Kristian Nairn was a man famous for one word.
Now, he lets his music do his talking for him.
Well, that isn’t the most accurate statement in the world.
Before he ever stepped foot on the set of Game of Thrones, Nairn was a renowned DJ in the club scene. He held residence at Kremlin, one of Dublin’s most famed nightclubs, and toured the world both as a DJ, and with the likes of The Scissor Sisters, and Calvin Harris. So, Nairn isn’t a celebrity cashing in on his fame by stepping into the DJ, and landing posh, well-paid nightclub gigs. No, the North Irishman puts the work in — spinning at clubs, festivals, and even Comic Cons, as well as working on original singles, and EPs, like “Bigger” which dropped in the summer. And when speaking to Nairn, you find out this isn’t all “work” — his DJ sets often transport him to another level of being a place of “fat beats and unicorns” as he describes it. Watching the man perform is pure joy, as no one is having as much fun as he is during his set.
Recently, I caught up with Kristian to talk about his music, the celebrity DJ stigma, and of course, his time as Hodor on Game of Thrones, and the fame that’s come with it. I don’t often say this, but this man singlehandedly gave me the best interviews I’ve done in my 15 year career. While we may know him for uttering one word on television, when speaking with him you encounter a charming, no-nonsense, affable, and insightful man who truly loves music.
I’ve read you were of a musical prodigy growing up, you excelled at piano at a young age and then you turned to guitar. You even toured as a guitarist with the Scissor Sisters which I thought was super cool. So how did you end up in a DJ booth?
Well I was a prolific club kid, and I was always in clubs in my early twenties. I used to watch the DJ, and I was always impressed by how they could manipulate the energy and the mood in clubs just by their track choice. I really wanted to learn how to do that, because I was always a prolific music collector. I have such a large collection of music. A lot of my favorite things [growing up] was trying to introduce friends to new music and sort of trying to explain how I felt about it. I think as a DJ, you’ve got a whole crowd to do that with. You find tracks that you love and that you react to a certain way. And you want them to sort of react to it. I think it’s a real privilege to take people on a journey like that.
Was there a learning curve to getting into the groove – no pun intended – of being a DJ from a literal technical standpoint with the equipment as well as literally mapping this musical journey out?
Well [it was] easy. Because I’m quite a technical person, I have a rhythm, the rhythm is really important for a DJ. You’d be surprised how many DJ’s aren’t natural musicians. I can always tell the difference I think, from a DJ that’s just a musician and one that’s just a knob twiddler. [laugh]
Do you ever look back on your early days of being a DJ and is there any moments that you look back on and you just lovingly laugh, you’re like “Why would I ever do that?”
What was something you thought when you were first starting out, like, “This right here is going to be the greatest thing ever” and now you look back at it and you’re like “That really wasn’t that great.”
Well really if I need what I need, right – I know what I need when I started. Really, I had no business being in that DJ booth at the start. Really. I immediately started playing in one of the biggest clubs in town [Kremlin in Dublin, Ireland] and yeah, I just didn’t have a clue man. I just didn’t know how to structure sets. My mixing was off.
I did know technically what I was doing, but I was incredibly nervous. I was fucking up left right and center. But, my choice in songs were always very good and I always would be able to keep the crowd with me. I think that’s what the people who employed me, that’s what they saw. My DJ sets were always a bit more subversive than my fellow DJs. I always went off on a tangent and it always seemed to work.
Would you mind just defining what you mean by subversive? Because you don’t often hear that with DJ sets, like “I played this subversive DJ set.” My immediate reaction is like – you just threw in Leonard Cohen and Slayer remixes back to back.
[laughs] No, that’s just annoying. [laughs] I do love Slayer though, I have to say. I mean it’s easy to play the hits, and you know a crowd is going to go for it. But, if you want to try to bring them with you on a journey you’re taking a risk. Say, you know when crowds are into EDM and stuff?
You’re sort of bringing them along with you. But then if you go in deep house and go in a tribal direction or whatever and I was always unafraid to do that. It always worked for me and I think a lot of other DJ’s were envious of that because they just stuck with the mainstream stuff.
Well everyone’s playing “Sandstorm” of course.
Everyone loves “Sandstorm.”
I’ve seen video of you DJ. I’ve covered DJ’s for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve seen many people get into it as much as you do.
Yeah I’m on another world. I go away somewhere.
What does that do?
I mean, like I said I just released this track [“Bigger”], I have another one ready to go and I forgot to play it last night [in Brooklyn]. I don’t have any agenda, I’m just in a little magical kingdom with unicorns and fat beats. I sometimes forget where I am and I forget the time and there are people yelling at me and filming me on their phones and I don’t notice them. I have my set on my iPhone to start, but I’m away somewhere else. I’m sort of in my own little non-drugged up fantasy.
Well I mean you got the next title for your next record, “Unicorns and Fat Beats” so I think that’s perfect.
Was that something you always got with music or is it just strictly to DJing?
I feel everything. I’ve always been very receptive to – emotions in music and my own emotions, I’m definitely an emotionally connected person and yeah I’m definitely, definitely affected by things that are not in that realm and I’m probably not on this plane of existence when I’m DJing. When someone knocked your DJ buzz – I played, fucking, some dubstep and when I play it sometimes it’s like waking up a bear. You know? It’s like “What do you want?!”
I’ve also read and you kind of touched upon it, that when you were younger music was a way you found to express yourself. And do you still – I assume you still see music this way, and what are you trying to express to crowds when you’re doing your DJ set? Because from what I’ve heard, it’s a pretty fun high-energy DJ set, so what are you trying to get out when you create a new set to the people?
I want them to be happy. I definitely want them to be happy. So it’s definitely – I’m a melancholy person sometimes
Well, you’re Irish.
Oh, shut up!
I’m seventy-five percent Irish so I can …
I don’t buy that at all, you’re not Irish. You’re fucking American.
[laughs] Very true. Anyway…
[Laughs] Definitely some of the music I play has a more – not negative, but it definitely has a bit of a melancholy sound while still being pulsating and jiving. I wouldn’t say the stuff I play will be subtle, there’s definitely always a strong rhythm, a strong beat, and probably a very, very loud bass line. Yeah. I want them to see the spectrum of emotions actually. That’s what I see, and I hope that comes across.
And you just mentioned you dropped “Bigger” on Radical Records and the artwork is awesome. Can you talk about just piecing that song together, creating it? Talk about creating this song from scratch with beats and where the inspiration came from.
I’ve been searching for my sound for a while, and unfortunately I have a very, very tight schedule as well. I don’t have time to sit in my bedroom with Logic and play with 300 different bass drums just to make one sound right. So I go into the studio with a really talented engineer and you know, I’m blessed to be able to play the instruments myself. I don’t have to rely on anybody else so I’ll sit in a darkened basement in London and we sat for a few days and basically tried different combinations of basses and just put together a combination of sounds that I liked.
Not all of them worked, we have this sort of do it together in a way that I was happy with. But, I realized they weren’t quite right because they didn’t fit into my sets. I was like, that’s not right, I should be playing my own productions. They just weren’t driving enough for me. So I really needed to reinvent my sound. While I was very proud of them, they just didn’t sound right. Smack bang right perfect to be in my sets and it feels really good, to be honest.
Are you thinking of dropping a full-length record anytime soon?
Not really something I’m thought of. I mean I think – maybe an EP, I might put some EP’s together, but I haven’t really thought of an album. Maybe in the future I’ll put something together but definitely for DJ reasons but, yeah it’s track by track at the minute, I’m not really thinking about putting together an album just yet.
Outside of your regular club stuff, you’ve been known for your “Rave of Thrones” shows. Can you talk about its creation and what people can expect from that? You had one in Philly after the finale and then you do some stuff around Comic Con and whatnot.
Yeah, I mean I’ve done it everywhere. The only continent I haven’t raved on is Antarctica. [laughs]
You gotta change that.
Yeah, maybe I’ll do a set for some penguins. [laughs] It’s basically – I always DJ, I never didn’t DJ. Even during the first couple seasons of Game of Thrones] I would play until 4 o’clock in the morning and then go straight to set. I was a mess, to be honest.
Yeah, but I only have one line so it wasn’t too bad.
[laughs] Very true.
It’s the only way I could have done that. And it was something I shied away from at first. I had this background as an incredible club DJ and I didn’t want to think people I was just another celebrity DJ riding on the back of my success on the show.
Then it suddenly dawned on me that [Rave of Thrones] was a way I could do this, and it was a way to get to the public. It was such a good opportunity and the first couple of parties really opened my eyes. It brought people together who would never be together – people who like dance music, who like rock music. They’re all dressed as their favorite characters from Game of Thrones and by the end of the night they’re all dancing to this music they’ve never heard before.
I get all these tweets and emails saying “I never liked dance music, but I just had a really good night.” And I think, yeah, I’ve done my job correctly if someone’s going to say that to me. It just grew from there. But I never change my set, I never change my songs, that was one thing I was very, very adamant about, I wasn’t going to compromise. I haven’t. I’m proud of that, actually.
Do you ever incorporate music from the show and mix in with that or no?
You know… sometimes. I’ve created a couple bootlegs of the soundtrack and It’s hard sometimes. If I see people who have created a lot of effort in their costumes and they’re really living the fantasy, I’ll definitely play a song for them. But it’s definitely a danced-up version of it. But it’s not great. [laughs] I try not to play it when I don’t have to. But that’s not about me, it’s about the crowd, and I want to keep them happy.
So what you’re saying is if there’s no dubstep remix of “Rains of Castamere?”
Not as far as I know. I’m sure there fucking is, actually.
You were talking about the celebrity DJ aspect of it and obviously it’s something you have to battle, because you’re a legit club DJ. Have you seen that happen to you, or is it because you took it head on that you kind of cut that off at the pass?
I always see things head on. I’m that type of person. I’m very direct with people. If they don’t like it they can kiss my ass, and not behind the door. And I think that’s the best way to be. And the other thing is, people just – people don’t like Paris Hilton and stuff. Even I was quick to vilify her, and then she played some of the biggest clubs in Ibiza and she’s paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a set. I don’t think she’s the stupid one. She’s the smart one. She’s to be admired. If she wants to play house music, even though she’s not very good at it, I don’t say don’t do it. Anybody can be what they want to be. I think people have too much fucking time on their hands and they need to stop criticizing people for doing what they want to do.
In regards to the show and your character, were you like completely – and are you still like, completely taken by surprise by how many people love your character?
Yes, I am. I didn’t expect a one-word character to have such an impact on the world. Dave and Dan [?] the showrunners told me, “people are going to love Hodor and you’re going to be one of the most popular characters on the show” and then I didn’t do so many things, there’s not that many things, I only say one word. And they were like “it doesn’t matter. We just know people are going to love this guy and you’re the man for the part.” I was like, oh, ok. And then when it gets to the point where you have your death and you hear Obama you, you know that’s something big has happened.
How does it feel knowing that people are so upset that your one line, one-word character passes on, how do you even process that man, or do you even?
I just go with it. I’m sad as well. That’s what I usually say, “If you’re sad about just think how sad I am.” And all my fans – and yeah they’re emotional and I can’t believe I’ve been part of this huge juggernaut of pop culture. I might be remembered forever – definitely as long as I’m alive.
I think it’s one of the greatest shows ever created.
And you’re obviously a huge part of it. And – moving on from the show. You had a very long career musically. What is like a moment, kind of like what we’re talking about with how you’re floored by your character, that you’ve been floored by and you’ve said “I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Wow. You are a lucky guy.
Believe me, I know that. And that’s maybe why people still connect with me, because all the time I’m saying “What the fuck?!”
I feel like I’m a mole, I feel like I’m some kind of spy for regular people. I get to experience this and report it all on Twitter and Instagram and I’m on the inside. [The week of this interview] I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been in Spain, in the UK, and now I’m in New York. I just played in one of the best clubs in New York earlier this week. I played with the sun going down in New York and Spain, which is another one of the best nights of my life.
Already this year I’ve played award ceremonies with Ryan Reynolds and Nicole Kidman and that was a reality check. I played a Medieval festival this year and that was incredible. It’s just – it’s not lost on me, and I do stand there and go “WTF why am I here?”
I work my ass off, I really do. I never stop working. And I can say that because I was a lazy twat for the first twenty years of my life, maybe thirty years. I realize that if I’m going to make something of myself you have to work hard and that’s the only way to do it. And I do work hard. I’m not ashamed of success. That’s just the way it is, and if you work hard you deserve it.