A Conversation with Music Photographer Niko Menicou

Niko Menicou is a photographer, cover artist, and overall swell guy. Moving to the East Bay right out of high school, Menicou spent his free time shooting whenever he could for a variety of artists — including KYLE, Mozzy, and Lil Peep, among others. I met Niko in Davis, where we discussed his passion for photography, backstage break-ins, and creative processes at the Open Rice Kitchen.

When did you first get into photography?
I started in 2014 when my parents bought me this point-and-shoot Nikon. My friends and I would just walk around town and take pictures of everything. Starting out, I was just using my photography to score dates — I was really one of those guys. I got one date that went awfully. But I realized that I was gaining a serious appreciation for photography. It wasn’t until I moved out after high school to the Bay Area that I got into film photography — with Gunner Stahl getting big and all that — and I knew that I could do the same thing and add my own narrative to that. So I would find somewhere to go.

I started going to house parties and taking pictures there, and I was just really messing around with my camera to start out with. I started shooting with my friends who were making music — it was Jamoneey, Tre$, 2nu, and Brady. They were spending every minute making music in a garage and doing these local pop-ups, so I dropped in and started documenting that. From there, I got in touch with my old friend, Kong Beats, who was getting serious with producing. At the time, he was making stuff for Mozzy out of Sacramento. There was a whole pop-up with Mozzy and a ton of other guys — KYLE, SOB, you know. He showed me around with everyone — seeing everything behind the scenes was insane. I was back there with that little point-and-shoot. From there, I knew that I wanted to keep on pursuing it. I started doing research on everything — different cameras, types of film. Interacting with everybody and the product I got from there was crazy. And concerts were just a BART ride away, so it was easy for me.

How many shows have you shot at? Which show has been your favorite so far?
I don’t even know. Maybe thirty? I would go to whatever show where I felt the artist was really going to push the culture. That way, I could curate something with all of these interesting artists who were doing something exciting.

King Krule was definitely one of my favorites. I’m not sure. I saw Mac DeMarco at the U.C. Theater in Berkeley with all of my friends one time. That was pretty cool. Ghostemane—that man put on a fucking show pretty recently. It was this underground Slipknot-type show. People were jumping into the crowd. It was bloody. He had a full thing with prosthetic makeup; it was wild. I guess I’ll go with those three.

What’s your thought process going into these shows? How are you preparing?
It all depends. I’ll usually bring a digital camera for more commercial stuff. When I was on the Mozzy tour, we spent a night in Reno and a night in San Francisco. I shot those shows digitally because that’s sort of the norm with these tours. It’d be odd if I showed up with a plastic camera. When I shot the promotional pictures for the Deep Ends album, I used my Canon 80D, which is my go-to. I’ll bring all of these interchangeable lenses. With backstage, behind-the-scenes stuff, I try to make these pictures much more intimate and personal, and a lot of that stuff is shot with film. That’s the stuff not everybody sees, so I try to tell a story with every picture. You’re really just getting to see these artists as people.

I remember getting some crazy photos with Smooky Margielaa, who was, like, 15 at the time. This was at Slim’s. You could see the passion in this kid’s eyes while he’s performing. When Lil Peep toured with Gothboiclique, he was super expressive. With underground shows like his, everything just seems so personal and raw. I was at that show with my film camera, because it felt more raw and emotional.

You’ve told me about hopping backstage to get pictures at other shows. Any stories?

Aw, man. I was at the Agenda Festival [in Long Beach] last year with my landlord — this was before she kicked me out — and Billie Eilish and Lil Yachty had just finished their sets, and I noticed some kid hopping the fence to get backstage. The security was apparently pretty weak. I had my landlord hold my camera as I hopped over the fence, and, all of a sudden, I’m back there meeting all of these different guys. I was casually drinking water with Billie Eilish’s parents. Joba was really cool, and was, like, 7 inches taller than me. Bhad Bhabie overheard me mentioning that she’s shorter than I thought she would be — didn’t take kindly to that. I saw Lil Yachty walk right in front of me. Pretty surreal stuff.

I met Yellow Days at this small venue, the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. I had jumped backstage there, too. I got to meet him and hang out with him for a while. Super sweet guy.

I also met Yung Gravy and bbno$ earlier this year and got the opportunity to talk with them. bbno$ is the sweetest fucking guy ever. Canadians are so nice. I love him. And Yung Gravy acts exactly how his music sounds. I recorded an interview with them that I’d like to publish soon. Surreal-ass night.

What are you hoping to do moving forward with your career? Do you have any goals set? Short-term, long-term…
I’d like to balance my future with school with what I’m doing. I’m setting small goals first and working my way up from there. I’d like to work for local media companies and magazines, doing shoots, and working my way into other formats — I’d be interested in doing podcasts or writing about artists, too. I’m really trying to be a Renaissance man with it, getting my hands on everything. I never want to be lost with any format. I’ll work my way up from there.

You were responsible for the cover on the Deep Ends album, Eighty. What was the creative process behind that like? Would you say a lot of it was a group effort, or were you solely in control of that?

They gave that one up to me and let me run with it. They trusted what I could do, so they were just all, you know: “This one’s on you”.

To begin with, I was thinking that I had no fucking clue where to start. When I have a project that I’m trying to work on and I don’t know what to do, I start going to movies. Movies are a crazy outlet to grab inspiration from. I watched all of these Wes Anderson movies. Isle of Dogs was one of them. There was this one movie… Hotel something…

Like Bates?
[Editor’s note: Not close, I know.]

No, it’s, like, Grand… Grand Budapest. That’s what it was. The way he had these head-on, center-framed shots with these interesting color schemes. He used Tungsten lighting often, which made for a really warm color. It would be pretty new for me to use that, since everything beforehand was more Terry Richardson-esque, where it’s flash-heavy and very loose. I started bouncing around ideas with my girlfriend, and I was getting an idea of what I wanted. And Fuck Terry Richardson, by the way.

So, I wanted it to be very head-on and forward, sort of like it was coming out of a Wes Anderson movie, but I wanted it to be very unique and personal. I wanted to make sure that everybody’s personality showed through. I made sure everyone was dressed in a unique way — Drool would be this weird, abstract, goofy character, so he had this interesting grunge-type of fit going on. Milo was gonna be the softie, you know? He’s dressed up all formal for you. Dog on his lap and everything.

I wanted to build a set, but it was going to be, like, $500. Jason’s a whiz, though, and he did a lot of 3D imaging. Most of the props on the cover were edited in. I’ve gotta give a quick shoutout to Jason, Enzo, and Milo for the encouragement and insight they gave me while I was putting it all together.

Best picture you’ve taken?
The cover was one of my favorites. The Lil Peep show had some of my favorites, too, because it was so captivating. The energy of the crowd was unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s even crazier considering he’s passed.

What inspires you most?
Storytelling. Easy. Being able to tell stories through my pictures is really cool to me. Having all of these moments captured where you can sense the feeling of it all — it’s insane to look back at. Where everything can seem so meticulous and planned-out, it’s cool to look back at times where everyone is really in the moment. You get to see artists through a more organic lens and see their personalities.

I was living in my shitty apartment in Pleasant Hill, going to shows by hopping over the little BART gates and taking pictures whenever I could. It wasn’t pretty out there, but knowing I had this kind of ability to get out and do this stuff was a blessing. Through photography, I had a sense of release. I could make connections along the way. That shit was my world, and I carry that with me now, because I remember how I felt at that time — just getting out there and capturing everything.

Any last words for the people?
Zine coming soon. Follow me on Twitter — @mcdurgle. Follow me on Instagram — @nikomenicou.



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