s about a happy acceptance of something so dark, and the idea that you have a limited lifespan, and coming to terms with that can be a very difficult thing to accept. I wanted to talk about those very dark things I was thinking about in a disco-fun way. I love the juxtaposition of this really, really powerful thought that a lot of us face throughout our lifetime with this very flowery, funk, psychedelic music.
I think that really comes through with the lyrics in this song — but also, it’s very danceable!
Well, she put that in me too! She was having us listen to Earth, Wind, & Fire and stuff, so I think it’s just a celebration of her life. I don’t ever want to market or exploit her life. Instead I want to celebrate, because it’s something I want to do myself.
You’ve also recently released your first ever collaboration, “You Never Let Go” with MUNYA. What was it like working with her and putting that song together?
Actually, she’s the only person I’ve ever worked with. And that was crazy, because I was listening to her music. She just popped up on my Discover Weekly, and I just got really obsessed, like, “Aw man, this girl is super amazing!” Female producer, absolutely killing it, love her, like, she’s bilingual, and she celebrates her culture in her music and it’s super danceable. So I was like, just listening to her music and she randomly reached out to me on Instagram and was like, “Hey, I was listening to your music. Do you want to make a song together?”
And so we actually started by, like… she was sending me some of her music, and I was doing some bass work, some guitar work, and like, helping her put together some of the songs she had already written together. I just had this song that I was sitting on. I was like, “Please help me write this.” I sent her some files, and she sent them back and she was absolutely… no criticism, no work to be done. Just amazing melodies. She did it in like, a day. She’s super talented. We’ve actually never met in person yet, but we’ve worked on quite a lot of music together at this point, and she’s become a very close friend of mine. We’ve Zoomed a couple of times, and we talked on the phone and caught up and talked about life, and yeah, she’s an amazing, amazing artist.
Are you interested in working with more musicians?
Yeah, I have a really big interest in becoming a producer, I think. My project is very much a therapeutic, self-expression sort of project, but my favorite part of music is just being in a studio environment and making something groovy. I’ve definitely been talking with more artists and starting to expand a bit more. It’s very hard to be vulnerable and write with people, I think, but given the right people, it’s super easy and when the creative trust is established, I would really like to take people with songs that they’ve developed and add parts and just bounce ideas off of each other. I really want to get into that. Just being in the production role is something that I’m pretty interested in.
Your music is really reminiscent of old Japanese funk/soul pop records from the 70s and 80s, which have exploded in popularity as of late. What do you think about that musical scene?
I don’t understand how that’s going on! YouTube algorithms just identified this really niche Japanese city pop stuff that’s just been exploding. I don’t know. Personally, that’s how I discovered it. Actually, my boss’s wife is Japanese, and she was giving me record recommendations when I first started working in undergrad in science. She’s like, “You’re a musician? You gotta listen to this stuff!” Her record collection must be priceless, like literally. She has it on vinyl, and she was just letting me borrow it. I was like, “Oh my god, this is so good.” I just had no idea that this world existed, and it just started popping up on YouTube like crazy. I love it, honestly. They’re shining a light on some amazing musicians.
The musicianship from that era is insane. And the more you dig in, the more the lore expands. It’s literally like a mythos. This record that I was showing you… and [Masayoshi Takanaka] has this record called An Insatiable High where he’s like speed-walking on that record. Some of the players in his backing band on those records were playing with Stevie Wonder and stuff. So there’s, like, this whole R&B connection between Japan and the United States. All those musicians were international and I had no idea. It’s wild! No wonder the drums are bumpin’, that dude’s on Stevie’s record too!
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu, in-person at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas.
“Revelator” is out now on major streaming platforms. Press photos taken by Julianna Photography.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!