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LUIS NASSER | THE MUSIC PHYSICIST. Hipster Columbia professor creates challenging music.

Born in Mexico City to a Palestinian father and Mexican mother, Luis Nasser, 53, is a physicist, composer and bassist living in Lincoln Park.  In 1994, he moved to the United States with his wife, who was attending the University of Maryland. Nasser has played acoustic and electric bass for bands focusing on progressive rock, metal, classical and jazz, and he has worked with Might Could, Sonus Umbra, Radio Silence, Kurgan’s Bane, Silver Pipe and Luz De Riada. His music often incorporates themes of nature and mathematics and is inspired by the sounds of ‘70s prog bands like Jethro Tull and King Crimson. Nasser works intricate mathematical concepts into his songwriting. 

What inspired you to become an artist?

When I was a kid growing up, I was always broke. I couldn’t even buy albums. I could just buy 90-minute Memorex tapes that some guy would sell outside the subway station. I didn’t know what the albums looked like. I didn’t know who the people were. It was just some guy who wrote a name and a tape and sold it for what I could afford.

I started saving my money and buying albums and started to realize that when I played a record, I wasn’t just hearing the record. I was imagining arrangements. I was also mathematically oriented; for me, math was the way out of a very violent environment. 

I asked an old man for a calculus book, and I spent the entire summer teaching myself calculus. It taught me there was a secret language of nature, that things were predictable, and if you could speak that language, you could understand the world. I’m not going to pretend that I mastered that book. 

But I learned enough to start making money by helping people at calculus. And that set me up in this path to be a teacher. People have a phobia for math, which I never understood. Math is a beautiful language. 

When did you realize you wanted to become an artist?

I was 11 going on 12, and there was a guy in my school who was going to spend a summer in northern Ontario. I ended up going with him. I met a woman who played a cassette, and it was a tape of The Who, the album Who Are You. I felt like I was struck by lightning when I heard that. 

My biggest challenge is just understanding American culture and then not holding it against people who have been brutalized by it.

What genres or styles do you mainly work in?

I primarily play and compose progressive rock/metal. I am a metal and prog bass player. It’s the sounds that are in my head. It’s kind of like the voice of my subconscious. If you wanted to describe it, you take a pot and you throw in King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, The Who, and just stir. 

Those are kind of the building blocks, but then of course, it’s my idiosyncrasies, my life is in it.

What’s your main inspiration or motivation? 

One of my older cousins came from a record store and he had the album, The Wall. That became my life. I didn’t understand the part of the rock star and all that, but I related to the child because I went through a British school in Mexico and those high school teachers— some of them were great, but some of them were real scum. There was a very racist and violent mentality, on top of my dad dying. What I found was that when I heard the music, it made me feel less lonely. If I somehow put it out, maybe that would help somebody else.

How do you describe your culture?

I’m a hipster. I really don’t think it matters. I’m talking to you, you’re a student. You’re somebody I respect. I see you as a human being. I don’t think about where you’re from. But when I perform, or when I hang out with people, if I identify as Mexican Arab, it seems to annoy the kind of people that I don’t like. That’s why I do it, just to trigger them, not because I think of myself like that or because I think it matters. I just like to have fun with the absurdity of it. On a personal level, I identify as Luis Nasser. 

I am of the opinion that your work speaks for you. I do attach a significance to cultural heritage. I love that. But I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a very good representation of Mexican culture.

How has your identity as a Latino influenced your passions? 

I don’t advertise myself as Latino. There are two kinds of Latinos in Chicago. You have the Latinos who were born and raised in their home countries, and then there are the children of those people. Not even their parents view them as their ethnic origin. But the other people here view them as American. What I find is that they have a giant chip on their shoulders. There is a belligerent relationship between themselves and society, and that is represented in their art. They’re trying to justify their existence, which is, I think, a very sad thing for somebody to feel they have to do.

How do you make your art accessible to an audience?

Touring. I’ve always had this philosophy when we play festivals: Let’s have a beer together. Let’s talk. I also put my music up on Bandcamp because I find it to be non-exploitative. I fought a battle against Spotify. I got into a Twitter beef with Daniel Ek because they got hold of my music. I argued with them and they said, ‘Well, yeah, you can sue us, but you’ll go broke trying.’ 

An album cover from Sonus Umbra, one of Nasser’s many complex musical projects. | Photo courtesy Luis Nasser.

What is missing from the art world and what does your art provide? 

The idea is to create music that is challenging but also interesting. The goal is for it to be challenging for the audience and also challenging for you to play. It just has to be meaningful. That mentality is missing from art, like the difference between watching a film and TikTok. 

What are the challenges that you face?

Understanding American culture and not holding it against people who have been brutalized by it. I don’t understand why people don’t see artists as a necessity. I forget who it was that said, ‘The function of art is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.’ I love that idea. Art is meant to ruffle you. It’s meant to change your viewpoint, and there’s so many ways to do it. You just have to be willing to piss off some people.

What do you think of the term Latinx? 

I hate it. In all Latin countries, people hate it. From Mexico all the way down to Chile, everybody thinks it’s an American concept imposed on us. Which is not to say that these things don’t matter, that inclusion doesn’t matter. But do it for real! Let’s have these conversations. Let’s accept each other. Don’t just give me more taboos and rules I shouldn’t break. It’s an imposition that we didn’t ask for.

Do you use social media?

I’m not hip to all the hash-tags and trends. I think it’s kind of funny that this older guy is on there. I’m not deliberately trying to reach young people, but I do love it when young people come. If I can, I try to plant the seed to inspire younger people to think about art in different ways…to find that thing in them whenever they’re hurting or in a bad place. Music has never let me down, and if it helps comfort the disturbed then I guess that’s my audience.

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