The High Key Portrait Series: Noah Selwyn of Agent Zero

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Agent Zero | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.

About eight years ago, Noah Selwyn began creating electronic music in his studies at The Community College of Philadelphia.

Since that time, the producer’s been advancing Philly’s homegrown dubstep and house scene, as he reimagines traditional EDM with a pop edge and his steady crew of live instruments, and evolves his studio- and stagecraft under nom-de-plume Agent Zero.

In May, Agent Zero released The Awakening, and has been playing a heavy roster of local appearances this summer with a live band — one we got to see in action during their Key Studio Session earlier this year. They just performed at the SENSORiUM Music & Arts Festival at Fishtown’s Ukie Club, and this weekend, they trek up to Northeastern Pennsylvania for the Satellite Ranch Music and Arts Festival.

This conversation with Selwyn took place a couple years back in Philadelphia’s Boom Room Studios, where the ambitious producer had recently taken up residence as an in-house engineer and producer.

Agent Zero | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

THE KEY: Are you a Philly transplant, or born here?

NOAH SELWYN: I’m definitely a transplant, but I’ve been here for about [ten] years.

TK: So what brought you to the city?

NS: Number one, music did. Some of my favorite bands were from here but I [also] came here for work. I came here to work for a nonprofit called City Year.  If you know City Year, it’s a nonprofit organization, we work at inner-city schools, tutoring and mentoring students and running after-school programs.

TK: What connected you first to the Philly music scene, what was your first entree?

NS: My first entree to the music scene, let’s see. The local music scene was that, a couple of my friends were friends with some other kids that were building a stage in a warehouse in Fishtown. And we just became friends with this group of people — we ended up calling ourselves the Fishtown Collective — and we built two walk-out platforms off this big stage at this warehouse that’s like a couple blocks away from here. We took lots of time building it, had an art show. And also then after that, we had a huge party with a bunch of bands, local bands. Toy Soldiers headlined, and a couple other bands at the time — this is back in like 2008 — but, we ended up blowing the warehouse out with about 500 people.

It was crazy. Then we got shut down the next day. That was the first the first intro.

TK: Shut down by the cops, by who?

NS: L & I. They’re like, “yeah, you’re throwing a huge event in this warehouse so, you’re not exactly licensed for that. So you gotta stop. Now.” [laughs]

TK: So you didn’t go to high school in Philly, correct?

NS: No, I went to high school [where] I grew up, in Hartford, Connecticut. But yeah, I came here to do nonprofit work and decided to stay.

Agent Zero | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: Who’s your favorite artist, or which Philly artist has influenced you most?

NS: Philly artists…definitely this band Lotus and the Disco Biscuits. That’s how I first heard about Philadelphia, just knowing that these two bands were there and I used to go their shows all the time in New England. [The Disco Biscuits] went to college at Penn. Crazy crazy musicians — especially the keyboardist, he’s disgusting. But yeah, it was a good time. And yeah, those are my first artists that I started really enjoying from Philadelphia.

TK: What do you remember about your first show in Philly? I guess that was the show at the warehouse?

NS: Um, yeah — well that was me just going to a show with the first time. That was just crazy. It was a crazy good time, you know, it was all of us celebrating the accomplishment of building this huge stage and like setting up this huge party for everybody…

TK: …so to be clear, you were not performing that night?

NS:  No! If you’re asking me when I first performed, oh man… My first like,  real performances were at this crappy bar down in South Philly with my friends called JR’s Bar. It’s like down at like 24th and Wolf or something, basically, somewhere around there. Hole-in-the-wall, but like, we blew it out, and just had all of our friends come down. It was this smokey, nasty dive bar, but it was a lot of fun. And we kind of started coming out of there.

TK:  It’s an original answer. I have not heard of that place. What do you remember about how it felt to be on stage that night?

NS: It was a rush. I remember I couldn’t really breathe that much, because everybody was smoking cigarettes in this tiny little bar. But it was great.

TK: What year was that?

NS: I think it had to have been like 2010, 2011, somewhere around there. Yeah, you know, just seeing a crowd come to you was really cool for the first time. Just like, you started playing and then people were like, “oh, this is this person.” It’s a good feeling to watch people react to your music.

Agent Zero | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: Which Philly venues your favorite to play at in why?

NS: Oh my favorite venue to play at Philly, definitely Kung Fu Necktie. I played there so many times. Um, I released [an] album there in 2015 and we blew that place out with 150 people paying. But the reason why I like is so much is because it’s just nice, it’s intimate, it’s small, it’s tight, so you can be right there with people. You’re not far away from them and you can really connect and communicate with these people. And sound is really great for that small room, everybody’s usually on top of their on top of their game. So it’s always a great great time and you know, you make money there every time, it’s great.

TK: What do you love most about the art scene in Philly?

NS: That everybody who isn’t somebody is hustling just like you are everybody is just working working towards their dream and really watching the results like unfold in front of them because they put in that much work. And Philly…like, it’s tough. It is tough because a lot of people don’t show you a lot of love a lot of times but like, you know, they’ll show up but they won’t give you as much love as you think you would get. But that for some reason that just makes you wanna try that much harder to really make yourself known. There’s just something about it that just…people here are hungry. They they want it, you know? They’ll do anything in their power to get it.

TK: What do you find most frustrating about trying to create perform or grow as an artist in Philadelphia?

NS: I don’t know man. Sometimes it comes down to getting something that you want, like a piece of gear you’re saving up money to get — some new speakers or something like that — something that you know will get you to the next level, but you just got work your crappy day job and save up money to get it. And also just, you’re working all the time when you’re in the underground coming up. So like sometimes, sometimes you’re just too tired to make music when you get home. And that’s the worst feeling, I think, is when you just busted your ass all day and you’re like, well, I really want to make music but I’m tired. But then sometimes when you’re that tired and you make music, you just get this spark of energy, it’s like, yeah, this is why I do this.

TK: Which Philly neighborhoods are you lived in which made you want to stick around, and which made you want to leave?

NS: All over! Let’s see, when I first came to Philly like seven years ago, I was living at 40th and Spring Garden in West Philly. That was cool. It was a little hood. Now it’s all developed and sadly gentrified, sadly. But , that was cool. It was a little slow for my taste, I think, and I needed something a little faster. So then it moved to South Philly a couple years later with some my musician friends that I met through playing at JR’s, and all that.

So I was living in the middle of the hood in South Philly, and that was depressing, honestly. It was like, you know, 20th and Tasker. The overall vibe in the neighborhood was all just people angry. People were just angry at something, I don’t know. That was just the overall vibe of that neighborhood. And then I moved to the other side of South Philly, which was 5th and Dickinson. And that was nice. It was chill but my apartment was kind of gross. It was dirty begin with, so you can never really get it clean, and the walls were super thin. So when I was making music in my house, my neighbors were always complaining. I feel like that really stunted my musical growth.

And then after after a while, I got a bunch of friends and they were always hanging out in Fishtown. I played with DJ Ha, and was always crashing at his house. Ryan’s the man, he’s my drummer.

Agent Zero | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: DJ Corporate Jesus he calls himself?

NS: Yeah. [laughs] Yeah, he’s awesome. But yeah, so I was like, you know what? I gotta live in Fishtown, I gotta do it. So I really hustled and got some of my friends together who are also artists and musicians in the area. My roommates are Get Up, who does like the Ben Franklin with the boom box around the city. He made up the Electric Factory. My other roommate Matt Deifer is Bodypaintme, he is like the best body painter in Philadelphia. So we got this house like together a few years ago now, but we’ve been right around Duncan Street, by Front and Girard, and I kept on ending up around [Boom Room] and making connections. And I needed an internship for school for Sound Recording and Music Technology — I went to school for [that] at CCP. So I knew that Music Church [at the Boom Room] was going on every month so, I kinda hung out [at Boom Room], and then I got connected with Gary [Dann] and I was like, look, I need an audio engineering internship and I’m looking to get like a job after that. So, after awhile I did a lot of the intern work for him, and he trusted me running the business of the studio while he went to India on vacation with his girlfriend.

And then after that, after I successfully like held it down [at Boom Room], he gave me a job as an audio engineer. So I record rappers and singers and other kinds of musicians. I recorded Jaguar Wright, a backup singer for Jay-Z here, and like Warchild. A lot of really like famous Philly rappers come through here. It’s really awesome.

But that’s kind of how my time here in Philly has evolved musically, just not knowing anybody to being super-connected. And being able to live off of engineering, what I do, is such a blessing.

TK: What are your preferred means for getting around Philadelphia?

NS: I like bikes. I have a car. I really try to only use that when I’m booked for a gig somewhere. I really just try to take public transportation and get around. But if I’m transporting my gear for a show, I’m gonna use my car, just because I don’t want to take that on public transportation.

TK:  How have you seen the city change in your time living here? Has it been for the better, or worse?

NS: From my view, it’s changed for the better. There’s been a lot less crime, I think, going on. At least what I’ve seen, directly in my face. In West Philly I got my home broken into and got this bass amp stolen directly from my room and stuff like that. It was just like, you know, I felt very violated. Yeah, I always feel like I had to watch my back. Now, I think Philadelphia, since it’s been known for his music scene, more musicians are coming here to live and to just do the exact same thing I did. I was like, I need to get connected with musicians because I know there’s a ton of them out here. I think that this is, especially at The Boom Room, a lot of people make these serious and really important connections with other people. Here in Philly, you find your sound, you find who you are and what you want to do, and you find people that are like-minded with you and you create this brotherhood with your friends. You eventually feel like family when you’re making music together. And that is why Philadelphia is amazing, and how it’s really come up. People are coming here because they’re hungry man. They just come together.

TK: Are you a Philly sports fan?

NS:  Not exactly. The only reason I like the Eagles sometimes because I get free coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts when they win. [laughs]

TK: Do you like Philly Brewing Company or Yards?

NS: I like Yards, Yards is good. I haven’t had too much Philly Brewing Company. I don’t know, I like all different kinds of stuff. I like Tequila a lot. [laughs]

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