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2 Apr

Rick Braukis is the firestarter behind SZA’s hypnotic visual

The pyro producer talks ‘accessible chemistry’, EDM, and getting a load of white powder through international customs

Picture a ‘scientist’ or ‘chemist’ and your brain might (unfairly) imagine the visual equivalent of a ‘total nerd’, probably wearing a lab coat or something. It’s almost definitely not Rick Braukis, a chemical specialist who carries out experiments in Prada dresses and heels, and handles flaming compounds in her underwear. Her Instagram is an enigmatic mix of quad bikes, awe-inspiring nature, horses and high fashion: plants with iridescent leaves, neon stripper heels, and flaming knives.

Braukis was recently credited as handling “fire and glow” on SZA’s “PSA”, the primary teaser of recent music round her much-hyped SOS album. In it, SZA lays atop a bike while a green ring of fireplace glows round her, and slowly pours a brilliant blue luminescent liquid over her nude body, a bit just like the stuff that trickles out once you snap a glow stick in two.

Based between LA and Phoenix, Arizona, Braukis (real name Erika Braukis) is a self-described “science nerd,” and first got into fooling around with synthesised materials after studying biochemistry at school. While enrolled there, she found the financial burden too great, so dropped out and packed off to Hollywood, where she found a distinct segment within the private floral industry, making large flower installations for hotel lobbies and Beverly Hills homes. After a number of years of that, the pull of science found her joining a community college to do an associate of science degree.

While at college I took a job cleansing the faculty chemistry labs so I had unlimited time – and almost no supervision – within the lab and with the chemicals,” she tells Dazed. “It was amazing. I might take what I used to be learning in my microbiology and chemistry classes after which expand on it within the lab after hours. My boss knew what I used to be doing and was very supportive, he gave me my very own fumigation hood within the lab to mess around in so I could run experiments and never need to tear them down immediately.

A part of my job was also keeping track of what chemicals needed to be ordered and developing my language skills around ordering chemicals from distributors and knowing what they were used for,” she continues. “Later I began realising that quite a lot of what we were ordering for the lab were things I could actually just buy alone off the web, and once I began buying my very own chemicals I began doing all my experiments in my bathroom or garage at home.” 

Below, we spoke to Rick Braukis about working with SZA, sci-fi, Skrillex, and making things burn from her backyard.

Are you able to tell me about a few of your favourite substances that you just work with?

Rick Braukis: I like setting metal salts on fire best, the color of the flames are so beautiful. It’s a basic experiment you learn in chemistry called a “flame test”, and it teaches you to discern between different elements by what color they burn. It’s much like the science behind how NASA tells what different stars are fabricated from by the color they emit. 

People at all times think the fires I make should be so toxic due to the color, and granted a few of them might be, but mostly not, they are only metal salts burning. For instance: table salt is sodium chloride (NaCl) – sodium is a shiny silver metal, and chlorine is a really toxic gas, but together they are only table salt. The identical goes for quite a lot of the metals I exploit: boron, lithium, potassium, strontium. Whenever you understand how the world is barely made up of 90 elements all just arranged and rearranged with one another, chemistry seems loads more accessible.  

Who and what are a few of your biggest influences on what you create?

Rick Braukis: Dmitri Mendeleev, the genius who invented my favourite thing on the planet: the periodic table of elements. He discovered how all the weather relate to one another from a dream he had while asleep at his desk.   

Also, I grew up very exposed to anime, because of my mother who was an engineer and an enormous fan of Japanese culture. I believe anime imagery was the primary art I actually remember immersing myself in as a baby. Not watching it, but it in old 90s Newtype magazines that we had in the home. Newtype magazine was just like the Reader’s Digest of anime in Japan, and filled with color stills from all the brand new anime that got here out within the 90s. None of it was in English, so I might spend hours poring over them and making up backstories for all of the imagery I saw. I still collect vintage Newtype issues today and still pore over them for ideas. I also watched quite a lot of anime after I was younger – my favourites are Vampire Hunter D and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Have some other visual ideas influenced what you do?

Rick Braukis: There was an art installation in 2008 that had a very profound effect on me that I still reflect on. It was called Hello Meth Lab In The Sun, and it was a completely fake and artistic version of a house meth lab. I never actually even saw the exhibit in person, but I saw quite a lot of imagery of it on the web while I used to be still studying biochemistry at a personal university and I remember seeing those images after which the lab at college and considering there needed to be a middle ground somewhere between the 2, and that was where I actually belonged. 

I also read and watch a ridiculous amount of sci-fi. It’s my absolute favourite genre for the whole lot. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dune (1984) and Aliens (1986) are my favourites to look at. My favourite sci-fi books are an entire can of worms for me to open where I could go on for hours, but I’ve really been hyping The Three-Body Problem trilogy for the last couple of years, and haven’t stopped hyping it since it’s truly amazing.

What helps along with your work, which I imagine might be very technical?

Rick Braukis: I’ve been into EDM music for so long as I can remember and still hearken to it after I study. Each time I even have to resolve maths equations I placed on Skrillex and it helps me concentrate. After I needed to take college calculus, I might blast dubstep so loud my room would shake and I might just be in there solving derivatives for eight hours straight and drinking Red Bull. It was truthfully a very cool period of my life that I loved, though it was super stressful. I might post pictures of my homework that were just massively long maths equations and I assumed they were really beautiful.

How did SZA approach you to work along with her on the ‘PSA’ teaser?

Rick Braukis: She truthfully just slid into my DMs someday and asked if I could set her on fire. I responded with “in fact!”, and that was that. Working with SZA was – and is – incredible. She’s a legend. We originally shot all her album promo on my iPhone and I think her record label had a panic attack about it, so we did a reshoot with a cinematographer, and thank god we did because that ended up being the video for “PSA”. We still used all my janky iPhone footage as well though. SZA and I still have a number of more ideas we’re going to work on together in the longer term, and I’m so grateful for that because she really has grow to be my muse.

Have you ever got some other projects within the works?

Rick Braukis: I only in the near past got to do chemical effects for [photographer] Renell Medrano in Jamaica. It was my first time bringing my chemicals through international customs, and that was an entire experience in itself. I think the crew and my friends at home were all waiting for the news that I had been arrested on the airport for attempting to bring over 10,000 grams of white powder into the country! But obviously it was positive. I also did liquid and fire effects for the Blumarine Spring 2023 campaign shot by Petra Collins, which will probably be coming out soon. Me and Petra go way back socially, however it was our first time working together and I’m so comfortable we did because she was amazing to work with!

What could be your dream collaboration?

Rick Braukis: To do effects for the [Black equestrian group] Compton Cowboys and their horses – they’re real hometown heroes and I’ve been a fan for a very long time.

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